Chaos and Void
“In the beginning, Elohim created heaven and earth. And the earth had been tohu v’vohu.” Genesis 1:2
This week’s Torah portion, the creation story, contains one of my favorite phrases – “tohu v’vohu.” It is a near “hapax legomenon” – a word or phrase that only appears once in the Biblical text. Hapax legomenons are fun (admittedly in a geeky kind of way) because theoretically, they can mean almost anything.
“The earth had been nothing and endless.”
“The earth had been dense particles and a big bang.”
“The earth had been ruled by hierarchy of gods and demigods.”
“The earth had been fudge brownie and blueberry pie.”
Creation is seen as an essential question and its answer as a litmus test for our personal philosophical or theological views – scientific, spiritual or a little bit of both? But, to me, what existed before the world as we know it is an equally as interesting question. How we translate “tohu v’vohu” speaks volumes about our approach to the world and our role in it. In this case, translation clearly is interpretation.
- Most typically, “tohu v’vohu” is translated to mean “chaos and void” or “unformed and void." In this interpretation, creation’s function was creating order and meaning.
- Many evangelical Christians translate it as “formless and empty.” This interpretation implies nothingness before divine intervention.
- Gnostics, fundamentalists in the first millennium, understood “tohu v’vohu” as actual primordial matter – the divine clay and mortar of the universe. This interpretation indicates their literal, unbending approach.
- Contemporary Biblical scholar Everett Fox translates it as “wild and waste.” In this interpretation, the primordial world was fraught with danger but also poetic potential.
How would you translate “tohu v’vohu”? Or, should I say, interpret it? I’d love to know.
“Towho v’vohu” has entered the vernacular. In contemporary German, the phrase “tohuwabohu” means everyday chaos, messiness and commotion. A hullabaloo. Before creation, the world had been “tohuwabohu” – like a teenager’s closet. The phrase is especially popular in Austria, where it has used as the title for a television show and a novel – translated as “rioteous assembly.” It even has made its way into French and Swiss German dictionaries.
For our family, “towho v’vohu” has special meaning. Over 20 years ago, as newlyweds, David and I adopted our first dog – a Sheltie who we named “Toewho' and I affectionately called “Little Chaos Cohen.” Our long-term plan had been a second dog name “Vowho.” But, Toewho answered also to Vowho – proving he was a hapax legomenon, a “one and only.” And, in retrospect, one Sheltie was plenty of “tohuwabohu” for our household!