Life on Mars, Part 2 – Understanding Genesis 1:1-2

The question we have asked is, “What does the Bible say, if anything, about life on Mars?”

Answering this question requires us to first understand Genesis 1:1-2.  My NKJV translates this passage as follows:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Many have remarked about the odd words “without form and void” used in Genesis 1:2.  What do they mean?  And why was the earth in such a state?  Was it so created?  The NIV translates this, “Now the earth was formless and empty.”  The NASB has, “The earth was formless and void,” and (at least in the Updated Edition) mentions in the footnotes that the description could be translated “waste and emptiness.”  The ASV has, “And the earth was waste and void.”  The Darby Bible reads, “And the earth was waste and empty,” and Young’s Literal Translation gives the phrase as, “the earth hath existed waste and void.”

Of much interested should be the translation in The Living Bible.  Admittedly, The Living Bible (TLB) is a paraphrase, and shouldn’t be used on the surface for establishing doctrine.  But that does not mean that the thought and scholarship going into the TLB translation cannot be beneficial in any way.  In fact, here, in which we are trying to understand the sense of the words used, it may prove to be very helpful.

The Living Bible translates the first portion of Genesis 1:2 to say, “the earth was a shapeless, chaotic mass.”  Of particular note should be the TLB footnote for this passage.  It reads,

The earth was, or ‘The earth became.’  a shapeless, chaotic mass, or “shapeless and void.”…There is not one correct way to translate these words.”

We should take note of that: “There is not one correct way to translate these words.”  While I do not agree with such a sentiment taken too far (there is a correct way, and that is whatever way communicates what God intended to say), it should give us pause and bring us to admit that this passage — taken alone — admits of many possible interpretations.

Consider, some translations include the connector word between v.1 & v.2, “and” — which can also be translated “but” in some circumstances — while others don’t.  Also, the TLB footnote mentions that the phrase, “the earth was,” in v.2 could be translated, “the earth became,” and other sources vouch for such a translation of the Hebrew verb hayah in this way — “became” or “had come to be” instead of simply “was.”  In fact, some note that the fact that the verb hayah is used here, at all, suggests that something of deeper significance is being communicated, beyond what we tend to get from a simple “was.”  Strong’s Greek/Hebrew Dictionary notes that the word hayah is “always emphatic, and not a mere copula or auxiliary,” while Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words says this (emphasis mine): “Often this verb indicates more than simple existence or identity (this may be indicated by omitting the verb altogether). Rather, the verb makes a strong statement about the being or presence of a person or thing. Yet the simple meaning ‘become’ or ‘come to pass’ appears often in the English versions.”

(For an example of communicating the simple idea of “was” by not using a verb at all in Hebrew, you might look at the phrase, “And God saw that it was good,” which is repeated many times in Genesis 2.  In many Bibles, the word “was” here is in italics, meaning that it was simply left out in Hebrew as being implied, and that a “be” verb was not necessary to state.  In contrast, Genesis 1:2 states the “be” verb very emphatically, indicating that God is trying to tell us something… As Vine’s says: more than “simple existence or identity.”)

Then there are the words “without form and void.”  The Hebrew words, here, are tohu and bohu, respectively.  Tohu was translated variously above as formless/shapeless/waste.  Other resources (Strong’s, Lexicons, etc.) give “desolation” or “place of chaos” as meanings to consider.  Bohu, too, doesn’t communicate pleasant things — translated variously as void/empty/emptiness/chaotic above, Strong’s volunteers “an undistinguishable ruin” as a meaning in some contexts.

Seeing all of this, we can understand the footnote in The Living Bible — there does seem to be a great deal of “room” in this verse for optional translation.  I don’t know about you, but I am no expert in ancient languages — and even if I were, it looks as though there is some disagreement among them, as well (go figure).  So how do we know what God is trying to say?

Isaiah 28:9-10 gives us an important Scriptural key to understanding the Bible:

Whom will he teach knowledge?  And whom will he make to understand the message?  Those just weaned from milk?  Those just drawn from the breasts?  For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.

We must consider the whole of God’s revelation to fully understand His mind on a certain matter.  And the matter of creation is no different.

Thankfully, God does communicate this “without form and void” sentiment in other places, and we can look to those to put Genesis 1:2 into perspective.  Consider Jeremiah 4:23-26 —

I beheld the earth, and indeed it was without form (tohu), and void (bohu);
And the heavens, they had no light.
I beheld the mountains, and indeed they trembled,
And all the hills moved back and forth.
I beheld, and indeed there was no man,
And all the birds of the heavens had fled.
I beheld, and indeed the fruitful land was a wilderness,
And all its cities were broken down
At the presence of the LORD,
By His fierce anger.

Here, the parallel to Genesis 1:2 is striking, yet — unlike in Genesis — it is made clear that the state of tohu and bohu the land experienced was a result of God’s “fierce anger.”  As He says in v.27, because of His wrath, “[t]he whole land shall be desolate…”

The entire passage in Jeremiah 4 is worth reading to get the full context.  God is telling us that because of sin, he is bringing the land to a state of waste and chaos — turning it into a desolation and an indistinguishable ruin.

Consider another passage, Isaiah 34:8-12.  Here, we read,

For it is the day of the LORD’s vengeance,
The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
Its streams shall be turned into pitch,
And its dust into brimstone;
Its land shall become burning pitch.
It shall not be quenched night or day;
Its smoke shall ascend forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
No one shall pass through it forever and ever.
But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it,
Also the owl and the raven shall dwell in it.
And He shall stretch out over it
The line of confusion (tohu) and the stones of emptiness (bohu).
They shall call its nobles to the kingdom,
But none shall be there, and all its princes shall be nothing.

Again, we see confusion and emptiness — tohu and bohu — resulting from God’s wrath on sin.  In “the day of the LORD’s vengeance” we have Him actively transforming a land into a state of desolation and uninhabitable ruin.

Finally, let’s consider Isaiah 45:18.

For thus says the LORD,
Who created the heavens,
Who is God,
Who formed the earth and made it,
Who has established it,
Who did not create it in vain (tohu),
Who formed it to be inhabited:
“I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

What do these passages tell us?  We have tohu and bohu resulting from God’s active destruction of the land — making it a disorderly ruin as a consequence of sin.  And we have a statement saying that when God created the earth, He did not create it tohu, though many take Genesis 1:1-2 to say just the opposite — that He did create it tohu.

These verses should make it clear that the option of translating Genesis 1:2 as “the earth became” is the better one.  Tohu and bohu — translated in the NKJV as “without form and void” but translated in other places to indicate a chaotic and uninhabitable desolation or ruin — represent a state that results from God’s wrath on sin, not the state one would expect of God’s perfect act of creation.  Indeed, we are told that God is not the author of confusion in 1 Cor. 14:33; when God brings about destruction it is the consequence of sin, just as the chaotic splatter of burning liquid and random scattering of broken ceramic shards are the consequence of dropping your coffee mug.

This leaves us with an understanding of Genesis 1:1-2 that is best expressed by some subtle changes to the translation as given by the NKJV.  Consider this as a possibility:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  But the earth became without form and void [or a desolation and a chaotic ruin]; and darkness covered the face of the deep.

Such a translation pictures the events of Genesis 1 & 2 as a recrafting of a ruined earth — an earth that was created with the heavens at some time in the distant past (Genesis 1:1), but after falling into a state of destruction and chaos as a consequence of sin (Genesis 1:2), it was reshaped by the hand of a loving God to continue the fulfillment of His purpose.  As we read in Romans 8:20-21,

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

God created Adam and Eve during “creation week” as described in Genesis 2 & 3 on the re-created, re-ordered, and re-beautified earth 6,000 years ago, continuing His plan which will soon culminate in “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  The earth and the heavens were originally created, however, some time before this event, in a time before the creation of Adam.  This is the only scenario that fits the Hebrew language, fits the complete revelation of Scripture, and fits the theological and doctrinal structure on which other Biblical concepts depend.

So, what happened between Genesis 1:1 & Genesis 1:2?  If the destruction of the earth was a consequence of sin, whose sin was it if Adam and Eve had not yet been created?  Does the Bible speak about the pre-Adamic history of the earth and how it came to be in the state of chaos and destruction described in Genesis 1:2?  And what in the world does this have to do with Mars?  I will address these questions in the next post on this topic.

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All four posts in this series:

3 thoughts on “Life on Mars, Part 2 – Understanding Genesis 1:1-2

  1. Dear Mr. Smith,

    As you may recall, my academic specialty is the Hebrew Masoretic Text and its reading tradition, and so naturally I was interested in what you had to say. I was pleased to see that you noted all the basic scriptures that shed light on what *tohu wavohu* means (the actual pronunciation, archaic-style, is softened like this).

    Let me note first that in Isaiah 34:11-12 there is a scribal error due to the confusion of certain musical accents — this affects how the verses are divided. The RSV justly corrects the problem: “…He shall stretch the line of confusion (*tohu*) over it, and the plummet of chaos (*bohu*) over its nobles. They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes shall be nothing.” This inverts the usual use of the builder’s measuring line and plummet as symbols of destruction. Now compare this passage to 2 Kings 21:13: “And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab [both of which were destroyed]; and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” This certainly illustrates that *tohu wavohu* in Isaiah 34:11-12 (and by implication, in Genesis 1:2) points to destruction due to sin and to the removal and inversion of a previous state, not to some kind of primeval chaos.

    *The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon* defines *hayah* as “fall out, come to pass, become, be”. Even when the verb root means “be”, we are told, it often has some sense of becoming. Moreover, the “sequential and” which is found from verse 3 onward is not present in verses 1-2 — which means that there is not a strict sequence of time, but rather a break in the action between the verses.

    The clincher for me is the late Suzanne Haik-Vantoura’s decipherment of the musical accents of the Masoretic Text. English construction doesn’t allow for an exact word-for-word translation, but the deciphered melody allows us to give an exact thought-for-thought one: “And (or but) the earth *had become chaotic and disordered*…” — the melody on *tohu wavohu* oscillates, as if deprived of a base (SHV), and the prior part of the melody points to the pluperfect rather than to the perfect as the appropriate translation of *hayah*.

  2. Pingback: Christianity has been debunked once and for all - Page 41 - Forums

  3. Pingback: Resources for Isaiah 34:11 - 12

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