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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... :) Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 15:19
  • See also: Translation philosophy for tachash skins in Exodus?. Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 17:41
  • @bennymcbenben The ark was made from a single redwood tree
    – R. Emery
    Commented Sep 22, 2022 at 2:04

6 Answers 6

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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. Commented Nov 3, 2011 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. Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 17:03
  • Here's a Hebrew interlinear, if anyone cares
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 17:10
  • Yeah, it's pretty much built on Strong's and a Hebrew interlinear. (Oh, and @Richard, I get "403 Forbidden" on that link.) Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 17:14
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    @GalacticCowboy Here is the entire Hebrew Bible, interlinear. If that doesn't work, it's a mystery to me.
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 17:17
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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? Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 20:30
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Because the meaning of the Hebrew word in Genesis 6:14 is uncertain, nobody knows for sure what botanic species of wood was used for the Ark. The meaning of גֹּפֶר seems hidden in the mists of time, so any translation into a particular botanic wood is speculation. A main reason for guessing ‘cypress wood’ is that it is durable, resinous, and was in abundant supply in the area reckoned to be where Noah built the Ark.

Recently I came across a book that delved into the Hebrew words involved in Genesis 6:14 and will quote some bits. Bear in mind these significant comments already posted here: “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 He also included this in his answer: Cover: Strongs H3722 כָּפַר kphr / ka'far; "to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch". And the word for ‘pitch’ also means a bribe – more on such details in the following quote:

'Gopher' wood is not a botanic category, it is a descriptive term. Wood (any kind of wood) was steeped in 'molten' (it would have been pitch) and that made it waterproof internally. Then it's 'gopher wood'… Gopher wood is any botanic category of wood that has been waterproofed by treatment in molten.

The oil content of pitch will waterproof. The sulphur content will kill the bugs and preserve the organic content of the cellulose. Neat process. Very effective.

The wood of the ark could have been steeped for months, before construction. As well as that, the ark was kaphared within and without with kopher. Kaph, the palm of the hand (not a fist, the working hand). Kaphar the verb, Kopher the noun (also a village, walled). Also a bribe (1 Samuel 12:3 – ‘nor taken a bribe’ - kopher, to blind [cover] the eyes therewith.) Also ransom, satisfaction, sum of money (Proverbs 6:35 – ‘he will not regard any ransom’ – kopher to pacify, contain, wrath.) Also, camphor (Song 1:14 & 4:13, a waxy aromatic spice used for embalming.)

It is a matter of containment.

Yes, the outer and inner coating may well have been of 'pitch' also, but that is not how the Hebrew is worded. So it was steeped. Then it was coated (inside and out).

In Genesis 6:14, God tells Noah that he is to prepare an ark for certain judgment that will require him to follow very clear and very precise instructions… Of the ark, Noah was told to build it from gopher wood, the word gopher being used nowhere else in scripture. Then to, ‘Pitch it within and without with pitch,’ said God. Kaphar it within and without with kopher. Thus he was to kaphar the gopher with kopher.

Men have surmised the wood coming from various trees and men have been unable to agree or discover what tree is intended by the word gopher. But gophrith is the word for brimstone in Hebrew and that word occurs seven times in the scripture. It is always a tool of judgment…

Isaiah 30:33, also Isaiah 34:9, describes the day of the Lord’s vengeance: streams shall be turned into pitch, zepheth, and the dust thereof into brimstone, gophrith, and the land thereof shall become like burning pitch. Pitch, zepheth, is also what was used to daub the ark in which Moses was hidden, as a baby, Exodus 2:3.

Therefore, gophrith is not pitch. Zepheth is pitch…

Thus I believe that the description “gopher” wood does not refer to a type of tree, but to the main feature of the wood. Whatever its botanic source – or plurality of sources – its main feature is that it has been treated with molten; immersed, I would say, in molten pitch to saturate the wood with what is both a preservative – with a high sulphur content – and a means of preventing water saturation; and therefore avoiding both undue weight increase and possible ingress of water to the craft.

Kaphar within and without with kopher is, I understand, in addition to using wood that has already been treated – as individual items of wood – with molten. …What is being shown us is that the wood had already been through the molten of judgment, as it were. Then the wood was contained, completely, kaphared with kopher. Judged already, it was completely contained. …It all has relevance to Christ himself, who is the ark which carries all through judgment to a new world. The Burden of Sins, pp. 93-99, Nigel Johnstone, Belmont Publications, 2013

Although the answer to the question was stated in the opening paragraph, it would have been remiss of me not to then give an explanation for what the Hebrew words in question show, (through those book quotations) not only as to what they don’t mean, but also regarding what they do mean.

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  • 1
    I have seen a treatment relating "pitch" and "mercy seat", and the 'sealing' of God. +1 Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 19:50
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To the good points presented by Galactic Cowboy, and, expecially, by RP, I may add only some details to confirm the sporting chance between KPR/GPR and the cypress.

  1. Since the term GPR indicates also 'resin' it is obvious that that tree's kind (Gen 6:14) was a resinous one. So, the range of possible kind of tree is narrowed.

  2. Other three interesting comments about GPR, (expecially that of Keil & Delitzsch, which answered the objection that in Hebrew there is another specific term for 'cypress' [berosh]):

Jamieson, Fausset & Brown: “probably cypress, remarkable for its durability and abounding on the Armenian mountains*.”

Keil & Delitzsch: “The ἁπ. λεγ. [= hapax legomena] *gopher is related to כֹּפֵר, resin, and κυπάρισσος; it is no proof to the contrary that in later Hebrew the cypress is called berosh, for gopher belongs to the pre-Hebraic times.”

John Gill: “[…] the cypress tree bids fairest to be the wood of which, the ark was made, as Fuller [Miscellan. Sacr. l. 4. c. 5.], Bochart [Phaleg. l. 1. c. 4. col. 22, 23.], and others [Vid. Scheuchzer. Physic. Sacr. vol. 1. p. 35.] have shown; that being nearest to ‘Gopher’ in sound, and being a wood very durable and incorruptible, and fit for shipping. Alexander made a navy of cypress trees in the groves and gardens about Babylon, as Strabo [Geograph, l. 16. p. 510.] relates […].”

Edzard J. Furnée: “‘κυπάρισσος’ […] ‘Zypresse’ […] ‘Zypressenholz’ (inschr.) daneben *κυφάρισσος, impliziert in κυφάρισσινος, aus Zypressenholz (inschr. Aegina, 5. Jh. vChr.), κυφάρισσια f. Beiname der Artemis (inschr. Lakonien), κυφάρισσιτας m., Beiname von Pan (inschr. Kreta). Kretschmer Gl. 4,312; 6,77, Anm. 1; ‘Sprache’, 79; Bertoldi RFIC 63, 61; Alessio, SE 9, 139 und Le Lingue, 560. – Aus derselben (ursprünglich wohl worderasiatischen) Quelle wie κυπάρισσος/κυφ- stammen lat. cupressus id. und hebr. gofer […].”

  1. The sound K <> G were often interchanged, not only in Hebrew and Greek languages, but in many other languages.

Here follow only some examples from Akkadian (the references are drawn by CAD [Chicago Assyrian Dictionary]):

ADAGURRU – ADAKURRU (I:1:93).

AGURRU – UKURRU (I:1:160).

AGUSIGU – KUSIGU (I:1:163).

AGAMU – AKAMU (I:1:259).

ALNINGU – ALNIKKU (I:1:364).

Benjamin Davidson (Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon) rightly derived both terms (KPR/GPR) from the same (verbal) root. In fact, he wrote: “Gen 6. 14 גפר” i[d]. q[uod]. כפר, ‘to cover over’).

Then, the objection based on the difference between KPR and GPR has no strong basis.

  1. To this point, if we hypothesize that GPR/KPR indicated the 'cypress' (considering it 'Point One'), we may build, and than close a 'Logical Circle' (including 3 'Points'). Please, follow me.

Point One: the ark (really, a 'house-container') of Noah was made by cypress wood.

Point Two: the symbology linked with the tree cypress, in all the ancient epoch, until now, and in every part of the world, assigns to this tree the concept of death, or, mourning for the dead ones. Until now, millions of cypress trees decorate cemeteries throughout the world. A WEB site (artofmourning.com) wrote, about this tree: “Cupressus sempervirens, or the ‘Graveyard Cypress’ is one of the oldest classical mourning symbols used in Western and Eastern societies [even in Islamic area][…]. Known as the ‘mournful tree’ by the Greeks and the Romans, the tree was sacred to the Fates and Furies as well as the rulers of the underworld [like Pluto, the Afterworld's Governor]. […] Here, there is a great continuity of usage for the tree, as despite its cultural interchange it still remains understood for the same purposes in death.” [you may read further information in Jean Chevalier - Alain Gheerbrant, in their Dictionnaire des Symboles [1969], to the headword cyprès’]. Like William Shakespeare wrote, “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid.” (The Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 4)

Point Three: The important and international holiday linked with the Commemoration of the Dead (the specific name of the feast may vary from nation to nation) just falls on the identical period when the Deluge rains began to fall (you may read further information in John Garnier, The Worship of the Dead (1904), expec. in the Chapt. 1, pages 3-11; see also the following WEB URL, htpps://aroyking.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/the-connection-between-halloween-and-the-great-flood/).

In this manner we may 'close the circle’.

So, we may conclude that, with higher probability, the term KPR/GPR (when linked to a 'tree') is a 'cypress'.

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The first thing to know is this is such a controversial topic that it is unlikely you will find a satisfying answer here. That said, to your question.

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

From the Biblical Hebrew source material, little to none. There are better explanations (below).

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.

There is evidence that is essentially what was done, with the result being many interesting mistranslations.

The Aleppo Codex translation of the word(s) in question is עצי גפר. I’ll refer to this as AhTsY GPR.

The Leningrad Codex translation is עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר. I’ll refer to this as AhTsY-GPR.

Note that in the second form the words are separated by a maqaf (-) unlike in the first. Already we have translation controversy. The maqaf is used to join two words for the purpose of grammatically treating it as a single word.

If we accept that the root of AhTs is “wood”, as found in many lexicons, and that the genitive Y suffix turns AhTs into the adjective AhTsY, thereby meaning “woody”, then AhTsY GPR translates to “woody GPR” and AhTsY-GPR to “woody-GPR

But “woody GPR” would not be grammatically correct since with few exceptions in Biblical Hebrew adjectives follow their nouns. So, we can discount that. Alternatively, the genitive AhTsY could also be interpreted as “the wood of”, leading to “the wood of GPR”. However, if GPR was indeed intended to represent some specific kind of wood then neither “woody wood” nor “the wood of wood” makes sense by virtue of being redundant.

And even though “woody-GPR” with the connective maqaf makes the form grammatically acceptable, “woody-wood” also suffers the same redundancy.

So how then can we explain the association of the words AhTsY and GPR in the codices?

A perfectly plausible reason IMHO could be that the Hebrew scribe or copyist encountered a foreign Semitic word which had the root of GPR and did not understand it, and thus injected AhTsY to mean either “woody-GPR“ or “the wood of GPR”, since it was obvious from the context that it was the material used to build the ark, and since large watercraft of the time were built only with wood of some kind. Then later English scribes, also perplexed by the codices but having to resolve the matter, simply translated GPR phonetically, thus we have “gopher wood”.

According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, GPR is described as

† גֹּ֫פֶר n.[m.] gopher, only in עֲצֵי־גֹּפֶר Gn 6:14 (P), wood of which the ark was made (word dub.; Thes comp. כֹּפֶר & so Rob Ges (hence ‘pitch-wood, resinous wood’), cf. Di; LagSemitica i. 64; Symmict. ii. 93, BN 217 ff. thinks word not original, but inferred from גפרית, and substituted here for גפרית by copyist, or editor. Cf. following).

Unpacking this, the first thing to note is “word dub.” i.e. dubious in terms of etymology. For the reasons mentioned previously, AhTsY-GPR stands out as being defective to Hebrew linguists.

Second, there is speculation here that GPR is comparable to כֹּפֶר or KPR, which is a verb meaning “to pitch (cover)”, hence woody-pitch or pitch-wood, implying a misspelling in the source text. That is interesting, but assuming malpractice is a leap that should only be taken seriously when there are no more plausible explanations, which is not the case.

Finally, we have a quoted commentary here from the German biblical scholar Paul de Lagarde which suggests that the Hebrew GPR was incorrectly inferred from an older Semitic word of the morphology GPRYT, and where the YT was then assumed to be a suffix of unknown meaning so it was subsequently dropped from the Hebrew root word translation.

So what then was this mysterious GPR root word? There are two compelling theories in my opinion:

Theory 1: GPR as brimstone

Returning to Lagarde’s theory, it is conceivable that a copyist encountered an older Semitic word such as GPRYT (Strong’s #1614 gophrith meaning brimstone/sulfur) and, not fully understanding it at the time, chose to reduce the apparent noun to its root consonants, GPR, to be left to others to interpret. We must keep in mind that in the 21st century we have easy access to lexical research spanning millennia that those in-situ copyists did not have. For instance, access to older lexicons by Hebrew copyists of the Babylonian captivity period would likely have been greatly limited by circumstances. And perhaps the desire to provide a bit of extra context to that GPR root is what inspired the inclusion of the AhTsY “woody-“ qualifier even if it was not in source script. After all, what sense would it make to build a lifeboat out of stone?

However, that it may have intended to be brimstone may not be as ridiculous as it seems.

According to Gen 6:14, God instructed Noah to build not a boat, nor a ship, nor a barge, nor a raft, but a box תבת (Strong’s #8392 tebah). According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs, the etymology for tebah is “probably Egyptian loan-word from T-b-t, chest, coffin”. Keyword here is coffin.

In Gen 6:15, God gave Noah the dimensions of the box, which was 300 cubits long by 50 cubits wide by 30 cubits high, which is a ratio of 30:5:3. If that ratio was in units feet then the box would appear very much like a long sarcophagus.

Sarcophagi were typically made of stone and frequently of limestone. Limestone is sedimentary rock as is brimstone. The ancient Egyptians were very familiar with both and quarried for both. As would have been the case with their Semitic neighbors.

Why would God instruct Noah to build a sarcophagus? Consider the later verse Gen 7:16:

“And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God commanded him; and the LORD shut him in.”

It wasn’t Noah who shut the door behind himself, but God who did it. That suggests a perfect seal and a complete separation from Noah’s previous life, which could be allegorical for a journey to the after-life. It was the function of a sarcophagus to help with that.

Why brimstone? Throughout the bible, fire and brimstone are associated with divine retribution. It rained on Sodom and Gomorrah and is threatened on Gog and the wicked in general. But the Flood was also retribution. Surely the waters would quinch any fire leaving only the brimstone. Perhaps it was just simple metaphor to once again paint a beautiful allegory.

Theory 2: GPR as Akkadian giparu

As interesting as the previous theory is, I actually find this one a bit more fascinating if not more plausible.

According to the Klein Dictionary, GPR has the following definition:

גֹּֽפֶר m.n. ‘gopher’ (a kind of wood of which Noah’s ark was made). [Of unknown origin. Perhaps related to Akka. giparu.]

Wikipedia describes giparu as

“Typically translated as 'cloister', the actual meaning of gipar includes multiple linked concepts. The giparu was originally a woven reed mat used as wedding bed. Its symbolic meaning expanded to include the idea of the generative power of fertility to create and sustain life. In this sense the giparu expressed multiple ideas of abundance, the storehouse containing abundance, as well as a point of union with the generative power itself.”

What was Noah’s ark if not a symbol of fertility and sustaining life and a storehouse containing abundance? To wit:

Gen 6:19, “And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.”

Gen 6:20, “Of the fowl after their kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.”

Gen 6:21, “And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.'”

In this context of the ark’s construction material, GPR might have been intended to mean “a material which possesses or conveys the properties of giparu”. In other words, it was perhaps an abstraction, which was an uncommon concept among paleo-Hebrew scribes of the era, thus the original Akkadian (or derived) script may have been simply transliterated into Hebrew as well as possible.

The main selling point of this theory to me, however, is the nature of the Akkadian word itself. According to Wikipedia, the main cuneiform form of the word is

ĝi6-par4 (Sign: MI.NI.GIŠ, Cuneiform: 𒈪𒉌𒄑)

where

“The first Sign, MI, was developed from the pictogram of a storm cloud dropping rain. Cuneiform was initially written top to bottom then written rotated counter-clockwise 90 degrees later in history. The second Sign, NI was developed from a pictogram of plow.”

A pictogram of a storm cloud dropping rain followed by a plow. Is that not perfectly concise symbolism for the story of Noah’s ark?

Summary

Is this standard practice for Biblical translations?

I'm not learned enough to know what was standard practice through the millennia. (I'm just a hobbyist, after all.) But I am confident enough in this particular subject matter to claim that there is scant evidence, if any, that עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר can be accurately translated as "cypress wood", and that there is zero evidence it can be accurately translated as "gopher wood".

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