The second verse of the first chapter of Genesis begins with a very enigmatic word. It is usually translated as and the earth was formless and empty. We read in the Hebrew text: weha-haàrets haietà tòhu uavòhu (Genesis chap. 1, verse 2). The first word – wehaàrets – is translated as “and the earth” while the second one – haietà – is a verb that can be translated as a simple past “and the earth was …”. The last two words are the hardest ones to be translated: tòhu uavòhu.
The words tòhu uavòhu are found also in the book of Jeremiah, a prophet who lived during the last and dramatic years of the Kingdom of Judah, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon (586 BC). For the Jews, exile was a return to primordial chaos: I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone (Jeremiah chap. 4, verse 23). The return to chaos is a pending threat on nations and individuals, evidently.
Jeremiah deals with a barren landscape, whereas Genesis describes a watery chaos as shown in the following words of first chapter’s second verse. So Tòhu wavòhu would indicate a formless object because it is completely covered by seawater. As you read these lines, I suggest you to clear your mind of the earth spherical shape’s image. At the times of the author of the Genesis and until a few centuries ago, the earth was conceived as a flat board, with a small island in the middle entirely surrounded by the sea.
However, the mystery of these words is not exhausted. Indeed the rabbis interpret this phrase as the primordial chaos monster cry: toù uavoù, toù uavoù … a gloomy cry, coming from an abyss that is not only the deepest seawater, but it also represents our worst fears belonging to a mystery that goes beyond the boundaries of the human world flowing into the sinister world of chaos, as we shall see extensively in the rest of the chapter.