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Genesis 1:2
Desolate and Lifeless

Hebrew Text

whbw wht - Desolate and lifeless

This pair of words appears three times in the OT, Gen.1:2, Isa.34:11, and Jer.4:23. It appears as a juxtaposed phrase in Gen.1:2 and Jer.4:23, and as a parallel word pair in Isa.34:11 (Tsumura, 1989, 23). This phrase seems to be used mostly around the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Isaiah 34:11 says, "And He (God) shall spread over it (Edom) the line of desolation (tohu) and the plum stones of barrenness (bohu; my own translation). This is a return to chaos before creation.

Jeremiah 4:23 says, "I (Jeremiah) looked on the earth and behold, (it was) a dark desert and void of life, and (I looked upwards) to the heavens, and there was no light" (my own translation). This seems to be a return to chaos before the world was ordered. There is a chiastic structure here in Jeremiah 4:23 and in Genesis 1:2 as well, tohu wabohu//hosek, and earth = abyss.

Ugaritic Texts

There is an interesting Ugaritic phrase tu-a-bi-(u?) that may be the same as the Hebrew tohu wa bohu. In one of the polyglot vocabularies tu-a-bi-(u) is equivalent to the Akkadian na-bal-ku-tum and Hurrian tap-su-hu-(u)m-me (RS 20.123:II:23; Tsumura, 1989, 23). The Akkadian phrase occurs twice in the Atr-Hasis Epic. The earth’s womb is said to be na-bal-ku-tum or barren (out of order). It is parallel with the phrase "no plants growing" (Lambert and Millard, 1969, 108:49, 110:59). It is also used for the older phrase u-ul ul-da which clearly means barren, parallel to the phrase "no plants were growing" (Ibid, 78:4).


h de gh hn aoratos kai akataskeuastos - But the earth was invisible and unformed

The LXX translates tohu wa bohu as aoratos kai akataskeuastos which means "invisible and unformed." This same word aoratos "invisible" is similar to Hebrew 11:3 ek fainomenwn, meaning "out of unseen things" the world was created. This seems to be related to the platonic ides that the visible world came from the invisible world including the idea of logos.

Another possibility is the way Josephus may have understood it that the earth was covered with water and thick clouds and therefore could not be seen (LCL, 1930, 15).

Aramaic Texts

aynqwrw aydx twh auraw - Now the earth was desolate and empty

The above Aramaic is from the official Jewish targum, the Targum Onkelos (Sperber, 1959, 1; Translation by Grossfeld, 1988, 42).

The Targum Neofiti I interprets wht as the absence of faunal life, and whb the absence of floral life. It translates, "And the earth was waste and unformed, desolate of man and beast, empty of plant cultivation and of trees" (McNamara, 1992, 52). The earth was not a primeval chaos, but just void of life (Anderson, 1990, 23).

The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says, "The earth was without form and void, desolate of people and empty of all animals" (Maher, 1992, 16).

The Fragment-Targums states, "And the earth was unformed and void, and desolate of people and empty of all work" (Klein, 1980, 3).

Jewish Literature

In 1 Enoch 21:1 it describes this unformed chaos. It says:

And I came to an empty place. And I saw (there) neither a heaven above nor an earth below, but a chaotic and terrible place. And I saw seven stars of heaven bound together in it, like great mountains, and burning with fire.These are among the stars of heaven which have transgressed the commandments of the Lord and are bound in this place until the completion of ten million years, (according) to the number of their sins (Charlesworth, 1983, 24).

2 Enoch has very similar view which says:

Before anything existed at all, from the very beginning, whatever is I created from non-being, and from the invisible things into the visible.Before any visible things had come into existence, and the light had not yet opened up, I, in the midst of the light, moved around in the invisible things, like one of them, as the sun moves around from east to west and from west to east. But the sun has rest; yet I did not find rest, because everything was not yet created. And I thought up the idea of establishing a foundation, to create a visible creation (Charlesworth, 1983, 143).

It seems from 2 Enoch that the invisible things are eternal with God. God could not rest until he created. Note that "non-being" does not mean ex nihilo, but the invisible things (Ibid, 142,n,f).

Josephus writes, tauths d’ up’ oyin ouk ercomenhs, alla baqei men kruptomenhs, meaning " The earth had not come into sight, but was hidden in the thick darkness" (LCL, 1930, 15). This seems similar to the LXX reasoning since darkness covered the deep, the earth must be invisible, but Josephus goes a step further to show that the earth is alone in darkness (Franxman, 1979, 39). There is no mention of waters, may be to avoid the idea of Greek chaos.

Philo in On The Creation (29) writes:

First, then, the Maker made an incorporeal heaven, and an invisible earth, and the essential form of air and void. To the one he gave the name of Darkness, since the air when left to itself, is black. The other he named abyss, for the void is a region of immensity and vast depths. Next (He made) the incorporeal essence of water and of life-breath and, to crown all, of light (LCL, 1929, 23).

According to Philo whbw wht are "the essential form of air and void." The air is called "Darkness" and the void is called the "abyss." Wolfson in his chapter, Creation and Structure of the World, explains the platonic ideas behind Philo’s view of creation (1947, 295-324). Runia gives an even more detailed comparison of Philo to Plato in his book entitled Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (1986).

According to the Rabbis wht was thought to be "a green line which encompasses the whole world (the horizon line) from which darkness issued," and whb "denotes the slime covered stones sunk in the depths from which water issued" (Cohen 1975, 33; Epstein, 1935, 63-4; Hagigah 12a).

Greek Literature

Genesis 1:9 seems to indicate that the earth was under (or mingled in) water. How can the earth be described as a desert when covered by water? Maybe wht refers to the sandy desert beach just below the water, and whb to the barrenness of life along the shore just under the water. A better explanation is that the ocean is described as a barren desert. One could compare the desert dunes to the waves of the sea. No plants or trees are growing there.

Homer several times describes the sea as barren. He writes "the barren sea" or "the desolate sea" (Iliad, I. 316; XV. 27; Odyssey, II. 370). The Greek word is atrugetos (L&S, Vol. 1, 273). In Hesiod’s Theogony it is translated "the unfruitful sea" (X. 730; LCL, 133).

Hebrew Text

wht - Desolation

In other passages where wht occurs alone, it is used to describe a desert void of life. See Deut. 32:10, Job 8:18, 12:24, Psalm 107:40.

Deuteronomy 32:10 says, "In the desert land he found him, in a barren (wht) and howling waste" (NIV). This verse clearly indicates the meaning of wht as "desert," or "wasteland."

In Job 26:7 God stretches the northern sky over the desert void (wht) and hangs, or suspends the earth over the abyss (hmylb, literally, "not anything" or "nothing"- BDB, 1980, 116a) so that there is no more empty space, or even better, suspends out the earth to completely cover over the abyss (Holladay, 1971, 40-41). wht describes desert wasteland, and <wht the watery abyss.

In Isaiah 45:18, God says, "He did not create it (earth) a desert or wasteland wht. wht is also in parallel with ;vj meaning "darkness" as in Genesis 1:2. This shows that God did not start creating until verse three of Genesis one.

Ugaritic Texts

The Ugaritic cognate word thw can be helpful in understanding the Hebrew term wht. KTU 1.5:I:14-16 says, lbim. thw. hm. brly. anhr. bym which means, "the lions in/of the desert(s) or a desire of the dolphin(?) in the sea" (Tsumura, 1989, 18). It seems that thw and ym make a merismatic pair expressing comprehensiveness (Ibid, 19). This seems to also be the case in Genesis 1:2 with wht and <wht.

whb - Lifelessness

Westermann thinks whb is added for alliteration. It does seem to add poetic force. Speiser describes it as "an excellent example of hendiadys" (Westermann, 1994, 103). Hendiadys is a figure of speech where two words are connected by a conjunction to express a single idea (Morris, 1979, 615). It seems that whbw wht is a common ANE phrase that was used to emphasize "barrenness."

Some have suggested that the term whb comes from the Phoenician divine name Baau who is the goddess of night. Whb is probably similar to the Arabic bahiya meaning "to be empty" (BDB). It is emptiness in the sense of void of life, barrenness. All probably come from the same root word bhw (Tsumura, 1989, 22).

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