Tag Archives: tohu wabohu

Genesis 1:2 – Without Form and Void

We will deal with “formless and void” this week and cover the rest later.

  • There is much agreement about this phrase.
  • However, as was the case with “reshit” and “bara”, the implications and conclusions drawn are wildly different.
  • We will cover John Sailhamer and John Walton’s view in detail.


Observation Time:

Genesis 1:2 (ESV) — 2 The earth [eretz] was without form [“waste” on some translations] and void [“empty” on some translations], and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Interestingly, nothing was created in verse 2.

The “eretz”, darkness, and deep appear to already exist.

Where did they come from?


What is the earth? Eretz can mean “earth” or “land” (horizon to horizon).


What does “without form and void (tohu wabohu)”  mean?

It doesn’t say.


Does it imply that any creation from verse 1 was defective in some way?

Is it a statement about creation itself or the “ordering” of creation for a specific purpose?

Is it describing the moment of creation that is part of verse 3ff?

If part of verse 3, why would God create to then only half to “touch it up”.


Work of God in history – “hovering over the face of the waters”.

What was this “hovering” work of the Spirit? It doesn’t say.

How long did the Spirit’s work go on? It doesn’t say.

Is “hovering” a creation act or something else?





Before we deal with phrase directly…

  • We need to deal with some ANE background.
  • This is because it has been highly influential on how we see Tohu Wabohu.


ANE Creation Background:

The Hebrew’s neighbors had creation myths.

  • Some oft cited examples are the Babylonians and the Egyptians.


The Babylonian creation story is called the “Enuma Elish”.

  • It teaches that, “creation began as a cosmic struggle between order and chaos” – John Currid.
  • The “preexistent primordial waters” represented the chaos – Currid.
  • “Divine spirit and cosmic matter [were] coexistent and coeternal” – Alexander Heidel.
  • Likewise, the Egyptians also believed that, “life originated from preexistent primordial waters (Nun)” – John Currid.


In these examples, the waters were “the eternal matter of all reality” – John Currid.

  • In other words, there was no beginning.
  • Uncreated matter existed eternally.
  • There were “no operational system[s] in place” – that is to say, chaos reigned – John Walton.
  • The creative act was the bringing of order from the chaos – from the eternal matter.


BTW – this is also the Greek view of how the world began.

  • “A kind of watery mass which opposes creation” – Kenneth Mathews.


These concepts have greatly influenced the English “formless and void” translation.

  • It is interesting, that no one I read believes Tohu Wabohu means “formless and void” (at least in the material sense).


BTW – Remember as with Genesis 1, these ANE myths can be seen functionally (John Walton) or materially.


So the question is does “tohu wabohu” Genesis 1:3 convey a similar idea of primeval chaos?

  • Or is referring to something altogether different?


Tohu Wabohu Defined:

Gordon Wenham suggests the phrase means “chaos and disorder”.

  • But not in the way suggested by ANE and Greek concepts.
  • Especially since “bara” suggests creation out of nothing in opposition to eternal matter.


He says the chaos and disorder are to be understood as, “the untracked desert where a man can lose his way and die”.

  • In other words, the antithesis of the state of material creation before Genesis 1:3 and following.


Similarly, Kenneth Mathews says Tohu Wabohu is describing “a ‘wasteland’ and ‘empty’ land.”

  • In other words, “It refers to an unproductive, uninhabited land…”


Specifically for Genesis 1, he says it functions to characterize the eretz “as uninhabitable and inhospitable to human life.”

  • It did not contain the things necessary to sustain human life.
  • It was the land before God prepared it for his people to possess.


In fact, he even suggests the phrase contains a theological dimension (like we saw with bara).

  • The eretz in verse 2 is “a land lifeless without the blessing of God”.
  • Deuteronomy 33:13–16 (ESV) — 13 And of Joseph he said, “Blessed by the Lord be his land, with the choicest gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that crouches beneath, 14 with the choicest fruits of the sun and the rich yield of the months, 15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains and the abundance of the everlasting hills, 16a with the best gifts of the earth [eretz] and its fullness and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
  • Rabbit Trail Question – What does “eretz” mean in Deut. 33:13?


BTW – Hugh Ross tries to make the case that this phrase is best understood scientifically.

  • He says it describes the state of the earth about 4 billion years ago.
  • In other words, it describes the violent atmospheric conditions and that were said to exist on earth at its inception, including massive erupting volcanoes.


Importantly, note that all of the above views are referring to the condition of the material form of creation.

  • In other words, they are all variations of the traditional material creation view of Genesis 1.
  • That is to say, they are all descriptions of some form of physical creation.
  • And none of them see the phrase as expressing the ANE or Greek idea of eternal chaos.
    • Assuming, of course, you think the ANE stories are material and not functional.
  • The reason for this goes back to the meaning of “bara”.



Tohu Wabohu describes an eretz that was not yet ready to sustain life, and specifically, the life of image bearers.

  • Or to put it theologically, God had not yet prepared and blessed the eretz.
  • Not surprisingly, the implications of this meaning are different depending how one views “reshit” – creation or introduction.


Walton’s Take:

Walton would disagree with all of the above.

  • Whereas each of the above views are referring to the act of and the material state of creation, Walton holds fast to the implications of his functional creational view.
  • Remember, this is the view that Genesis 1 is referring to God assigning order, purpose and function to creation not about the physical “making” of creation.


BTW – Remember, Walton sees the ANE creation stories as not about material creation either.

  • They also are about assigning order purpose and function.
  • So for him, there is a more direct parallel between the ANE stories and Genesis 1.


His definition of Tohu Wabohu “describes that which is nonfunctional, having no purpose and generally unproductive in human terms” – John Walton.

  • He says it does not refer to the “absence of material form” – it has nothing to do with material.
  • In other words, Genesis 2 makes clear that creation – the material – was already in existence.
  • “The creation account in Genesis 1 can then be seen to begin with no functions rather than with no material” – John Walton.


So what was lacking was not creation – the stuff.

  • What were lacking were function, order and purpose – (like the ANE stories).
  • Creation was already present – even before Gen.1 (in the preface I suppose).


Yet, in a huge contrast with the ANE/Greek lack of function, Walton says this:

“In the Old Testament God has no needs [unlike ANE gods] and focuses functionality around people [unlike ANE stories]…functionality cannot exist without people in the picture. In Genesis people are not put in place until day six, but functionality is established with their needs and situation in mind” – John Walton.

  • These people are, of course, His image bearers.


BTW – He says his proposed meaning of “it was good” supports his view.

  • He says it means, that creation now is “functioning properly.”
  • It is not to be understood in moral/ethical/quality terms.
  • More on that in the coming weeks.


Sailhamer’s Take:

He defines the phrase as follows:

It “refers simply to a ‘wilderness’ that has not yet become inhabitable for human beings. It is the ‘wilderness,’ for example, where the Israelites wandered for forty years, waiting to enter the land” – John Sailhamer.

  • The same as the others prior to Walton.


He despises the English translation “formless and void”.

  • He worries that this translation conjures up images of the primordial chaos of the ANE/Greek stories.
  • On a material view, obviously.


He then shows that early non-Greek or other Jewish-Greek translations translated the phrase differently:

  • “Translations by Aquila and Symmachus were ‘empty and nothing’ and ‘fallow and indistinct’” – John Sailhamer.
  1. “An early Aramaic Targum of Genesis 1 known as Neophyti I paraphrased the expression in Genesis 1:2 by rendering it ‘desolate without human beings or beasts and void of all cultivation of plants and of trees’” – John Sailhamer.


BTW – We need to remember that Sailhamer and the others, in spite of their differences, all take a material view of creation and the ANE creation stories.

  • This means that they deal differently with the similarity between Genesis 1:2 and the ANE stories.
  • This explains why Walton is freer to embrace the similarities.


Sailhamer’s summary:

“According to the most natural reading of the Hebrew text, the land was simply an ‘uninhabitable’ or ‘inhospitable’ stretch of ‘wasteland.’ The land was not a ‘formless and empty chaos.’ When God made the world, the land was not yet a place where human beings could dwell (Genesis 1:2). It had not yet been prepared for their habitation. That, of course, is a quite different sense than the phrases ‘formless and empty’ (NIV) or ‘without form and void’ (RSV) might imply!” – John Sailhamer.


This means that for him…

  • Genesis 1:3 and following describe God “preparing the land for man’s habitation. Through the hand of God, the ‘wasteland’ is about to become the ‘promised land’” – Sailhamer.
  • Remember, Sailhamer believes that the six days are not about creating – that happened in verse 1.
  • The six days are about preparing.
    • In this way, he and Walton have some subtle similarities in their view of the six days.
    • Both say creation occurred before Genesis 1:3.


A Key Passage:

Sailhamer’s view on Tohu Wabohu is obviously very similar with Wenham, and especially Matthews.

  • Walton’s view, as we saw, is decidedly different – functional and not material.
  • Sailhamer, however, suggests that Jeremiah 4 makes his case – both against “formless and void” meaning formless and void and, it seems, against Walton’s view.


The context of Jeremiah 4 is Israel’s pending judgment and exile.


Jeremiah begins…

  • Jeremiah 4:3–4 (ESV) — 3 For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. 4 Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”


If they don’t…

  • Jeremiah 4:7 (ESV) — 7 A lion has gone up from his thicket, a destroyer of nations has set out; he has gone out from his place to make your land a waste; your cities will be ruins without inhabitant.


Jeremiah mourns over this coming judgment…

  • Jeremiah 4:20 (ESV) — 20 Crash follows hard on crash; the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are laid waste, my curtains in a moment.


And Importantly for our discussion…

  • Jeremiah 4:23–26 (ESV) — 23 I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. 24 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. 25 I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. 26 I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.


Question – is function gone or has a livable place become physically uninhabitable?

  • And, specifically, who is the victim of the Tohu Wabohu?
  • The people of the world, or the people of the Promised Land?


The descriptions of “tohu wabohu” appear to be physical reversals not functional reversals.

  • the heavens, and they had no light
  • the mountains, and behold, they were quaking
  • the hills moved to and fro
  • there was no man
  • the birds of the air had fled
  • the fruitful land was a desert
  • cities were laid in ruins


In essence, God is saying that his judgment will be to undo “creation” – Kenneth Mathews.

  • This undoing is to make the Promised Land uninhabitable.
  • It is to expel the Israelites to the east – to the wilderness.
  • Kenneth Mathews says in order to make it, “a land lifeless without the blessing of God”


Moses’ Message:

Whatever view is correct, we once again need to maintain our focus on Moses’ Message.

  • I think Isaiah captures it as well as anybody.
  • Isaiah 45:18 (ESV) — 18 For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other.


God created for a purpose.

  • He formed, made, and established “to be inhabited”.
  • And specifically, as we will see, to be inhabited by His called out image bearers in His set apart “eretz”.



We asked earlier, what Tohu Wabohu means.

  • We now have a number of options to choose from.
  • We will answer the rest of the questions next week – especially the subject of the Tohu Wabohu.
  • We are told that the “eretz” was Tohu Wabohu.
  • But which “eretz” – the planet earth or the land?