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The Beginning II - Tohu v’vohu

Genesis 1:2 holds a prophetic revelation of God’s nature and love, and its key is without form and void— tohu v’vohu.

In the account of the creation, of all things that God deemed good and very good, a prophetic revelation of God’s nature and love is waiting to be discovered. This revelation is delivered through God’s first action in Holy Scripture, and the key is in the condition of the earth at its beginning: a formless void.

In Genesis 1:2, we discover an earth that challenges our traditional understanding of God's creation of it. Many of us were taught that God breathed and our earth was created ex nihilo, out of nothing. However, in the text, the earth at the beginning was not the earth as we know it to be. In the Masoretic text, the primary Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the phrase tohu v’vohu (without form and void) is used to describe this version of the earth. A quick dive into this phrase offers clues about the revelation of God's nature and love.

Tohu tôû תֹּהוּ

In the Bible, the Hebrew word, tohu, is translated in different ways. In some contexts, it means exactly what we would expect: "nothingness" and "empty space." In others, it means exactly what we might not expect.

It is used in Moses’ song to describe the desert from which God saved his people, “God found Israel in a wild land—in a howling desert wasteland [tohu]—he protected him, cared for him, watched over him with his very own eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10).
It is also used by Samuel when he warns the people, “Don’t turn aside to follow useless [tohu] idols that can’t help you or save you. They’re absolutely useless [tohu]” (I Samuel 12:21).

These passages inform us that the word tohu has layered meanings besides simply "nothingness.” Moses did not claim that God saved the people from nothingness but from a wild wasteland. Samuel didn't suggest that the people avoid nothingness but that they avoid useless things that serve no purpose. These things—the desert and idols—were not nothingness; instead, they existed in waste and uselessness.

Vohu vôû וָבֹהוּ

The word vohu is only used three times in the Bible—in Genesis, as we have noted, in Isaiah, and in Jeremiah—and each time, it is paired with tohu.

"I looked at the earth, and it was without shape [tohu] or form [vohu]; at the heavens and there was no light." (Jeremiah 4:23).
"God will stretch over it the measuring line of chaos [tohu] and the plummet stone of emptiness [vohu] over its officials" (Isaiah 34:11).

In Jeremiah, tohu v’vohu recalls the primeval earth in Genesis 1. In Isaiah, the phrase describes the condition of the tragic nation of Edon. When used together, the words tohu and vohu describe not an absence of things as we might define a "void" but an expanse of useless things, shapeless things, empty things, things without purpose. This void of waste exists in chaos and confusion.

More questions.

If our earth was created from something akin to a formless, worthless, orderless mess, how was the mess created? God created all and God called all of creation "good." So, was this primitive mess also good? If all things were created by God, the god of order, purpose, and perfect will, then why would God create a formless void?

We'll walk through all that in the last part of our word study series on The Beginning.


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