“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was ‘tohu vabohu’…” without form and void.

During seminary one requirement placed on us as students is that we had to work in a church. God opened doors and I was able to be one of many interns at a church in downtown Atlanta. During our time there, one particular Monday morning stands out to me still to this day. We had staff meetings on Monday mornings to talk over the previous day’s service as well as the service coming up. On this particular Monday the senior pastor was a few minutes late, so all the staff and interns were in the room as the pastor arrived. He walked in, sat down, looked at all of us interns with a scowl on his face, and said, ‘Tohu vabohu.’ We had no idea what he had just said, sounded like just a bunch of voodoo juju to us. He could tell we we’re confused so he went on to explain that ‘toho vabohu’ are the main words in Genesis 1:2 which describe the state of creation before v3, meaning “without form and void.” Come to find out, we had done something totally wrong as interns and this was his way of calling us out and correcting us.

Well we’re now in our second week of our new sermon series in Genesis. Last week we covered 1:1, and this week we’ll cover 1:2. There are 1,533 verses in the book of Genesis, if we keep up this 1 verse a sermon pace we’ll finish the whole of Genesis in 29 years. I’m well aware of my snail like pace here in these first few verses of Genesis 1. Be encouraged, I will pick up the speed soon, but for now, the snail pace is needed simply because such monumental realities are before us in these opening verses.

Last week in covering Genesis 1:1 I mentioned that v1 functions as an opening summary statement of God’s work in creating all things. Now, as we begin v2, we actually come to the moment God begins the work of creation. And how does it all begin? In darkness.

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

I’d like to do two things here for our time in v2. First, I’d like to see v2 for what it is and what it means, simply, clearly, and plainly. Second, I’d like to pull out some consequences of v2, aiming at how v2 sets up almost all of God’s redemptive work in the rest of the Bible.

The Verse

v2 has three clear phrases to it.[1] First phrase, “The earth was without form and void…” Second phrase, “…and darkness was over the face of the deep.” Third phrase, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Let’s take these one at a time to see the whole of v2.

First, “The earth was without form and void…”

The beginning of v2 may be surprising but here we find the condition of creation as it was before the famous words of v3, “Let there be light.” Once those words begin flowing in v3 and onward, creation will be filled with all manner of good things. But here in v2, it all begins, tohu vabohu, without form and void. What do these two words mean? Tohu, or without form, generally refers to a wilderness or desolation like state. The va sound is the Hebrew word and. Bohu, or void, generally refers to the lack of anything living.

Genesis 1 is not the only time these two words are found in Scripture. Their found together in two other places. In Jeremiah 4:23 we find both these words used. Because of the sin of God’s people Jeremiah uses the phrase tohu vabohu to describe how God is going to punish them for their sin and bring them as a people back to formlessness and emptiness. Or in other words, for their sin God will undo or uncreate them.[2] So just as God had established His people in the land He chose for them and made them flourish, now for their sin He will reduce His people to a barren and empty condition.[3]Isaiah also uses these two words found in Genesis 1:2 in Isaiah 34:11 to communicate much of the same reality as Jeremiah but this time it’s the nations being judged for their sin, not God’s people.

Now…question. That these two words are used by Isaiah and Jeremiah to display God’s judgment against sin, does that mean judgment is being displayed here in v2? That somehow the formless empty creation exists, or is there at all, because God had previously judged sin leaving this barren like result? Some do say this. Some teach there was a whole creation in v1-2 and that it went bad and God judged it and started over with a new creation in v3. This view is wrong. Why? Because sin doesn’t come into the world until Genesis 3. So the formless void state of creation in v2 is not there because of God’s judgment. When v2 states creation is without form and void we should view it as just that, not a metaphorical or poetic statement vaguely referring to the emptiness of creation before God spoke, but the actual formless and empty state of creation before v3.[4]

A new question then comes, if God’s judgment against sin is not in view in v2, why is creation like this? That’s a good question, and we’ll answer after looking at the whole verse.

Second, “…and darkness was over the face of the deep.”

Creation begins not only formless and void, it begins in darkness, and the darkness is said to be over the deep. This is not merely a restatement of what we just covered, creation being formless and void, this new phrase adds more detail to the scene unfolding before us. Darkness and the deep now come into view.

Darkness can just mean the absence of light. After all God hasn’t created light yet, true, but I think there’s more in view here. Darkness in Scripture has both a negative and positive sense.[5] We understand the negative sense easily. All over Scripture everything that is anti-God is said to be darkness. This includes Satan along with his demons. It includes all sin or deeds of darkness, as well all those who commit sin, they’re not only said to be in the darkness but that they are darkness themselves. That’s the negative sense. But there’s a positive sense to darkness in the Bible too. Rather than being threatening, sinister, or sinful this kind of darkness carries the sense of the divine as well as a protective sense as it guards sinful man from the purity and holiness of God. After the giving of the Law in Exodus 20 Moses told the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of Him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:20). Then in the very next verse we read this, “The people stood far off, while Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:21). This darkness on Mt. Sinai is where God dwelt. It wasn’t sinful or evil, it was what happened when God in His glory came down to meet His people on the mountain, and it was terrifying to Israel, not just because it was dark and scary but because they knew how holy this God was and unholy they were. Psalm 18 also shows us this, speaking of darkness as something that surrounds God. In Psalm 18:9 darkness is said to be under His feet. Then in Psalm 18:11 we read, “God made darkness His covering, His canopy around Him, thick clouds dark with water.” So rather than darkness being an image or metaphor for sin or evil, the darkness present in Genesis 1:2, the darkness present in the beginning of creation, is the canopy of the Lord, or the shadow or covering of the Lord that points to His awesome, holy, and fearful presence.

What about the deep? I think the mention of the deep is another way of referring to the empty void we’ve already seen in the first phrase of v2, or it could refer to the waters we’re about to see the last phrase of v2, or maybe better it could refer to both of the terms we’ve seen: empty void and the waters. I think this is the case. And no surprise, this is also spoken of in the rest of the Bible. In Psalm 42:7 we read that “The deep calls out to deep…” In Habakkuk 3:10 the deep gives forth a strong voice. And Psalm 148:7 mentions the great deeps which praise the Lord. This word deep in v2 gives us the picture that even here in the very beginning of creation, this dark void knows who its Maker is and delights to sound forth with praise to Him. Many other ancient Near Eastern religions around Israel mention a deep watery abyss in their own creation stories, some of them even use this very same word for deep. But while the word might be the same or similar all of the deeps in the pagan creation stories are represented as being an active force against a god or gods who are trying to create the world. Here in Genesis 1 we see no such thing.[6] These are the deeps that covered the earth in the flood at God’s command. These are the deeps that separated the Red Sea at God’s command to let Israel walk through safely after the Exodus. And these are the deeps that, at God’s command, separate the waters of the Jordan before Joshua to allow Israel to enter the promise land. So these deeps in v2 are made by God, they do not rival God, they are subject to God, and they give forth praise to God.[7]

Third, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Last week I said Genesis 1:1 assumes that God is triune. Now in v2 we see some of the first explicit evidence of it. Here we see the Spirit of God “…hovering over the face of the waters.” This word Spirit in Hebrew is ruah and based on context it can be translated as spirit, wind, or breath. Many debate over which word is best suited in English, but I’m a fan of all three. I think the Israelites reading this would not have struggled at all with which word to use, but would’ve by their own experience understood exactly what was going on here. Why?[8] This same word ruah used here, is used in Gen. 8:1 to describe how God blew back the waters of the flood. Ruah is also used in Exodus 14:21 to explain how God drove apart and split the Red Sea by a strong wind so Israel could walk through. And in Deut. 32:11 the image of hovering is used to illustrate how an eagle hovers over its young to protect and care for them. So what do we learn from all these other references? When the word ruah shows up we know God is present in power to work wonders for His people and protect His people. Question: how is the Lord present with His people in great power and great protection? Answer: by His Spirit. So this last phrase in v2 shows us how God is sovereignly and powerfully present, in His work of creation, to lead it, to see to and tend it, and to prepare it for what’s to come. That v2 ends like this shows us all creation, though dark and empty, is ripe and pregnant with God’s almighty power, right on the brink of bursting forth with all manner of life and light.

All in all, everything we just went over is what’s going on in v2? This is the state of creation in the very beginning.

The Implications

That v2 begins the way it does raises a question.[9] Where did this empty, dark, watery, void come from? We already stated it is not the result of God’s judgment, as some say. Others would have us believe creation is the way it is in v2 because this formless watery void was the primordial stuff God used to make the world. Well if this is true it would someone or something other than God made this dark watery abyss, and if God didn’t make it, God is no longer God, that something else that made this darkness is. Which of course, cannot be right, because God made the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. Still others would say the language of v2 is metaphorical, merely referring to the emptiness of the uncreated world. Which, I also think is wrong. This is actual empty darkness, actual watery void, that actually tells us what creation was like before v3.

So back to the question: who made this empty, dark, watery, void? And why is creation the way it is in v2? Answer: God made it. This is how God begins His work of creation.

I know we’re not accustomed to saying things like ‘God makes darkness’ and the like, because we think to say something like this makes God out to be a sinister figure or a kind of villain. But we’ve already seen much evidence that darkness doesn’t always refer to sin and evil, but very often refers to that majestic canopy surrounding the Lord. Listen to Isaiah 45:5-7, “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know Me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides Me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Did you hear it? God creates both light and darkness, and that He does this singles Him out as absolutely unique, matchless, and unrivaled. So why is all this darkness there in v2? Because God made it. And in making this formless, dark, watery, void we see His first act of creating in His work of creation.

Now, let’s ask a new question. Why did God begin His work of creation by making this dark empty void? Couldn’t God just have begun by skipping this step and begin with what we see in v3? Of course He could’ve done that, but v2 says He didn’t, and that this darkness came first. So why create all this dark void first? Because God’s displaying His normal method of operation.[10] God wants us to know that He is a God who brings light out of darkness.

Tell me Church, where else do we see this pattern in Scripture? Almost everywhere. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of Adam and Eve’s sin by covering their shame and promising a Redeemer. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of Noah’s day by the ark and the flood. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of Abraham and Sarah’s barren condition by the birth of Isaac. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of Joseph’s slavery by his sovereign hand. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of Israel’s slavery by the Exodus. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of David’s kingship by promising him an Kingly descendant and an eternal throne. Light is what God brought about in Isaiah’s suffering servant turned conquering King. Light is what God brought about in the darkness of Israel in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. And fast forward on that first Christmas night, light is what God brought about in the darkness of the world’s condition by the birth the Lord Jesus. And still today, light is what God brings about in the darkness of every sinner who turns to Jesus in faith. And one day still to come, light is what God will bring in full as He returns and ushers in the New Heaven’s and the New Earth.

Church, these first few verses in Genesis 1 show us that God is a God who brings light out of darkness! This marvelous pattern begins right here in v2. That’s why He made all this darkness before creating light. So that into such a dark void He could say the beautiful words of v3, “Let there be light!”

Conclusion:

So Church, in whatever darkness you’re facing right now today in your own life, take hope, and be of good cheer. God is still today the God of Genesis 1, and He delights in bringing light to our darkness.


[1] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, NAC (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H, 1996), 130.

[2] Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 108.

[3] Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 132–133.

[4] John D. Currid, Genesis 1:1-25:18, EP Study Commentary (Holywell, UK: Evangelical Press, 2015), 58.

[5] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 110–111.

[6] Ibid., 111.

[7] Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 134.

[8] Ibid., 135–136.

[9] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 115.

[10] Derek Kidner, Genesis (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 50.

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