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James A. Diamond





Creating Order from Tohu and Bohu



APA e-journal

James A. Diamond





Creating Order from Tohu and Bohu






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Creating Order from Tohu and Bohu

God encounters the primordial תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (tohu and bohu), dividing it into its constituent parts and reshaping it into a wiser, more orderly world, a task entrusted to humans thereafter.


Creating Order from Tohu and Bohu

Tohu-Bohu, Bernard Thomas-Roudeix, 1971. Wikimedia

At the beginning of creation, God encounters primordial material:

בראשׁית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
Gen 1:1 In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, 1:2 the earth was tohu and bohu, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.[1]

The terms darkness, waters, and depths are familiar, but the word-pair tohu and bohu, which signifies a murky state of being and is generally translated “unformed and void,” is difficult to translate precisely.[2]

Tohu on its own appears elsewhere in the Bible, but bohu never appears on its own, and may be a kind of nonsense word meant to accompany tohu in an alliterative pattern. It appears likely, therefore, that the term tohu and bohu was designed to express the primordial state of the universe before creation. Thus, the two other places that phrase tohu and bohu appears in the Bible probably used the term with some form of this story in mind. A look at each of these sources can help us better understand what the terms convey.

Isaiah: Turning Edom into Tohu and Bohu

Isaiah uses the terms to describe the devastation God will wreak on the Edomites, the enemies of Israel. The prophet first describes the scene of God’s attack as covered in the smoke of an undying fire, reminiscent of the primordial times when there was no distinction between night and day:

ישׁעיה לד:י לַיְלָה וְיוֹמָם לֹא תִכְבֶּה לְעוֹלָם יַעֲלֶה עֲשָׁנָהּ מִדּוֹר לָדוֹר תֶּחֱרָב לְנֵצַח נְצָחִים אֵין עֹבֵר בָּהּ.
Isa 34:10 It will not be extinguished night and day, its smoke shall rise for all time, it shall lie in ruin through the ages; none shall cross it for eternity.

Isaiah then describes God’s actions in terms of tohu and bohu in poetic parallelism[3]:

ישׁעיה לד:יא ...וְנָטָה עָלֶיהָ קַו־תֹהוּ וְאַבְנֵי־בֹהוּ.
Isa 34:11 …He will measure it with a line of formlessness (tohu) and with weights of emptiness (bohu).

In other words, the extent of destruction will be gauged with “tools” calibrated by tohu and bohu increments. Isaiah thus conveys the extent of the chaos in which Israel’s enemy’s will be engulfed by using imagery of the primordial world before creation.[4] Here tohu and bohu is used as a negative trope—a place of death and abandonment.

Jeremiah: Foolishness and Chaos

The third occurrence of the terms together appears in Jeremiah in a depiction of societal mayhem and disorder:

ירמיה ד:כב כִּי אֱוִיל עַמִּי אוֹתִי לֹא יָדָעוּ בָּנִים סְכָלִים הֵמָּה וְלֹא נְבוֹנִים הֵמָּה חֲכָמִים הֵמָּה לְהָרַע וּלְהֵיטִיב לֹא יָדָעוּ.
Jer 4:22 My people are stupid; they don’t know Me; they are foolish children; they are not intelligent; they are wise at doing bad; and they don’t know good.

The text characterizes the situation as one of intellectual and moral impoverishment by repeatedly lamenting the people’s absence of wisdom and by noting their childlike foolishness.

The next passage turns to a description of a nightmarish primordial scene:

ירמיה ד:כג רָאִיתִי אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה־תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְאֶל־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵין אוֹרָם.
Jer 4:23 I look at the land and it is tohu and bohu; at the skies and their light is gone.

While many scholars see this as the beginning of an independent unit, read in context in Jeremiah as we have it now, it can be read as a continuation of the previous passage, thus describing the dreadful scene of intellectual and moral impoverishment as analogous to tohu and bohu in nature.

Thus, Jeremiah 4 associates tohu and bohu—in hendiadys form like in Genesis—with a society riven by intellectual and moral vacuity, one where rampant senselessness reigns. Such a society reflects the absence of light, itself the very first creation prompted by that pre-creative state of disarray (Gen 1:3).

Wisdom: Creating Order from Chaos

The proximity of tohu and bohu to the knowledgeless state described in verse 22 captures its prevailing chaos and offers us a sense of what originally provoked the divine creative impulse. The universe in its pristine state betrayed a disorganization and utter lack of order which God found intolerable and on which He felt compelled to impose order.[5]

Although the biblical account resembles Plato’s view of creation, by presenting creation as God’s thoughtful reaction to preexistent chaos, the biblical account of the origin of the ordered universe reflects the process of thought that Aristotle described as the journey the mind takes when it seriously reflects and questions existence.[6] Perplexity is the catalyst for God’s creative impulses, who feels prompted to shape creation into something orderly, defined, planned, and imbued with wisdom. YHWH, thus, lives up to the reputation the Psalter later credited Him with: כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ, “You have made everything with wisdom (chokhma)” (Ps 104:24).

Genesis Rabbah: The Earth is Bewildered and Astonished

A strange midrash captures in an inverted manner the idea of perplexity. It playfully changes these words slightly to read tohaʾ and bohaʾ, “shocked and confused,” ascribing the perplexity to the earth (Genesis Rabbah 2:2):

רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ אָמַר מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ שֶׁקָּנָה לוֹ שְׁנֵי עֲבָדִים שְׁנֵיהֶם בְּאוֹנִי אַחַת וּבְטִימִי אַחַת עַל אֶחָד גָּזַר שֶׁיְּהֵא נִזּוֹן מִטִּמְיוֹן וְעַל אֶחָד גָּזַר שֶׁיְהֵא יָגֵעַ וְאוֹכֵל. יָשַׁב לוֹ אוֹתוֹ תּוֹהֶא וּבוֹהֶא אָמַר: ״שְׁנֵינוּ בְּאוֹנִי אַחַת וּבְטִימִי אַחַת זֶה נִזּוֹן מִטִּמְיוֹן וַאֲנִי אִם אֵינִי יָגֵעַ אֵינִי אוֹכֵל״.
Rabbi Abbahu said: “This is comparable to a king who bought for himself two male slaves, both of them on one bill of sale and for the same price. He ordered that one of them be cared for at public expense and he ordered that the other work hard for his food. The second one sat, bewildered and astonished (tohʾe uvohʾe), and he said: “both of us were on one bill of sale and for the same price; this one is supported at public expense and as for me, if I do not work hard, I do not eat!”
כָּךְ יָשְׁבָה הָאָרֶץ תּוֹהָא וּבוֹהָא אָמְרָה: ״הָעֶלְיוֹנִים וְהַתַּחְתּוֹנִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּבַת אַחַת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים נִזּוֹנִין מִזִּיו הַשְּׁכִינָה הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים אִם אֵינָם יְגֵעִים אֵינָם אוֹכְלִים״.
In this way the earth was bewildered and astonished (tohʾe uvohʾe) and it said: “the upper ones and the lower ones were created in one moment, the upper are nourished by the radiance of the Shekhinah (divine presence), and the lower, if they don’t struggle they don’t eat!”[7]

The earth is bothered by the need its inhabitants have to work for their food, as expressed by YHWH to Adam both before and after the sin (Gen 2:15, 3:19). Presumably, the angels above do not have such needs.

As noted, the midrash inverts the players. Here the earth expresses bewilderment at God who differentiates between it and the heavens, but in the biblical story, as I am reading it, God is the one who is shocked (toheh) at the undifferentiated nature of the tohu and bohu. His dissatisfaction with the chaotic state of existence leads to the reordering, classifying, and distinguishing described in the primordial week of creation.

Creation as Separation and Distinction

The German American philosopher, Leo Strauss (1899–1973), traced, in the most philosophically sophisticated way, the operative principle running throughout the creation account of Genesis 1 as “separation and distinction” rather than creation out of nothing, which graduates from simple separation in the first half of creation to a higher order of separation reflected by local motion in the second half.[8] Whatever its exact meaning, creation from tohu and bohu communicates anything but creation out of nothingness (יש מאין, creatio ex nihilo).[9]

Indeed, creatio ex nihilo (yesh me’ayin) was not a universally accepted belief among the ancient or medieval rabbinic sources,[10] For example, the medieval exegete, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), in his long commentary (Gen 1:1, s.v. ברא), did not understand the term baraʾ in the sense of “creating”:

אין מלת ברא, כאשר חשבו רבים, לעשות את שאינו – ישנו... ומלת {ברא – כמו:} וברא אותהן [בחרבותם] (יחזקאל כג:מז), לשון חתוך וגזרה...
The word baraʾ does not connote what many think, making nothing into something… rather the word {baraʾ is like} “and he cut them down [with their swords]” (Ezek 23:47), connoting slicing and cutting…

Ibn Ezra’s point is that God does not make the material from scratch, but slices through the elements that were until then part of the undifferentiated mass of tohu and bohu, to set clearly defined borders. God’s “philosophical” discomfort with the original jumble prompts within this first creation story a daily—sometimes twice daily—evaluation of what unfolds from his creative act: וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי טוֹב “and God saw it was good.”

A Continuous Struggle against Chaos

Yet as Jon Levenson of Harvard University argues,[11] God never vanquishes chaos entirely but continuously struggles with it, restrains, and keeps it at bay, to prevent the world from lapsing back into it.[12] For example, some biblical passages present the primordial waters as bound, but still existing as a potential threat should they break free:

תהלים קד:ו תְּהוֹם כַּלְּבוּשׁ כִּסִּיתוֹ עַל־הָרִים יַעַמְדוּ־מָיִם. קד:ז מִן־גַּעֲרָתְךָ יְנוּסוּן מִן־קוֹל רַעַמְךָ יֵחָפֵזוּן. קד:ח יַעֲלוּ הָרִים יֵרְדוּ בְקָעוֹת אֶל־מְקוֹם זֶה יָסַדְתָּ לָהֶם. קד:ט גְּבוּל־שַׂמְתָּ בַּל־יַעֲבֹרוּן בַּל־יְשׁוּבוּן לְכַסּוֹת הָאָרֶץ.
Ps 104:6 You made the deep cover it as a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 104:7 They fled at Your blast, rushed away at the sound of Your thunder, 104:8 —mountains rising, valleys sinking—to the place You established for them. 104:9 You set bounds they must not pass so that they never again cover the earth.[13]

God’s battle to impose wisdom upon chaos is thus never ceasing, and humanity is meant to follow God’s lead.

Humans as Partners in Ordering the World

God’s dissatisfaction in the face of primeval chaos sets the agenda for human encounters with the world thereafter. In fact, God’s first command to humanity, created in God’s own image, expresses the idea that humans should be his partners or at least emissaries in maintaining the earth’s new order:

בראשית א:כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.
Gen 1:27 And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

God continues by tasking them with filling the earth and ruling it; the expansion of humanity will help maintain order in the chaos of the natural world:

בראשית א:כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 1:28 God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

We see this again, in a more abstract way, after the creation of Adam.

Giving Adam an Opportunity to Discover

When YHWH notices that Adam is lonely, he does not immediately create Eve, but allows Adam to use his own thought processes to come to the conclusion that he needs a mate.[14] To do so, YHWH first creates animals, and Adam’s job is to investigate them:

בראשית ב:יט וַיִּצֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן הָאֲדָמָה כָּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְאֵת כָּל עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיָּבֵא אֶל הָאָדָם לִרְאוֹת מַה יִּקְרָא לוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה הוּא שְׁמוֹ. ב:כ וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁמוֹת לְכָל הַבְּהֵמָה וּלְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וּלְאָדָם לֹא מָצָא עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ.
Gen 2:19 And YHWH God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. 2:20 And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found.

Adam’s naming of the different animal species is a process of classification and differentiation, ultimately identifying through systematic elimination another being of similar constitution with whom he belongs. When the woman is created, Adam expresses the insight he gleaned from this investigation into the proper order of things:

בראשית ב:כג וַיֹּאמֶר הָאָדָם זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקֳחָה זֹּאת.
Gen 2:23 Then the man said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called woman, for from man was she taken.”

Creating Order in Judaism: Maimonides Follows in God’s Footsteps

The portrayal of God’s activity in creation conforms to a Maimonidean philosophical ideal. For Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), the great Jewish medieval philosopher, cultivating the intellect in the pursuit of universal truths is the highest form of mirroring God’s ways, since it is the only activity human beings share in common with God.[15]

His belief that Judaism wishes its adherents to cultivate their intellect is why Maimonides composed his halakhic code, the Mishneh Torah, classifying and systematizing what was previously a voluminous cacophony of disparate texts lacking any order—the Talmudic tohu and bohu.[16] It is why he formulated his principles of faith, locating what is critical for the Jewish mind, the forum he found definitive of human existence. And it is why a major component of his philosophical project meticulously advocated a method for reading Judaism’s foundational scripture to make sense out of its baffling anthropomorphic descriptions of God and mythical narratives.

While my specific reading of the creation story is not that of Maimonides, the description of God’s creation from tohu and bohu is an example of rational thought overcoming chaos and disorder, and that the goal of humans is to follow in this path fits with his approach.

Making Room for Philosophical Readings

Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), one of the earliest and most formidable subversives of the Bible’s Mosaic antiquity as well as of its divine authority, impugned philosophical readings of the Bible since they subject it to an alien form of discourse that it naturally resists.[17] Spinoza’s critique specifically targeted Maimonides’ philosophical approach to the Bible.[18]

Though many might agree with Spinoza’s critique, noting that such readings often veer quite far from the simple meaning of the text, I believe that philosophical readings of the biblical text in the style of Maimonides continue to be a valuable corrective to a tendency that follows from Spinoza’s position of draining any philosophical/theological meaning out of it.[19]

One does not need to accept in toto Maimonides’ claims to appreciate the beauty of his overarching perspective on the Bible. Instead, utilization of a philosophical lens allows us to encounter the biblical text with the same wonder, reflection, and desire to create order out of chaos as experienced by God in his encounter with the primordial tohu and bohu.


September 30, 2021


Last Updated

April 15, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies and Medieval Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto, and an LL.M. from New York University’s Law School. He is the author of Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider and, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon.