Genesis chapter six presents a narrative of Noah’s ark. God gave him specific instructions regarding how to construct the ark, including the dimensions, the type of wood to use, and the placement of the door and roof. Noah is also instructed to coat it with “pitch” inside and out–presumably for waterproofing purposes.
Traditionally the “pitch” discussed in Genesis 6 has been understood to be bitumen, a petroleum-based product. Like coal, petroleum-based products are the fossilized by-products of once-living organisms. These by-products take a very long time (millions of years) to form.
While this process fits well with an old-earth perspective, a young-earth perspective doesn’t allow for a long enough period of time to pass for bitumen to form. Realizing this serious difficulty, some young-earth creationists have speculated that this “pitch” (as it is translated in the KJV) might be tree resin or sap (not a petroleum-based product). They will also point out that tree resin has been used in shipbuilding.
Although it’s true that in relatively modern times tree resin has been used in shipbuilding, there is no indication that the passage in Genesis 6 is referring to tree resin. The Hebrew word for the waterproofing material is kopher. Bible translations, commentaries, dictionaries, and lexicons all consistently define kopher as some type of bitumen.
For example, the Latin Vulgate uses the word bitumine, the Greek Septuagint uses asphaltos (looks familiar, right?), and the New Living Translation uses the word tar.
- Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown define kopher as:
mineral pitch, asphalt, naphtha, or some bituminous substance, which, when smeared over and become hardened, would make it perfectly watertight1.
- Strong’s Concordance defines it as:
asphalt, pitch (as a covering)2
There is no evidence indicating that the pitch was tree sap. But, for the sake of argument, let’s give this idea serious consideration for a moment.
Harvesting resin from a tree is a tedious and time-consuming task. The process involves “tapping” the tree and letting the resin run (very slowly) into a bucket. It takes quite a bit of time and effort to collect only a small amount of resin. Moreover, once the tree is cut down, it is obviously no longer able to produce resin. Here is an example of the tree resin collection process at work.
Noah would’ve needed to cut down the trees in order to build the ark, not spend years slowly collecting their resin. Further, lumber was a valuable commodity in Noah’s day. It’s highly improbable that he would have had enough trees (let alone manpower and time) to use them for both lumber and pitch.
Further, he couldn’t coat the wood until it was cut, fashioned, and placed into position. It is quite probable that this process couldn’t even begin until the ark’s construction was at or near completion. How many trees would still be available for use in harvesting resin?
Also, consider that God instructs Noah to pitch the ark both inside and out. How much resin would be required to coat both sides of this gigantic vessel? And what of preserving it until needed? It would defeat the purpose if the pitch dried and hardened before it could even be applied!
On the other hand, it is well known that bitumen and other petroleum-based byproducts were plentiful in the region where Noah built the ark. An added bonus is that bitumen would’ve been found in pools. Noah could’ve collected it quickly by the bucket. Also, it would’ve been easier to apply. (Imagine trying to spread unprocessed tree sap using a primitive brush!)
The tree resin used in modern times for shipbuilding is refined and cut with alcohol. These advanced processing techniques would not have been available in Noah’s time. However, bitumen and its related products are known to have been widely available and used (as mortar, glue, etc.) during this time. There is ample biblical support for this usage. For example, bitumen was used as mortar in the making of the Tower of Babel:
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:1-4 (RSV)
Further, prior to the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Dead Sea area had open bitumen pits:
Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomor’rah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboi’im, and the king of Bela (that is, Zo’ar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Ched-or-lao’mer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goi’im, Am’raphel king of Shinar, and Ar’ioch king of Ella’sar, four kings against five. Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomo’rah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the mountain. Genesis 14:8-10 (RSV)
There is also extrabiblical documentation of ancient uses for bitumen.3
So, the evidence is clear that bitumen already existed in the days of Noah. In light of such biblical and scientific evidence, the young-earth interpretation seems implausible. Why? Because it is the flood deposits that are supposed to be responsible for the existence of petroleum biodeposits. If they already existed prior to the Flood, then there is no explanation for them nor the geologic column containing them within a young-earth paradigm.
While the existence of bitumen can’t be explained within a young-earth perspective, it finds ample support from an old-earth view–and Reasons To Believe’s testable creation model. This model anticipates the rich biodeposits as part of God’s provision to humanity of these much-needed natural resources.4
by Lane Coffee
1 Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s Commentary On the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), Genesis 6:14. 1870’s classic six-volume commentary)
2 Blue Letter Bible, “Dictionary and Word Search for kopher (Strong’s 03724),”.
3 J. Connan, “Use and Trade of Bitumen in Antiquity and Prehistory: Molecular Archaeology Reveals Secrets of Past Civilizations,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 354 (1999): 33-50.
4 Hugh Ross, “Summary of Reasons To Believe’s Testable Creation Model,” .