In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Genesis 1:1-2 (NRSV)
This is an essential passage of Scripture for me because of the nature of God that is revealed here. In contrast to what we are able to do, God is able to bring about creation out of nothing, in fact, out of a void. The Hebrew word for that void stirs my imagination.
Hebrew: tohu wabohu (TOE-hoo vah-VOE-hoo or wah- BOE-hoo)
Tohu - root word (unused) meaning to lie waste
- “formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness”, “place of chaos”, “vanity”
- Reference: Job 26:7
Bohu - “from unused root meaning to be empty”
- emptiness, void, waste
Though other citations point to the use of the words empty or void, the passages do not convey the same absolute emptiness that seems to be implied by the writer of Gen. 1. Tohu wabohu, used specifically here from typically unused roots, create a feeling of a deeper emptiness than simple non-existence (if such a thing were simple). This void speaks to something deeper than what might have been before humans were and points to the reality of God and the reality of the felt absence of God. The “deep” is not even really the ocean, in the sense that we think of the great blue deep, but is a deep darkness- something that stirs in our subconscious and tweaks at our ultimate concerns. In that tohu wabohu are all our fears: “What will happen to me? Why am I here? What is beyond me?”
The possible translation of tohu as “vanity” can be related to Ecclesiastes 1:1- where all is vanity. The comparison between what God’s hand can bring about and what human hands can leaves nothing but vapor or vanity. The comprehension of that void is the most punishing part of the law (which is not always punishing) in that we are forced to realize the world came about neither through our bidding nor our doing. Rather the Spirit of God moved over an absence and brought everything into being. This creation story answers the others of its time by making God the prime mover and shaker- there is no sun (and thus no Sun god) or sea (and thus no water gods). There is nothing but tohu wabohu until God brings it into existence- in creation, in faith, in living.
In each step of the creation, God notices what has been made is good. We might consider the work of our hands good, but such blatant approval of our own works can lead to vanity, self-centeredness and, ultimately, emptiness. Tohu wabohu demonstrates that the void- without God- is vanity and because God creates out of a void, is not tohu wabohu, God is not empty or vain.
In God’s act of creation, we are able to see God as the opposite of tohu wabohu and the bringer about of creation. What we [vainly] put our hands to always seem to turn to chaos until we recognize the One who is truly in control. Only the God who can bring wholeness through suffering, creation from a void, hope from hopelessness, can bring peace.