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?


6 Answers 6


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!

  • 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. 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. Nov 3, 2011 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.) 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
    Nov 3, 2011 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.


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.

  • 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? Nov 3, 2011 at 20:30

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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    I have seen a treatment relating "pitch" and "mercy seat", and the 'sealing' of God. +1 Sep 29 at 19:50

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]):


AGURRU – UKURRU (I:1:160).


AGAMU – AKAMU (I:1:259).


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'.


The reason for the Bible being specific on the species of wood is the same reason for the specifics of genealogy, we were meant to research...Noah built the ark not far from Florida, the earth was different in Noah's day, no great oceans & possibly 1 continent (pre-flood) Gopher wood has grown in just 1 part of earth, Florida...Torreya taxifolia, commonly known as the Florida nutmeg , Florida Torreya

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    "Noah built the ark not far from Florida" What evidence do you have for this?
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 27 at 7:24
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