TOHU in Isaiah

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Sun Mar 31 03:39:26 EST 2002

>> As I read the text it seems to me to preclude the creation
>> of tohu by God. l'-thw br'h, I would think, is rather
>> unequivocal. It says that he didn't create [the earth]
>> chaotic. [..]
>Ian it requires being read in context. I think the NRSV represented that
>fairly well. I have little time at the moment to go into it, but read also
>Isa. 49.4 where thw clearly means "vain" (the KJV rendering I think) that
>would also work here. The point, beyond the three words you cite, is that
>God did not just stop with thw, but he formed and and fashioned it to be


I work on the notion that the word thw has a single 
"semantic core" and I went through all the examples a 
while back to see if it could be established. What that 
seems to me to be is the idea of confusion. The 
translator, when confronted with words whose 
significance is not straightforward and doesn't fit the 
known attempts to define them, will attempt to make 
sense of the word in its context. The context in 
Isa 49:4 has words which indicate lack of substance of 
the achievement referred to, hence the use of "vain" 
to the AV translation.  The word ryk can be used 
regarding vessels, indicating empty. hbl seems to 
indicate "vapour". Then we have thw. Each of these 
words has a tangible significance, while they are used 
here and elsewhere for the allusive significance they 
suggest. thw in Isa 49:4 doesn't mean "vain" and 
neither do the other words there I've mentioned. But 
the problem is posed by the translator who has to make 
meaning of it for the target audience. Look how the 
NRSV deals with the verse in an analogous manner:

But I have labored IN VAIN (ryk)
I have spent my strength 
  for NOTHING (thw) and VANITY (hbl)

Here is the Vulgate's approach:

in vacuum laboravi 
sine causa et vane fortitudinem meam 

Both make sense to us, though they are not really 
translations at all, more like paraphrases at this 
point (and probably the latter had a little influence 
on the former).

The following:

But I have laboured for emptiness
I have spent my strength
  for confusion and vapour

would make just as much sense to us as well I 

Now I may be wrong about the "semantic core" of the 
word. I am just using the same data as everyone 
else, though I am trying not to change the 
representation of it going into English. As I have 
said many times I don't know much about Hebrew at 
all so I am open to any other suggestion of a base 
significance of the word based on its usage, 
bearing in mind the lack of "abstract" words in 


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