We receive today’s Genesis text at the Easter vigil every year and sometimes in the Sunday lectionary as well – it’s a fairly familiar story. But today I want to dwell deeply with the first few verses. Let’s look at them together in a few versions.
1. New Revised Standard Version (the Episcopal Church’s usual translation):
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
2. Robert Alter’s translation:
When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, Let there be light. And there was light.
3. Everett Fox’s translation:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters – God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
I want to spend a little time with some of the most interesting words here. First, “the Deep” – translated variously as Ocean, Waters, Abyss. The Hebrew word is tehom. The waters before Creation. An image that makes me think of finding fossils in Door County – fossils from the Silurian period, 400 million years ago, when living things were just starting to take forms complex enough to be preserved in stone. An image that makes me think, too, of the watery darkness of the womb.
This idea of “the deep” is part of ancient cosmology – how the ancient Hebrews, and other peoples as well, thought of the world. There were the waters above the dome of the sky; the waters here on the surface with us; and the waters under the earth.
Sometimes tehom simply means subterranean water, an important resource in a dry land, like in Deuteronomy 8: “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters [tehom] welling up in valleys and hills…” In the great flood in Genesis, it’s not just the endless rain that causes the flood; it’s also that “the great deep” bursts open. The waters under the earth rise up and overflow.
The Red Sea – which the people Israel cross as they flee bondage in Egypt to begin a new life as God’s people – the Red Sea is described using the word Tehom, in the song of triumph after the crossing and in Psalm 106, re-telling that sacred history centuries later: “God rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; God led them through the Deep as through a desert.”
Tehom is also used in many texts talking about the scope of God’s power and wisdom. In the Book of Job God asks Job how he dares to challenge God’s judgment, when God knows the very mysteries of Creation: “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16)
Tehom shows up a LOT in the Psalms; here’s an example from Psalm 33: “By your word, O God, were the heavens made…You gather up the waters of the ocean as in a water-skin and store up the depths of the sea.”
So the Deep, Tehom, is both ecological and mythological… there’s mystery and power here, and danger. The deeps are something only God has the power to comprehend and contain.
Let’s turn to the next evocative phrase – formless void, “welter and waste” – in Hebrew, tohu vebohu, tohu and Bohu. The Complete Jewish Bible renders it as: “Astonishingly empty.” One translation of the Septuagint has: “Unsightly and unfurnished” – like a poorly-maintained apartment…
The word tohu is used other places in the Bible, and variously translated as formless, waste (as in both wasteland and wasteful), futile, vain, useless, empty, wild, chaos, meaningless, desolate, confusion. “Bohu” is not really a word on its own. It would be like saying “turvy” without also saying “topsy.”
This exact phrase, tohu veboho, tohu and boho, appears three times in the Old Testament. The second and third times are both intentional allusions to this, Genesis 1, the first time. In Isaiah 34, the phrase shows up in an oracle against the land of Edom, a neighboring nation who who collaborated with Babylon in the conquest of Judea: “From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it for ever and ever. But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it; the owl and the raven shall live in it. God shall stretch over it the line of welter, the weight-stones of waste.”
The prophet foresees – and/or hopes – that this enemy nation will be given over to the creatures of the wilderness, and returned to primordial waste. Just a few verses later comes a beautiful text we sometimes read in Advent: The wilderness shall rejoice and blossom… there shall be streams in the desert.
Then, in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, a similar word is spoken to Judea herself. Jeremiah is the prophet of the conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. He spent decades crying out that God’s people, and especially their leaders, had gone wrong in fundamental and destructive ways, and that doom was coming unless they turned back to God and to righteousness. In chapter 4 the prophet speaks: “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you…Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste…. I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no human there, and all the birds of the air had fled.”
God creates humanity… but in Jeremiah’s vision, there are no humans left. God speaks light into being… but in Jeremiah’s vision, all is dark. God creates out of waste and void… and in Jeremiah’s vision, collective human willfulness and wrong turns the earth back to waste and void. Tohu and bohu.
That passage concludes, “For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” We know – because we have 26 centuries of hindsight – that Judea and Jerusalem were destroyed by the armies of Babylon. It was unspeakably terrible. And yet God did not make a full end. There was, eventually, renewal and restoration. And God’s people learned new things about God and about faithfulness during their time of exile and grief.
The Deep, Tehom, and the empty wasteland of Tohu and Bohu, are distinct, but alike. Fearful yet fruitful. Beyond comprehension, yet full of potential. In many ancient myths, Creation involves violent mastery of some primeval chaotic force. Some god or hero fights and defeats the monster of the abyss, and gains the power to make the world.
There is no violence in our creation story. God simply invites the light into being…. Let there be light! And everything else, after it. Genesis and Jeremiah tell us that God’s ongoing creation of the world involves continually inviting tehom and tohu, all that is wild and strange, without form or meaning, into purpose and life and growth.
But it’s a delicate balance. There’s a temptation to read this as Order versus Chaos. But it’s nowhere near that simple. There are hints in Job and Isaiah and elsewhere that the wilderness and the creatures who live there delight God, even as they terrify humans. Chaos can be fruitful, and order can be evil. The Babylonian army, for example, was VERY organized. So was the Third Reich. Order is a core value of fascism.
Andre and Mary-Anne Rabe write this about the first verses of Genesis: “[God] is more than what is known and ordered. This God is present too in the unknown, the unordered, the unformed, the unexplained… The kind of order in which chaos is an enemy, becomes oppressive, manipulating and ever more rigid…
The only way in which order can retain its beauty is by embracing chaos as a friend… It is in nurturing this playful relationship that new meaning, new beauty, and renewed order is possible. … The tohu wa-bohu is more than the opposite of order – it’s a different kind of order. It is more than nothing, it’s the possibility of everything…”
My friend, Rabbi Betsy Forester, introduced me to a story from the Babylonian Talmud, a holy text of the Jewish people that comments on and expands the Hebrew Bible. On a recent Sunday we had a reading about King David’s desire to build a house for God, a great temple, in Jerusalem. Well, the Talmud says that David got as far as digging the foundations for the Temple. But he dug down so far that he allowed the Deep – Tehom – to rise up and threaten to flood the world.
David quickly wrote the Name of God on a potsherd and threw it into the Deep… which dropped down again, sixteen thousand cubits. The very name of the Holy One had the power to contain those chaotic waters.
BUT – then David realized that the Deep had dropped too far. Those primeval, mysterious waters have to be close to the surface of the earth in order to provide water for springs and wells. So David composed a set of songs, known as the Psalms of Ascent, and the Deep rose up fifteen thousand cubits –
to settle just one thousand cubits below the surface of the land. Where those mysterious, threatening yet life-giving waters could continue to nourish life.
Which brings us to baptism.
John is a prophet, in the grand Old Testament tradition. Wearing funny clothes, living in a funny place, telling people that big change is coming and if they’re smart, they’ll change themselves NOW and beat the rush. This practice of baptism he introduces – dunking people in the Jordan River, as an outward sign of their repentance and commitment to turn away from sin – it’s most likely an adaptation of some Jewish customs of ritual washing, which were also ways to set yourself right with God.
Christian baptism builds on this foundation – baptism as we practice it, and to the extent that we understand it, is about repentance and cleansing; it’s also about passing through Christ’s death and into his risen life, being named as part of God’s great family, and indelibly marked by the Holy Spirit.
Placing these verses from Genesis alongside the baptism of Jesus calls forward a connection that’s there in Scripture but that’s easy for us to miss. John and Jesus both choose to spend time in the wilderness, a wild, desolate, empty place – a tohu place. And when people come to John for baptism, he wades out into the river with them, puts his hands on their head, and pushes them down under the water. Into the deep.
The Biblical text doesn’t use that word there but our baptismal liturgy explicitly connects the waters of baptism with the Deeps before Creation and the Deeps of the Exodus from Egypt: “We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ.”
Placing these verses from Genesis alongside the baptism of Jesus invites us to reflect on baptism – our baptism, which Jesus’ baptism foreshadows – as an encounter with chaos, void, primordial winds and waters.. through which God carries us safely.
What we actually *do* in a baptism is not frightening. It’s calm and contained. Very little water is involved. (Although I am VERY ready to do a baptism in Lake Mendota or the body of water of your choice!)
But just as in the Eucharist a bit of bread and a sip of wine are in some way beyond our perception also consuming the body and blood of Jesus Christ,
given for us as a sign of complete self-giving love – so in baptism a little water poured upon someone’s head is in some mystical sense our journey into the Deep, a dive down into the rich and terrifying depths of Tehom.
It is our sojourn in the wilderness, wild, empty, and unformed. And it is our journey back to the land of the living, enriched and transformed by those strange and holy primeval energies which offer us the possibility of everything.
With all that in our hearts, minds, and spirits, let us renew our baptismal vows.
Andre & Mary-Anne Rabe’s essay: https://alwaysloved.net/2020/03/30/tohu-wa-bohu-gods-relationship-to-chaos/