The biblical concept tohu va-vohu is translated in our English bibles as “without form and empty” or “formless and void.” The term is intended to describe a situation of utter disorder, confusion or chaos. In the German translations tohu va-vohu is translated as “chaotic and empty” (wüst und leer). So, where does the Hebrew phrase tohu va-vohu come from, and what does it really mean?
Tohu va-vohu consists of the two words tohu and vohu (תהו ובהו), which are found in this form only three times in the Bible. “And the earth was formless and void (תהו ובהו), and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The exact combination of words (tohu va-vohu) is only found in one other place in the Bible. It appears in a vision given to the prophet Jeremiah describing the condition of a nation after war. Jeremiah describes the earth as tohu va-vohu: he no longer sees any light or any birds in the skies, the cities are destroyed and the land is devastated. “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void (תהו ובהו); and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jeremiah 4:23). The words appear together for a third time in a divided form in one other verse. “But pelican and hedgehog shall possess it, and owl and raven shall dwell in it; and He shall stretch over it the line of desolation (תהו) and the plumb line of emptiness (ובהו)” (Isaiah 34:11). It is true to say that tohu va-vohu indicates something in the nature of nothingness.
Tohu and vohu actually originate from two other Hebrew words, toheh (תוהה) and boheh (בוהה). Toheh can be translated as “he wonders about” or “he ponders.” Boheh means something like “to stare in astonishment or amazement.” Thus tohu va-vohu takes on an additional or different meaning, as if “someone is staring in wonder and amazement at the unfolding events.” It is probable that the biblical translations of the phrase to “formless and empty” originated from this idea.
In other passages of Scripture, tohu and vohu appear separately. “All the nations are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless (תהו)” (Isaiah 40:17). “He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless (תהו)” (Isaiah 40:23). In order to understand the difficult concepts in the Bible, we have to look for these words in a variety of verses and compare them in context. “No one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly, they trust in confusion/empty words (תהו), and speak lies…” (Isaiah 59:4). “They wandered in the wilderness in a desert region (תהו)” (Psalm 107:4).
Tohu and vohu reflect the idea of someone looking into the distance and comprehending nothing. From this came the concept of nothingness, a wilderness, chaos and incomprehensibility. Tohu va-vohu in this context suggests that before God’s intervention, the earth was something strange and inexplicable, something that people could only wonder about and stare at in amazement. As if one were looking into nothingness with no understanding of what they were looking at. This raises questions about the origination of the translation “formless and void.”