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, since it is a Hebrew wordplay, like ve-ha-oniyyah hishevah le-hishaver in Jonah 1:4.
The Septuagint renders it as ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατα-σκεύαστος, "shapeless and formless".
The interpretation of the first verse of Genesis is the subject of a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael (Gen. R. 1:14), in which Rabbi Akiva is refuting gnostic and other heretical views that matter existed primordially and that God alone did not create the world. Abraham bar Hiya was the first to interpret the tohu and bohu of Gen. 1:2 as meaning matter and form, and the same idea appears in Bahir 2.9–10.
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.
The account of the World's creation in Gen. 1:1–2:3 is duplicated in Gen. 2:4–24. The two accounts are irreconcilable, in the one (Gen. 1:26–28), man and woman are created simultaneously as the climax of creation after the birds and animals; in the other (Gen. 2:7, 18, 19, 22), the order is man, animals, birds, then woman.
According to the Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis, doublets such as the one described, along with many other stylistic, lexical and theological peculiarities, constitute evidence that the Torah (in particular) is a composite work consisting of different documents, composed at different times and edited into a composite whole. Passages like Gen. 2:4 that use the word YHWH for God, have been dubbed the "Jahwist" (J) source, while Gen. 1:1 and other places consistently employ EL, ELAH or the plural ELOHIM ("Gods") instead, therefore having been named the "Elohist" (E) source. The J source appears to have originated in the Kingdom of Judah, while E reflects the tradition of the Kingdom of Israel. A redactor (R) merged the two accounts into one (JE). Still another source, of priestly origin (P), which had the same tradition about YHWH as did E, was interwoven with JE, so that the present Genesis is a composite of JEP with admixtures of R. In particular, Gen. 1:1–2:4a is the P account according to the documentary hypothesis. This classic critical position is opposed to the traditional belief that the Torah is a unitary document, divinely revealed, and entirely written by Moses.
In French (tohu-bohu), German (Tohuwabohu), Estonian and Hungarian (tohuvabohu), the expression means "confusion" or "commotion".
- Everett Fox et al. (2007), "BIBLE", Encyclopaedia Judaica 3 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 572–640
- Louis Isaac Rabinowitz; Seymour Feldman; Yehoyada Amir (2007), "CREATION AND COSMOGONY IN THE BIBLE", Encyclopaedia Judaica 5 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 273–280
- K. Schubert (2003), "CABALA", New Catholic Encyclopedia 2 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 831–836
- Westminster Leningrad Codex online
- Nahum M. Sarna; S. David Sperling (2007), "GENESIS, BOOK OF", Encyclopaedia Judaica 7 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 440–447
- Louis Isaac Rabinowitz (2007), "PENTATEUCH", Encyclopaedia Judaica 15 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 730–753
- Manfred Moshe Geis; Joachim Schlör (2007), "GRONEMANN, SAMUEL", Encyclopaedia Judaica 8 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 93