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.
But 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.