The Hebrew word gopher is used only once in the Bible when God commanded Noah to “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.” Genesis 6:14.
No one today knows what “gopher wood” is—Noah obviously knew—the King James Version, the New King James Version, New American Standard Bible, and English Standard Version simply transliterate the Hebrew and leave it as “gopher wood.” The Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) renders the phrase as “squared beams,” and the Latin Vulgate says “planed wood.”
Many scholars consider “gopher wood” to be cypress because cypress wood is extremely durable. Modern English versions of the Bible, such as the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and the New English Translation, translate it as “cypress wood.” The Smith Bible Dictionary defines gopher as “any trees of the resinous kind, such as pine, fir, or cypress.” A weakness of the “cypress” translation is that the word for “cypress” or “fir” in biblical Hebrew is berosh, not gopher.
When we try to identify a specific tree as the “gopher wood” of Genesis 6:14, we run into several problems:
• First, any designation comes down to guesswork. Other theories besides cypress include cedar, pine, ebony, fir, wicker, juniper, acacia, bulrushes, and boxwood.
• Very likely, gopher wood doesn’t exist today. Countless plants have become extinct since the time of Noah. In fact, we know very little about the kinds of wood available to Noah; no one living has seen the antediluvian world.
• Also, the geography of the pre-flood world was without a doubt vastly different from ours today, so no one can say exactly where Noah lived. There are only speculations. Attempts to identify gopher wood as cypress or any other known tree, based on Noah’s supposed location, ignore the fact that the flood destroyed the entire face of the earth.
Some researchers believe the word gopher doesn’t refer to a species of wood at all; rather, it refers to a process utilized to prepare the wood in the ark’s construction. This is seen in the Septuagint’s translation, “squared beams.” Some archaeologists have suggested that gopher may have referred to a lamination process, made necessary by the enormous size of the ark (about 450 feet in length).
To add more speculation to the meaning of “gopher wood,” there is even disagreement as to the true spelling of the Hebrew word. Due to the similarity between a (g) and a (k) in the Hebrew alphabet (both letters resemble a backwards c), some scholars have proposed that the first letter in the word gopher was inadvertently switched by a scribe and that the word should actually be kopher—a Hebrew word meaning “pitch.” If this scribal-error theory is correct, Genesis 6:14 would read, “Make yourself an ark of pitched [waterproofed] wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch.”
God gave Noah specific instructions on how to construct the ark (Genesis 6:14–16). Whatever gopher wood was, it was obviously an incorruptible and sturdy wood, perfect for the salvation of Noah and his family.