Historical Creation View – Part 4: The Meaning of Formless and Void

The planet Venus. What would “formless and void” look like? There is form here but what does that really mean?

I can’t go into all the issues that Sailhamer interacts with but I will try to hit some of the ones that are most important in distinguishing his ideas from some others.  Most of these will be explored in separate posts over the next few weeks.

1)      What is the meaning of the phrase “tohu wanabu”?  or, was the earth made formless and void?  Is the classic view based on a scientific worldview itself rather than a Biblical worldview?  (see below for the discussion of this topic)

2)      What is the relationships of Genesis 1 and the Pentateuch? (This will be Part 5)

3)      The relationships of Genesis 1 and 2?  Where was the Garden of Eden?  What is its relationships to the Promised Land? (This will be Part 6)

4)      What does “In the beginning” refer to and what does the phrase “heavens and earth” refer to?  A related question:  Is Genesis 1:1 a heading for the entire chapter or simply the beginning of the narrative?  This is probably the single most important question to be answered in evaluating Sailhamer’s hypothesis.  (This will be Part 7)

5)      Are the days referred to in Genesis 1 literal solar/24 hour/normal (take your pick) days? (This will be Part 7)


Question 1:  Was the Earth Made Formless and Void? 

One of the overriding themes of Sailhamer is that many previous translations of the Bible incorporated a scientific worldview.  This is best seen in the phrase “tohu wabohu” in Genesis 1:2 which is usually translated “formless and void.”  Sailhamer argues, I think convincingly, that this was in fact a capitulation to the Greek worldview.   He attempts to show that in the earliest translations of the Hebrew to  Greek and to English that the translators were very much influenced by the  Greek worldview of the universe. First the translators of the Septuagint  were primarily Hellenistic Jews who viewed the Greek way of looking at the  Cosmos as being nearly equivalent to the Biblical view and thus in their  translations made the Scripture fit what they thought was the correct  “scientific” world view. Later in the reformation when the Hebrew texts  were reexamined this phrase was so well known and seemed unobtrusive that  there was little thought about careful examination of its original  interpretive source. Sailhamer claims that many of the non-Hellenstic Jews had a tradition of not using the Septuagint and from the original  Hebrew interpreted this phrase as “wilderness” or “uninhabitable” rather  than formless and void.

If today’s Biblical interpreters can be influenced by today’s scientific  paradigm then we should expect that interpreters in the past would not also be  influenced by the world views of their time? Did Moses or whoever wrote  Genesis 1 and 2 really have in mind the idea of a primeval, chaotic mass  that was a prevalent idea in Greek mythology?  Sailhamer also gives the examples of the New Scofield Bible (1967) which goes as far as to interpret  this phrase as “an original formless matter in the first stage of the  creation of the universe.” Also Hugh Ross sees this as the state of the earth just after it had condensed from a primordial ball of gasses.  These are old earth creationists positions following the 1800s day-age theories that were created because of the APPARENT conflict between science and the Scriptures when what we really have is a change in scientific world  views such that the Scriptures having been already interpreted through the  eyes of the Greek worldview was not incompatible with the new science.

Digging a little deeper, Sailhamer finds that the pre-Christian era Judaism embraced at least two distinct social and religious communities.  There were the “Hellenistic” Jews who had been highly influenced by Greek language and culture.  On the other hand there were communities that resisted outside influences and attempted to preserve the languages and culture of the Jewish faith.  We could call these “Semitic” Jews.  Hellenistic interpretations such as represented in the Greek translation called the Septuagint clearly attempted to harmonize the biblical account of creation with prevailing Greek views of the origin of the universe.  These early Hellenist were convinced that the Scriptures and the Greek philosophies were the same view of the world (from the science standpoint).  Sailhamer sites other Jews in the pre-Christian era that consciously attempted to interpret Scripture from the Scripture itself but these interpretations were very much in the minority.  Now the Septuagint became deeply engrained in the early Church and the phrase formless and void still fit a common worldview at the time so no conflict was perceived.

Ok, but someone might say, Yeah, but when the reformation occurred Luther and Calvin and others were very self conscious about going back to the original Hebrew text and making a clear interpretation irrespective of Church tradition.  But remember formless and void though they may have been Greek tradition was still not a bad fit for the science of the days of the reformers so there wasn’t much reason to consider these words carefully.  As a result the Hebrew text was often interpreted in light of the creation traditions which were established by the Greek Bible.

The KJV rendered Genesis 1:2 “and the earth was without form and void…” and in the meaning was very much the idea of a primeval “unformed mass.”   What happened over time though is that the Greek worldview fell by the wayside with Copernicus, Newton etc.. and now this formless and void doesn’t really sound natural as it might have in the past.  But, interpreters continue to translate it in this fashion many times without considering the origins of the words.  Sailhamer goes on to show that there has been a small number of expositors throughout the ages that have maintained a different interpretation of the phrase “tohu wabohu”

Rather than go on summarizing let me just send some selections from one chapter of the book.   Quoting now from Genesis Unbound pg 63

“A void or a wilderness?

The early Jewish-Greek translations by such as Aquila (“empty and  nothing”) and Symmachus (“fallow and indistinct”) decidedly moved away from  the translation of the Septuagint. In doing so they showed a closer  affinity to other early Jewish interpreters. The early non-Greek versions such as the Aramaic Targums show no trace of the concepts found in the  Septuagint. We know, for example, that an early Aramaic Targum of Genesis  1 known as Neophyti I paraphrased the expression in Genesis 1:2 by  rendering it : desolate without human beings or beasts and void of all  cultivation of plants and of trees.” Rather than “formless and empty,” such a translation coveys the idea of “uninhabitable” and “wilderness” –  the correct sense of the Hebrew phrase.

According to the most natural reading of the Hebrew text, the land was  simply an “uninhabitable” or “inhospitable” stretch of “wasteland.” The  land was not a “formless and empty chaos.” When God made the world, the  land was not yet a place where human beings could dwell (Genesis 1:2). It  had not yet been prepared for their habitation. That, of course, is quite a different sense than the phrases “formless and empty” (NIV) of “without  form and void” (RSV) might imply! The Hebrew expression _tohu wabohu_ refers simply to a “wilderness” that  has not yet become inhabitable for human beings. It is the “wilderness”  for example, where the Israelites wandered for forty years, waiting to  enter the land (Deuteronomy 32:10).  Such a meaning for the Hebrew expression gifts quite well into the context of Genesis 1. Throughout this chapter God is depicted as preparing the land for mans’ habitation. Through the hand of God, the “wasteland”  is about to become the “promised land.” The immediate context of Genesis 1 (1:2, 9) suggests that the land was described as “formless and empty” primarily because “darkness” was upon the land and the land was “covered with water.” For those reasons the land was “uninhabitable.” The general context of chapter 1 would indicate that  the author meant the terms _tohu wabohu_ to describe the condition of the  land before God made it “good.”  Even a quick reading of the Hebrew text reveals an obvious wordplay  between the terms _tohu_ (“deserted”) and tob (“good”). Before God began His work, the land was “deserted” (tohu); then God made it “good” (tob).  In this sense, the description of the land in 1:2 is similar to the description of the land in 2:5-6. Both texts describe the land as “not yet” what it shall be. Having described the land as uninhabitable, the remainder of Genesis 1 portrays God as preparing the land for the place of  man’s dwelling. The description of the land as _tohu wabohu_ in verse  2a,then, plays a central role in the creation account. It describes the condition of the land before God’s gracious work prepared it for man’s  dwelling place.

From the Wilderness to the Promised Land

At the close of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy draws on this very imagery  (32:10) to depict Israel’s time of waiting in the wilderness before their  entry into the “good land.” God’s people must go through the wilderness to reach the _promised land_.  The prophets drew from the same source to picture God’s judgment of exile upon His disobedient people. When Israel disobeyed God, the land again became “uninhabitable” (tohu), and the people were sent into exile.  After the time of exile, the prophet Jeremiah said of Israel’s land: “I look at the land and it was formless and empty (tohu wabohu) and at the  heavens and their light was gone … the fruitful land was a desert”  (Jeremiah 4:23-26). Note that the promised land after the exile is described in precisely the same terms chosen earlier to picture the land before God prepared it for mankind at creation – not “void and empty,” but  “deserted and uninhabited.”   end quote from _Genesis Unbound_

Next we review Sailhamer’s views on Genesis 1 in the context of the Pentateuch

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