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Reading from Genesis 6:14 (NRSV):

Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

There is a note at "cypress" which says:

Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.

In the New Interpreter's Study Bible, the commentary states:

Neither the materials out of which the ark was built nor its design are completely comprehensible, nor do they appear to reflect the character of ships in antiquity. The terms for the ark's wood and the pitch to cover it (v. 14) are used nowhere else in the Bible. The NRSV has proposed cypress wood, likely because of its use elsewhere in shipbuilding (Ezek 27:5).

I notice that KJV translated this as "gopher wood" and NIV translated this as "cypress wood".

Is there any other evidence that the word would be cypress?

Why would a Biblical translator put in cypress if the word meaning is uncertain? I would think it would be better to put in the actual Hebrew word or a mark like [uncertain] if the exact translation is not known. Conjecture, like the word cypress, could go in a footnote. Is this standard practice for Biblical translations?

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I'm trying to find a particular commentary that I seem to remember addressing this, but so far digging under the bed has only produced three different Systematic Theology texts... :) – GalacticCowboy Nov 3 '11 at 15:19
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Yes, it is the common practice to translate from the original language into the some word in the destination language rather than leaving it as the source language. Words like this are notoriously difficult to translate because the interpreters have to pick some word in the destination language that will make sense to the readers of that language.

Regarding choosing cypress wood over gopher wood over alpine spruce, the translators have to simply pick the word that they think is the closest.

Interestingly, "gopher" wood is actually the transliteration of one of the original hebrew words there. The transliteration of gphr ended up with the KJV as "gopher".

Cypress wood was chosen because it was an actual wood, rather than just a wood that with another semi-random word attached to it. (Ark wood, wall wood, white wood, etc.)

Ultimately, the translators just have to choose a word that makes sense to them.

This difficulty with translation is also reason why there are unicorns in the Bible!

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I found my notes that I referred to above - it was actually part of my personal study, not a published work, and we're supposed to discourage "original research" so I won't post it here. Or should I? But anyway, what's interesting about this passage is that the Hebrew word we transliterate "gopher" and the word translated "pitch" later in the verse only differ by one Hebrew letter. And the word "pitch" is derived from the verb "cover". So my personal note said that, maybe, the author didn't mention the kind of wood at all. – GalacticCowboy Nov 3 '11 at 16:26
@GalacticCowboy: Do you have references in the work itself? It sounds like referencing Strong's and a Hebrew copy of the text would be a good start toward backing up the argument you sketched out here. – Jon Ericson Nov 3 '11 at 17:03
Yeah, it's pretty much built on Strong's and a Hebrew interlinear. (Oh, and @Richard, I get "403 Forbidden" on that link.) – GalacticCowboy Nov 3 '11 at 17:14
@GalacticCowboy Here is the entire Hebrew Bible, interlinear. If that doesn't work, it's a mystery to me. – Richard Nov 3 '11 at 17:17

As noted in other answers, the meaning of גֹּפֶר seems lost to us, and any translation must therefore be speculative. To support the translation "cypress", however, consider the following extract from Beekes/Van Beek, Etymological Dictionary of Greek:

κυπάρισσος [f.] 'cypress' (ε 64). <PG(V)>

- VAR Att. -ιττος.
- ETYM Clearly a Pre-Greek word, because of the 'foreign phoneme' -σσ-/-ττ-, and notably the variant Κυφ- in the toponym and the epithets. Latin has cupressus (note the -e-). Perhaps Hebr. gōfer is from the same source. See Fur.: 159f., index. On other names of the cypress, see Schrader-Nehring 1917(1): 671.

(The reference "Fur." is to Eduard J. Furnée, Die wichtigsten konsonantischen Erscheinungen des Vorgriechischen.)

To paraphrase the excerpt in a nutshell: Beekes/Van Beek analyze the Greek word κυπάρισσος "cypress" as a word from the Pre-Greek "substrate", which is the non-Indo-European language spoken by the inhabitants of Greece prior to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans; furthermore, they suggest that the word may be cognate with Hebrew גֹּפֶר, and refer to Fur. for more details.

Unfortunately, I do not have Fur. on hand, so I cannot judge how powerful his arguments are, but in any case the above citation would seem to support the reading of "cypress" for גֹּפֶר.

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This is not really a direct answer to the question so much as some tangential musing on the Hebrew alphabet and "unknown" words, specifically as they relate to this passage. However, it might also lend some support to the "cypress" translation as well.

Gopher/cypress: Strongs H1613 גֹּפֶר gphr / go'fer; "from an unused root, probably meaning to house in". However, note the addition from Gesenius's Lexicon - he appears to also support the notion that this word is related to "pitch" and "cover", or even a misspelling of "pitch".

Gen. 6:14; prop. pitch, i. q. כֹּפֶר as I suppose; and I interpret עצי גֹּפֶר pitch trees, resinous trees, such as the pine, fir, cypress, cedar, and other trees of the kind used in ship-building; see ... Of the moderns, Bochard (Phaleg. i. 4) and Celsius (Hierob. 328) are not amiss in understanding specially κυπαρίσσι, the cypress; not without reason appealing also to the similarity of letters.

(The original is an image, which is why some of the Greek/Hebrew letters aren't an exact match and why I skipped one of the ones in the middle.)

Note as well the striking similarity to:

Pitch: Strongs H3724 כֹּפֶר kphr / ko'fer; "price of a life, ransom, bribe; asphalt, pitch (as a covering); the henna plant, name of a plant (henna?); village". Note that, in this verse it is preceded with a "beth" (בּ), which, according to Hebrew Alphabet for Dummies, means "in". This can be seen in the interlinear that Richard linked, in which this word is translated "in the sheltering-coat".

Cover: Strongs H3722 כָּפַר kphr / ka'far; "to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch".

In a marine application, the use of aromatic wood and/or some form of protective barrier or coating makes sense, to protect from rot. So the word could actually mean "resinous" wood (of which cypress would be an example) or perhaps it means "coated" or "covered". (Note that this also meshes nicely with the "unused root" definition above - if the root means "house in", that's very similar to "cover".)

Alternatively, suppose that 3,500 years ago some scribe saw גֹּ but copied כֹּ? Gesenius also seemed to hint at this possibility.

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Excellent analysis! It's fascinating to me that the word for pitch in Hebrew also means a bribe. I wonder what the etymology of that could be? – Jon Ericson Nov 3 '11 at 20:30

"Gofer Wood" does not refer to a Tree Species but to "Lumber" G-F-R referring to length-width-thickness. The Ark was a modular, mountain Barn, built in the Mountains of Ararat (the Upper Tigris) as a Breeding Station, mostly for War Horses...but also for other exotic Animals that had turned up from far & wide at the Port of Akkad. If the Wood had been Cypress the Bible would have said "Cypress"...if the Ark had been a Boat, the Bible would have called it a "Boat". And Noah was not 6x10x10 Years of Age...he was a vigorous 6x10+10 Years of Age...btw.

Regards, DY

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. We're a little different from other sites. We do require that answers have support. This one doesn't. Can you work with the text to tell us why GFR refers to the length, width, and thickness and why the term for ark doesn't mean "boat." Also, Noah's age really isn't the question here. – Frank Luke Dec 18 '14 at 17:54

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