Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Tōhû wābōhû Thought Experiment

Imagine you are an inhabitant of the Middle East living about four thousand years ago. You've never seen an image captured by the space crafts in your life. But you have had the fortune of travelling all around the Middle East. You are familiar with all sorts of terrain. You've seen the lush pastures and vines of Israel but you have also been to the Arabian Peninsula and explored the edges of the Arabian Desert. You've seen the dread dunes of the Rub' al Khali. Maybe you've even seen or heard of the white deserts of Egypt. But your heart is in the Holy Land. You are a Hebrew. You speak a primitive mode of the Hebrew tongue and of course you love your God who led you out of Egypt.

One night you go to sleep. While asleep instead of dreaming a dream of fragmented memories you experience a vivid 3D movie. The first frame of the movie appears as something like this:

the Jovian Moon Ganymede

What would be your first impression? How would you first describe this object in your own tongue and in accord with your own experiences? Given your location and time is there even a word to describe something like this? What would you write about it?

If you have read some of this blog you know I am biased toward a prophetic interpretation of Genesis 1. I assume the sacred author had a vision, of course stimulated by God. Gen 1:2 is his basic description of the first frame of his prophetic 3D movie. Either in retrospect or while experiencing the movie he realized that the object he was looking at was Earth. I assume he saw Earth as if from orbit.

I don't want anyone to take the image too literally. I chose Ganymede as a model for the thought experiment. Ganymede is a good model since it has little or no atmosphere as well as a surface of icy H2O and silicate rock. It is also thought that a salt water ocean exists under the surface layers of ice water. Plus Ganymede is a black dwarf as is the Earth. So Ganymede is something like the Earth that the sacred author first saw in his prophetic movie. He may have had a closer view brought into focus as the vision unfolded.  Recall of the God induced vision led him to pen the famous tōhû wābōhû description.

My interpretive theory for the tōhû wābōhû concept is fairly simple. The Earth that the sacred author saw reminded him of a desert or wasteland. Only for him this was no ordinary desert terrain. For him deserts were regions of land with boundaries relating them to other terrains. But the wasteland that the Genesis 1 prophet saw had no boundaries other than the boundary of the entire object facing him. The entire face appeared bare, dry, without rain (no atmosphere), lifeless, inactive, uninhabited. And so he conceptualized an ultimate wasteland, a wasteland to end all wastelands, a strange wasteland. To him the Earth that he saw was a surreal desert, a super-desert, since he had no concept of an entire planetary surface barren before his eyes.

The ancient Hebrew has a manner of repeating a word so as to denote intensity or emphasis. An example of this is taken from Genesis 3:16. God uses the word rabah twice in succession to denote intensity: 

Increasing I increase your labor pains, etc. 

Word repetitions or so called 'figures of repetition' are not exclusive to ancient Hebrew practice, they are common to many languages. In fact there is a catalog of word repetitions in Greek.  Figures of repetition are employed to stimulate emphasis, clarity, amplification or emotions.  The Genesis 1 author did something similar only he got a little creative. He added a manner of mystique to his amplifier by changing the first letter and connecting via the Hebrew letter 'waw'.

Tohu can refer to a desert or a wasteland (see Tsumura: The Earth and Waters in Genesis 1 & 2: A Linguistic Investigation). The connected word bohu is a creative intensifier of the word tohu. Because of the strangeness of the object recalled from the vision the sacred author decided to invent the new word bohu so as to intensify and even mystify the referent of tohu. Instead of simply duplicating tohu so as to intensify, he decided to get a little fancy by changing a letter and connecting via the waw letter. So instead of tohu tohu we are given tohu wa-bohu. The modified intensifier, used only two other times in all of extant literature, discloses a mystic experience. My theory is that the sacred author invented the word in response to his prophetic vision. The word is later adopted by Jeremiah and Isaiah for use in their prophecies. Tohu wabohu or tohu and bohu paralleled in the same verse is only used in Hebrew Prophecies. It is a prophetic word.

The referent of tohu wa-bohu is the whole surface of the ancient Earth. In the second verse Earth and tohu wabohu have no parallel. Tohu wabohu is a description of the entire object facing the sacred author in the prophetic movie.  The Earth first appeared to be a desert world. The sacred author could have simply stated: And when Earth was an astonishing-desert. Tohu wabohu is the object-name of the subject Earth. It is the head descriptor or main descriptor of the Earth. The paralleled second and third clauses: "Darkness over a face of abyss and the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters" modify and add additional information to the main descriptive word: tohu wabohu and of course the main subject Earth.

I translate tohu wabohu as astonishing-desert or astonishing-wasteland in honor of Rashi's idea:

The word תֹהוּ is an expression of astonishment and desolation that a person wonders and is astonished at the emptiness therein. (Rashi Commentaries)

Rashi's idea fits in with my prophetic assumption.  The sacred author was astonished by what he saw. The Hebrew word tohu wabohu has wrapped up in it all the excitement and strangeness of seeing an object that has never been seen before. This is why it is a unique wonder of a word. I think Rashi has a good attitude toward this word. In the midst of all the solemnity and gravity read into this story I suggest there was a little playfulness and creativity happening in the mind of the sacred author when he wrote.  This suggestion fits the context. The transfiguration of the Earth is a joyful occasion. It must have been a joy to see it happen.  He even experienced the satisfaction of God described in "And God saw that is was good"!  So instead of going with desert wasteland, I went with astonishing-desert or astonishing-wasteland. Other ideas could be ultimate-desert/wasteland or super-desert/wasteland. 

These translation are concrete and I prefer it this way. They offer the reader an opportunity to visualize the setting. But there is a problem with this translation and interpretation. Scholar R. Gilboa raises the issue:

Suggestions for tohu as ‘desert’ (a geographical term often used for arid and uninhabited land OED) are implausible even impossible since we are told that everything is covered with waters. (p. 242, Intercourses in the Book of Genesis)

Gilboa seems to be biased toward a mythical chaos interpretation but this is a reasonable point. I would answer his valid objection by stating the ancient Earth could have been thought of a desert while covered with waters. This is what everyone should want to know. How is this possible? What was the Earth when the Spirit was sent forth so as to stimulate it? The sacred author knew that there was a water supply on the Earth's surface and under the surface. He saw waters erupt and wrap around into the the first essential modern atmosphere. Then he saw the Earth move close to the Sun so as to receive her light.

But before these courses of events happened the Earth was moving between stars. She was located far enough away from younger active stars so that her surface waters were not stimulated to liquid. Her surface was 'flooded' over with waters, but the waters were frozen. The waters in her subsurface remained liquid via the stimulation of her core. But on the outside she was an idle ice world. An ice world can be thought of and described as a desert or a wasteland especially to an ancient Middle Easterner who has never seen one before!!! He was truly astonished!

Now you may ask what is the Earth? What was her history prior to the Divine phenomena recorded in Genesis 1? How did she get her water supply? I've already said many times in this blog that I hold to the assumption that the Earth is an old dark star or a black dwarf. I reject solar nebular hypothesis and the Big-Bang with its time constraint. I think the Earth naturally transitioned to her long black dwarf phase from a young active phase such as our Sun. She is supposed to have begun as a star magnitudes larger than our Sun. She was fit to fuse and compress a sold iron core. Prior to her stimulation and transfiguration with God she cooled to a phase where she may have synthesized H & O to H2O at her outer layers. Or she may have assimilated H2O by swinging through dense interstellar medium in her galactic rotation.

Planets are old cooling stars. Some of these are captured or guided into orbit of newer active stars via their heliospheres. Once they are guided in they swing around the mother star by the EM mediators connecting star to star. But our planet was not captured. It was placed in orbit around the Sun by God in the course it's transfiguration that God initiated perhaps just beyond the Sun's heliosphere.

The beauty of the story is that our history began with God and Heaven and the Earth, alone beyond the Sun's influence. Everything about the Earth as it now is: is unique.  The Earth is elect, meaning God chose it out of gazillions.  He made a connection with it by emitting the Spirit, and he renewed her face!

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