“The earth was without form (תהו, tohu) and void (בהו, bohu), and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2).
The word pairing of the synonyms tohu and bohu doesn’t make this passage any clearer; instead it just further confuses us. We’re left wondering: What does it mean that the earth was formless and void? Did it already exist and God just shaped it? Or did God create the matter and then shape it for a purpose? But with a few interpretive steps, nearly any questions we have about an Old Testament pairing can be answered.
Identify the Original Words and Search for the Phrase
After finding the original Hebrew phrase behind the English “without form and void,” using the ESV English-Hebrew Reverse Interlinear, we can search for the phrase in the rest of the Old Testament using Bible software.
In doing so, we learn that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah reworked this creation imagery to assert God’s authority and warn of Israel’s impeding judgment. The prophets drew from “end of the world as we know it” imagery to symbolize God’s judgment through the undoing of creation. Jeremiah warned of Judah’s coming destruction by describing a future land where God’s creative energy had been reversed in punishment to unmake all things: “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form (tohu) and void (bohu); and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jer 4:23).
Isaiah also used tohu and bohu to describe God’s judgment as an end to civilization and the return of the land to untamed wilderness: “But the hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion (tohu) over it, and the plumb line of emptiness (bohu)” (Isa 34:11).
Both tohu and bohu can refer to an empty, lifeless wasteland. The use of these words together is so rare that we can surmise that Jeremiah and Isaiah probably had Genesis 1 in mind. In their attempt to warn Israel that the people’s chosen path of disobedience was leading toward judgment, the prophets made powerful connections to the image of Israel’s greatest fear—a return to primordial chaos. A world without God seemed like no world at all.
Examine Passages with Similar Themes
The Old Testament was written over hundreds of years, which means that later writers were sometimes subtly responding to other biblical passages. They often played off familiar themes to make an unexpected point. One of their favorite themes to tie in and repurpose was God’s role as creator and sustainer of life.
We can find these connections by looking up key words, like tohu, in a lexicon. Using The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), we find other passages that expound upon precisely what happened during creation. In Isaiah 45:18, the prophet stresses that God’s primary objective was to provide purpose and order: “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 [tohu], he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other.’ ” Isaiah is responding directly to the idea that God created an empty wasteland first, arguing, “No, he didn’t create a formless world. That was just one minor step in the process. He intended an inhabited, life-giving world.” Isaiah focuses on God and His uniqueness, not the pre-existent state of creation. God brought form, function and order to His creation. His blessing is symbolized by order; His judgment by chaos.
State What It Tells Us about God
The final step in our study requires spending time in the Bible daily. We must ask: How is the ultimate author, God, depicted? Without a general understanding of the Bible, we cannot answer this question.
From the opening lines of Genesis 1, God is depicted as the one who gives life, order and purpose to all things. A thriving creation is under His blessing; the wastelands are outside of His care—awaiting His creative hand.
Reading one passage in isolation can give an unclear view of the big picture. Expanding our familiarity with the whole counsel of God in both Old and New Testaments provides a much more complete sense of how God works, and how He has gradually revealed more of Himself.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).