Tohu vavohu (no, not Tofu… boohoo)

A few recent comments on blog posts have brought back to mind some thoughts on translating Genesis 1:2. Specifically, I am referring to this phrase:

tohu vavhohu

background artwork from Seven Days of Creation Edgar G. Boevé, 1958, encaustic on masonite

tohu vavohu (or tohu vabohu or tohu wabohu, etc. depending on your transliteration preferences)

Here are some translations (and commentary or notes where available).

Robert Alter: welter and waste
welter and waste The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English alliteration. Tohu by itself means emptiness or futility, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary, 1997, pg 3).

NRSV: formless void

NIV, NASB: formless and empty

NET: without shape and empty
“Traditional translations have followed a more literal rendering of “waste and void.” The words describe a condition that is without form and empty. What we now know as ‘the earth’ was actually an unfilled mass covered by water and darkness. Later [tohu] and [bohu], when used in proximity, describe a situation resulting from judgment (Isa 34:11; Jer 4:23). Both prophets may be picturing judgment as the reversal of creation in which God’s judgment causes the world to revert to its primordial condition. This later use of the terms has led some to conclude that Gen 1:2 presupposes the judgment of a prior world, but it is unsound method to read the later application of the imagery (in a context of judgment) back into Gen 1:2” (NET notes, Gen. 1:2).

ESV, KJV: without form and void

JPS: unformed and void

JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible: without rhyme or reason

Doug Green: desolate and deserted

To read what HALOT has to say, click here and download a PDF of the entries.

What are your preferences? How would you convey both the meaning and the literary artistry?

6 thoughts on “Tohu vavohu (no, not Tofu… boohoo)

  1. Jeremy

    I like Alter’s explanation, but it does seem like “welter” goes a bit too far. Yet the others seem to lack the poetic touch that communicates the rhyme in the underlying Hebrew text. Christo gives “formless” and “empty” in LEXHAM though I don’t know if that would be his finished translation. I guess here one must make a choice between staying closer to the lexical meanings of words or attempting to translate the added phonological meaning(?) that is present.

  2. Carl F. Hostetter

    The “Jewish Study Bible” provides an interesting note here:

    “This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In 1:9, God creates the dry land (and the Seas, which can exist only when water is bounded by dry land). But in 1:1–2:3, water itself and darkness, too, are primordial (contrast Isa. 45:7). In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowledging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1:5). In the ancient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise.”

    And for what it’s worth, the LXX translates the words as “??????? ??? ??????????????”, literally “invisible and not properly prepared”, or less literally, “invisible and inchoate”.

  3. Karyn Post author


    The rest of the Eisenbrauns summary of Tsumura’s book says,

    “(2) The term tehôm in Gen 1:2 is a Hebrew form derived from the Proto-Semitic *tiham-, “ocean,” and it usually refers to the underground water that was overflowing and covering the entire surface of the earth in the initial state of creation.

    (3) The earth-water relationship in Gen 2:5–6 is different from that in Gen 1:2. In Gen 1:2, the earth was totally under the water; in Gen 2:5–6, only a part of the earth, the land, was watered by the ‘ed-water, which was overflowing from an underground source.

    (4) The biblical poetic texts that are claimed to have been influenced by the Chaoskampf-motif of the ancient Near East in fact use the language of storms and floods metaphorically and have nothing to do with primordial combat.”

    In light of your comment from the JPS Study Bible, you might be interested in reading his book. He has a different take on the chaoskampf that you were referencing.

    I apologize for those strings of question marks that replaced the Greek you posted. For some reason WordPress (at least the flavor that supports my blog) is not happy with Hebrew & Greek unicode characters. I have spent many hours trying to figure it out, but have no solutions. If anyone has a suggestion, please let me know. Earlier versions seemed to work (my “old” blog handled unicode just fine).

  4. Nathan

    I like Alter’s if for no other reason than that it brings out the phonological connection between the words so often lost in translation. Same goes for Professor Green’s.

  5. Karyn Post author

    Hi Nathan (hope all is well with you),

    I agree with you about choosing word pairs that convey the same phonological connection. I like “desolate and deserted” but I’m still hoping some of my wordsmith friends will step up to the plate and suggest another pair. Mindy?


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