It’s Going to Rain

Recently, Penny and I heard a clatter near our new house. Going outside, we found that a twenty-foot downspout had fallen. Today, it’s raining, but so far everything in the new house is waterproof. That’s important, but the absence of leaks was far more important in Noah’s situation.

Just yesterday, I shared some gleanings from Genesis 6:14

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside.

Today, I’d like to look at another word, “pitch.” This English word, referring to a thick petroleum-based substance, shows up in three places in the Bible. In two of them, the Hebrew word is a noun, zepheth. We could perhaps translate it as tar or asphalt. One of those places is Isaiah 34:9, while the other takes us back to the “ark” that baby Moses was placed into.

Noahs_Ark_Italianate_mural_WEB_821x800But the pitch or kaphar in Genesis 6:14 is different. First, it is a verb. The King James says that God instructed Noah to “pitch it within and without.” “Pitch” here is the verb. Since that seems to evoke images of sales or baseball to us, modern translations usually go the route of “cover it with pitch.” The verse in question is the only one of 102 appearances of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament that means “to cover with pitch.”

So how is it used in those 101 cases? In the King James, it is translated as “atonement” 71 times. Other translations include “purge,” “reconcile,” and “forgive.” Although it abounds throughout the law chapters of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we can find a scattering of this word in various other Old Testament books. One example will suffice, from Psalm 79:9:

God of our salvation, help us—
for the glory of your name.
Rescue us and atone for our sins,
for your name’s sake.

Rescue us, God, and cover over our sins with something that the dangers cannot penetrate. Make us waterproof, Lord, or at least sin-proof. Plug our leaks.

Different words could have been used in Genesis 6, and the use of kaphar clearly means literally coating the inside and outside of the boat with some sort of sticky, waterproof stuff. However, the other uses of this word helps to accentuate the salvation story that is prefigured in Genesis.

Noah, apparently a fairly handy guy, could build a big boat, but that boat could never have remained afloat and safe for the occupants through the forty days of rain and the months of floating about if it had not been sealed, covered over, with something beyond gopher wood. Moses brought the wood, and God provided the atonement or covering. In Genesis 22, Isaac carries the wood, but God provides the atonement in the ram for the sacrifice. And in the gospels, a man carries a cross, but God provided the atonement through the sacrifice.

It’s going to rain, but we have hope to remain dry.


What’s an Ark?

About fifty years ago, a certain now-disgraced comic created a routine based on Noah. One of the memorable bits of this script was Noah being utterly flummoxed when instructed to build an ark. “What’s an ark?” he asks.

In Genesis 6:14, Noah is told

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside.

While we have no record of Noah asking what an ark might be, he would be perfectly justified in doing so. First of all, we have no record of boats in the pre-flood years. Did people use boats to go out and fish in those days? Did they run cruise lines? I can’t say for sure, but that’s not really the point. God didn’t say “Make yourself a boat of gopher wood.” He said, “Make yourself an ark.”

So what is an ark? My first inclination would be to look for other arks in the Bible. We all know that the other famous ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is sealed up in a wooden crate and hidden away in some gigantic government warehouse, thanks to Indiana Jones. Is that at all similar to what Noah was to build?

First popping up in Exodus 25, the word used for the ark of the covenant is ‘arown. Actually, I misspoke when I said it first showed up in Exodus 25 as it is rendered “coffin” in Genesis 50:26. This word appears 202 times in the Old Testament, most of them referring to the ark that David danced in front of.

Noahs_Ark_Italianate_mural_WEB_821x800The “ark” Noah was instructed to build was tebah, a word that appears 26 times in the Old Testament. Of those usages, 24 are in Genesis 6-9 and pertain to the thing that Noah built. The only other two appearances are in Exodus 2, describing the basket used to save baby Moses. In fact, there’s not a really great reason why tebah is translated as “ark.” It could be argued that Noah’s version was box-like, but can the same be said of Moses’ ark?

There is a significant difference between tebah and ‘arown. While the ‘arown ark is a box or chest that things are put into, it does not save anybody. Contrary to what the Indiana Jones version suggests, an army carrying the ark can be defeated. That ark is not a vehicle of salvation; it is a symbol of a convenant.

On the other hand, both examples of a tebah ark are vehicles (literally and figuratively) of salvation. Noah’s tebah preserves a righteous remnant of humanity in a time when things had gotten utterly dark. Moses’ tebah preserves a chosen child during a period when Hebrew babies were being exterminated. Absent either of these, the later story of salvation could not have carried on–at least not without huge changes.

What’s an ark? In this case, it is a vessel created by human hands to perform God’s work of salvation.