tohu vabohu (was: Re: new subscriber)

George Athas gathas at mail.usyd.edu.au
Mon Nov 29 15:54:54 EST 1999


> On the matter of "tohu vabohu," I passed the following along to Michael,
> and thought I'd see what it generates on the list as well.
>
> >Finally, when I studied Genesis. . . the professor pointed out that the
> expression "tohu vabohu" appears in just one other place in the Bible
> (Jeremiah, which you noted in your original post), but there it seems to be
> simply quoting Genesis. He went on to point out that there are no such
> words in modern Hebrew, or in any other sample of ancient Hebrew that we
> have. This makes it a "hapax legomenon," which means we have no way of
> knowing what it means, except from what we can derive from the context.

Actually, "hapax legomenon" means "a word mentioned only once". This shouldn't be used
with reference to the words _tohu_ and _bohu_. The word 'tohu' occurs in the following
biblical references:

-Gen 1:2
-1 Sam 12:21
-Job 26:7
-Isa 24:10
-Isa 34:11
-Isa 40:17
-Isa 41:29
-Isa 44:9
-Isa 45:18, 19
-Isa 45:19
-Isa 59:4
-Jer 4:23

Of particular note are Isa 40:17 and 41:29, in which the word _tohu_ is paralleled with
the word _'ephes_, which means "nothing" or "nought" or "none". The idea of _tohu_ is that
it refers to something that has no substance, no essence, no worth, no implicit existence
of its own. The context of the references mentioned above help to elucidate this.

The word _bohu_ occurs in:

-Gen 1:2 (along with _tohu_)
-Isa 34:11 (along with _tohu_)
-Jer 4:23 (along with _tohu_)

Since the Gen and Jer references are practically identical, the Isa reference is most
instructive. It comes in an oracle directed primarily against Edom in which Yahweh
threatens to make Edom a haunt of wierd and wild animals because of its destruction.
Yahweh threatens to knock the building of Edom down to stretch over it a "line of _tohu_
and stones of _bohu_." The implication is that the cities of Edom will no longer exist.
The builder's line of "non-existence" will be brought to bear over the towns and the
building stones will be knocked down, disordered, disarrayed, made chaotic, featureless,
void and vacant. That is the implication of _bohu_.

I don't think there are single words in English that accurately portray all the import of
_tohu_ and _bohu_. The closest we can get, I think, are "without substance" and
"disarrayed" respectively.

Best regards,
George Athas
 Dept of Semitic Studies,
 University of Sydney
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