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.
The “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.