The state of the earth in Genesis 1:2a

The state of the earth described in Genesis 1:2a has always led to differing interpretations among Christians. The big question here is whether the desolation, darkness and flood should be seen as symbols of evil or not. Although seemingly plausible, it turns out to be inappropriate. However, it seems appropriate to see in Genesis 1:2a a description of the work in progress that the earth was, in which there is precisely no evil or evil powers.

  • The question
  • Wild and empty
  • Symbol of evil?
  • Darkness
  • Symbol of evil?
  • Flood
  • Symbol of evil?
  • The meaning of the state of the earth Genesis 1:2a
  • Work in progress
  • No evil forces


The question

Over the centuries there has been much debate about whether there were evil forces at creation. The dualistic position here is that there was (and is) a battle between an evil god and a good god. This position took shape within Christianity with the Gnostics in the first centuries after Christ, who contrasted the creator (the ‘demiurge’) with the more perfect god of the New Testament. This happened against the background of the Greek philosophical tradition. Other dualistic movements arose against the background of Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism (source 1).

Biblically, the dualistic views are far-fetched. Nowhere else in the Bible is there reference to a creation story in which God engages in battle with other divine beings. 1 The only thing that resembles this is the battle against Satan (Rev. 12:9; 20:2), but Satan has already been identified in the Bible as a creature of God and it is only in Genesis 3 that we read about him for the first time . The Orthodox Church has therefore always rejected these types of positions. The question this raises is whether one should really not see symbols of evil in the desolation, darkness and flood. If the answer to this is ‘no’, the question remains how we should read this verse.

Wild and empty

The Hebrew word tohuw , which is translated as ,desolate,, has two possible meanings in the context of Genesis 1. The first is something like ‘nothing’ or ’emptiness’. The second reads something like ‘chaos’ or ‘disorder’. Throughout the Old Testament it is often used to describe the wilderness, as Moses did in Deuteronomy 32:10 (source 5). The word can therefore also indicate that an area is (almost) unliveable.

The word bohuw , which is translated as ’empty’, means something like ’empty’ or ‘unoccupied’. It occurs three times in the Old Testament in combination with the word tohuw (in Gen. 1:2 & Jer. 4:23 as ‘desolate and empty’, in Isaiah 34:11 separately as ‘desolation’ and ’emptiness’). ‘). The word is nowhere to be found outside here. It therefore does not seem to be an independent word, but an addition to the word tohuw to give it more force (source 3).

The fact that the earth was desolate and empty means that it was unlivable and that there was therefore no life. Depending on how one interprets the word tohuw , this could be because the earth was chaos or because the earth was a wasteland, comparable to a desert, only completely without elements that facilitate life.

Symbol of evil?

The fact that the word tohuw can be translated as ‘chaotic’ makes it tempting to see it as a symbol of evil. After all, chaos is never constructive or productive. However, based on what Genesis 1:2 tells, one cannot assume that there was chaos on the earth. There was only a planet with water on it, nothing more. This planet and the water will have behaved the way God made them. If this was chaotic, it is still strange to see this as a symbol for evil, because evil only came into existence on earth in Genesis 3 through the Fall. Before that, all creation was good (Gen. 1:31).


There was darkness over the flood. This literally means that it was dark. There was no light yet. This darkness is an entity that is later called ‘night’ in the creation story (Gen. 1:5) and that was created by God (Isa. 45:7).

Symbol of evil?

That darkness is a symbol for evil initially sounds plausible, because this is also the case in other contexts, such as in Isaiah 5:20. In the context of Genesis 1:2a, however, this would be inappropriate, because in the creation story the darkness is not dispelled, but rather given a place (it became night) in a creation that was completely good (Gen. 1:31). Furthermore, darkness is not necessarily a symbol of something bad. For example, David sang in one of his psalms that God made darkness His hiding place (Ps. 18:12). So the darkness also has its function.


The flood, also described as the deep waters, was an ocean that encompassed the entire earth. Just like the darkness, the flood also had its own place in creation. The water was also given a name, namely ‘seas’ (Gen. 1:10 – HSV 2010).

Symbol of evil?

Due to the destructive power that water can have, one can easily be tempted to see it as a symbol of evil. For example, partly thanks to the flood in Genesis 6-8, the water became a symbol for things that threaten life (Ex. 15:8; Ps. 107:26; Jonah 2:5). In addition, in the Babylonian creation story, the evil water goddess Tiamat is defeated by the creator god Marduk in a battle, after which he used her body for creation (source 6).

However, seeing the flood as a symbol of threat or evil would be inappropriate, just like with darkness, because the flood was also not driven away, but was given its place in the good creation (and was given the name ‘sea’ ). So the water was not an opponent of God. In addition, water was also seen as a blessing, after all, water makes life possible. People were very aware of this in the dry climate of the near east (Gen. 49:25; Deut. 8:7).

The meaning of the state of the earth Genesis 1:2a

If we are not to see the desolation/chaos, emptiness, darkness and flood as symbols of evil, or even as forces against which God had to fight, the question remains how we should read this verse.

Work in progress

The first part of the answer to this question is that we can view the verse passage as a description of a work in progress. The earth was not yet completed, but was still in the beginning of the creation process. The fact that the earth was in this state can be seen as a sign that we owe it to the Creator that the earth is now livable (source 7). In this work, a few things that are conditions for life have already been created, namely space, ground and water. More of these things are created in the rest of the creation story.

No evil forces

The fact that God created the earth in this state and from there continued His creative actions had an important meaning for the authors of the book of Genesis and their contemporaries. It means that God was the ruler over the darkness and the water. They were not his adversaries, but his creation. There were and are therefore no evil divine powers, comparable in power to God, moving through the universe to sow death and destruction, as described in other creation mythologies. God is the only God. In Genesis 1:2a we do not read that God had opponents, but quite the opposite, namely that He had none.

1 It is sometimes assumed that texts such as Psalm 74:13 and Isaiah 51:9 refer to such a battle. However, these texts seem to refer more to the exodus from Egypt or the entry into Canaan, where the Red Sea and the Jordan were split in two, respectively, so that the Israelites could cross safely and dry. See Psalm 74:12, which talks about God bringing salvation to the earth, Psalm 74:14, which tells us that Leviathan was given for food in the wilderness, and Isaiah 51:10, which says that God of the depths of the sea made a way for the redeemed to pass through.

Job 26:12 and 38:8-11 are also seen as texts that refer to such a battle, but these seem to be more about the flood. For example , in Job 26:11 we read about the punishment that can only follow sin, as happened in Genesis 6-9, and in Job 38:9 we read that God gave the sea clouds for clothing. The first clouds we read about are described after the flood, when God promises the rainbow as a sign (Gen. 9:12-15).

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