Cosmology, the Study of Origins

by WordExplain

"The earth was formless and void" Genesis 1:2

How Did Our World Get Here?

An Exegesis of Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

By James T. Bartsch


Day One of Creation: Preliminary Condition

Unorganized and Empty

Genesis 1:2. The Preliminary Condition of the Earth When First God Created It.

The Earth was Unorganized and Empty.

On Day One of creation just after God had created the framework of the cosmos and had created the earth in that framework, what was the condition of the earth? Moses described it this way: “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters" (Gen. 1:2).

The initial clause of Gen. 1:2  begins in Hebrew with a waw disjunctive, not a waw consecutive (Constable). The disjunctive waw is circumstantial, that is, it introduces or identifies circumstantial information that relates to the main action of God's having created the earth in Gen. 1:1. It should be translated, “Now the earth was…” In other words Gen. 1:2 describes in a more detailed way the initial condition of the earth when God had first created it in Gen. 1:1. Unfortunately, a number of commentators have suggested that an indefinite time gap exists between Gen. 1:1 and 1:2. This is called the Gap Theory (see Constable). This theory was held by some early church fathers and some early Jewish writers. Thomas Chalmers promoted the Gap Theory in 1814 before Darwin wrote his Origin of Species in 1859 (Constable). The first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible espoused this theory. It did not use the term "Gap Theory," but based on Jer. 4:23-27; Isa. 24:1; 45:18 in reference to the phrase "without form and void", it concluded that these Scriptures "clearly indicate that the earth had undergone a cataclysmic change as the result of divine judgment. The face of the earth bears everywhere the marks of such a catastrophe. There are not wanting imitations (sic -- the word is "intimations") which connect it with a previous testing and fall of angels." Many who support evolution have welcomed the Gap Theory, but Hebrew grammar does not permit it.

“the earth was formless and void”tohu wa bohu is the Hebrew phrase translated “formless and void” used to describe the earth God had just created. (See Representative Translations of Tohu and Bohu; see the author’s Word Study of Tohu wa Bohu in .html format; see the author’s Word Study of Tohu wa Bohu in .pdf format.) Unfortunately, some conservative commentators have characterized the condition of the earth as described in Gen. 1:2 as if it were chaotic and even evil. I call this the Chaos Theory of Origins. For example, Allen P. Ross (Genesis, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 28) stated the following concerning the entire creation account:

Third, the account reveals that God is a redeeming God. It records how He brought the cosmos out of chaos, turned darkness into light, made divisions between them, transformed cursing into blessing, and moved from what was evil and darkness to what was holy. This parallels the work of God in Exodus, which records His redeeming Israel by destroying the Egyptian forces of chaos. The prophets and the apostles saw here a paradigm of God’s redemptive activities. Ultimately He who caused light to shine out of darkness made His light shine in the hearts of believers (2 Cor. 4:6) so that they become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) (emphases mine).

Two paragraphs later, Ross states his interpretation of Genesis 1:2:

The clauses in Gen. 1:2 are apparently circumstantial to Gen. 1:3, telling the world’s condition when God began to renovate it. It was a chaos of wasteness, emptiness, and darkness. Such conditions would not result from God’s creative work (bara); rather, in the Bible they are symptomatic of sin and are coordinate with judgment. Moreover, God’s Creation by decree begins in Gen. 1:3, and the elements found in Gen. 1:2 are corrected in Creation, beginning with light to dispel the darkness (emphasis mine).

Moreover, Thomas Constable, in his discussion of the “No-Gap Theory” (Notes on Genesis), offers three versions of this theory. But in every one of them he uses the term “chaos,” which implies something defective. To his credit, however, Constable specifically and correctly rejects the notion that  "chaos" (tohu wa bohu) describes an evil condition in Gen. 1:2 (Notes on Genesis, "Arguments and Responses"). And he at least admits the possibility  that "Verse 1 may be part of the first day of creation." He does not subscribe to that view, apparently, for earlier he had stated the following:

Verse 2 seems to me to describe conditions that existed before God created the earth. Whereas verse 1 summarizes the entire creation of the universe, verse 2 pictures its pre-creation condition. Verses 3-31 explain the process of creation by which God formed what was formless and filled what was void.

I believe the crux of Constable's dilemma is that he errs in believing that "verse 1 summarizes the entire creation of the universe." It does not. Verse 1 is not a merism. It is a statement of the Absolute Beginning of the universe, and God created the heavens (universe framework) and earth as His first act on Day One (Gen. 1:1).

It appears to me that Ross, and to a much lesser extent Constable, who apparently relies to some degree on Ross, have imported ideas from elsewhere in Scripture into a context in which they do not exist, namely, this Creation account. There is no need to use the words “redeeming,” “chaos,” “cursing,” “sin,” “evil,” or “judgment” with reference to Genesis 1:1-2:3. They are simply out of context here. Why does Allen employ these terms? The answer can be found several paragraphs later:

It is more likely that verse 1 refers to a relative beginning rather than the absolute beginning (Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament. 2 vols. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981, 1:5). The chapter would then be accounting for the Creation of the universe as man knows it, not the beginning of everything, and Gen. 1:1-2 would provide the introduction to it. The fall of Satan and entrance of sin into God’s original Creation would precede this (emphasis mine).

So Ross apparently believes that God created planet earth at some undated, unspecified, and unrevealed time in eternity past. Satan then fell and brought sin into God’s original universe. Genesis 1:2 describes the chaotic, ruined state of the world as it existed because of Satan’s sin. Genesis 1:3-31 describes God’s reclamation of a world ruined by Satan. What this amounts to is a variation on the Gap Theory theme (which see for a brief description and refutation). (At least Ross holds to the days of creation as being literal 24-hour days of Divine activity [p. 28]. But sadly, I suspect his whole exegetical approach is driven by his assumption that Hebrew scholars must bow before the uniformitarian geological bias of an ancient earth, not a recent earth.)

Ross’s theory appears to be driving his exegesis rather than his exegesis driving his theory. There is no need to describe the earth in Genesis 1:2 as being in any way defective. Words like “chaos” and “evil” and “symptomatic of sin” and “coordinate with judgment” are foreign concepts he has imported into Genesis 1:2 from elsewhere in Scripture. The Earth of Genesis 1:1 was not flawed; rather it was merely preliminary and incomplete, and it was the way God intended to create it at that stage during Day One. The Chaos Theory of Origins simply does not fit the evidence of the Hebrew text.

So what is the best translation of tohu wa bohu? Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon lists the following meanings of the noun, tohu: “formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness”. Then it adds, (“primary meaning difficult to seize” …). This is certainly true, as is evidenced by the chart, Representative Translations of the Hebrew Word Tohu. Most Bible versions employ a variation of the word “form,” translating tohu either “formless” or “without form.” The translations “formless” and “without form” tend to leave the impression that the earth in Genesis 1:2 was shapeless. I do not believe that is what Moses meant. Instead, I have chosen the word “unformed” and I have added four qualifying statements as to what “unformed” does not mean and what it does mean.

1.      Unformed does not mean that the earth on Day One had no shape (contra NIRV, “The earth didn’t have any shape”). Think it through. Why are the vast majority of entities in our universe, whether they are stars or planets or moons, spherical? It is because they all have gravity. If something were both aqueous (Gen. 1:2, 9) and shapeless, it must also mean that it was not spherical. If it were not spherical, it must mean that it had insufficient gravity to keep it together. So to say that the earth was shapeless is also to say that it had no gravity or insufficient gravity. What then would have prevented the earth from beginning to disperse throughout the universe? Prov. 8, which personifies wisdom (see author’s Analysis of Proverbs, p. 1), provides additional Biblical evidence that the earth on Day One had shape, even spherical shape. Proverbs 8:22-31 describes the antiquity of wisdom, for it pre-dated even God’s creation of the world! In fact, we learn that wisdom was there “when there were no depths (tehom) (Prov. 8:24), that is, before Creation! Wisdom was already there when God “inscribed a circle on the face of the deep (tehom)” (Prov. 8:27), and “when the springs of the deep (tehom) became fixed” (Prov. 8:28b).(See the author’s Uses of the Hebrew word Tehom, “The Deep”.) In the context of Proverbs 8:22-31, this happened at creation. Day One is the most likely candidate for the day in which God formed the earth into a sphere (“…and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” [Gen. 1:2]). The Third Day is the most likely candidate for the day in which “the springs of the deep became fixed,” (Prov. 8:28b) for it was on the Third Day that God “gathered into one place” “the waters below the heavens” (Gen. 1:9-10). Proverbs 8:28a, “When He made firm the skies above,” evidently describes God’s activity on the Second Day of creation. It was on the Second Day that God “made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse,” calling it “heaven.” (Gen. 1:6-8). The point of this digression into Prov. 8 is that the word tohu (unformed) does not mean that the earth on Day One had no shape. To the contrary, it was spherical.

2.      Unformed does not mean that the earth on Day One was chaotic (contra Allen P. Ross, Genesis, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, OT Vol., p. 28; contra Thomas Constable, Notes on Genesis; contra Bruce K. Waltke, Creation and Chaos; contra Waltke, An Old Testament Theology; contra Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 15). God does not create chaos because He is not chaotic. The world God created on Day One was preliminary, not chaotic. It was “a waste” (see the NASB marginal reading for formless in Genesis 1:2) in the sense that it was not yet a suitable environment for man or animals to live in, but it was not a chaos.

3.      Unformed does not mean that the earth as God originally created it had been disrupted by some sin, whether by man or by fallen angel (Satan) (contra Allen P. Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 28. Ross apparently believes that the fall of Satan ruined the earth, causing sin to enter the earth, making it a chaos which had to be transformed and redeemed by God in the six days of creation). The Scriptures are clear that sin entered the earth after the creation week, not before it (Gen. 3); and that it was by one man that sin entered the earth, not by one fallen angel (Rom. 5:12).

4.      Unformed does mean that the earth was not yet in its final form. The best Biblical commentary on tohu in Genesis 1:2 is to be found in Isaiah 45:18, which tells us that God did not create the earth to be tohu, but rather He created it to be inhabited. So when Moses wrote in Genesis 1:2 that the earth was tohu, he merely meant that it was not yet a suitable environment in which humans and animals might live. It was unsuitable because it was dark and aqueous (Gen. 1:2, 3-4), because there was no atmosphere (Gen. 1:6-7), because there was no dry land (Gen. 1:9-10), because there was no vegetation (Gen. 1:11-12), and because there were no celestial bodies up in the heavens (Gen. 1:14-18). In fact, there is a sense in which it can be said that the words “unsuitable” or “pre-functional” are appropriate translations of tohu in Genesis 1:2. By way of illustration, it could be said that today’s moon is tohu, although not nearly to the degree that the earth was in Genesis 1:2. Today’s moon is tohu in the sense that it is not formed to be suitable for human or animal habitation or for the growth of vegetation. This is true because it has no breathable atmosphere and because of extreme variations in temperature.

What about the word bohu? The term bohu occurs only three times in Scripture, Gen. 1:2; Isa. 34:11; Jer. 4:23. Each time it does so, it is in tandem with tohu. The Jeremiah passage hearkens back to the language of creation in Genesis 1:2. BDB lists a one-word definition for bohu – “emptiness,” and gives no etymology. C. F. Keil (Keil and Delitzsch), in his commentary on Genesis 1:2, states that the etymology for both tohu and bohu has been lost. Four representative translations translate bohu as “void” six times, and as some variation of “empty” or “emptiness” five times.

In the English language today, “empty” is a synonym for “void.” Since “void” with the meaning of “emptiness” is not a commonly used word, I will use the noun “emptiness” to translate the noun bohu.

Conclusion in regard to the dual use of tohu and bohu

We have already noted that tohu and bohu always appear in the same connection. Two of those instances, Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23, are to be paired off. In Genesis 1:2 Moses declared that the earth was “formless and void” (tohu and bohu); Jeremiah stated that, as he looked at the earth, it had primeval conditions – the earth was “formless and void,” and the heavens “had no light” (Jer. 4:23).

Some have viewed tohu and bohu, connected by “and,” as a hendiadys, “the expression of an idea by the use of usually two independent words connected by and (as nice and warm) instead of the usual combination of independent word and its modifier (as nicely warm).” Constable, in his discussion of Genesis 1:2 (Notes on Genesis) states, “Here we learn that the earth was ‘formless and empty’ (a hendiadys meaning unorganized, unproductive, and uninhabited) before God graciously prepared it for human habitation (cf. Jer. 4:23-27).”

Whether or not tohu and bohu form a hendiadys, Constable has accurately captured their combined meaning as it relates especially to Genesis 1:2. The earth at this stage of Day One of the Creation week was unorganized and unproductive (tohu) and it was uninhabited (bohu).

So together, tohu and bohu are saying that the earth, at the time God first placed it in the heavens He had just made consisted, literally, of “unformedness and emptiness.” Or we could say it was “unformed and unfilled.” Or we could say it was “unorganized and empty.”

An artist paints a landscape on a canvas. First he paints a swirly background on the upper half of the canvas using blues and grays. Then he takes his brush and spreads splotchy greens and browns on the lower half of the canvas. To the untrained eye it may appear to be nonsensical, even chaotic. But the artist knows exactly what he is doing. There is nothing chaotic whatever in his actions. He is merely painting the sky background and the land foreground on the canvas. At a later time appropriate to his choice, he will begin to fashion trees and grass, animals, and perhaps birds and humans in his landscape. It would be completely erroneous to describe the early stage of his painting as being chaotic, evil, or symptomatic of sin. Rather his blue-gray upper canvas and his green-brown lower canvas provide the perfect foundation for the details to be added later. But at this stage, it would be appropriate to describe his picture as being “unformed and unfilled.”

So it was with the earth God had created and placed in the heavens on the first part of Day One. The earth was unformed and unfilled. There was nothing chaotic, nothing evil, nothing connected with sin, and nothing connected with judgment. God’s just-created Earth was merely unformed and unfilled at this stage. He would soon begin His artful task of forming the earth, and then of filling it!

(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB 1995.)

Day One 1.1. Creation of Heavens & Earth
Day One 1.3. Preliminary Darkness

Search WordExplain Site Here

Updated February 9, 2022