Among the many controversial passages of the opening chapters of Genesis, the second verse of the first chapter stands out as a particularly provocative one. What does the phrasing “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep” allude to? Is it a straightforward, literal remark, or is it to be taken as a hint of something deeper?
Taking the passage back to the Hebrew, we find our first element of intrigue comes with the word that is translated into English as “was,” Hayah. Hayah represents a state of change or transition, it implies an action of sorts, and often it is rendered as “had become.” We see a similar verbiage used in describing the fate of Lot’s wife, who on looked back on forbidden Sodom, “became” a pillar of salt (Genesis 19).
In our English translation, we are left with another set of words that we would do well to revert back to Hebrew, and beyond, for the matter at hand. This phrase is “without form, and void,” or transliterated from the Hebrew, “tohu vav bohu.” Tohu gives us the linguistic impression of “formless” or “confused,” while bohu can be translated as “void, empty, or wasted.” Vav, though just a simple conjunction, is actually the most interesting word in this phrase, not for its placement here, but rather where else we find it in the sentence at hand:
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
You see, vav is often rendered as the conjunction “and,” as we see with the traditional Hebrew when translated into English. According to some scholars, the vav should instead be translated as “but.” This line of thought comes from the third century BC Greek translation of earlier Hebrew texts, the Septuagint. Prepared by at least 70 scholars (perhaps even as many as 72 according to some records) in Alexandria, Egypt, some 300 years before Christ, the Septuagint is considered to be one of the most accurate renderings of the Hebrew Scriptures for many reasons, including not only the immaculate precision of the language itself, but also the glimpse of deep, pre-masoretic Hebrew it offers. In spite of its benefits, it does also offer its own share of controversies, including debate over the validity of its texts. In any case, what we find is that the Septuagint presents us with a translation that is somewhat different than that which is rendered from Hebrew:
Hebrew – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Greek – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. But the earth became without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
The whole scope of the language shifts between the Hebrew and Greek, and the implications for this are staggering! Is this a valid argument for the so-called “Gap Theory?” Let’s see next time…
“A Dark & Empty Place” continues next time…
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