The two Hebrew words tohuw (Strong’s 08414) and bohuw (Strong’s 0922), found in Genesis 1:2, are translated “without form and void” in the King James Version and all other present-day English Bibles. However, tohuw and bohuw are best translated “vacant and empty” and describe the complete absence of life on early Earth sometime after its creation in Genesis 1:1, but before God began creating plants and animals. Compare the KJV against the exemplar translation below where tohuw and bohuw are underlined and accompanied by their Strong’s number in superscript. Words in italics in the exemplar translation are not in the Hebrew text but have been added for explanatory purposes.
Bohuw, the last Hebrew word in the expression “without form and void” 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 word bohuw (Strong’s 0922) occurs 3 times in the Old Testament in Genesis 1:2, Isaiah 34:11, and Jeremiah 4:23, 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 (1) English Bible translations of Genesis 1:2 and (2) by examining all three occurrences in the Old Testament, bohuw can legitimately be translated “empty.”
Tohuw is the first word in the expression “without form and void” and the more problematic of the two. Most of the difficulty in understanding this word is due to theological influence. Theological persuasion has resulted in the incorrect translation of tohuw as “without form” in Genesis 1:2 in all present-day 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 “void, empty or vacant.” The term “vacant” is used in the exemplar translation, since “void” is not commonly used in English and “empty” would be repetitious.
The King James Version and other Bible versions translate tohuw in an inconsistent manner. Tohuw (Strong’s 08414) occurs twenty times in nineteen verses in the Old Testament (it occurs twice in 1 Samuel 12:21).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 “void, empty or vacant” 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).
Use of the words tohuw and bohuw together in Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23 represent a style commonly found in the Old Testament and in present-day speech. 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. This style is often used in the English language. For example, when packing for a trip we may “cram and jam” our clothes into a suitcase. There are many expressions found in the Bible that contain two words with a similar meaning, joined by a conjunction. Some have a rhyming or poetical quality as follows:
In Hebrew, each pair of words in the above expressions have 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 of the Hebrew text in Genesis 1:2, the best translation would be “void and vacant.” 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, Jeremiah 4:23 is the only other place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew words tohuw and bohuw occur together and are translated “vacant and empty”. To understand what Jeremiah is saying, one must realize that all of Chapter 4 is a prophecy against Judah and Jerusalem because of their disobedience to God (reading all of Chapter 4 is suggested). 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). Several verses in Chapter 4 describe this future time when the land will be vacant and empty owing to its people being carried off as prisoners of war.
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 both old and new Bible translations of Genesis 1:2, 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 Message below reflect how Genesis 1:2 has been translated over time based on a combination of bad theology and a creative imagination (especially the Message).
Tohuw and bohuw in Genesis 1:2 are correctly translated as “void and empty” in some older works such as William Tyndale’s Pentateuch of 1530 and the Myles Coverdale Bible of 1535. The Douay-Rheims Bible of 1899 renders a correct translation, despite theological influence. Compare these older versions with the exemplar translation given below:
Tohuw and bohuw can be translated “vacant and empty” or “vacant and void” in the 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 two words? The discussion seems almost irrelevant. However, these two words are just the tip of the iceberg with respect to translation problems with the Genesis creation story. The poor translation of these two words 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