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We read in Gen 1:1-2:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

We go on to read in Verses 9 & 10:

...And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. `God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas.

It appears that originally, the earth had no water on its surface, and was later given a share of water when God had divided the same as in Verses 9 and 10. If the present-day earth is drained of all water, it would look formless with mountains and planes intervened by deep ravines so deep they can swallow the tallest mountains! (See Mariana Trench Vs Mount Everest). My question, therefore, is: What is meant by saying that the earth was formless, as in Gen 1:2?

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5 Answers 5

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This question has so many facets I will only address some of them.

Verse 1

Gen 1:1 is clearly a summary/headline statement of the entire story that follows. Specifically, God created the heavens and the earth -

  • the heavens were created on day #2 by the separation of the waters above from the water below as explicitly stated in V8 - God called the expanse (the space between the waters above and below) "heavens"
  • the earth was created on day #3 following the water being gathered into seas so that dry land appeared which was explicitly called "earth", ie, arable land.

Formula for each day

In each case, the literary form of the record is almost identical:

  • And God said, "Let there be ... And it was so"
  • And God say that it was good
  • And there was evening and morning, the nth day

Thus, each day of creation week begins with the simple statement, "And God said ...". Thus day #1 of creation week begins with V3.

Verse 2

Therefore, if V1 is a heading/summary and V3 is the beginning of the first day's activities, V2 is a statement about what existed before the first day, namely

the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Thus contains four statements about the condition of our planet at the beginning of creation week:

  • it was formless (תֹ֙הוּ֙ tohu), ie, shapeless and empty, without life and function
  • it was empty (בֹּהוּ bohu), ie, without anything in or on the earth that could do anything. This also makes it valueless and worthless.
  • it was dark
  • it was covered in deep water

The rest of creation week seeks to remedy these four things. Days 1-3 God gives the world form. Days 4-6 God fills the earth. Day 1 God provides light. Day 2 & 3 deals with the water by twice separating it; above and below and from the dry land.

We see an echo of this Jer 4:23 -

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

That is, the prophet is predicting a time when man's sinful ways would return the earth to its primeval condition: formless and void and dark.

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  • @C.Stroud - the prophet is simply reporting what he saw of a future time. This is quite common - future predictions are often presented as past events in Hebrew prophecy. PS. Thanks for fixing my silly typo.
    – Dottard
    Jan 22 at 10:38
  • the earth it is primeval condition. Grammar?
    – C. Stroud
    Jan 22 at 10:42
  • @C.Stroud - thanks, I will fix that too. Now fixed.
    – Dottard
    Jan 22 at 10:44
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    Thanks, Dottard for the well explained inputs. But, please read Verses 6 to 10 carefully. Water was present in the entire universe and God divided it by heaven say, sky. In Verse 9 he separates the water under the sky , into land and sea. Remember that the earth was considered flat in the days of recording of Genesis. It is quite possible that land was in one piece, and not in the form of continents it now has. Jan 22 at 13:09
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan - I beg to differ - you cannot have it both ways - there is not that much water in the universe.
    – Dottard
    Jan 22 at 19:35
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The question says,"It appears that originally, the earth had no water on its surface".

But how is this so? Is not the face of the waters covering the entire earth? ie: the dry land has not yet appeared.

"Formless". When the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters there were no stars to give direction, to set a course by. One direction was the same as another. Directionless or "formless". There was no land and no coastline. So no defining thing as a "particular place", just more of the same water.

There was nothing visible to differentiate one place from another. No stars sun or moon to define East, West, North or South. Just the face, or surface, of the water looking exactly like the face of the water in another place ie: formless/without definition.

Except that as darkness was on the face of the deep[water] nothing could be seen unless it was God who did the seeing.

tohu "empty". It appears to me that "empty" here is: empty of direction, place and light.

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Let me recap all the relevant verses;

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2 NIV)

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” (Genesis 1:6 NIV)

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:9 NIV)

It appears to me at the beginning of the scene, a thick cloud was present. It lacked a stable form and was described as 'formless' and 'empty' due to the vapour. The cloud was so dense that it caused darkness underneath. The Spirit of God was hovering over the cloud from heaven above. Then, the Lord thinned the cloud by precipitation, forming two water entities - the cloud and the river/sea. The land was no longer in darkness, and dry land appeared, taking on a solid form.

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  • I don’t know it really matters how a modern reader reads the text, the only relevant version is how the original readers read the text and what it meant to them. Mixing modern cosmology into Biblical cosmology is not proper scholarship and makes for terrible hermeneutics Jan 22 at 16:18
  • @NihilSineDeo - Since the Bible is timeless. Comprehension of the Bible can only move forward with new knowledge and never stay at a certain point. It is impossible to travel back in time to understand what the original readers of the Bible understood. Jan 22 at 20:01
  • That’s such nonsense I can’t believe you’re not embarrassed to utter such ridiculous claims. What happened in the past happened and cannot be reinterpreted. If Jesus died on a cross that’s how it happened there is no room for change. Jan 22 at 22:02
  • @NihilSineDeo - It is a scientific explanation, not a spiritual one. None of us witnessed on that day. I offer this explanation for public review. The answer is not on purpose against the truth in Bible, nor does it intend to offend anyone. Jan 23 at 1:59
  • It CANNOT be a scientific explanation at best it’s a forensic explanation but science requires BOTH observation and manipulation with a control to be a true scientific explanation. I’m not offended at your response I abhor it’s secular and atheistic framework which at its core is anti-Biblical and most well meaning believers fail to realize is merely a consensus and a fallacious top down intellectual hypothesis. But truth is true regardless of majority consensus or what the intellectuals claim. Jan 23 at 10:32
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Quite intriguing, I'm certain that following the rules outlined in hermeneutics, in all probability, may present more difficulties considering the many students of scriptures contributing their understanding. I've over the past forty years wrestled with this same discussion piece in Genesis 1:2, 6-7, 9-10, and a host of other parts of the Scriptures. The term "chaos" came into play regarding what appears to be an unsettling condition not only regarding Earth but throughout the Cosmos. I was left with the impression something catastrophic occurred in the dateless past. Isaiah 45:18 says YAHWEH did not create it in the state we read in the verses I've mentioned above. That's all for now. It's exciting. by Khauit

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  • Thanks, Philip. Here is Isiah 45:18: For this is what the Lord says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— he says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other. " Can you find something incongruous with the Genesis narratives , in Isiah ? Jan 23 at 2:29
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    – agarza
    Jan 23 at 4:29
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In beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the Earth. As for the earth, it came to be chaos and vacant, and darkness was over the face of the abyss.

In many translations, it says without form. Without form describes the abyss.

abyss /ə-bĭs′/ An immeasurably deep chasm, depth, or void.

: the bottomless gulf, pit, or chaos of the old

Abyss ABYSS (ἄβυσσος, G12, originally an adjective meaning bottomless, unfathomable, then a noun signifying a deep place). KJV trs. it “the deep” in Luke 8:31 and Romans 10:7, “bottomless” in Revelation 9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8 and 20:1, 3. RSV transliterates it as “abyss” in Luke and Romans, and trs. it “bottomless” [pit] throughout Revelation

The word abyss simply means “a deep hole”—so deep that it seems bottomless or immeasurable. The word is often used in modern contexts to describe the sea.

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