Bible Question:

In Genesis 1:2 the word

Bible Answer:

The “GAP Theory” or the “Ruin-Reconstruction” theory states that Genesis 1:2 describes the creation of an earth that existed before the creation described in the rest of the chapter. Advocates state that a gargantuan disaster of a previous earth occurred due to a variety of proposed reasons. Reasons given for the destruction varies with the advocate. The purpose of this brief study is to define the meaning of key Hebrew words in Genesis 1:2 because our question is, “Does Genesis 1:2 describe a gargantuan disaster of a previous creation?” A previous study about the GAP Theory that might be of interest is titled, “Is there a gap between the first and second verses of Genesis 1?

Earth Was Formless and Void

Meaning of “Formless and Void”

Genesis 1:2 reads as follows,

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Genesis 1:2 (NASB)

In order to understand Genesis 1:2, we need to understand the meaning of the Hebrew words that are translated as “form” and “void.” Our English words are inadequate in correctly understanding the original Hebrew meanings. The Hebrew words that are translated as “form” and “void” are tohu and bohu. In determining the meaning of these words and other Hebrew words, it is important to avoid the concordances such as Strong’s Concordance and Young’s Concordance and books such as Zodhiates’ Word Study New Testament since they are incomplete in the meanings they give. Instead, we must rely on seminary level texts and works such as the Commentary on the Old Testament authored by the highly regarded Hebrew scholars Keil and Delitzsch. For example, they state,

And the earth was (not became) waste and void.” The alliterative nouns tohu vabohu, the etymology of which is lost, signify waste and empty (barren), but not laying waste and desolating. Whenever they are used together in other places (Isa. 34:11; Jer. 4:23), they are taken from this passage; but tohu alone is frequently employed as synonymous with אין, on-existence, and הבל, nothingness (Isa. 40: 17, 23; 49:4). The coming earth was at first waste and desolate, a formless, lifeless mass . . .[1]

The benefit of learning from Keil and Delitzsch is that their work was originally published in 1886-1891. It was written before much of the modern controversy about the GAP Theory. What was their message? Both tohu and bohu describe an earth that was without form. In the creative order, the earth was at waste and desolate. It was not in a state of lying waste and desolate. The next step was to create what is describe in the rest of Genesis 1.

Kenneth Matthews, professor of Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School, agrees with Keil and Delitzsch stating that the two words refers to a place uninhabitable.

Although the etymology is also unclear for tohu, it occurs sufficiently in the Old Testament (twenty times) to indicate its meaning. It refers to an unpro­ductive, uninhabited land or has the sense of futility and nonexistence . . . Tohu wabohu has the same sense in Genesis 1, characterizing the earth as uninhabitable and inhospitable to human life.[2]

VanGremeren, a highly respected Hebrew scholar, states that tohu refers to “a wasteland or nothingness” and bohu means “void or waste.” The two words together communicate that the creation was in process.

The expression tohu and wabohu is used to describe the precreation chaos in Gen 1:2 and Jer 4:23 . . . In Genesis precreation chaos or void is not a sea monster but is a desolation of waters; the expression tohu wabohu in Gen 1:2 is a hendiadys meaning an unearthly or indescribable emptiness. This would seem to be a creative application of the concept of an uninhabitable empty wilderness to the disordered state before precreation. Creation begins with the waters that are then conquered and divided, as in the traditional creation stories, but which in the Genesis account pose no threat and have no independent powers.[3]

Other Hebrew lexicons state that tohu refers to “formless, unreality,”[4] “nothingness or nonentity”[5] or “with our form.”[6] Bohu means “emptiness“[7, 8] or “waste.”[8,9]

Meaning of “Deep”

The Hebrew word for “deep” is tehom. In order to understand the word, it is helpful to examine how it is used in Scripture. The word occurs thirty-six times in the Old Testament. Thirty-two times the word is translated as “deep” and “deeps.” Three times it is translated as “depths” and one time as “springs” in the New American Standard. Each time tehom is translated as “deep” or “deeps” outside of Genesis 1, it frequently refers to the ocean waters. A few examples are: Genesis 7:11; Psalm 135:6; 148:7; Proverbs 8:27. Here is Proverbs 8:27-29.

When He established the heavens, I was there,
When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep,
When He made firm the skies above,
When the springs of the deep became fixed,

When He set for the sea its boundary
So that the water would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth; Proverbs 8:27-29 (NASB)

The Hebrew word was also used to refer to the deeps of the Red Sea which the Israelites walked through (Exodus 15:5, 8). It was used to refer to springs of water in the Promised Land which God was giving Israel (Deuteronomy 8:7; Psalm 106:9; Isaiah 63:13). In Proverbs 3:20 tehom refers to the oceans which God broke up at the flood. Jonah spoke of drowning in the fish’s stomach as being in the “great deep” (Jonah 2:5). These various usages of the word reveal that the word simply refers to “deep places.”[10]

Keil and Delitzsch state that tehom can refer to “raging waters” or the “roaring waves” and give Psalm 42:7 as an example. Tehom can refer to “a flood” (Exodus 15:5; Deuteronomy 8:7) and to “the depths of the sea” (Job 28:14; 38:16).[11]

Botterweck, Ringgren and Fabry state that tehom then stands for the following:

a) the primeval ocean, b) the waters round the earth after creation, which continually threaten the cosmos; c) these waters as a source of blessing for the earth.[12]

Additionally, Brown, Driver and Briggs define the word as “deep, sea, abyss.”[13]

Therefore, Tehom cannot refer to massive tidal waves of turbulent, violent, churning water with ferocious winds. This is simply proven by investigating the above passages in the Old Testament in which the word is used. How could the Red Sea be massive tidal waves of turbulent, violent, churning water with ferocious winds at the time the Israelites walked through it or springs of fresh water for the people to drink? The answer is that the context determines the usage of the word. It is sometimes used to refer to springs, seas or oceans.[14]

The The JPS Torah Commentary defines tehom in Genesis 1 as follows,

Hebrew tehom, the cosmic abyssal water that enveloped the earth.[15]

Meaning of “Moving”

The Hebrew word for “moving” in Genesis 1:2 is rahap. This Hebrew word occurs only three times in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 32:11 it refers to an eagle hovering over its young with spread wings.

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
That hovers over its young,
He spread His wings and caught them,
He carried them on His pinions.
Deuteronomy 32:11 (NASB)

It is obvious from the verse that the word refers to a bird positioned in the air. The third time it appears in Jeremiah 23:9.

As for the prophets:
My heart is broken within me,
All my bones tremble;
I have become like a drunken man,
Even like a man overcome with wine,
Because of the LORD
And because of His holy words.
Jeremiah 23:9

Here the word has a slightly different meaning since it is in the QAL stem. It should be noted that the previous two references were in the Piel stem. VanGemeren states that rahap has the meaning of “hover” in Genesis 1:2 and Deuteronomy 32:11 when it is used in the Piel stem, but in Jeremiah 23:9 its basic meaning is “shake, tremble” when used in the QAL stem. They add the entomology of the word is debated.[16] Logically, this makes sense. Why would the Holy Spirit tremble or be shaken? Why would God be afraid? Isaiah the prophet declares,

For the LORD of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” Isaiah 14:27 (NASB)

Who could frustrate God’s creative acts? The answer is no one!

The JPS Torah Commentary summarizes the meaning of rahap as follows,

The Hebrew stem r-h-f appears otherwise in Deuteronomy 32:11, where it describes an eagle hovering over its young, a meaning it also possesses in Ugaritic; but in Jeremiah 23:9 it refers to bones trembling or shaking. The basic idea of the stem is vibration, movement. Hitherto all is static, lifeless, immobile. Motion, which is the essential element in change, originates with God’s dynamic presence.[17]


The highly regarded Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament edited by Botterweck, Ringgren and Fabry summarizes the meaning of the passage with this,

If we take into account the semantic dimension of tohu, and bohu, we see that the earth is described not simply as “an unproductive and uninhabited place,” but as a hostile and uninhabitable envi­ronment that is transformed into a welcoming environment and given a future-oriented perspective only by the sovereign intervention of God the creator. Considerations of both form and content prevent interpreting tohu wabohu along the lines of the “when . . . not yet” formulas found elsewhere in the Bible and in the ancient Near East, if the word pair is to be “less a qualitative description than a negative particle.” The words do not convey a simple “not yet” but an ominous potential. At the outset the “earth” is a hostile environment, but it becomes welcoming.[18]

The Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna echoes the summary,

Hebrew tohu wabohu. This compound phrase appears again in the Bible in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision of the return of the primal chaos (Jer. 4:23-27), thus leaving no doubt that the phrase designates the initial chaotic state of the earth. That God should create disorganized matter, only to reduce it to order, presents no more of a problem than does His taking six days to complete creation instead of instantaneously producing a perfected universe. The quintessential point of the narrative is the idea of ordering that is the result of divine intent. It is a fundamental biblical teaching that the original, divinely ordained order in the physical world has its counterpart in the divinely ordained universal moral order to which the human race is subject.[19]

Finally, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states,

The word tohu in Gen 1:2, likewise, refers not to the result of a supposed catastrophe (for which there is no clear biblical evidence) but to the formlessness of the earth before God’s creative hand began the majestic acts described in the following verses. As Jer 4:23 indicates, the earth always has the potential of returning to wabohu if God decides to judge it.[20]

The conclusion is the GAP Theory does not have the support of the Hebrew scholars. We should add that there is no etymological support for tohu or bohu.

In summary, the GAP theory is not supported by the meaning of the Hebrew words. The most serious problem with the GAP Theory is that it requires sin to have entered the creation before Adam. The GAP Theory seeks to explain the presence of dinosaurs and the fossil record. This requires sin, but Genesis teaches that sin did not enter the creation until chapter 3. For more information please read, “Is there a gap between the first and second verse of Genesis 1?



1. Keil and Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Hendrickson Publishers. March 2006. p. 30.
2. Kenneth A. Matthews. Genesis 1-11:26. The New American Commentary. B&H. 1996. p. 131.
3. VanGemeren. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Zondervan Pubfishing. 1997. vol. 1. pp. 607-608.
4. Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 1062.
5. William Lee Holladay and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2000), p. 386.
6. Harris, Archer, and Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Press., Chicago. 1980. vol. 2. p. 964.
7. Francis Brown. Ibid. p. 96.
8. Harris, Archer and Waltken. Ibid. vol. 1. p. 204.
9. Holladay. Ibid. p. 34.
10. Harris, Archer and Waltken. Ibid. vol. 2. p. 965.
11. Keil and Delitzsch. Ibid.
12. Botterweck, Ringgren and Fabry. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Eerdmans Publishing. 2006. vol. xv. p. 577.
13. Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Ibid., p. 1062.
14. Harris, Archer and Waltken. Ibid. vol. 2. p. 965.
15. Nahum Sarna. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary. The Jewish Publication Society. 1989. p 6.
16. VanGemeren. Ibid. vol. 3. p. 1098.
17. Nahum Sarna. Ibid. pp. 6-7.
18. Botterweck, Ringgren and Fabry. Ibid. p. 572.
19. Nahum Sarna. Ibid. p. 6.
20. Harris, Archer and Waltke. Ibid. vol. 2. p. 965.

Suggested Links:

Is there a gap between the first and second verse of Genesis 1?
What is the meaning of Genesis 1:1?
Does the Bible say the earth is about 6000 years old?
Can one believe in the big bang theory and be a Christian?
Why are the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 different?
Did God create the sun on the first or fourth day?
What is the light in Genesis 1 verses 3-5?
The GAP Theory, part 1
The GAP Theory, part 2
The Young Old Earth