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Formless and Void: Really?

" Now the earth was formless and void ..." Thus Genesis 1:2.

What does it mean to be “formless and void”? Two Hebrew words are used: tohu and bohu, linked in Hebrew as tohu wabohu. Despite the confidence with which bohu is translated (after all, the translators have to put some word in the space!), nobody can be certain as to the exact meaning of bohu. It occurs three times in the Bible,[Genesis 1:2; Isaiah 34:11; Jeremiah 4:23] always in the tohu wabohu link, and never in any other known literature. The second and third occurrences clearly refer back to Genesis 1. In none of those three places is it defined. But the way it is linked to tohu, and the obvious rhythm and rhyme of tohu wabohu, serve unmistakably to reinforce the “tohu-ness” of tohu – whatever that might be. Whether it has a similar or nuanced meaning to tohu, or whether it is simply a nonce word coined to rhyme with the tohu and to reinforce it [cf Robert Alter] we cannot be certain. But its impact is clear enough in Hebrew and in translation the concept of tohu should be reinforced either by meaning, rhyme or both. Robert Alter translates it “welter and waste,” which has the desired rhythm and its assonance comes close to rhyme, but not much more clarity of meaning!

Tohu is less challenging. It is used consistently to picture a wasteland or unproductive condition. Isaiah 45:18 is particularly helpful, referring to the creation of the earth in Genesis 1 with the declaration, “He did not create it to be empty (tohu), but formed it to be inhabited.” The earth created in Genesis 1:1 is created to be populated by plants and animals, and inhabited by humankind, but it is not yet ready for that: it is unproductive. It is dark, it is deep and it is wet. It is not difficult to see that more of God’s creative work is needed before terrestrial plants and animals, along with mankind, can find a dry, light and productive place to inhabit. But for all that, it is not a chaos, a place out of control. This dark, damp, deserted place is not “bad,” but it is not yet ready for its intended occupants and cannot therefore yet fulfil its ultimate purpose of revealing the full glory of God. God has made it and now his Spirit hovers over it as a protective bird watches over her chicks.

Deuteronomy 32:11 uses the same Hebrew word rachaph to describe “an eagle that ... hovers over its young.” Some translate rachaph as “brooding” but Leupold comments on this with clarity: “The verb rachaph from which the piel participle is used, mera (ch) chépheth, signifies a vibrant moving, a protective hovering. No single instance of the Biblical usage of the verb would suggest ‘brooding,’ a meaning which was foisted upon the word in an attempt to make it bear resemblance to various old myths that speak of the hatching out of the world egg—a meaning specially defended by Gunkel, the strong advocate of mythical interpretation. Deut. 32:11 surely will not allow for the idea of ‘brooding.’ An eagle may brood over eggs but not over ‘her young.’ The fact that the Syriac root does happen to mean ‘brood’ cannot overthrow the Biblical usage, which takes strong precedence over mere similarity of root in kindred languages.”

The earth is under God’s care and control and is about to be shaped by his majestic creativity.

(Adapted from Michael's Book The Misted World of Genesis One)


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