There a number of words that are encountered in the earliest parts of the book of Genesis that add much information and a sense of mystery to the narrative. There is no reason to believe that these words are intended to make the book mysterious. It seems much more reasonable to suppose these words are there to add information that would otherwise be missing: they are probably not simple redundancies. That is the assumption I will work with in what follows.
Before we get to the words themselves though, let’s call our attention to the fairly common phenomenon called personification. Personification occurs when we attach a personality to something that is inherently not even alive. For example, when we attach too much importance to money, we bring about something we might call “mammon.” When personification of biblical ideas occurs in our lives, we can expose ourselves to dark influences. These dark influences can lead us into strange religious attachments that may become quite strong and bring on spiritual perversions.
So let’s get to it. In the very first verse of the bible, we read that the earth was “formless and void” (NASB). These are fairly simple words that refer to specific status of the earth at its earliest moments. By simple inference, formless means that the earth did not have a discernible form (shape) at the time of its creation. Void means that it was empty, without content. These are the plain meanings of the two words. Those descriptors appear to mean what they say without too much controversy. They describe conditions “on” the earth at the time. Reading further into the text, we come away with the impression that earth was a somewhat ill-defined watery mass. A viewer would not see anything else, if there were one to make the observation. That is what formless and void means, and pretty much all it means.
In the same verse, we find the statement that “darkness covered the face of the deep” (NASB). In this case, we have a noun rather than an adjective that is one of the mystery words – darkness. Of course, darkness is a noun derived from the adjective “dark.” Again, this seems a fairly straightforward assertion. Most of us understand the idea of darkness fairly well.
This brings us to the point of these musings. One can be in awe of such things as formlessness or darkness. The ideas contain quite a bit of mystery. They more or less invite us to ponder them in spite of their mysterious connotations. They easily lure us toward philosophical speculation regardless of how likely we are to engage in such speculations ordinarily. When that process begins, we can begin to assign personality to the ideas – to treat them as though they were conscious entities. Sometimes, in fact, we can go so far as to assume or imagine they are “persons” with motives. We may begin to wonder whether darkness is malicious, for example. The somewhat mysterious nature of darkness contributes to this greatly. We may muse about what the darkness is hiding from us. From such musings, we may begin to imagine fairly complex ideas about darkness. We might even go so far as to begin to imagine that darkness is actually a god who needs something from us and whom we need to satisfy in some manner.
The thoughts in the last paragraph may sound a bit fanciful to you but this sort of thing occurs. In fact, a “god of darkness” could easily appear in some pantheon and probably has in fact. The feeling of awe that people in fairly primitive societies might feel about the mysteriousness of darkness could easily promote the idea of a very powerful deity who was to be feared.
Before we go further, let me make an observation for you. The vague ideas that are associated with formless and void are sometimes collapsed into a single idea. That idea is “chaos.” In fact, one of the Hebrew words in that passage (tohu) is translated as chaos in another place (Is. 24:10). Each of the two words, tohu and bohu, are very rarely used in scripture. So let’s use “chaos” for this discussion.
It turns out the Greeks did “make a god” of chaos. In fact, this god Chaos (chaos was the Greek word for chaos in biblical times) was the first god in the Greek sense of things. To them, everything sprang from a particular personality who was indefinable. This god, Chaos, gave birth to another god named Erebus which means darkness. Now, if Chaos and Erebus were gods, then they were ascribed to have personalities and motives of various kinds. The Greeks were not alone in trying to understand their world in such terms. This is not a treatise on Greek mythology, but it was worth our while to take this brief detour to demonstrate how the mind works with these large, mysterious ideas.
Now let’s consider what these things really are and we can get back to the dangerous human preoccupation with them. What is darkness? According to the Greeks (and many other peoples) darkness, Erebus, affected life in mysterious ways. But, actually, darkness is simply an absence of light. In scripture, we are told about the presence of darkness not because darkness possessed a personal identity with motives, but because the book was just about to introduce us to the coming into being of light. Light is a thing – darkness is just the absence of that thing and that is all darkness is. Light is what mattered in the narrative, not darkness.
So the Greeks had a first-generation, primordial god named Chaos. In reality, though, chaos is simply the absence of order. Chaos is not a deity to be overcome or placated. One does not have to do combat with chaos, one has only to bring order. When order comes, chaos is diminished and that is all there is to that. In James 3:16 we are told that where self-centeredness is in control, it gives rise to disorder (chaos). In that sense, chaos comes about because self-centeredness causes one to forego order in what is perceived to be one’s own self-interest.
Void is simply the absence of content. When content comes on the scene, void is no longer. I think the point has been made. Some of these terms that occur in scripture are merely observations concerning the work of God and only stand in contrast to His work. They are not personalities to be overcome, they are simply conditions that indicate the work of God is not yet done. When Our Father brings light, order and content, then these apparently fearsome things simply are no longer. It is we humans who turn state conditions into gods. They are gods that are not gods.
Let’s be very clear.
- Light always overcomes darkness because light is something and darkness is nothing.
- Content always overcomes void because content is something and void is nothing.
- Order always overcomes chaos because order is something and chaos is nothing.
That should do it.