Genesis 1:2, I Too Was “Formless and Empty”
There are many positives of Genesis 1:1 (“In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth”)- answering mankind’s Two Big Questions, hinting about our ultimate destiny, implying an ending by declaring a “Beginning”- all of which are wonderful. While it’s a beautiful verse and perhaps the most important as it introduces the reader to the Set-Apart Scriptures, it’s also both an introductory and topic statement that sets up the narrative of the Creation Week. Therefore, the first real detail we get about the creation of our world is in the next verse, Genesis 1:2, where we find that the earth was “something and nothing”. By this I mean something was there, yet nothing was also there:
“The earth was formless and empty…” (Genesis 1:2)
We sometimes think the first act of creation was “Let there be light!” but we conveniently forget that something else “existed” before this phrase. We’ll ever know how or when the earth originally appeared, but the text says it preexisted light as “something” but at the same time as “nothing” – described as “without form and empty”. There aren’t many details about this chaotic state, but… was there anything really worth describing?
I love the Hebrew phrase which describes this, “tohu v’bohu” (TOW-hoo va-BOW-hoo), usually translated “formless and empty” or “without form and void”.
Tohu v’bohu is an interesting rhyme, but it’s also quite mysterious. While the meaning of tohu is established, nobody really knows the meaning of “bohu”. The assumption is that bohu is a synonym of tohu because they always appear together, as some believe bohu is meant to embellish the use of tohu.
The meaning of bohu remains a mystery, so we must rely on tohu to fully grasp its meaning and significance. Let’s look at a few examples of the use of the first word tohu, to see what use it carries throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible:
- Deuteronomy 32:10: “[The LORD] found [Jacob] in a desert land, in a tohu howling wilderness.
- 1 Samuel 12:20-21: “…serve the LORD with all your heart. Don’t turn away to go after tohu things which can’t profit or deliver, for they are tohu.”
- Job 12:24: “He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth, and causes them to wander in a tohu where there is no way.”
- Isaiah 24:10: “The tohu city is broken down. Every house is shut up, that no man may come in.”
Fortunately for us, the use of tohu exists in many synonymous parallels as shown above; we can easily ascertain its meaning through the context of this constructive style (Note: some translations prefer ‘vanity’ but I don’t believe that adequately defines tohu; its not the same ‘vanity’ as Heb. hebel of Ecclesiastes fame). Judging from the verses we just read, we learn this about tohu:
- Deu 32:10: Tohu describes the conditions of a desert land, the synonymous parallel dictates tohu is a “wasteland”.
- 1 Sam 12:20-21: Tohu is the antithesis of something which profits or sets at liberty; therefore, tohu is something completely “unprofitable”, and also powerless to advance our lives, “useless”.
- Job 12:24: If wise men lose their wisdom, I would then call them fools. Given that tohu is a place of wandering, it seems that tohu is describing a place of “bewilderment” where one gets lost, and can’t find his way out.
- Isa 24:10: Tohu describes a scattered, empty city, completely boarded up and deserted. In context, Isaiah 24:1-10 describes how God will scatter the inhabitants of the world!
At a minimum, we can clearly see tohu is a negative adjective; in fact, in all 20 of its occurrences it never describes a positive happening. Tohu is something unprofitable, useless, a waste, wandering aimlessly in foolishness, empty, scattered, vain. It means so much more than “formless” like water vapor or an amoeba lacks true shape; it describes conditions less than ideal when the more positive scenario is in reach, or was in reach.
We might ask then, ‘tohu is bad enough- why then the need for bohu?’ We might think tohu v’bohu is just a clever rhyme penned by an ancient scribe, but that is not the tale of the text. As we read their pairings it appears tohu v’bohu is a type of proverb- meaning something akin to “it’s worse than tohu– it’s tohu AND bohu!”
Now we know the first instance of tohu v’bohu is in Genesis 1:2—the first description of anything- but the second and third instances describe something much more alarming:
“For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams will be turned into pitch, its dust into sulfur, and its land will become burning pitch. It won’t be quenched night nor day. Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation, it will lie waste. No one will pass through it forever and ever. But the pelican and the porcupine will possess it. The owl and the raven will dwell in it. He will stretch the line of tohu over it, and the plumb line of bohu.” (Isaiah 34:8-11)
“For my people are foolish. They don’t know me. They are foolish children, and they have no understanding. They are skillful in doing evil, but they don’t know how to do good.” I saw the earth, and, behold, it was tohu and bohu; and the heavens, and they had no light. (Jeremiah 4:22-23)
If the descriptions for tohu by itself weren’t bad enough, it’s indescribably evil when married with bohu. Isaiah envisioned tohu v’bohu as a hideous judgment upon Israel (Zion). We might be surprised that tohu v’bohu is not always a state which is formless, but something that can be formed!
This verse from Jeremiah is what hits it home for me. Jeremiah through the Spirit saw PEOPLE ‘foolish and lacking understanding’ and ‘evil and not good’. It was actually YHVH comparing the metaphorical tohu v’bohu of man’s ignorance to the physical earth in chaos- in its tohu v’bohu state!
God could have made the earth anywhere, but he chose something so useless and literally a waste of space that it might as well been nothing. Yet, when I read Genesis 1:2, I think of myself. I was lost, a waste of a life, empty, scattered in my thoughts and intentions, a fool- yep, that was me alright. I was formless, I lacked structure to secure me in my place, a compass to guide me out of bewilderment. I was going through the motions of life, so while technically I existed as something, I was altogether nothing in my thoughts and deeds. I was not just tohu– I was tohu AND bohu.
When we teach that God created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) we disservice ourselves. He may have very well created the entire Universe ex nihilo long ago, but that’s not the point of Genesis 1. In actuality, it’s not something deemed necessary for human beings to know. However, God did form the earth from its tohu v’bohu state to teach us this: that God wants to form and shape US from our formless and empty existence, much like He did with the earth.