Tohu wa-bohu

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Miniature of the first two Days of Creation (separation of light and darkness; separation of the primordial waters by the firmament), William de Brailes Ms. W.106 (c. 1250)

Tohu wa-bohu (Biblical Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ ṯōhū wā-ḇōhū) is a Biblical Hebrew phrase found in the Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1:2) that describes the condition of the earth ('aretz) immediately before the creation of light in Genesis 1:3.

Numerous interpretations of this phrase are made by various theological sources. The King James Version translation of the phrase is "without form, and void", corresponding to Septuagint ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος, "unseen and unformed".


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.

— Genesis 1:2, New International Version[2]

The words tohu and bohu also occur in parallel in Isaiah 34:11, which the King James Version translates with the words "confusion" and "emptiness".

The two Hebrew words are properly segolates, spelled tohuw and bohuw.[3] Hebrew tohuw translates to "wasteness, that which is laid waste, desert; emptiness, vanity; nothing".[4] Tohuw is frequently used in the Book of Isaiah in the sense of "vanity", but bohuw occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible (outside of Genesis 1:2, the passage in Isaiah 34:11 mentioned above,[5] and in Jeremiah 4:23, which is a reference to Genesis 1:2), its use alongside tohu being mere paronomasia, and is given the equivalent translation of "emptiness, voidness".[3]

Rabbinical interpretation[edit]

In the early rabbinical period, the verse was a point of contention regarding the question of creatio ex nihilo. In Genesis Rabbah 1:14, Rabbi Akiva refutes gnostic and other heretical views that matter existed primordially and that God alone did not create the world.[6] In Genesis Rabbah 2:2, rabbis Abbahu and Judah b. 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.[7]

Abraham bar Hiyya (12th century) 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.[8]

Possibly related to the concept of "formless and void" is the Yesod hapashut (יְסוֹד הפשוט"simple element") in the Kabbalah, in which "everything is united as one, without differentiation".[9] ArtScroll's Stone Edition Chumash translates the phrase as "astonishingly empty".[10] ArtScroll translates in accordance to Rashi, the most famous medieval Jewish biblical commentator on the Tanakh.

Use in modern culture[edit]

The phrase is featured on the front of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, referring to the use of the phrase in Jeremiah 4:23.[11][12] Jeremiah 4:23-27 is shown on the back of the album cover.[13]

Tohuvabohu is the name of KMFDM's 15th studio album, as well as the title track on the album.

Tohu and Bohu are monsters in the superhero web serial novel Worm.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Genesis 1:2 בראשית", Tanach: Unicode/XML Westminster Leningrad Codex, transcribed by Christopher V. Kimball.
  2. ^ " A searchable online Bible in over 150 versions and 50 languages".
  3. ^ a b Wilhelm Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon (1906).
  4. ^ Strong's Concordance H8414
  5. ^ Strong's Concordance H922
  6. ^ Louis Isaac Rabinowitz; Seymour Feldman; Yehoyada Amir (2007), "CREATION AND COSMOGONY IN THE BIBLE", Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 5 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 273–280
  7. ^ Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, Volume One, translated by Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman; London: Soncino Press, 1983; ISBN 0-900689-38-2; p. 15.
  8. ^ K. Schubert (2003), "CABALA", New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 831–836
  9. ^ Chaim Kramer, Anatomy of the soul, Breslov Research Institute, Jerusalem/New York City 1998 ISBN 0-930213-51-3
  10. ^ Scherman, Nosson (Nov 1, 1993). Stone Edition Chumash. New York: ArtScroll. p. ad loc. ISBN 9780899060149.
  11. ^ Pearl, Jacob (17 January 2013). "Some Serious Music: Spektor, Cohen, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor". Jewish Currents. Retrieved 18 July 2020. The band's tendency to draw from ambiance rhythm and then fall back into ambiance is summed up by a snippet of Hebrew text, "tohu wa-bohu," which Godspeed used as the front of their 1999 album, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. The phrase, which means "formless and empty," is used in Genesis to describe the world before creation, and in Jeremiah to describe the land after a war that has desolated it.
  12. ^ Sirota, Brent (1 January 2001). "Top 10 Albums of 1999". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 18 July 2020. The Hebrew on the cover of Godspeed You Black Emperor's latest EP is pronounced "tohu va-bohu." It means "void and waste," and it's a phrase you can find all over the Old Testament. It's what the earth was before the creation and it's what the earth will look like after the coming Day of the Lord.
  13. ^ "//////////". //////////. Retrieved 2020-07-17.

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