This evening we will continue our deep dive into Genesis 1 with a discussion of Gen 1:1b-2. Verse two of Genesis says: “The earth was without form and void/ and darkness was upon the face of the deep/ and the Ruach Elohim moved over the face of the waters.” As we read through this passage allow the passage to speak to you. Let your mind’s eye see what the passage is saying. The passage isn’t simply about (or really is not at all about) the creation of the universe, rather it is about telling us who God is, who we are, and how we relate.
THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS AND VOID:
The Hebrew that is used for “formless and void” is somewhat uncertain. Our English translation is more determined by context (in days 1-3 God creates structure and in days 4-6 God provides substance) than from a literal translation. The Hebrew reads that the earth was “Tohu wa-Bohu” – a rhyming couplet. In other places in Scripture, tohu is translated as a “wasteland” of the desert Deut. 32:10, Job 12:24, Isa. 45:19, “meaningless” 1 Sam 12:21, “uselessness” of idol worship Isa. 44:9, or “nothingness” as compared to God. Isa. 40:17. On the other hand, bohu only occurs as the couplet with “tohu” in Isaiah. 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. This phrase has the sense of the emptiness of the desert, the chaos of the sea, or the lack of efficacy in idol worship. The words “tohu and bohu” are like the number zero – do they signify somethingness or do they signify nothingness?
The purpose of tohu wa-bahu is to affirm that all things, including existence itself, come from the God who creates. There is no other source of being or source of existence or source of good except for the God who creates. There is no pantheon of gods who oversee the world, there are no primordial governing beings who are subject to and overcome the preexistent chaos, there is only the one God who creates. And, as we will look at next week, this passage tells us that until God begins to work in the story or in your story, there is only meaninglessness, uselessness, and functionlessness.
AND DARKNESS WAS OVER THE FACE OF THE DEEP
In Hebrew, “the deep” is a watery cosmic chaos that envelopes the earth. Throughout the Scriptures, the Hebrew word (tehom) appears as a proper name and as a personified part of nature. “Tehom” is a cognate of “Tiamat”, the primordial salt-water dragon-like goddess of the Babylonian mythology that we discussed in week 1. Therefore, although Genesis does not directly have the Hebrew God contending against a Babylonian deity, since there is no indication that Genesis ever treats “the deep” as divine or as a separate being, Genesis does use the same terminology of the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation account). Genesis does this either because the word has simply become part of the lexicon (like the English “Thursday” doesn’t mean we worship Thor) or to demonstrate the superiority of Israel’s God over those of the Babylonians (as it does in the exodus story regarding Egyptian gods (Ex. 18:11)).
The purpose of the “darkness” and “the deep” is once more to demonstrate the initial lack of substance prior to God beginning his work. The only description of that which is before God speaks in v.3 is formless, void, darkness, and watery chaos. These words also can be used to describe the state of being separated or estranged from God. In looking at these words, Augustine writes “As for ourselves when we turn away from you, our light, we were in that former life of darkness; and we toil amid the shadows of our darkness . . . For we, like the deep, have been the objects of your judgment (Ps. 36:6).” (Confessions, Bk. XII, ch. 2). Genesis tells us who we are before God speaks light into our lives.
AND THE RUACH ELOHIM MOVED OVER THE FACE OF THE WATERS:
Some words in the Scriptures, like Ruach Elohim, should be left untranslated, because any translations circumscribes the word too much. In Hebrew, the word ruach is an onomatopoeia that is pronounced as an exhalation. Take a deep breath, and slowly exhale the word. Ruach means wind, spirit, or breath. This interplay between these terms is best seen in Psalm 104:29-30:
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath (ruach), they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth thy Spirit (ruach), they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
(As an aside, John also uses this double meaning in 20:22: ” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”)
In v.2, the thing at issue is God’s wind, God’s breath, or God’s spirit. (As an aside, Ruach Eloim is a feminine noun, so may rightly be referred to as “she.”). Genesis says that the Ruach Elohim was doing something over the waters. The Hebrew verb is rachapa. Traditionally, based on context, the word is interpreted as the wind of God was blowing, or the spirit of God was moving. However, the Hebrew refers to how a mother bird relates to her chicks. Deuteronomy 32:11 describes this activity “as an eagle stirs up its nest, encouraging its young to fly, and then hovers (rachapa) over them in case they need help, and spreads its wings and catches them if they fall, and carries them up high on its wings.”
Usually, we think of the first great work of creation as God speaking “Light!” But we see at the end of v.2, the Ruach Elohim isn’t simply blowing randomly over the waters of chaos, but she is brooding, hovering, and encouraging over these chaotic waters. She is preparing them for what will transpire next. She is there in great anticipation. Notice how until this point, the story was static. The formlessness and void are as nothingness, the deep and the darkness just sit there. But in the Spirit/Wind/Breath of God, there is now movement and life within the story. It is the work of the Spirit that causes the nothingness, the darkness, and the deep chaos which is separated from and unworked by God to receive that which God speaks next.
See the Ruach Elohim in your life. In that moment between our dark separation from God and our receiving the Light which is Christ, there is the Spirit. See God’s Holy Spirit brooding over you in that place between our dark separation from God and God speaking light into our lives. It is the work of the Spirit that causes the nothingness, the darkness, and the deep chaos in our lives which is separated from and unworked by God to receive the Word of God of Light to be spoken next.
He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness (tohu);
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters (rachapa) over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the Lord alone did lead him,
and there was no foreign god with him.