From Chaos to Order: the Hebrew Meaning of ‘Tohu Va-Vohu’

During the last two days we discussed in detail the first verse of the Hebrew Bible:

‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Today we will continue to the second verse – which in fact, completes the first one, as we are about to see. Here is the second verse of the Bible:

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)

In the original Hebrew the phrase ‘without form and void’ appears as ‘Tohu Va-Vohu’ {תהו ובהו}and is a difficult one to translate because it is a Hebrew play on words. The first and primary thing that stands out is the ability of the Hebrew language to describe the ‘absence of things’ in one or two words WITHOUT using the negation form.

In other words, while the English translation speaks about a certain condition that was characterized by the ABSENCE of form or ‘FORMLESS,’  the original Hebrew describes the condition of the earth as ‘Tohu Va-Vohu’ which literally means an ’empty desert’ and is another word for a desert without water.

The big difference between the two descriptions – the English translation versus the original Hebrew – is that the English description makes one imagine a total mess and chaos. In contrast, the Hebrew description does not illustrate a mess but rather describes an empty, waterless land…a land without mountains, trees, rivers and so on – a land  that ‘awaits’ to be developed.

If we examine the SECOND part of this verse ‘and darkness was over the face of the deep’, we find the original Hebrew word for ‘the deep’ is ‘Tehom’ {תהום} which in Biblical Hebrew actually means ‘water’ or more accurately the ‘ancient sea’ as can be found in a description from Psalms:

“You covered it with the DEEP as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.” (Psalm 104:6)

There, it is easier to understand what is the connection between ‘Tehom’ – the ancient sea – and ‘deep.’ The ancient sea was so deep it covered the entire face of the earth. Interestingly, in Modern Hebrew, the word ‘Tehom’ means ‘abyss’ and is closer to the English translation of ‘the deep.’ 

Now, if we put all of the pieces together, we can envision a possible image of the primary condition of the earth. More specifically, the earth,(meaning the land) which is the SAME word in Hebrew ‘Aretz’ {ארץ} was an empty, flat desert that was covered by an ancient deep sea. At this point it is easier to understand the rest of the verse ‘and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.’