Tohu wa-bohu

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Folio from William de Brailes Ms. W.106 (c. AD 1250). On the first day of Creation, God created heaven and earth, and the earth was tohu wa-bohu (without form and void). The Holy Spirit moved across the face of the primaeval waters (abzu), and we see God himself gesturing to the Spirit with his right hand. God raises his left hand to the waters above him, which he separated from the firmament, beneath his feet, on the second day.

Tohu wa bohu, or Tohu va vohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ), is a Biblical Hebrew phrase found in the Book of Genesis 1:2 that describes the condition of the earth before God said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). The words tohu and bohu also occur at Isaiah 34:11, which the King James Version translates with the words "confusion" and "emptiness". Precise translation of the phrase is difficult, since it is a Hebrew wordplay, like ve-ha-oniyyah hishevah le-hishaver in Jonah 1:4.[1] Numerous interpretations of this phrase are made by various theological sources, though it is usually translated as "waste and void," "formless and empty," or "chaos and desolation."


וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם

Genesis 1:2, (Westminster Leningrad Codex)[2]

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.

Genesis 1:2, English translation (New International Version)[3]

The Septuagint renders it as ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος, "unseen and unformed".


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.[4] In Gen. R. 2:2, R. Abbahu and R. Judah b. R. Simon give analogies in which tohu wa-bohu means "bewildered and astonished" (mentally formless and void), referring to the Earth's confusion after, having been created simultaneously with the Heavens in Genesis 1:1, it now immediately plays an inferior role.[5]

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.[6] Kabbalah also names Yesod hapashut ("simple element") as source of four elements, in that everything is united as one, without differentiation.[7]

In modern language[edit]

In French (tohu-bohu), German (Tohuwabohu), Estonian, Hungarian (tohuvabohu), Armenian (toh u boh, թոհ ու բոհ) and Esperanto (tohuvabohuo), the expression means "confusion" or "commotion".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Everett Fox; et al. (2007), "BIBLE", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 3 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 572–640 
  2. ^ "Genesis 1:2 בראשית", Tanach: Unicode/XML Westminster Leningrad Codex, transcribed by Christopher V. Kimball.
  3. ^ " A searchable online Bible in over 150 versions and 50 languages". 
  4. ^ Louis Isaac Rabinowitz; Seymour Feldman; Yehoyada Amir (2007), "CREATION AND COSMOGONY IN THE BIBLE", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 5 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 273–280 
  5. ^ Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, Volume One, translated by Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman; London: Soncino Press, 1983; ISBN 0-900689-38-2; p. 15.
  6. ^ K. Schubert (2003), "CABALA", New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 831–836 
  7. ^ Chaim Kramer, Anatomy of the soul, Breslov Research Institute, Jerusalem/New York City 1998 ISBN 0-930213-51-3

External links[edit]