tohu vabohu (was: Re: new subscriber)

peter_kirk at peter_kirk at
Tue Nov 30 19:43:18 EST 1999

Another thought on "tohu webohu", espcially as the second word occurs 
only in close relationship with the first. In Azerbaijani, I think in 
Farsi, and also in Russian as spoken in Azerbaijan, there is a common 
colloquial idiom in which a word is repeated with its first consonant 
replaced by "m" on the second occurrence, with the meaning "and that 
sort of thing". The second word is thus actually a nonsense word if 
taken separately. For example, "harj" means "disorder" (weakened in 
Arabic from the Hebrew HRG = "kill"), and "harj-marj" means "time of 
disorder, chaos, anarchy"; and I heard "Andrey-mandrei" meaning 
"Andrei and people like him".

Could it be that this sort of thing, which can easily spread from 
language to language as I have seen, may be happening with "b" 
(another bilabial consonant) rather than "m" in Hebrew? This would 
make "bohu" actually a nonsense word, and the hendiadys "tohu webohu" 
would be a close equivalent of "harj-marj".

Peter Kirk

______________________________ Reply Separator _________________________________
Subject: Re: tohu vabohu (was: Re: new subscriber)
Author:  <gathas at> at Internet
Date:    29/11/1999 15:54

> 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 b
with reference to the words _tohu_ and _bohu_. The word 'tohu' occurs in the 
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 parallel
the word _'ephes_, which means "nothing" or "nought" or "none". The idea of _toh
is that
it refers to something that has no substance, no essence, no worth, no implicit 
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
instructive. It comes in an oracle directed primarily against Edom in which 
threatens to make Edom a haunt of wierd and wild animals because of its 
Yahweh threatens to knock the building of Edom down to stretch over it a "line o
and stones of _bohu_." The implication is that the cities of Edom will no longer
The builder's line of "non-existence" will be brought to bear over the towns and
building stones will be knocked down, disordered, disarrayed, made chaotic, 
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
Tel Dan Inscription Website 
< gathas@ >

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