The first mention of the word gopher wood in the Bible is within the book of Genesis and it reads God told Noah to build an ark (a huge box-shaped vessel) of "gopher wood". Noah and seven of his family members were to stay in this ark so they would be protected from the worldwide flood God was about to send. In Genesis 6:20 it states that God sent representatives of all kinds of birds, cattle, and "creeping things" to Noah and the ark was big enough to accommodate them all during a year-long stay until the flood waters subsided.
Gopher wood is mentioned only once in the Bible, and its identification has been the subject of great speculation. The meaning of the Hebrew word gopher is obscure. The sixteenth century Geneva Bible translated it as "pine-trees." Rather than risk a wrong translation, the translators of the King James Version of the Bible (1611) simply kept the original Hebrew word and called it gopher wood. Some translators of more recent Bible versions, such as the New American Standard translation (1960), have continued this wise practice. Others, most notably the New International Version (1978), have substituted "cypress" for gopher, using a footnote to admit that the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says that the identification of gopher with cypress is arbitrary and unsatisfactory. It says such identification "rests on the mere assumption that the roots of these two words are akin. According to P. de Lagarde, 'gofer' stands for 'gofrit,' meaning originally 'pine,' from old Bactrian 'vohukereti,' and latter also 'sulfur,' on account of the likeness in appearance which sulfur bears to pine-resin."
An old type of water-craft still in use on some rivers and canals in the Middle East is called a "kufa" (Arabic kufr = Hebrew kofer or gofer). This vessel is made of willow branches and palm leaves that are finely interwoven, with a coat of bitumen on the inside. Some authorities believe this is what Noah's Ark was made from, although the huge size of Noah's Ark seems to rule this out.
The New Catholic Dictionary says that the Vulgate identified gopher wood simply as "timber planks," although early commentators such as Saint Ambrose (fourth century) and Augustine of Hippo (fourth century) thought that pine or cypress might have been intended. The (Greek) Septuagint translated it as "squared beams."
Strong's Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary says the Hebrew word gopher comes from an unused root, probably meaning to "house in." This could mean the passage means something like "make thee an ark of wood to house in" without specifying any type of wood.
Modern creationist views
The Liberty Bible Commentary (1982) says gopher wood was "probably a type of cedar or cyprus" (sic). The Ryrie Study Bible (1976) says it was "probably cypress or cedar." In response to a claim that gopher wood was laminated wood, Answers in Genesis said, "no Hebrew expert knows for sure what gopher wood is in modern terminology, so claims about it being laminated wood is sheer nonsense." The Institute for Creation Research said in its Impact article No.231, "The 'gopher wood,' from which the Ark was made, is unidentified, and some have even speculated that it may have been a synthetic material."
Dr. Henry Morris said in his Defender's Study Bible (1995) that the ark was made of "a hard dense wood whose species has not yet been identified." He added that the Hebrew word kopher, equivalent to kaphar, was "frequently translated later as 'atonement' (Leviticus 17:11). In providing a protective covering against the waters of judgment, it thus becomes a beautiful type of Christ."