The Interesting Etymology of the Word ‘Ark’

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, 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:


15 thoughts on “The Interesting Etymology of the Word ‘Ark’

  1. That’s very interesting study of the word “ark.” I’ve been always wondering why “ark” is used in such a different way with Noah and the Ark in the Tabernacle. That being said, what then is the meaning of the “ark” in your blog’s title, “arkandarchitecture”?

    1. Katherine, yes the etymology is quite intriguing. I wonder how many old testament words have largely unknown meanings which might shed some light on God’s plan. As for the ark in the title of this blog, it refers originally to Noah’s ark which typifies the church today. As I mentioned in the post, the ark is a vessel through which life is preserved. Today we’re building the church, our ark.

      1. Amen. That’s very meaningful. The church is a vessel through which life is preserved. I know the Ark (not Noah’s ark) is also called the Ark of Testimony. Do you think that also refers to the church?

  2. According to W. Lee, the Ark of the Covenant refers to Christ Jesus Himself. This is proved by Romans 3:25, which says that Christ is the propitiation place, the lid of the ark.

  3. Hello Merrill,

    Do you believe the entire Bible is without error? Do you believe the words themselves were inspired by the Word himself?

    I found it interesting you haven’t mentioned the New Testament in the discussion of the shape of Noah’s Ark. Can you comment on the New Testament word and its meaning? Perhaps this would help shed light on what’s meant by the word tebah in the OT?


    1. Thanks for the questions. I believe the Bible to be the word by word inspiration of God (1 Timothy 3:16). The New Testament uses the word kiboton, from the Septuagint, which is the same word as that for the Ark of the covenant, which means a chest or box. The article referenced at the bottom of the page gets into more detail if you’re interested.

      1. Merrill. If you believe the Bible is without error then Kibotos and Tebah cannot be in conflict in their definition. You have made a serious error supposing the Bible is in error. The New Testament does not get the word Kibotos from the Septuagint. These are two separate sets of documents which were written almost 400 years apart. You could have claimed the LXX has had an influence on Jewish Greek culture in the span of nearly 400 years, but using the word “from” is not just mere speculation but provably false. The author of Hebrews absolutely knew Hebrew and specifically used the word Kibotos in reference to Noah’s Ark because it was exactly correct and not because there is any evidence for some wildly baseless hypothesis that the author miss-aplied this word because of an influence from the LXX. The LXX is independently correct about this issue. The definition of Kibotos is wood chest or box. That is precisely why it is applied to the Ark of the Covenant as well which was made out of Acacia wood. The New Testament is unequivocally clear on the meaning and shape attributed to this word. The New Testament always clarifies the Old Testament and not the reverse. The whole Bible is God’s Word and cannot be doctrinally in conflict. When it comes to the Hebrew you should have checked the lexicons which define Tebah as chest or box. All that need be demonstrated is that there ARE some reed vessels in Egyptian history that were rectangular to reasonably suppose that the text of scripture is correct when it refers to a rectangular reed vessel that moses laid in. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absense. It is not necessary to demonstrate a rectangular reed vessel date from the exact era of Moses. Both Moses Ark of reeds and Noah’s Ark were rectangular objects yet made from different materials. The Hebrew word Tebah is shape specific and not a hokey meaning invented ten years ago by an indulgent & careless individual claiming it to mean “life-saver”. To my knowledge no scholar who has studied this topic and the words related has ever ignored the plain meanings of words and invented new meanings to fit his pre-held ideas. Ironically this is eisegesis which is the opposite of exegesis. No doubt both these objects served the purpose of sustaining life, but literally thousands of years of Jewish and Christian scholars (not to mention the authors of the Gospels & book of Hebrews) have understood both Moses and Noah’s vessels to be chests which are rectangular. I promise you, what I’m telling you is the truth. I can not here divulge the most interesting facts in support of what I’m saying, but in due time. As a brother in Christ Jesus, I urge you to stay away from the work of the subtle false teaching espoused by Tim Lovett.

  4. Okay,

    Kibotos is a material-specific word for a chest or box (made out of wood). The LXX couldn’t use this word to replace tebah in Exodus 2:3 since the text there indicates Moses’ Ark was to be made of Papyrus reeds (just in case you were wondering)—clearly tebah was NOT material specific, even though it WAS shape-specific.

    But forget the LXX for a second. Is the NT inspired of God? Following your statement above, you’d have to say, “yes.” Did God choose the words? Yes. Did he Choose kibotos? Yes. Does kibotos mean chest or box made out of wood? Yes. So, there we have it. Noah’s Ark was a chest-like/box-like shape, 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits. Sadly, this has been ignored or forgotten for over 200 years. This huge rectangular box-like vessel is affirmed in Hebrew lexicons—over and over and over again.

    BTW, what language Jesus spoke is irrelevant. This is God’s Word.

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