Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some Thoughts On "the earth was formless and empty," Gen. 1.2

Even though I have titled this post as my thoughts on Gen. 1.2, what I am really interested in is verse 6 where God made an expanse between the waters.  But we have to start with verse 2.  The author is trying to create an image with the phrase "the earth was formless and empty," but what is the image?  Hamilton, in his excellent commentary, translates the phrase as "And the earth - it was a desert and a wasteland..."   (Hamilton, p. 108).  I admit that Hamilton knows vastly more about Hebrew than I will ever know, but he has ignored the context when he translated this phrase.  He has the correct idea, but the wrong image.  

The two words we are interested in are the nouns tohu and bohu.  Hamilton says that "no sure Semitic cognate for bohu has yet been discovered, but tohu may be safely equated with Ugar. thw, 'desert'" (Hamilton, p. 108).  Bohu is only used three times in the bible and always with tohu: Gen. 1.2; Isa. 34.11 and Jer. 4.23.  Tohu is used twenty times and has been translated "desert," "wilderness," and "void."  So, Hamilton's image has the correct idea of emptiness and open space, but he ignores the fact that from the context there is no land to be "desert and wasteland."

All the references to the earth in the first chapter of Genesis are to water, until verse nine where God commands the water to be gathered to one place, and dry ground appears.  In verse two "darkness was over the surface of the deep" a reference to the deepness of the ocean.  Then we are told that the "Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."  The whole of the second day, verses 6-7, is spent separating "the waters."  It is plain from the context and the statement in verse 9 that earth was completely covered with water when God first created the world.  Of course Peter told us the same thing in 2Pet. 3.5 "But, they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water."

So, what is the image the author is trying to convey with the phrase "formless and empty?"  We are to picture the ocean with no land in sight, vast open space with nothing solid or permanent.  "Void" has the wrong image, because something was there: water.  "Desert" and "wilderness"  are wrong because there was no land.  People who have been lost at sea describe the vastness and quiet of the open ocean, and that it is a place we can not survive for long. God had created a world, but He still had to make it a place where life could live. That is the idea we need to take from this phrase.

Verses 6-8 has and still does puzzle me.  What are the "waters" that God commanded be separated? Is it referring to the the water on the surface of the earth being separated from the water in the clouds?  Or is it referring placing the sky between the blue water of the earth and the blue of the sky above?  Did the writer think that the sky is blue because of another body of water up there?  

Let's not read too much into these verses.  God explained creation in terms that people thousands of years ago could understand, and their understanding of the world and the sky above were very different from our understanding.  I think these verses are explaining to our ancestors about God separating water on the surface of the earth from the water that falls from the sky.  God placed the expanse He called "sky" in between these two forms of water.   Sky is the expanse above us, where God placed the sun, moon and the stars (verses 16 and 17), and it is were the birds fly, verse 20.  Whether the sky is blue because they thought there was an ocean of water up there is not discussed in this passage.  The writer is only saying that God put the oceans below and the clouds above and the sky in between.

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1990

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