A proper translation of the two Hebrew words tohuw and bohuw found in Genesis 1:2 aids in understanding the biblical creation story. These two Hebrew masculine nouns are translated “without form and void” in the King James Version and essentially all other present-day English Bibles. However, tohuw and bohuw are best translated “vacant and empty” to describe the complete absence of life on early Earth sometime after its creation in Genesis 1:1, but before God began creating plants, animals, and living things to fill the Earth.
1.1 Bohuw – Empty
1.2 Tohuw – Vacant
2.0 Tohuw and Bohuw
2.1 Rhyming words
2.2 Similar meaning
3.0 Translating Genesis 1:2
3.1 Incorrect translations
3.2 Improved translations
3.3 Exemplar Translation
Theologians have argued for years about the meaning of Genesis 1:2. Typically, supporters of young-Earth creation theology view Genesis 1:3 as the first day of creation. However, if God began creating on the first day in Genesis 1:3, then what are Genesis 1:1-2 describing? Some treat the first two verses as a summary of God’s creative acts. Others such as Henry Morris, a key figure in the young-Earth creation movement, treats these two verses as somewhat metaphorical. They describe the raw state of unformed matter out of which the Earth, Moon, and stars were later formed. In general, Genesis 1:1-3 are not viewed as having any chronological significance.
The translation of tohuw and bohuw as “vacant and empty” or “vacant and void” rather than “without form and void” supports a new conservative translation of Genesis Chapters 1 and 2. Tohuw and bohuw are a literal description of early Earth and the complete absence of biological life anywhere on the planet. A corrected translation forms the basis for a radically different explanation that strongly supports the Bible as truthful and trustworthy.
Tohuw (Strong’s 08414) and bohuw (Strong’s 0922) occur in Genesis 1:2 and are translated in the King James and New International Version of the Bible as shown below. Compare these two translations with the Exemplar Translation. Strong’s numbers appear in superscript next to the underlined words of interest. Words in italics are not in the original Hebrew text and are added for explanatory or grammatical purposes.
Bohuw, the last Hebrew word in the expression “without form and void” in Genesis 1:2, is the least controversial. The Wilhelm Gesenius Lexicon gives “emptiness” and “voidness” as the only two translations of the noun bohuw.1 The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon gives “emptiness” as the only translation of bohuw.2
The Hebrew word bohuw (Strong’s 0922) occurs 3 times in the Old Testament in as shown below and is translated “void” 2 times and “emptiness” 1 time in the KJV.3
In Genesis 1:2, bohuw is translated “empty” or “void” by virtually all English translations of the Bible. We can conclude that based on English translations of Genesis 1:2 and by examining all three occurrences in the Old Testament, bohuw can legitimately be translated “empty” or “void.”
Tohuw is the first Hebrew word in the expression “without form and void” in Genesis 1:2 and the more problematic of the two. Most of the difficulty in understanding this word is due to theological influence that has resulted in the incorrect translation of tohuw as “without form” in all present-day orthodox English Bibles.
The Wilhelm Gesenius Lexicon gives “emptiness” as a possible translation of the noun tohuw.4 The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon gives the English word “emptiness” as an acceptable translation of the noun tohuw.5 Based on its usage in the Old Testament, the basic meaning of tohuw is “vacant, empty or void.”
The King James and other Bible versions translate the Hebrew noun tohuw in an inconsistent manner. Tohuw (Strong’s 08414) occurs twenty times in nineteen verses (it occurs twice in 1 Samuel 12:21) in the Old Testament.6 When referring to a place that is physically empty, tohuw is often translated “wilderness, waste, empty place, barren, desert place, desolate, or uninhabited.” When tohuw refers to moral or intellectual emptiness, it is often translated “vain, vanity, nothing, or useless.”
In the nineteen verses where tohuw occurs, various Bible versions are quoted below to show that tohuw has been properly translated in some instances. Notice how tohuw is rendered based on its basic meaning of “empty” or “vacant.” The expression “without form” will not fit into the majority of these verses.
When the Genesis creation story is reconnected with the remainder of the Old Testament, the meaning of tohuw can be readily determined. From the above verses, the basic meaning of tohuw is “vacant, empty or void” and especially so when referring to a physical place. Isaiah 45:18 clearly points out that the Earth was made to be inhabited, rather than remain empty (tohuw).
Bohuw occurs three times in the Old Testament in Genesis, Isaiah, and Jeremiah and in each instance occurs with tohuw in the same verse. When used together, they emphasize a common theme when correctly translated as follows:
Use of the rhyming words tohuw and bohuw together in Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23 represent a style commonly found in the Old Testament. When Hebrew writers wanted to emphasize a point, they sometimes used two words with a similar meaning joined by a conjunction. Further emphasis was achieved through rhyming, as demonstrated by tohuw and bohuw.
In the English language, we often use words with similar meaning and a rhyming quality to emphasize a point. For example, when packing for a trip we may cram and jam our clothes into a suitcase. A policeman may cuff and stuff (arrest) a person who is caught speeding.
Many expressions found in the Bible contain two words with a similar meaning, joined by a conjunction. Some have a rhyming or poetical quality as follows:
In the above expressions, each pair of Hebrew words has a similar meaning and poetic quality. When translated into English, a significant loss of impact occurs when the rhyming sound is destroyed. In attempting to retain the poetical quality and meaning of the Hebrew text in Genesis 1:2, the best translation would be “vacant and void.” However, since “void” is not well understood by most people in the context of this verse, the Exemplar Translation uses “vacant and empty.”
Outside of Genesis 1:2, Isaiah 34:11 is one of two places in the Old Testament where tohuw and bohuw occur together in the same verse. Tohuw and bohuw have a similar meaning and are used together for emphasis. Isaiah 34:5-15 is a prophecy of God’s judgment upon Edom. God will pour out his vengeance and the land will be laid waste. Isaiah 34:11 uses stone mason terminology and describes stretching out a line of nothing over non-existent stones. There will be nothing to measure with or build with when God’s wrath has been poured out. The last portion of this verse is best translated:
Jeremiah 4:23 is the second instance in the Old Testament outside of Genesis where tohuw and bohuw occur in the same verse and are used together for emphasis. Jeremiah 4:23 has been mistranslated due to errant theological influence as illustrated by the Amplified Bible and The Message. Compare these two translations with the Exemplar Translation given below:
All of Jeremiah Chapter 4 is a prophecy against Judah and Jerusalem because of their disobedience to God. Through Jeremiah, God warns the Hebrew people that if they do not repent of their sin He is going to bring His wrath against them (Jer. 4:1-5). An invading army will punish Jerusalem and Judah (Jer. 4:6-8). Subsequent verses describe a future time when the land will be vacant and empty owing to its people being carried off as prisoners of war. The light in the sky will be obscured by smoke from the burning cities. This prophecy came true with the conquest of Judah and Jerusalem.
When Jeremiah 4:23 is examined in the context of other verses in Chapter 4 that describe the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah, then its meaning becomes quite clear. Jeremiah 4:23 has nothing to do with the creation or destruction of the Earth as a planet. All present-day English Bibles mistranslate Jeremiah 4:23 due to the influence of errant creation theology, since the expression tohuw and bohuw is the same as found in Genesis 1:2. The Hebrew text is best translated “vacant and empty.”
In viewing English Bible translations of Genesis 1:2, there has been a change in the way Genesis 1:2 has been translated throughout history. Rather than sound translation practice, change has been theologically driven. Translators and theologians changed the rendering of Genesis 1:2 to support theological explanations of traditional young-Earth creation theology.
The vast majority of Bible translators from the past to the present accept young-Earth creation theology. When the Bible began to be translated into English from the Hebrew text in the sixteenth century, young-Earth creation theology was the dominant belief. This theology was the predominant teaching of the church and there was little reason to question it. Theological dissent was highly frowned upon, if not actively persecuted. Bible translators typically made their translations agree with prevailing theology. This quickly became the accepted practice and the translation of several key words in the creation story became unique to Genesis.
A significant advantage we have today in developing an interpretative view of the Genesis creation account in our knowledge of history and science. It is highly improbable for Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 to be correctly explained in a historical and scientific vacuum. For example, it is impossible to know what a camel looks like from reading only scripture. Personal knowledge of the world helps flesh out this animal. In like manner, credible knowledge of early-earth history and firm scientific evidence in support of extensive time are invaluable in helping us understand the creation account. This knowledge clearly supports the trustworthiness of Genesis based on sound translation practices.
It appears that theological influence changed the translation of tohuw and bohuw to “without form and void” in the Geneva Bible of 1560. Most subsequent English Bibles adopted the same language. The Geneva Bible, King James, and The Message below reflect how Genesis 1:2 has been incorrectly translated. The Message grossly mistranslates the text and reflects a combination of bad theology and overactive imagination.
Genesis 1:2 is correctly rendered tohuw and bohuw as “void and empty” in some older translations such as William Tyndale’s Pentateuch of 1530 and the Myles Coverdale Bible of 1535. The Douay-Rheims Bible of 1899 also renders a correct translation, despite being based on the Greek Septuagint and prevailing theological influence.
The Exemplar Translation of Genesis 1:2 was developed based on strict adherence to sound translation practices. The words of Genesis are translated in an effort to achieve consistency and harmony with the remainder of the Old Testament. No special word translations applicable only to the creation story are allowed.
From an interpretative viewpoint, the first two verses of Genesis Chapter 1 give a non-metaphorical description of historical reality. The first two verses (Gen. 1:1-2) are not a summary of creative events, subsequently described in the remainder of chapter one. The first two verses are not bounded by evening and morning, and there is no timeframe reference. The first two verses lie outside the rigid structure of six literal days, subsequently described in the remaining text of chapter one. The first three verses (Gen. 1:1-3) occur in correct chronological order and need not be rearranged.
The first two vereses of Genesis Chapter 1 are best viewed as historical statements. The first verse (Gen. 1:1) is an absolute statement acknowledging God as creator of the heavens and Earth (the entire universe) when His actions initiated physical reality as we know it. The second verse (Gen. 1:2) describes Earth sometime after its creation. At that time the Earth was vacant and empty of life (biologically sterile), covered by deep water, and enveloped in darkness. This description agrees perfectly with scientific evidence about early Earth. Words in italics in the Exemplar Translation below are not in the Hebrew text but are added for explanatory purposes (similar to the KJV)
Tohuw and bohuw can be translated “vacant and empty” or “vacant and void” in the Genesis creation story with full biblical support. The illegitimate translation “without form and void” in Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23 besmirches the integrity of biblical scholarship. This illicit translation is found in virtually all English Bibles. The rhyming Hebrew words tohuw and bohuw correctly describe the complete absence of life on early Earth sometime after its formation in Genesis 1:1, but before God made the planet habitable and began creating plants and animals.
Why all the fuss over the translation of a single word? Any such discussion appears to an obsessive analysis of an irrelevant subject. However, the translation of tohuw is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to problems with the Genesis creation story. The poor translation of this word and other key words in Genesis Chapter 1 has resulted in the present irreconcilable conflict of the creation account with science in regard to time. A conflict that has caused Bible believers untold anguish.
To see how the above rendering of tohuw and bohuw is integrated into an explanation of Genesis that respects the Bible and solid scientific evidence in regard to time, read The Real Genesis Creation Story: A Credible Translation and Explanation at Last. No words, phrases or verses in the creation story are treated as metaphorical, mythological or untrue. To own your personal copy of this exciting new book click here AMAZON.COM to order or select from the side bar menu above.
1. Gesenius, Wilhelm (1846). Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, 1st ed. (translated by Samuel P. Tregelles) London: Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd. Retrieved on May 20, 2008 from http://www.eliyah.com/lexicon.html
2. Brown, Francis and S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs (1907). A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1978 printing. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press. p96.
3. Eliyah.com (2006). Strong’s Concordance – King James Version. Search on 0922. Retrieved on May 20, 2008 from http://www.eliyah.com/lexicon.html
4. Gesenius, Wilhelm (1846). Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, 1st ed. (translated by Samuel P. Tregelles) London: Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd. Retrieved on May 20, 2008 from http://www.eliyah.com/lexicon.html
5. Brown, Francis and S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs (1907). A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1978 printing. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press. p1062.
6. Eliyah.com (2006). Strong’s Concordance – King James Version. Search on 08414. Retrieved on May 20, 2008 from http://www.eliyah.com/lexicon.html