Alice C. Linsley
According to Genesis 6:14, Noah's Ark was constructed of גפר (gofer/gopher) wood. Since this word does not appear elsewhere in the Bible, there is a good deal of speculation about the material used to build the Ark. Noah would have built with materials available to him so we must first determine where and when Noah lived to discover what materials were available. Noah lived in the region of Lake Chad where he had access to both reeds and timber. His boats were likely of wood frame construction covered with bundles of reeds, such as these boats.
Where Noah Lived
There are two flood accounts in Genesis, and they differ in details, but both come from the same Afro-Asiatic Dominion which extended from the region of Mega-Chad to the Indus River Valley. The heart of this vast dominion was the well-watered region of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates Basin. This is the area that the Bible calls Eden (Gen. 2:10-14).
Most commentaries place Noah's Ark in Armenia. This isn't conclusive, however, since Ar-menia could mean "mountain of Meri" and Mount Meri is in central west Africa. Dr. David M. Westley, Director of the African Studies Library at Boston University, reports: "From the center of the Chad Basin to Mount Meri is about 230 miles." The word ararat is an Arabic word meaning vehemence, which fits this story of divine judgment.
The Afro-Asiatics were kingdom builders who moved eastward from the Sudan to India where they are called the Sudra. This explains the correspondence between the Semitic and Sanskrit names for Noah's three sons. The Hindu heroes are called Sherma, Hama and Jiapheta and their Genesis counterparts are Shem Ham, and Japheth.
Noah's homeland was the area of Lake Chad. There is a time-honored tradition among the people who live there that the biblical Noah once ruled over this region that bears his name: Bor-nu which means "country of Noah." This is the only place on earth that claims to be the homeland of Noah.
There are at least ten species of dove found in Africa and the species indigenous to the Land of Noah is the pink-bellied turtle dove (Streptopelia hypopyrrha).
There is also the evidence of the number forty in the Hamitic account of "forty days and forty nights" of rain. Forty is significant in the Hamitic context as it represents the Nile annual flood. Even after the flooding ceased, the people had to wait another forty days before returning to clean the life-giving silt from their homes. In the Hamitic tradition, forty is always presented in a set. On the other hand, the number forty holds no significance in the Babylonian context represented by the book of Daniel. In all its numerical richness, the number forty doesn't appear even once in Daniel.
To this information we must add my findings on Abraham's kinship pattern which indicate that some of his ancestors lived in Africa. The kinship pattern revealed in Genesis is found only in west central Africa. Given all of this information, we may safely assume that the historical Noah lived in the area of Lake Chad.
Dating the Flood
Between 8,000 and 4000 BC the climate changed, ushering in years of persistent, heavy rains in Africa. The Nile was transformed from a slow stream into a roaring river with mile-deep gorges. This was the beginning of the wet period that would turn the Sahara into vast grasslands able to support elephants, antelopes, gazelles, ostriches, giraffes, and hyenas. Lakes formed in basins large enough to support fish, crocodile and hippopotamus. Early hunters camped along the lakes, as evidenced by heaps of domestic refuse at many sites along the lake shores. This is known as the late Holocene Wet Period.
Lake Chad filled and merged with the Mega-Chad Sea, creating a body of water approximately 157,000 square miles with a maximum depth of 568 feet. The outline of the old Mega-Chad basin is visible from satellite photos. The overflow spilled southwest out the Benue River to the Atlantic. The highest water level occurred about 8500 BC.
The land surrounding Lake Chad would have remained spongy for many centuries after the flood waters receded. Rainbows would have been a common sight over the region due to rising mists. During this time the water table in central Africa was high and there were many natural springs. Flooding would have been significant as Lake Chad at that time conjoined the Niger, Benue, Yobe and Osimili Rivers. (Are these the four streams of Genesis 2:10?)
Noah's flood likely occurred during a later wet period, probably the last wet period experienced by the Proto-Saharans. He likely lived around 3000 BC.
Available Boat-Building Materials
The common people of Noah's time used log dugouts, indicating the presence of forests in west central Africa. A fully preserved black mahogany dugout was excavated in Bor-nu in 1987. The Dufuna dugout was buried at a depth of 16 feet under clays and sands whose alternating sequence showed evidence of deposition in standing and flowing water. The dugout is 8000 years old. By comparison, Egypt's oldest boat is only about 5000 years old.
According to Peter Breunig (University of Frankfurt, Germany), “The bow and stern are both carefully worked to points, giving the boat a notably more elegant form”, compared to “the dugout made of conifer wood from Pesse in the Netherlands, whose blunt ends and thick sides seem crude”. Judging by stylistic sophistication, Breunig reasons that, “It is highly probable that the Dufuna boat does not represent the beginning of a tradition, but had already undergone a long development, and that the origins of water transport in Africa lie even further back in time.”
As the ruler of Bor-nu, Noah would have had at his disposal the best building materials in plentiful supply and the best boat builders. After years of wetness the mahogany forests would have failed since their roots require firm ground to survive. Some of this wood would have been available (just as today we have samples of lumber from extinct species), so we can't rule out the possibility that the Ark was made at least partially of African mahogany. Yet there is no evidence that gofer wood is mahogany.
Another theory is that the Ark was made of reeds, a building material that would have been abundant in Bor-nu during the Gurian Wet Period. This is supported by the fact that the word translated "ark" in Genesis 6:14 is found only one other place in the Bible: in the story of Moses' mother putting him in a reed basket (Exodus 2:3). Taking this line, the Schocken Bible reads: "Make yourself an Ark of gofer wood, with reeds make the Ark...", Vol. I, p. 35.
Perhaps gofer isn't a building material at all. Perhaps it is a description of the Ark's role in ransoming Noah and his household from destruction. The Hebrew word for ransom or compensation is kofer and the Hebrew kaphar means to propitiate, to atone for sin, or to cover. Kpr refers to the deified priest standing at altar to make atonement.
This view is supported by the literal translation of Genesis 6:14: Make for you a box of woods of gofer nests you will make the box and you will cover (kaphar) her from the inside and from the outside with a covering (kaphar).
It should also be noted that the Hebrew radicals k p r refer to "pitch" (bitumen) so the meaning may simply be to cover the box with pitch inside and out. Artifacts dating to over 70,000 years found in Syria, Israel and South Africa reveal that stone points were "hafted" to hand implements and weapons using various types of adhesives, including bitumen, resins and ground pigments.
However, it is interesting that the word kaphar resembles the Hausa word for atonement - kafa. Is it possible that gofer is kofer (ransom) and the meaning of this verse entails atonement? Are the boxes like the Ark of the Covenant with its angelic covering? If so, we have in Noah's Ark a picture of both divine protection and the work of Jesus Christ known as propitiation. This, of course, is how the Church Fathers have interpreted Noah's Ark.
Related reading: Noah's Homeland; Answers to Students' Questions About the Flood; Genesis and Climate Change