Tohu v’vohu: FORMLESS & VOID… or uninhabitable chaos & emptiness?

FORMLESS: tohu. Masculine noun. (Strong’s 8414).

Root: תֹּהוּ

Sounds like: toe-hu

VOID: vohu. Masculine noun. (Strong’s 922).

Root: בֹּהוּ

Sounds like: voe-hu

Genesis 1:1-3

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void [tohu v’vohu], and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The very first rhyme to occur in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:2.  Tohu v’vohu is almost always translated as formless and void, but is that the best translation of these words? Let’s take a look.

VOHU

We’ll start with the second word, vohu. It only occurs three times in the Bible: in Genesis (which we read above), Jeremiah and Isaiah, and each (and every) time it is twinned up with the word tohu. You never find vohu without tohu. In Jeremiah the whole passage is a nod to Genesis 1:

Jeremiah 4:23-28

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void [tohu v’vohu]; And to the heavens, and they had no light.

I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before YHWH, before His fierce anger.

For thus says YHWH, “The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not execute a complete destruction [sh’mamah]. For this the earth shall mourn and the heavens above be dark, because I have spoken, I have purposed, and I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it.”

Jeremiah saw the fall of Judah as reverting back to a time before God ordered the earth. It bookended the beginning of creation when everything was without order… it was formless and void, with no light, and no human. It was a wilderness with no cities, and God spoke it to be that way… just as He spoke the world into existence, He could speak it out of existence. But He refused to shut down creation. (I will not execute a complete destruction).

Isaiah, in a similar manner to Jeremiah, but more ornate in his poetry, also compared the the desolate and unordered earth, in Genesis 1, to God’s judgement on the nations:

Isaiah 34:8-11

For YHWH has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.

Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become burning pitch.

It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; none will pass through it forever and ever.

But pelican and hedgehog will possess it, and owl and raven will dwell in it; and He will stretch over it the [measuring] line of desolation [tohu] and the plumb line of emptiness [vohu].

Here construction tools (measuring lines and plumb lines) are used to un-construct the twisted order that the nations have built. God un-creates to re-create things as they were meant to be.

In the above passage vohu is translated as emptiness, although in the first two examples the NASB translation chooses void. Not everyone understands the concept of the word void, but emptiness, perhaps, presents a clearer picture. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was tohu & empty.

The Genesis narrative does indicate that the earth was completely empty; it had no souls in it yet. But once God put things into order… sun, moon, stars, night,day… he was ready to fill the void.

TOHU

But what about tohu? Job used tohu in a parallel description of creation:

Job 26:7-14

“He [YHWH] stretches out the north over empty space [tohu] and hangs the earth on nothing [b’li’mah].

He wraps up the waters in His clouds, and the cloud does not burst under them.

He obscures the face of the full moon and spreads His cloud over it.

He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters at the boundary of light and darkness.

hasan-almasi-786435-unsplash
Photo by Hasan Almasi (Unsplash.com)

Tohu has a confusing translation history. It appears 20 times in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and it is translated into quite a few different English words. Using the NASB translation one can find numerous different words used in place of tohu: waste, waste space, futile, meaningless, empty space, nothing, confusion and chaos.

But many of these words have other Hebrew words to define the same thing:

  • The Hebrew word sh’mamah (8077) means “waste” or “devastation”
  • The Hebrew word  hevel (1892) means, “meaningless” and “futile”
  • The Hebrew word riyk (7385) means “empty”
  • The Hebrew word vohu (922), as we have seen, also means “empty”
  • The Hebrew word ayin (369) means, “nothing”
  • The Hebrew word b’li’mah (1099) also means “nothing/nothingness” but it only occurs once in the Biblical text, in the above passage of Job 26
  • The Hebrew word m’humah (4103) means “confusion”

But chaos does not really have another Hebrew word associated with it. Some translations take some of the words above and render them as the word chaos, but if we were to eliminate all the words that have other equivalent Hebrew words, the only one left standing appears to be chaos.

Probably the most common rendering of tohu as chaos occurs in Isaiah 24:

Isaiah 24:10

The city of chaos [tohu] is broken down; every house is shut up so that none may enter.

Chaos and the Uninhabitable Space

But does chaos really give us the best definition of what the author of Genesis is really trying to portray? The idea seems to be that there is no order to this world, and the opposite of order is chaos. But we also get the sense that tohu is an uninhabitable space:

Isaiah 45:18-19

For thus says YHWH, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place [tohu], but formed it to be inhabited), “I am YHWH, and there is none else. I have not spoken in secret, in some dark land; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek Me in a waste place [tohu]’; I, YHWH, speak righteousness, declaring things that are upright.”

YHWH is saying, seek me on this earth… this well formed, ordered, earth. Again, Isaiah is reaching back to Genesis 1… God did not create the heavens and earth to be a waste space, He formed it to be inhabited. And if it was to be inhabited it needed to be habitable. The earth wasn’t formless in the beginning, it was just not a place anyone could live in.

But YHWH made life livable!

Isaiah 45:21b-22

“Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, YHWH?

And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Saviour; There is none except Me. Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”

God desired that ALL of creation, to the ends of the earth, would turn to Him and be saved. He created us to live, and to live fully in His presence!

Putting the world into order was YHWH’s first directive. Once God brought light, He separated light from darkness and started to put things into order. As things began to be ordered and take shape, the earth was prepared for life. Now that the planet was no longer tohu (chaotic and uninhabitable), it also did not have to remain vohu (empty). God filled it with life starting with vegetation, water creatures, birds, animals, and humans. This planet was now in order… it was functioning as God intended it to function.

Clinging to Chaos

But throughout scripture there are hints of tohu in the Tanakh… hints to remind us that chaos was always trying to make a comeback. There were, and are, forces that want to make life unlivable.

1 Samuel 12:19-22

Then all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to YHWH your God, so that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil by asking for ourselves a king.” Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following YHWH, but serve YHWH with all your heart. You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile the chaotic [ha-tohu] things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile chaos [tohu]. For YHWH will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because YHWH has been pleased to make you a people for Himself.

In Samuel’s day, the people did not trust YHWH to be their king, they wanted someone on earth to lead them, just like all the other nations had. But with guidance, they recognized their mistake. They saw it for the sin that it was. Samuel warned them: do not let this one sin make you give up and turn away from God, because if you do, you’ll end up going after chaotic things… and chaos profits no one and delivers nothing.

Regardless, many have chosen to trust in confusion and cling onto chaos. Like the Adversary (ha-Satan), all humans who have opposed God are, by default, letting chaos flourish.

Isaiah 59:2-4

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly. They trust in confusion [tohu] and speak lies; they conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity.

Sin (iniquity) is grounded in chaos and confusion. Those who worshiped other gods were worshiping chaos and confusion, and the humans who produced idols were themselves the epitome of chaos:

Isaiah 44:9-11

Those who fashion a graven image are, all of them, futile chaotic [tohu], and their precious things are of no profit; even their own witnesses fail to see or know, so that they will be put to shame. Who has fashioned a god or cast an idol to no profit? Behold, all his companions will be put to shame, for the craftsmen themselves are mere men. Let them all assemble themselves, let them stand up, let them tremble, let them together be put to shame.

Humans constructing gods out of the things God created was not only ridiculous, it was also completely offensive and short-sighted. 

Isaiah 41:19-20, 24-29

YHWH: “I will put the cedar in the wilderness, the acacia and the myrtle and the olive tree; I will place the juniper in the desert together with the box tree and the cypress, that they may see and recognize, and consider and gain insight as well, that the hand of YHWH has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it…   

…Behold, you are of no account [meh-ayin], and your work amounts to nothing [meh-afa]; he who chooses you is an abomination. I have aroused one from the north, and he has come; from the rising of the sun he will call on My name; and he will come upon rulers as upon mortar, even as the potter treads clay. Who has declared this from the beginning, that we might know? Or from former times, that we may say, ‘He is right!’? Surely there was no one who declared, surely there was no one who proclaimed, surely there was no one who heard your words.

Formerly I said to Zion, ‘Behold, here they are.’ and to Jerusalem, ‘I will give a messenger of good news.’ But when I look, there is no one, and there is no counsellor among them who, if I ask, can give an answer. Behold, all of them are false; their works are worthless, their molten images are wind and emptiness [wa-tohu].”

God would not give up on humans because He made them for Himself. His creation will, and must, always triumph over chaos. But what do you do when these humans chose chaos for themselves? In the garden, human-life Adam (human) & Chava/Eve (life), chose chaos over order. By eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they decided to not just be images of God, but be all-knowing gods themselves. The forever loving YHWH did not give up on them. He put a plan into motion to save them.

An Anointed One and the Adversary

YHWH promised to send a messenger of good news, an Anointed one who would save humanity… a perfect human who would conquer chaos and death.

But the Adversary (ha-Satan) wanted, first and foremost, to eliminate order and bring back chaos, which ultimately leeds to the finality of death. The Adversary is anti-creation and anti-life, and he does his very best to put the planet out of order. He wanders the earth looking to shake things up:

Job 2:2

YHWH said to the Satan [the Adversary], “Where have you come from?” Then the Satan [the Adversary] answered YHWH and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

YHWH found His people slipping into chaos and but He brought them back. His constant efforts were to put things back in order and make things right:

Deuteronomy 32:9-12

“For YHWH’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste [uv’tohu y’lel] of a wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him,  He guarded him as the pupil of His eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions. YHWH alone guided him, and there was no foreign god with him.

God set a plan in motion to defeat the Adversary and all those who clung onto chaos. The Anointed One ( the Messiah) would save, not only the Hebrew people, but all of the nations across the entire earth:

Isaiah 49:3-6

He [YHWH] said to Me [the Anointed One], “You are My Servant, Israel, in Whom I will show My glory.”

But I [the Anointed One] said, “I have toiled in vain [l’riq], I have spent My strength for nothing [l’tohu] and vanity [w’hevel]; Yet surely the justice due to Me is with YHWH, and My reward with My God.”

And now says YHWH, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him (for I am honoured in the sight of YHWH, and My God is My strength), He [YHWH] says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The Anointed One, who Paul also describes as the firstborn of all creation, had spent His strength trying to secure order over chaos but it did not seem to do anything (as he says, it was for tohu and vanity). His ministry on earth couldn’t completely dissolve chaos, only His sacrificial death could put things back in order.

Death and darkness was the ultimate chaos… but a perfect human rising back to life after death was the only thing that could kill chaos, and bring order back for all eternity. It was the ultimate example of order defeating chaos. Death/chaos did not, and could not, hold Yeshua (Jesus) down! By conquering death he conquered chaos.

Colossians 1:13-22

For He [YHWH] rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.

Jesus (Yeshua) died to give creation the opportunity to go back into order. It was the first step towards reconciliation and the first step that would lead towards the Day of YHWH:

Zechariah 12:8-10

In that day YHWH will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the one who is feeble among them in that day will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of YHWH before them. And in that day I will set about to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.

I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.”

There will be a recognition that the one whom they have pierced was the one to conquer chaos and to usher in the Day of the LORD (the Day of YHWH).

The Day of YHWH and the New Heavens & the New Earth

Isaiah connected the Day of YHWH to tohu. Doom and darkness would be defeated… the deaf would hear, the blind would see, and chaos that came out of the mouths of God’s enemies would no longer ensnare His people. The needy would rejoice and they would stand in awe of the God of Israel, because the work of God’s hands would redeemed.

Isaiah 29:18-23

On that day the deaf will hear words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. The afflicted also will increase their gladness in YHWH, and the needy of mankind will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.

For the ruthless will come to an end and the scorner will be finished, indeed all who are intent on doing evil will be cut off; Who cause a person to be indicted by a word, and ensnare him who adjudicates at the gate, and defraud the one in the right with meaningless chaotic [ba-tohu] arguments.

Therefore thus says YHWH, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: “Jacob shall not now be ashamed, nor shall his face now turn pale; but when he sees his children, the work of My hands, in his midst, they will sanctify My name; Indeed, they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel…”

Ultimately, the Day of YHWH would usher in the creation of an ordered new heaven and earth that could not be dragged back into chaos.

Isaiah 66:22-23

“For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me,” declares YHWH, “so your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says YHWH.

The uninhabitable chaotic confusion and emptiness that this planet was born into would never return, and all the adversaries of God combined could never drag it back there. The new earth would flourish and support all living things, just as it was meant to. It would stay in order from new moon to new moon, and sabbath to sabbath. Praise YHWH!

Next week: Satan-Adversary

3 thoughts on “Tohu v’vohu: FORMLESS & VOID… or uninhabitable chaos & emptiness?”

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