At one time or another, most everyone who reads the account of Noah’s ark probably wonders what exactly the word ark means.
The English Bible uses the word ark to refer to both the vessel Noah built in Genesis 6 and the chest Moses built several hundred years later with the tabernacle in Exodus 25. But in Hebrew, these two “arks” are not the same word and do not have the same meaning.
I’d like to share a little about the etymology of Noah’s ark, which is well documented on the website worldwideflood.com, which has a wealth of information on everything related to the flood.
Basically, the English word ark comes from the Latin word “arca”, meaning large box or chest, translated from the Greek word “kibotos”, of the same meaning.
The Hebrew word for Noah’s ark is “tebah” which appears in only two passages in the Old Testament: the first being Noah’s ark and the second being the reed basket Moses’s mother placed him in when she floated him down the Nile River.
With such a paucity of source-material for “tebah”, translators had a difficult time agreeing on its true meaning. But they could narrow it down by proving what it couldn’t mean by context. It couldn’t mean a big boat if it also referred to a small basket. It couldn’t mean made of wood since Moses’ basket was made of reeds. It couldn’t mean something box-shaped or rectangular since baskets in Egypt of the day weren’t boxes; they were more round than rectangular.
So what does the Hebrew word “tebah” mean?
One of the best interpretations of the word “tebah” is actually life-preserver or life-saver. Think about it. Noah and his family’s lives were saved through this “tebah” that he built. Moses’s infant life was perserved through the “tebah” his mother put him in. Many linguists point out that this word may have come from an Egyptian word “Tebat”, meaning coffin or chest. If so, then imagery of resurrection comes to life as Noah and his family exit their giant “coffin” upon the mountain of Ararat, into a new life.
So how did the same English word “ark” get to be used for both the ark of the covenant and Noah’s ark? In short, that can be traced to the translators of the Septuagint, who perhaps assumed Noah’s vessel was a chest or coffin. From their Greek word through the Latin “arca” we’ve inherited the word “ark”.
While many of us think of a box when we hear of Noah’s ark, to my mind Noah and Moses would rather we think of a life-saver than a chest. This interpretation holds today as well, the true ark being the church – a life-saver – not a simple box or building.
Further reading on this here: