Tohu va Bohu

The Earth as soon from Apollo 17
According to Genesis 1, God brought this out of a formless void

The Genesis account of creation claims that God created the world out of “tohu va bohu.”  Translations on this will vary, but it means something like “formless and void” or “waste and empty” or simply “chaos.” For this post, I’m going to look at two different approaches for why this phrase could be used. I don’t really support the first approach but since many Christians treat the Genesis account as a science textbook I will play along with that paradigm for a few minutes and examine two different conclusions I come up with. Then I’ll move on to what is probably (in my opinion) a much better approach: the literary one, i.e. what was the point that the author(s) was trying to get across by having God create the world out of chaos?

The Scientific Approach

Please note in this section that I am not a scientist. I do have a basic understanding of theories of the beginning of the universe as well as of evolution but for the most part this is not my domain of specialization. I am going to hypothesize about scientific readings of this Scripture text mainly because so many other Christian theologians do the same whether they should or not.

Option 1: The Energy Field

Many Christians assume that God created the world out of nothing. According to Scripture, this isn’t true – at least not directly. Creation ex nihilo (from nothing) is more of a Greek philosophy assumption that came in later. According to the Genesis creation account itself, God started with chaos rather than with nothing. Of course, this doesn’t say one way or another try to explain how the chaos got there. If we want to approach this text as a science text, we get some interesting questions. Was this void eternally in existence alongside God? Or did God create the void previously but that part of the creation wasn’t important enough to be recorded?

It is common in Christian apologetics to claim that the Big Bang Theory is proof of God’s existence. Scientists can say pretty confidently (although not unanimously) that at one point there was no universe, no matter, no “space” of any kind. The argument is simple. At one point there was nothing and then suddenly there was a universe that has been expanding ever since. This something couldn’t have just happened on its own, therefore something non-material must have created it, and we call this non-material and eternal thing God. Scientists – some, I’m sure, out of an effort to disprove the argument but many just for the sake of good scientific thinking – have proposed a variety of other options other than creation from nothing. One of these theories is that even if matter is not eternal, perhaps energy is eternal since we know that energy can be changed into matter. Then one day this energy managed to interact in the way necessary to create mass. There isn’t necessarily any proof for it, but there isn’t any proof against it either, so it remains one of many theories for the origins of the universe.

So here’s an interesting conjecture for those who take the creation account as literal scientific fact: what if the “chaos and void” of Genesis was this energy field that some scientists have proposed? Maybe this field is eternal alongside God, although that would defy standard Christian thought, or maybe it was created by God previous to the energy turning into our universe. Will we ever actually find out? No idea. But if you’re going to take a scientific reading of Genesis 1 and then argue for creation from nothing, I would say that you’re actually fighting against the text that you’re trying to use as ammunition.

Option 2: The Chaos of Evolution

Here’s another scientific interpretation: maybe evolution was the chaos. This would require taking some other elements of the story metaphorically instead of literally. For example, in the Genesis account creation of the sun and moon come as part of the restoring from chaos but scientifically it is obvious that the sun and moon had to be there before the evolutionary chaos could happen. But there are lots of other reasons why we could say that at least part of the story is not meant to be literal, like that the moon is called a light even though we know it does not emit light, so I’m still willing to propose the idea.

Evolution relies on the survival of the fittest. In my opinion, the best argument against evolutionary creationism is that at its core is death while at God’s core is life. In many ways, it is chaos. It is organized chaos, sure, guided by certain principles, but it is essentially chaos.

In this option, then, we could see the creation out of chaos to say that God guided evolution toward a purpose. It’s perfectly in line with evolutionary creationism, a camp that I put myself in. We could easily say that God began the universe, setting the evolutionary process in motion as a way to bring the universe from chaos into order. It is interesting to note that the Bible begins with an untamed Garden which humanity is ordered to gain control over and ends with a glorious city, so this concept of God steadily bringing progressive order to the world is biblical as well as obvious throughout history.

The Literary Approach

With all of that said, I don’t think that the author of Genesis 1 was primarily interested in modernist concepts of science. The above section was interesting to me, but I’m not going to put any meaning into it one way or another. The more important question to me is this: what might the author(s) have meant when referring to the tohu va bohu?

Walter Brueggemann
Walter Brueggemann, Hebrew Bible Scholar

Walter Brueggemann is, by pretty much anybody’s estimate, the leading Hebrew Bible scholar today. Like me, he doesn’t think the scientific approach is being true to the text. Instead, he starts as most scholars do with the context of the writing. In this case, it is generally agreed that this text was written in The Exile. The Exile was a time of chaos no matter how you looked at it. The Israelite society was in shambles and they were trying to figure out how to hang on to who they were while scattered around the Babylonian Empire. Many developments came out of this time, which is why some scholars suggest that we approach the Hebrew Bible with an Exilic hermeneutic since a huge portion of the text comes back to it one way or another. Some of these developments to help maintain Israelite identity included pure monotheism instead of monolatry, “labour pains theology” (that God creates suffering in the short term in order to bring joy in the long term), the decentralization of the Temple, and the canonization of their existing Scripture and the writing of much more new Scripture just to name a few. One of the new pieces of Scripture was this version of the creation story.

So what does creation from tohu va bohu say about God to those at the time it was written? It is simpler than we might think: God brings order out of chaos. Many Jews were looking for confirmation that things would be alright. This story’s primary purpose was not to offer a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe. That would have been completely irrelevant to them. What was far more relevant was the idea that God would make everything ok again. It enabled them to see that chaos is not the end of the story. Interestingly, our translations typically start with the words “in the beginning” but the “the” is not actually in the Hebrew. The point of the text didn’t seem to be about “THE beginning,” as in, the beginning of the world, even though that is the account given. The point seems to be that God begins with chaos and turns it into order.

God doesn’t necessarily cause the chaos as Reformed theology would argue (and they can argue this case from other texts as well as Greek philosophical assumption). As mentioned above, it doesn’t say where the toho va bohu came from; it just says that God does work through it to bring good. A few hundred years later, Paul puts it this way to the Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I’d like to suggest that this be our take-home message from this verse: no matter how much our lives might feel like chaos, God is working through it to bring about good.