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The Hebrew words תֹהוּ and וָבֹהוּ are translated to empty/formless and void in Genesis 1, but that isn’t what they mean.

In my research, I have found that one of the two words is unknown, and the other means chaos or waste. Throughout my research, I have discovered that the reason seems to be that it is translated to empty and void in the greek translation (I can’t remember its technical name at the moment).

In Jeremiah 4, it describes the earth as chaos, yet—in the middle of that description—the above mentioned Hebrew shows to describe the earth, and is translated to empty/formless and void. It doesn’t make sense for it to be empty and void in English, and the Hebrew words don’t mean that, so I see no reason to translate it that way.

In Isaiah 34:11 (please read full chapter to get context) תֹ֖הוּ is translated to chaos (NIV), and the other word did not show. That is a more accurate translation.

This leads me to my questions. Why do we translate it to empty/formless and void, and does it appear that there is something I am missing about the Hebrew?

2
  • My own studies led me to understand tohu and bohu to mean 'and the earth was inglorious and markedly so'. Up-voted +1. My answer is below, reproduced.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 2, 2023 at 9:44
  • A short answer would be to perpetuate the creatio ex nihilo model (creation from nothing), versus creatio ex materia (creation from something), in which YHWH battles in an agon model against chaotic forces of darkness, defeats them, and builds the world from there. Apr 4, 2023 at 2:54

6 Answers 6

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‘Waste and Void’

In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth, the earth existed waste and void, and darkness on the face of the deep and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters.

This above sentence is taken from Young’s Literal Bible with some slight alteration to remove Robert Young’s literalisation of the Hebrew tense that I might express it in idiomatic English. And I have removed his italics as I think they are not, grammatically, necessary.

I have to disagree with the word ‘preparing’ - I can see no evidence for it. Bara appears to me to be a word that conveys ‘creatively made’.

Bar, the root, is son, or clear, or - significantly - choice. Barak is bless. Barar is - again - choice or polished. Barah is to choose or to eat. Thus, bara, conveys to myself a matter of something that is blessed, choice, desirable in the context of partaking of it - ‘eating’; something that is as a son, that is, a delight; something that is ‘polished’ or ‘clear’.

It is something that is desirable, that is finished off well, that has been satisfyingly completed

And I would further adjust Robert Young’s literalisation of the Hebrew tense by saying, in common with the AV and with J N Darby: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth - although the AV translates the plural shamayim, heavens, as a singular, for some reason.

As to the Spirit of God, ‘moved’ is insufficient for the word rachaph ; ‘hovering’, J N Darby, or ‘fluttering’, Robert Young, is correct, in my view, its only other two occurrences being, Deuteronomy 32:11, as an eagle fluttereth over her young; and, Jeremiah 23:9, all my bones shake.

Thereafter, the earth existed tohu and bohu, says the original. I am quoting just the words themselves and, for simplicity, not inflecting them.

Twenty times is tohu used in the Hebrew scripture, there being a variety of English words attached to it in the AV. It appears to me, by its very usage in those twenty times, that tohu is the opposite of tohar, which only occurs three times.

Now, tohar means glory, as in Psalm 89:44, in relation to the throne and the kingdom of David being made to cease and being cast off. The context, in this particular context of an earthly kingdom, albeit the Divinely appointed earthly kingdom of Israel, therefore - significantly - implies the absence of glory; the non presence of tohar.

It is a definitive contrast.

Tohar is also used by Moses to describe what was seen by himself, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu - representing priesthood and sonship; and by the seventy elders of Israel - representing perfect and complete witness of testimony, a coherence of assembly such as John saw in apocalyptic revelation gathered around the throne. What was observed was the God of Israel. And what was observed was the body of heaven in clearness, tohar.

‘Body of heaven’ conveys to myself something that I have observed in daylight; that the deeper, azure, blue of the sky directly above, being more substantial than the lighter, turquoise, blue of the sky lower by the horizon suggests to my eye that there is a dimension to the blueness of sky above me. There is body to the blueness - a depth of dimension, suggested by the differing depths of atmosphere and the coloration thus produced.

And what is produced by this phenomenon is glorious. Out of a clear blue sky, there is more than just thin blueness; there is a glory to it. What the four and the seventy saw was clear, pure, unspoilt and perfect - yet was neither thin, nor empty, nor vapid : there was dimension and depth. There was glory.

Upon the nobles of the children of Israel, he laid not his hands. Because of an altar and because of burnt offerings and peace offerings; because of sprinkled blood - Exodus 24:4, 5, 6 and 8.

Also, they saw God and did eat and drink - a different revelation than Moses being without, Exodus 34:28, for forty days and forty nights as the law was delivered, in an agreement of covenant, to the nation of Israel. There is nothing to eat or drink under that covenant.

Lastly, and once more significantly - again, a matter of definitive contrast - tohar is used, in a couplet, which I consider as one place, in Leviticus, 12:4 & 6, in relation to the purifying of a woman who has born either a man child or a maid child.

Childbirth under the old covenant necessitates purification for, under law - as all of the first man’s progeny, inevitably, are - the event produces yet more humanity that, being conceived in sin, Psalm 51:5, is born into a race that is, by inherited transgression, in contradiction to the Creator’s purpose.

Therefore, once purified, tohar, the opposite state exists in the woman to tohu.

Thus for tohar in explanation of its opposite, tohu : the heavens and the earth were tohu, the opposite of glory and the negative of a purified state and were like the desolation of Israel after the cutting off of the throne and the kingdom which had been David’s.

Then, as to bohu, bohen is the great toe or the thumb; bohar is a freckled spot and bohu occurs again in Isaiah 34:11 - the ‘stones of emptiness’, a brilliant piece of translation, in my view. Bohu is used but twice more, by Moses, Genesis 1:2, and by Jeremiah, 4:23, in the identical expression - in English AV translation - ‘waste and void’.

Bohu, to my mind, is something that stands out. It is different to its surroundings, the fingers or toes, but is of the same kind. The stones stand out as part of the landscape, yet they are still part of it; for their very existence is a stark advertisement of the whole character of the landscape. The freckled spot is a kind of skin, but stands out from the skin, in the same kind of way. There is something about an object that draws attention to it, though it be not distinctive, in itself.

Thus, the background is of the progress of flesh - the great toe; the work of the flesh - the thumb; and the earthly environment of the flesh - the landscape. And, finally - and significantly fourthly; north, south, east and west - the wider aspect of the environment of the flesh - the heavens and the earth of creation.

Tohu and bohu, therefore, is, to me, a matter of the absence of glory that, by a distinct absence, draws attention to itself. The earth was inglorious - and distinctly so.

For the whole creation ought to be glorious.

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; 2 and the earth was tohu and bohu . . .

. . . . . the earth lacked glory - and it was obvious.

There is a lack, that is significant. There is an emptiness, that cries out. There is an incompleteness that must - it must - be addressed.

It cannot be hid. It cannot be ignored. It calls out to be remedied.

=================================================================

Reproduced from 'The Cherubim of Glory' Belmont Publications.

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  • Regarding singular vs plural on "heavens": There is no singular word for heavens in Hebrew. It derives from מים, meaning "water", which is also in plural form - there is no singular form of the word "water" in Hebrew. This appears occasionally in Hebrew, and can be thought of as a "collective singular", meaning one thing that is a collective. Thus, from the raw text alone, it is ambiguous whether what was meant was the singular (collective) heaven, or the plural heavens. I prefer the plural, but ultimately either is a valid translation of the text.
    – Benyamin
    Apr 2, 2023 at 18:04
  • @Benyamin Deuteronomy 10:14 indicates (to me) that 'heavens' is correct in Genesis 1:1.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 2, 2023 at 18:40
  • 1
    I forgot to accept the answer a while back.
    – TacoBlayno
    Apr 21 at 0:31
  • @TacoBlayno Thank you. Much appreciated.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 21 at 1:38
  • 1
    @TacoBlayno P.S. I tried to read the history of the WWW on your website but could not read it due to the bright green glare :) I am still interested . . . . . . .
    – Nigel J
    Apr 21 at 1:42
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"In the beginning of God's preparing the heavens and the earth -- 2 the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness [is] on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters," (Gen 1:1-2, YLT)

"...hath existed waste and void...," or "...the earth was unformed and void...,"(CJB) or "...whitout shape and empty..." (NET), and it implies a previous existence and form, but it does not imply "unknown". The association is with water.

Unformed and void (empty), face of the deep, and water are all identified in this verse as the "earth" in Gen. 1:2. Before God began filling the earth with life forms, he separated the waters.

"And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so." (Gen. 1:7, KJV)

The word translated as "deep" is Strong's Heb. 8415, "tehom" and means deep, sea, or abyss. (Biblehub) The word "waters" is Strong's Heb. 4325, "mayim." (Biblehub)

Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) has definitions as 1a) a spring or well; (1b) a river, Nile; 1c) sea; 1d) flood; 1e) subterranean (esp Ex. 20:4); 1f) in clouds; 1g) rain; 1h) dew; 1i) primEval deep. The second definition is with the use of proper names , and the third is special uses as “water of the feet” or urine; water of a dunghill, or water (which is) distress as in drunk imprisonment, etc.

But the figurative uses are defined at BDB #4. As poetry uses figurative words, then we need to consider these: 4a – of distress as in many waters, or deep waters, or water of gall; 4b – of outbursting force; 4c. of rushing nations (Isa. 17:12); 4d – impetuous, violent, overwhelming as in Isa. 28:2, 17; Hos. 10:7; Job 27:20, etc; 4e – as running away such as of heart in timidity; or of the knees; 4f – transitoriness; 4g – refreshment; 4h – a figure of rest and peace; 4i – reckless bloodshed; 4j – figurative of bride, or enjoyment of one’s wife; 4k – of outpoured wrath; 4l abundant justice or outpoured feelings.

BDB 4a of distress as in many waters might be considered chaos. BDB 4b of outbursting force, and 4c of rushing nations and 4d of violent, overwhelming all result in desolation.

Consider also the figurative use at BDB 4e of timid hearts and weak knees. Weak knees are folding, unable to hold up, or to stand. Timid hearts are also weak, unable to hold a position or to do what is necessary because they lack conviction and strength. Not having strength to do, or to stand is baseless, or standing on nothing.

We cannot stand on water (that is without Jesus’ help).

Strong’s Concordance also lists uses of “mayim” as waste, wasting, watering, and course. So, water(s) = waste = emptiness = void, without form= nothing.

It does not mean unknown. And, this analysis throws an entirely different view upon Job 26:7 -

"He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." (KJV)

The Hebrew word for nothing is Strong’s 1099 transliterated as “belimah.” It is only used in Job 26:7.( Biblehub) I believe it is very probable that the “nothing” of Job 26:7 is the formless, void, emptiness of Gen. 1:2, and means that God hung the earth over/upon the void, waste, desolate, chaotic waters of the deep.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. 2 For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.” Psa. 25:1-2, KJV

“To Him spreading the earth over the waters, For to the age [is] His kindness.“ (Psa. 136:6, YLT)

For further review of Job 26:7 see my post Is the Earth Hanging Upon Nothing here: ShreddingTheVeil.

2
  • Loved your article on the earth hanging on nothing!
    – Sherrie
    Jan 23 at 20:47
  • @Sherrie- Thank you!
    – Gina
    Jan 24 at 15:00
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Looking at some of the definitions quoted in Dottard's answer, we see:

tohu:

  • confusion,
  • city of chaos (of ruined city),
  • empty, trackless waste,
  • worthlessness.
  • wasteland, wilderness (of solitary places) [Strong's H8414].

I get the impression of chaotic destruction, something rendered useless.

bohu:

  • the line of wasteness and the stones of emptiness, i.e. plummets, employed, not as usual for building, but for destroying walls,
  • an undistinguishable ruin [Strong's H922].

I get the impression of something that has lost its usefulness and purpose.



Wouldn't an expression like "destroyed and useless" be more appropriate than "void and without form"?

In fact, Isaiah 45:18 uses "tohu" that way when he says that God did not create the world that way:

… God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain[tohu] …

This implies that the Earth of Genesis 1:2 is not in its originally created form, that it has been destroyed and made useless.

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OK, as any good lexicon for the last 200 years will show we have the following operative words from Gen 1:2 -

  • תֹּהוּ (tohu) = formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness (Strong's) - for more detail see appendix 1 below. It is a word that occurs about 20 times in the OT, eg, Gen 1:2, Deut 32:10, 1 Sam 12:21, Job 6:18, 12:24, 26:7, Ps 107:40, Isa 24:10, 29:21, etc.
  • בֹּהוּ (bohu) = emptiness (Strong's) - for more detail see appendix 2 below. This word occurs three times in the OT: Gen 1:2, Isa 34:11, Jer 4:23.

Interestingly, both these words occur together, with the same meaning in Jer 4:23 -

I looked at the earth, and it was formless and void; I looked to the heavens, and they had no light.

Thus, both words are known. If the OP wants to dispute these recognized meanings from standard lexicons, that is OK but sources should be quoted.

The meaning of "formless and empty" is confirmed by the subsequent narrative because the rest of gen 1 describes giving form and filling the world in preparation for all that was placed in the world.

APPENDIX 1 - BDB entry for תֹּהוּ (tohu)

תֹּ֫הוּ noun masculine1Samuel 12:21 (AlbrZAW xvi (1896), 112) formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness (primary meaning difficult to seize; Vrss usually Κενόν, οὐδέν, μάταιον, inane, vacuum, vanum; compare LagOr. ii. 60; BN 144); —

1 formlessness, of primaeval earth Genesis 1:2 (P), of land reduced to primaeval chaos Jeremiah 4:23 (both + וָבֹהוּ and voidness), Isaiah 34:11 ׳קַותֿֿ ("" אַבְנֵי בֹהוּ), Isaiah 45:18 בְרָאָהּ ׳לֹא ת ("" לָשֶׁבֶת יְצָרָתּ); Isaiah 24:10 ׳קִרְיַתאתּ city of chaos (of ruined city); = nothingness, empty space, Job 26:7 תֹּלֶה אֶרֶץ ׳עַלתּֿ; of empty, trackless waste Deuteronomy 32:10 ("" מִדְבָּר), Job 6:18; Job 12:24 = Psalm 107:40.

2 figurative of what is empty, unreal, as idols 1 Samuel 12:21 (collective: אֲשֶׁר ׳אַחֲרֵי הַתּ לֹא יוֺעִילוּ), 1 Samuel 12:21; Isaiah 41:29 נִסְכֵּיהֶם ׳רוּחַ וָת, Isaiah 44:9 (of idol-makers), groundless arguments or considerations, Isaiah 29:21 צַדִּיק ׳וַיַּטּוּ בַתּ, Isaiah 59:4 moral unreality or falsehood ׳בָּטוֺחַ עַלאתּ ("" וְדַבֶּרשָֿׁוְא); = a thing of nought (compare Ecclus 41:10 מתהו אל תהו), Isaiah 40:17 ("" אַיִן אֶפֶס), Isaiah 40:23 עָשָׂה ׳שֹׁפְטֵי אֶרֶץ כַּתּ ("" לְאַיִן), worthlessness Isaiah 49:19 וְהֶבֶל כֹּחִי כִלֵּיתִי ׳לְת ("" לְרִיק יָגַעְתִּי); as adverb accusative Isaiah 45:19 I said not, תֹּהוּ בַקְּשׁוּנִי seek me emptily, to no purpose. compare Isaiah 29:13 ᵐ5 וְתֹהוּ for וַתְּהִי.

APPENDIX 2 - BDB entry for בֹּהוּ (bohu)

בֹּ֫הוּ noun [masculine] emptiness (on form see Ges§ 84a, 1 b Sta§ 95, 198 a, on usage compare LagOr. ii. 60 f.) always with תֹּהוּ q. v.; — תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ Genesis 1:2 of primeval earth; Jeremiah 4:23 of earth under judgment of ׳י; קַותֿֿהֹוּ וְאַבְנֵי בֹהוּ Isaiah 34:11, the line of wasteness and the stones of emptiness, i.e. plummets, employed, not as usual for building, but for destroying walls; compare Di & see below אבן 6

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Even the Jewish translation translates these words with the same meaning:

When God began to create heaven and earth—2the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—... (Genesis 1:1–2, JPS1985)

BDB gives them those meanings:

†תֹּ֫הוּ S8414 TWOT2494a GK9332 n.m. 1 S 12, 21 (Albr xvi (1896), 112) formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness (primary meaning difficult to seize; Vrss usually κενόν, οὐδέν, μάταιον, inane, vacuum, vanum; cf. Lag. ii. 60; 144);—1. formlessness, of primaeval earth Gn 1:2 (P), of land reduced to primaeval chaos Je 4:23 (both + וָבֹהוּ and voidness), Is 34:11 קַו־תֿ׳ (|| אבְנֵי בֹהוּ), 45:18 לֹא ת׳ בְרָאָהּ (|| לָשֶׁבֶת יְצָרָהּ); 24:10 קִרְיַת־תּ׳ city of chaos (of ruined city); = nothingness, empty space, Jb 26:7 נֹטֶה צָפן עַל־תּ׳; of empty, trackless waste Dt 32:10 (|| מִדְבָּר), Jb 6:18; 12:24 = ψ 107:40. 2. fig. of what is empty, unreal, as idols 1 S 12:21 (coll.: אַחֲרֵי הַתּ׳ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יוֹעִילוּ), v 21 Is 41:29 רוּחַ וָת׳ נִסְכֵּיהֶם, 44:9 (of idol-makers), groundless arguments or considerations, Is 29:21 וַיַּטּוּ בַתּ׳ צַדִּיק, 59:4 moral unreality or falsehood בָּטוֹהַ עַל־תּ׳ (|| וְדַבֶּר־שָׁוְא); = a thing of nought (cf. Ecclus 41:10 מתהו אל תהו), Is 40:17 (|| אַיִן, אֶפֶס), v 23 שֹׁפְטֵי אֶרֶץ כַּתּ׳ עָשָׂה (|| לְאַיִן), worthlessness 49:4 לְת׳ וְהֶבֶל כֹּחִי כִלֵּיתִי (|| לְרִיק יָגַעְתִּי); as adv. acc. 45:19 I said not, תֹּהוּ בַקְּשׁוּנִי seek me emptily, to no purpose. cf. 29:13 𝔊 וְתֹהוּ for וַתֹּהִי. -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). In Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 1062). Clarendon Press.

†בֹּ֫הוּ S922 TWOT205a GK983 n.[m.] emptiness (on form v. Ges 84 a, 1 b Sta 95, 198 a, on usage cf. Lag ii. 60 f.) always c. תֹּהוּ q.v.;—תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ Gn 1:2 of primæval earth; Je 4:23 of earth under judgment of י׳; קַו־תֹֿהוּ וְאַבְנֵי בֹהוּ Is 34:11, the line of wasteness and the stones of emptiness, i.e. plummets, employed, not as usual for building, but for destroying walls; cf. Di & v. sub אבן 6. -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). In Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 96). Clarendon Press.

0

The full text (Masoretic) of Genesis 1:2 is:

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

You are reasoning that because תֹ֙הוּ֙ is translated as chaos in the NIV translation of Isaiah 34:11, translating תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ as "empty and void" or "formless and void" in Genesis 1:2 is incorrect.

There are few flaws in this argument.


First, different context may justify different translations. While תֹ֙הוּ֙ may be translated as "chaos" in Isaiah 34:11, that does not necessarily mean that the same translation is appropriate in Genesis 1:2. In Genesis תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ describes the initial state of the earth before God's creative acts, while in Isaiah 34:11, it describes the destruction of Edom. The NIV itself translates תֹ֙הוּ֙ as formless in Genesis 1:2. This alone might invalidate your argument.


Second, Hebrew words, like words in any language, can have multiple meanings and nuances depending on the context in which they are used. This certainly holds true for English, where the Oxford English Dictionary enumerates 5 modern and 2 archaic definitions for the word "chaos" itself.

Translating "תֹ֙הוּ֙" as "chaos" in Isaiah 34:11 does not preclude it from being translated as "formless," "empty," or "unformed" in Genesis 1:2. Different translations can capture different aspects of the word's meaning. Swanson's Dictionary of Biblical Languages, for example, lists 6 different meanings of the word תֹ֙הוּ֙. The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon gives four different synonyms. Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon lists 5 different definitions and sub-definitions.


Third, Different translations of the Bible often use different wording to convey the meaning of the original Hebrew text. The fact that the NIV translation uses "chaos" in Isaiah 34:11 does not invalidate other translations that use "formless" or "empty" in Genesis 1:2. The word תֹ֙הוּ֙ occurs 20 times in the Masoretic Text and is translated over a dozen different ways, including formless (e.g. Genesis 1:2), barren (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:10, and nothing (e.g. Isaiah 44:9); the ESV uses without form, waste and nothing; the KJV, without form, wasteland, useless; etc.


Finally, we should also acknowledge the consensus among scholars and translators and, unless we have good reason not to, defer to them in effectively capturing the meaning of the phrase in its context.

The majority of Jewish and Christian translations of Genesis 1:2 use terms like formless, empty, or unformed to convey the meaning of תֹ֙הוּ֙. Among Jewish translations we have:

Jewish Publication Society (JPS) - 1917 Edition:

And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.

The Stone Edition - ArtScroll Series (ArtScroll Tanach):

The earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters.

The Koren Jerusalem Bible:

The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

The earth was unformed and desolate, and darkness covered the ocean depths. God's spirit was hovering over the water.

2
  • My argument was not in any way saying that because NIV says…, the Hebrew word means…. My argument was that the Hebrew word means…, that the word translated doesn’t make sense, nor does it accurately convey what the Hebrew word means, and, therefore, it is a poor decision to keep translating it to…. I also said, what makes it even weirder is that it is translated more accurately in a different passage. I did not only say it means chaos, I said it means “chaos or waste” which is two definitions, not one.
    – TacoBlayno
    Apr 17, 2023 at 22:50
  • “First, different context may justify different translations. While תֹ֙הוּ֙ may be translated as "chaos" in Isaiah 34:11, that does not necessarily mean that the same translation is appropriate in Genesis 1:2. In Genesis תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ describes the initial state of the earth before God's creative acts, while in Isaiah 34:11, it describes the destruction of Edom. The NIV itself translates תֹ֙הוּ֙ as formless in Genesis 1:2. This alone might invalidate your argument.” Actually, there was already water.
    – TacoBlayno
    Apr 17, 2023 at 23:02

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