Sunday, April 17, 2011

Long Before Jesus: Needing Some Pitch

The cross is well-recognized among Christians as a symbol of God's sacrifice, His mercy, His grace, and atonement for mankind's sin. While it may not seem like it during other times of the year, come Easter, the cross suddenly becomes mass marketable in every corner drugstore and grocery market. Right next to the band aid aisle, those two intersecting lines appear on everything from shrink wrap decals on plastic eggs and window clings to cotton shirts on plush bunnies and children's puzzle books.

While the symbol of the cross gets all the attention this month, and rightly so, I've been looking backwards from the cross, from the empty tomb--back from the Easter story's ending and beginning co-existing in one three-personed God.

It's sent me back to the very beginning in Genesis, when God first used symbols to communicate His plan of salvation to mankind...when God began prefiguring the road to the cross.

One of those first symbols was the ark Noah built to escape the flood. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary says the "ark was also a symbol of God's grace. Obviously, the ark was intended by God as an instrument of deliverance to preserve both human and animal life upon the earth...As such, it came to be understood as a symbol of His Grace and mercy" (112).

Deliverance. With Noah and his family, it was deliverance from literal death.

But there is also an implication that the ark gives a word-picture of deliverance from spiritual death, from sin as well.

God tells Noah, "Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch" (Gen. 6:14)

Pitch is a literal substance used to waterproof sailing vessels, but the word means so much more! In the passage above from Genesis, we find the Bible's first use of the Hebrew word "kaphar," "where it is used in its primary sense of 'to cover over,' Here God gives Noah instructions concerning the ark, including 'Pitch it within and without with pitch'"1.

The word kaphar means "to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch"2.

In fact, when the word "kaphar" is used in the Old Testament, in 71 out of 102 instances, the word is translated as "atonement," usually "with the blood of a sacrifice, in order to atone for some sin"1.

For example, the same word for "pitch" is translated as "atonement" when Moses goes up the mountain to pray for God's forgiveness of Israel's sin: "On the next day Moses said to the people, "You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." (Ex. 32:30, my italics).

Knowing this definition and usage of the word kaphar, when God tells Noah to "cover it [the ark] inside and out with pitch," He is showing a picture of deliverance, of His grace and atonement for sin--one that covers both the literal vessel of the ark as well as its inhabitants resting within--inside and out.

This picture of God's atonement is finally fulfilled in the New Testament when His one and only Son's blood ran down the cross, acting as a "pitch" for our souls, covering our vessel inside and out with His one-time sacrifice and atonement for our sin, thereby delivering us from death's grip.

We have a God who was giving us glimpses of the Messiah way back in the beginning.

The word picture doesn't end there, though.

This ark, Noah's ark--it's not the only "ark" in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used in Genesis for "ark" is found in only one other place--in Exodus, when Moses' mother seeks deliverance from Pharaoh's decree that all Hebrew boys must be put to death.

She seeks deliverance with another "ark" (translated here as "basket") ark covered with pitch.

Scripture says, "But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket [ark] and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile" (Ex. 2:3).

Although God didn't choose to use the same word kaphar for "pitch" in this passage, He did use the same word for "ark." Since that word is used in only one other place in Old Testament concerning Noah, it makes me believe these two pitch-covered ark images could both be prefigurings of Jesus' sacrificial atonement for us and deliverance from death unto life...

especially when one considers that once saved in the "ark" from almost certain death, Moses went on to become the people of Israel's human advocate to deliver them from bondage, their intercessor who sought God's atonement for the people's sin, and the one who told an enslaved Hebrew people to cover their doorposts with the blood of the lamb so that the angel of death would "Passover" their homes.

I sit here amazed...amazed in His presence, waving my branch here on the eve of Palm Sunday, and crying out "Hosanna! Hosanna!" Save us Lord.

Photo: 95-acre Pitch Lake of tar on Trinidad's west coast. Click here for more extraordinary photos of the "living" tar lake.
1. Strong's Expanded Dictionary, p. 135


  1. The thought that jumped out at me was covered inside and out with the pitch. Great thoughts - so grateful to be covered!

  2. I love this! Thank you for your insight :)