TOHU and BOHU are “Tov” (Genesis)


One tends to think that, according to the Bible, light was the first thing God created. Not according to Nachmanides. Readers of Scripture are familiar with the passage. The earth was unformed (tohu) and void (bohu). Usually these are considered as a composite or single state, tohu va’bohu. According to Nachmanides, these are two separate things, the first created “things.” Identified with Greek hyly and most recondite, “tohu” is the first created stuff. It is “a very thin substance devoid of corporeality but having a power of potency, fit to assume form and to proceed from potentiality into reality.” William Blake got it right. An “astonishing thing,” Nachmanides compares it to “the line by which a craftsperson delineates the plan of [a] structure.” For its part, bohu stands for “a thing which has substance,” by which I think Nachmanides means crude corporeal substance. First the world was tohu and then it became bohu (comments on Gen. 1:1,3) The verb “create” is reserved exclusively for tohu, according to Nachmanides. (In fact the Bible uses the same term to refer to the human creature.) Everything else gets “made,” which for Nachmanides “always means adjusting something to its required proportion” (comment on Gen. 1:7).

God declares the work good (tov), the shapes that God makes and shapes out of tohu va’bohu, but this cannot be a moral evaluation. The idea of moral good is introduced only later, in relation to evil, by means of another figure or shape, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s in the second chapter of Genesis, where the frame of reference is a human one. For now the word “good” stands on its own. At the very end of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God calls the world “very good.” In a very famous comment in the midrashic commentary, the rabbis take this apparently superfluous term to include the yetzer ha’ra (the evil inclination) and death. Nachmanides picks up this idea. He interprets the word “me’od” to mean mostly, i.e. the world is mostly good, quoting Onkelos to mean “very orderly” and “properly arranged.” Nachmanides, no less than 5x in his commentary in the parshat Bereishit, understands the word “good” to mean “continued existence” or “permanence.” For God to call creation “good” is to say that the world is something God wants. The judgment is onto-aesthetic (comments on Gen. 1:31, and also 1:4,10,12 and 2:18).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to TOHU and BOHU are “Tov” (Genesis)

  1. avrohom l says:

    Superb piece. Looking forward to Parshat Noach’s

  2. Carol Zemel says:

    Fascinating piece. Especially interested not only in tohu-v’bohu, but also the non-moral meaning of ‘good’ associated with creation. I recalled my efforts to track first references to each of the senses in Tanakh. Most interesting was ‘sight:’. I excluded “God saw that it was good,” which I thought had moral meaning. ‘Disinterested’ sight–beauty–came with the creation of trees [Genesis 2:9], which are made to bring pleasure to the eyes and nourish the body. The sequence of the sentence is fascinating: visual pleasure, nourishment, and then Tree of Life and
    Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

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