Those seeking to bring God’s kingdom into spiritually dark frontiers need to be prepared for violence at a number of levels including personal physical harm, mistreatment of family members, property damage, or verbal and mental abuse. As Jeremiah said of the people of Jerusalem, those without the light of God’s Word and God’s Spirit are “skilled at doing evil” (Jer. 4:22),
Opposition to God’s Will: Tohu Wabohu
Something opposite to God’s intentions exists in this world. Right from the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:2, we see this described with the Hebrew term, tohu wabohu. The land was not in a condition that God could call “good.” The rest of Genesis 1 shows how God corrected the negative condition of the land, while the rest of the Bible explains how to overcome and/or avoid tohu wabohu at various levels: physical, personal, family, social, political. (Or it shows what happens when tohu wabohu is not overcome.)
The whole theme of Scripture is to fight back against opposition to God’s intentions. This is the biblical worldview demonstrated throughout Israel’s history, in the prophets’ interpretation of that history, in Jesus’ activity and words, and in Paul’s description of living in the Kingdom. Where God’s Kingdom does not yet have followers, tohu wabohu reigns, including violence. Overcoming this opposition and violence is not a safe activity, as the violent deaths of international development workers Ryan and Lora Smith illustrate. They were killed violently on July 4, 2018, in the Republic of Georgia, where they had lived for 10 years, shining the light of the Gospel as they worked with local Azerbijani people to keep their rug-weaving tradition viable.
It is the thesis of this article that tohu wabohu is anything that is the opposite of creation and order and that it is a description of the root of human problems around the world. Overcoming tohu wabohu is central to the work of God’s people who need to engage this at all levels of existence: personal, family, societal, in applied science and medicine, biology, environmental science, and cross-culturally. Tohu wabohu—wherever it is found—is not God’s will.
Since judgment is nearly always associated in Scripture with the word tohu (see the Word Study Chart at the end of this article), it is logical to assume that the first occurrence of the word in Genesis 1:2 would have had the same connotation. In fact, it could have been the original use of the term that other writers of Scripture had in mind in their own use of the term. It might seem natural to ask, what could have been in existence before the Genesis 1 creation account that God would have seen a need to judge? Merrill Unger represents a conservative evangelical understanding that the first verses of Genesis may speak of a judged earth that is about to be re-created:
Genesis 1:1, 2 evidently describes not the primeval creation ex nihilo, … but the much later refashioning of a judgment-ridden earth in preparation for a new order of creation-–man. The Genesis account deals only with God’s creative activity as it concerns the human race in its origin, fall and redemption (Unger 1958, 28).
God did not create the earth in the state of a chaos of wasteness, emptiness, and darkness (John 38:4, 7; Isa. 45:18). It was reduced to this condition because it was the theater where sin began in God’s originally sinless universe in connection with the revolt of Lucifer (Satan) and his angels (Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:13, 15-17; Rev. 12:4). The chaos was the result of God’s judgment upon the originally sinless earth (Unger 1981, 5).
The term tohu wabohu is not limited, however, to the physical condition of the land before the creation events of Genesis 1. Satan is still active in this world deceiving people into ongoing rebellion and violence. Tohu wabohu can also describe rebellion and chaos at a societal level (and other levels of existence), as can be seen in the chart below. Hebrew Bible scholar, Jon Levenson, in Creation and the Persistence of Evil, extends the meaning of tohu wabohu in Genesis 1:2 beyond the merely physical conditions of the earth to take it as an “affirmation that God as the Creator of the world is directed against the forces that oppose him and his acts of creation—the forces of disorder, injustice, affliction, and chaos, which are, in the Israelite worldview, one” (Levenson 1988, xix). This is a key insight with implications for cross-cultural workers. Tohu wabohu encompasses all forces of disorder.
Overcoming Opposition to God’s Will
What responsibility do believers have to join God in demonstrations in the present that foreshadow what it will look like when His will is being fully done “on earth as it is in heaven”? Throughout Scripture we see patterns that can help answer this question. God never gave up trying to bring order out of chaos. He never gave up trying to win a people who would demonstrate His glory to the rest of the world.
The pattern for correcting opposition to God’s will begins in Genesis 1 with a description of the violent, hopeless nature of the land, which is implied by phrase, tohu wabohu. What was needed to turn it upside down so that it could be described as the opposite of tohu wabohu—tob/good? In making the land ready for humans to live in, the first thing God did was to correct the darkness associated with tohu wabohu by calling for light to appear. He called the light “good/tob.”
Movement from a state of chaos, including social disorganization, to a state of peace, is the pattern Jesuit scholar Richard Clifford sees in the poetic accounts of the Exodus (Psalm 77:15-19; 78:42-55 and Exodus 15) (Clifford 1985, 510, 511). Somehow this pattern needs to be repeated within all cultures and societies, most noticeably those in which violence prevails. These societies need a new creation. Can the work of God’s people be seen as the equivalent of the ruah elohim, the wind and Spirit of God (and the weapon of God—see Zechariah 4:6), that prepared the way for God’s new beginnings in Genesis and in the Exodus?
Perhaps by the whimsical sound of the words he was inspired to choose, tohu wabohu, Moses was reassuring the people that God has chaos under control and that even conditions contrary to God’s will can be turned to His good purposes. This larger perspective can also be reassuring to cross-cultural workers who at times might become so focused on current severe problems that they could lose sight of God’s long-term plan to bring all peoples to himself—a plan that is being worked out within the context of a world still filled with tohu wabohu. (A contemporary example of this would be the gang violence in El Salvador and Guatemala that is causing people to flee to the United States where they hope to find safety.)
Conclusions and Applications to Cross-cultural Work
Opposition to God’s intended order needs to be corrected by the power of the Spirit operating through those who are submitted to His will. Tohu wabohu is a metaphor for the root of the problems of human existence that must be addressed by cross-cultural workers, bringing order out of chaos wherever they go as representatives of the kingdom of God. The extremely negative imagery associated with tohu wabohu (see chart below) implies the existence of evil and the need to overcome that evil in order for God’s will to be done (“on earth as it is in heaven”).
The context in which the concept of tohu wabohu is introduced, precisely at the beginning of Scripture, shows God’s purpose is to correct conditions on this earth that are contrary to his will. The opening verses of Genesis give the theological basis for fighting evil and the way to fight it—patiently overcoming evil with good. By describing the opposite of God’s intentions in the context of the Creation account, tohu wabohu points toward the goal of that creation—a place that can be inhabited by humans in fellowship with God.
At the end of Scripture, in the Book of Revelation, we see the fulfillment of God’s purposes in history described in terms showing that the state of tohu wabohu has finally been fully reversed: there is no more death, crying or pain. Darkness and night have been permanently replaced with light (see Revelation 21:3-4; 22:5).
All societies have to answer the question, How shall we bring order out of chaos? People trying to be submitted to God in any culture need to find their own particular implications for how to live in right relationship with God within that culture. Humans allowing God’s Spirit to work through them to defeat the adversary can turn their world upside down, as was said of the disciples in the book of Acts. Or perhaps we should say, they can help turn the world right side up, restoring it in substantial ways to God’s original intentions and bringing Him glory in the process.
“… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
Chart of Occurrences of Tohu and Tohu Wabohu
Genesis 1:2: As for the earth, it was tohu wabohu;
Context: Darkness, emptiness, uninhabited
Deuteronomy 32:10: He found [Jacob’s people] in a barren and howling waste (tohu)
Context: The people have repaid their Creator with corruption
1 Samuel 12:21: Idols are useless (tohu)
Context: The people ask Samuel to pray for them so they won’t die for their evil ways
Job 6:18: Undependable people are like caravans that go off into the wasteland/nothing (tohu) and perish.
Context: Unkind and undependable “friends” who have been deceitful and are no help
Job 12:24: Leaders of the earth are judged by being deprived of their reason; they wander in a trackless waste (tohu), where there is no way.
Context: God reveals deep things of darkness; makes nations great and disperses them
Job 26:7: God hangs the earth upon nothing (tohu).
Context: This almost sounds like a poetic description of Genesis 1. It describes the dead (or those who have been judged—Lucifer’s army?) as being in deep anguish, uncovered before God; over the nothingness (tohu) God creates something by spreading out the sky and suspending the earth.
Psalm 107:40: Nobles wander in a trackless waste (tohu).
Context: Because of the peoples’ wickedness, God judges the leaders.
Isaiah 24:10: The city of confusions (tohu) is broken down.
Context: The land has been defiled by its people and the city is desolate
Isaiah 29:21: Wicked people turn away from what is right for a thing of nought (tohu).
Context: Terrible people, scorners, and those who do wrong to the innocent will be cut off.
Isaiah 32:11: He shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion (tohu), and the stones of emptiness (bohu).
Context: The description of the condition of the land, due to God’s indignation with the people, sounds like the aftermath of a volcanic explosion.
Isaiah 40:17: God regards the sinful nations as worthless and less than nothing (tohu).
Context: There is no comparison to God’s power and holiness
Isaiah 40:23: God reduces the rulers of this world to nothing (tohu).
Context: There is no comparison to God’s power and holiness
Isaiah 41:29: The deeds of false gods amount to nothing; their images are just wind and confusion (tohu).
Context: Idols amount to nothing; they are worthless; whoever chooses them is detestable.
Isaiah 44:9: All who make idols are nothing (tohu)
Context: The things idol makers treasure are worthless.
Isaiah 45:18-19: God did not create the world in vain to be empty (tohu) and he did not tell people to seek him in vain (tohu).
Context: God formed the world to be inhabited and wants people from all the ends of the earth to turn to him and be saved (vs. 22).
Isaiah 49:4: I said, “I have spent my strength for nothing at all” (tohu).
Context: But God says he is my strength; judgment is over and God is restoring Israel.
Isaiah 59:4: They rely on empty arguments [vanity] (tohu)
Context: No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity.
They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;
they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.
Jeremiah 4:23: The earth was formless and empty (tohu)
Context: God’s people are fools; they are skilled in doing evil; the whole land will be ruined in judgment.
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______. 2001. Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity.
Clifford, Richard. J., S. J. 1985. “The Hebrew Scriptures and the Theology of Creation.” Theological Studies 46: 507-23.
Levenson, Jon. 1988. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
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Sailhamer, J.H. 1996. Genesis Unbound. Sisters, OR: Multnomah.
Unger, Merrill F. 1958. “Rethinking the Genesis Account of Creation.” Bibliotheca Sacra 115 (January-March): 27-35.
______. 1981. Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol 1. Chicago: Moody Press.
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