A few recent comments on blog posts have brought back to mind some thoughts on translating Genesis 1:2. Specifically, I am referring to this phrase:
background artwork from Seven Days of Creation Edgar G. Boevé, 1958, encaustic on masonite
tohu vavohu (or tohu vabohu or tohu wabohu, etc. depending on your transliteration preferences)
Here are some translations (and commentary or notes where available).
Robert Alter: welter and waste
“welter and waste The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English alliteration. Tohu by itself means emptiness or futility, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary, 1997, pg 3).
NRSV: formless void
NIV, NASB: formless and empty
NET: without shape and empty
“Traditional translations have followed a more literal rendering of waste and void. The words describe a condition that is without form and empty. What we now know as ‘the earth’ was actually an unfilled mass covered by water and darkness. Later [tohu] and [bohu], when used in proximity, describe a situation resulting from judgment (Isa 34:11; Jer 4:23). Both prophets may be picturing judgment as the reversal of creation in which Gods judgment causes the world to revert to its primordial condition. This later use of the terms has led some to conclude that Gen 1:2 presupposes the judgment of a prior world, but it is unsound method to read the later application of the imagery (in a context of judgment) back into Gen 1:2” (NET notes, Gen. 1:2).
ESV, KJV: without form and void
JPS: unformed and void
JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible: without rhyme or reason
Doug Green: desolate and deserted
To read what HALOT has to say, click here and download a PDF of the entries.
What are your preferences? How would you convey both the meaning and the literary artistry?