As the written documentation of God’s interaction with humanity, the Bible is filled with miraculous and amazing events. When considering the wonders of the Bible, the account of Noah and the Ark is always among the first that people think of. Everything about this passage is simply amazing: the flood, the animals, and the faithfulness of one man and his family amongst all the peoples of the earth. Yet one peculiar part of the passage is the material that Noah used to build the ark – gopher wood. It turns out that the identity of the wood itself, not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, remains a puzzle to be answered.
Where Is the Narrative of Noah’s Ark?
The narrative of ‘Noah and the Ark’ begins in Genesis 6 and continues through Genesis 9. It is here that we are first introduced to Noah as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9). What an amazing bio! I can only hope that people would say that about me! Noah’s story is without question one of the most amazing ever told.
As we seek to know why Noah used gopher wood to build the ark, the simple, and perhaps very obvious answer is this: God told him to. This doesn’t help us in determining exactly what gopher wood is, but it does remind us that as we study Scripture, we will not understand every detail. Some things are simply unknowable this side of eternity. The primary and most important thing to keep in mind is that even when we don’t understand, we can always see examples set by faithful people such as Noah, and respond when God calls us to follow him. As stated by Tony Evans, “obedience in the midst of evil should be the supreme goal and desire of God’s people” (The Tony Evans Bible commentary, p. 64).
Where Else Is Gopher Wood in the Bible?
This unique word is not found anywhere else in the Bible. In fact, it is not even a word that is used anywhere else in the Hebrew language! Because of this, there is much dispute as to what the word means, and even if it is the correct word! Different translations use different words for it, primarily gopher wood (KJV, ESV), or Cypress wood (NIV, NLT). Other less common translations avoid the word completely and go with generic phrases like cedar (ISV), lumber (CEV), or timber (GNB).
The word gopher is unique in that it is not a translation, but a transliteration. This means that the word does not translate a Hebrew word into an English word, but it is an English word created to sound like the original Hebrew word. Another example of this is the word Hallelujah. Hallelujah is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that literally means, Praise God (Hallel=praise, Jah =God). Instead of being translated as "Praise God," this word has been left for us to sound out as it would be in the original Hebrew and continues to be a powerful expression of praise.
So in relation to our unique ark building wood, translations such as NIV and NLT have translated the Hebrew word pronounced as ‘go-fer’ into an understandable modern wood, taking an educated guess that Noah’s gopher wood may actually be what we know as cypress. The other translations such as KJV and ESV have chosen to keep the pronunciation of ‘gopher wood’, and in doing so have simply decided to not attempt a guess and just leave the word as it is. The CSB Bible uses ‘gofer’ with an explanation in the footnotes: “Unknown species of tree; perhaps pine or Cypress”.
Possible Meanings of Gopher Wood?
One thing we can know for sure is that gopher wood doesn’t have anything to do with the little mammals we call gophers. However, there are several possibilities of what it could mean.
One of these is that the ark was made from cedarwood. Cedar was plentiful in Lebanon, and Lebanon was so well-known for its beautiful cedar trees that it is displayed on their national flag to this day. The Bible’s mentions of cedarwood make clear that this was a strong and valuable type of wood, used in building Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:15).
Cypress wood is also a possibility. Some popular versions of the Bible use this line of thought, and it was known as a wood used in seagoing vessels (Ezekiel 27:6). Yet the obvious question is this: if there are other mentions of Cypress wood in the Bible, why is a different and otherwise unknown word used here?
The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating back 300 years before Christ, translates it to mean ‘squared timber’. This creates the possibility that gopher wood is not a particular type of tree from which wood is made, but rather the type of beam that can be made with the wood from any tree. In modern terms, when we talk about a new deck, wooden privacy fences, or beautifully crafted bookshelves, we are not referring to the type of tree used to create them, but the finish and purpose of the wood.
It has also been suggested that the type of tree used by Noah still exists today – in India. Although this is an unlikely explanation, these supposed gopher trees are treasured and protected as possible descendants of the biblical wood.
Another possibility is that the gopher was an ancient tree that existed in the world prior to the flood, but no longer survived after the flood. It is clear that the world outside the ark was utterly devastated (Genesis 6:17), so this could be a tree that simply ceased to exist in a post-flood world.
Why Is the Gopher Wood Detail Important?
Unfortunately for the curious, the true identity of gopher wood, along with the final resting place of the ark that was made of it, has been lost to time and is impossible to determine. Yet there is a beauty in knowing that whatever the identity or meaning of gopher wood is, this small detail has been faithfully written out and handed down for ages. Scripture is filled with little details that are unknown to us, and may even be confusing. But this is a wonderful testimony to the truth and continuity of Scripture. God continues to speak to us in details that may not even be able to understand or fully know but uses even these small details as a way to bring himself glory and honor.
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Jason Soroski is a homeschool dad and member of the worship team at matthias lot church in St. Charles, MO. He spends his free time hanging out with his family, exploring new places, and writing about the experiences. Connect on Facebook or at JasonSoroski.net.