Tohu wa bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) is a Biblical Hebrew term found in the Book of Genesis 1:2. Numerous interpretations of this phrase were made by various theological sources, though it is usually translated as "waste and void," "formless and empty," or "chaos and desolation." It describes the condition of the earth before God said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). Precise translation of the phrase is difficult, as only the first word, "tohu," appears to have any independent meaning.
There is evidence that the sentence “And the earth was without form and void” (tohu v’bohu) indicates destruction, not simply primitive creation. This phrase is rendered more strongly elsewhere (i.e., in other ancient versions). For example, the Chaldee Version has “But the earth had become desert and empty,” the Septuagint has “But the earth had become unfurnished and empty,” and the Aramaic has “And the earth had become ruined and uninhabited.”
"Tohu" is used 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and is used to mean "vain" or "waste." "Bohu" appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 1:2; Isa. 34:11; Jer. 4:23) -- always together with "tohu" and always quoting Genesis 1:2. Rabbi Judah taught Akiva's theories of Tohu and Bohu, describing Tohu as a green line encompassing the world from which darkness emanates, and Bohu as the slimy mass of stones sunk in the primordial abyss from which all water springs forth. Tohu and Bohu were also regarded as two of the 10 fundamental elements which God used to outline the basic structure of the known universe.
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
In modern French, "tohu-bohu" is used as an idiom for "confusion" or "commotion". Also in colloquial German, "Tohuwabohu" means "great confusion"; "tohuvabohu" has the same meaning in Estonian and Hungarian.
In the highly regarded “Pulpit Commentary,” on Genesis, chapter one, it is noted that, “In the beginning: “Bershith (created),” is neither from eternity,” nor at a time specific. The Hebrew text simply states that it was at the commencement of time, without indicating when the beginning was.” The reference to the “first day, points to verse 3 as its proper terminus a quo “A point of origin, or a first limiting point in time.”, In which the beginning may have been antedated by an indefinite period.”
In other words; the original creation of the Universe is not specifically stated by the Hebrew language, only that it took place “in the beginning, Bershith.” The reference to the beginning of God’s six days of work on the earth is not a part of this original creation, but uniquely linked to Genesis Chapter 1, verses 3-31, only.
- Blue Letter Bible - Lexicon
- Blue Letter Bible - Lexicon
- Chagigah 12a
- Westminster Leningrad Codex online
- From the Pulpit Commentary, Verse 1. – In the beginning, Bereshith, is neither “from eternity,” as in John 1:1; nor “in wisdom” (Chaldee paraphrase), as if parallel with Proverbs 3:19 and Psalm 104:24; nor “by Christ,” who, in Colossians 1:18, is denominated ἀρχὴ; but “at the commencement of time.” Without indicating when the beginning was, the expression intimates that the beginning was. Exodus 20:11 seems to imply that this was the initiation of the first day’s work. The formula, “And God said,” with which each day opens, rather points to ver. 3 as its proper terminus a quo, which the beginning absolute may have antedated by an indefinite period.
- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary; the definition of the Latin term “terminus a quo,” circa, 1555