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  • Naming the Void

    In the recent article, “The Three Hebrew Words that Describe Our Time,”[1] opinion writer Martin E. Marty puts his finger on the underlying issue in our current climate of cultural chaos.  What are those three Hebrew words? Tohu wa-bohu. This is the phrase that appears in Gen. 1:2, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” This phrase has been translated in numerous ways, but a discernable pattern emerges:

    • without form and void (RVS, KJV)
    • unformed and void (Jewish Publication Society)
    • formless and empty (NIV)
    • barren, with no form of life (CEV)
    • welterand waste (Robert Alter in his Genesis translation)

    Marty writes, “As [my] spouse and I read our four daily papers, listen[ed] to radio and television, and open[ed] our mail and email, we remark[ed] to each other that ‘chaos’ seems to be ‘the word of the week,’ or ‘year,’ or ‘our times’.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment of our times. Marty acknowledges that both the Bible and “our experience testify to the fact that forms of formlessness and the voided condition remain with us.”

    He points to the “light” breaking through the chaos in terms of “hundreds of thousands of millennials” who fight the darkness through “sacrificial acts and inventions of volunteers, nurses, and, yes, teachers and pastors.” Hope is found in following the lead of moral examples. For all of Marty’s insights on identifying a problem (and this writer is thankful for the right evaluation of our times in terms set by Scripture itself), he doesn’t offer an explanation of how we went wrong, and ultimately doesn’t address the deepest resources needed for providing a solution.

    Blurring the lines

    The root of our present chaos is not political, social, or economic unrest. God’s rule over the chaos was demonstrated through the distinctions God wove into creation for its own flourishing. In Genesis 1, we see God make “cosmos out of chaos by making distinctions—separating things out and giving each thing its place and function. These separations are immediately pronounced ‘good.’”[2] God spoke, and light shone through and cut the darkness (v. 3). He divided the waters above from the waters below (v. 6). He breathed his breathe into humanity and crowned him as the image of God. He made humanity male and female (v. 27). We have reintroduced the chaos by rejecting, mocking, and attacking the very divisions through which God brought order out of chaos. Western culture has redefined the family, marriage, and gender. We deify nature, and praise women who stand up for their supposed “rights” to do what no mother ought to do— kill her unborn children. Paul clearly says that the dehumanizing rejection of such norms themselves signs that God’s judgment is already being poured out (Rom. 1:21).

    It should be noted that the original chaos and disorder of creation was a non-moral state of affairs. God created the originally unorganized cosmos and like all of his creation it was good, though uncultivated (that task was assigned to humanity, Gen. 1:28). But this language of chaos does return in strongly moral language in the days of Judah’s exile. After accusing God’s wayward people of being wise in doing evil (Jer. 4:22), the prophet Jeremiah laments, “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light” (v. 23). The creation imagery is explicitly invoked with reference to the chaos introduced as a result of God’s judgment against a rebellious nation. Hosea 4 likewise makes a connection between our sin and the the undoing of God’s good purposes for our world.

    So the hope for society is not moral reform, but theological realignment. The lines God has drawn are not mere social constructs. The lines are divinely ordered. We must not unite what God has separated. We must realign with the objective structure of the universe, and that means we must realign with God.

    Turning back the darkness

    God’s response to the tohu wa-bohu of the original creation was to divide, distinguish, separate. We blur these distinctions to our own personal, spiritual, and cultural detriment. The first step back from the brink of cultural ruin is to step back from our obsession with homogeneity (sameness without distinction) and reclaim the wonder of divinely-ordered diversity.

    The first distinction we must embrace is that we are not God. We do not possess his divine attributes. We do not possess his wisdom. We cannot usurp his agenda. This fundamental distinction grounds all others, and allows us to enjoy and embrace difference as God’s good gift for a well-ordered culture. His structures do not enslave us, but provide for us our life and liberty. We mourn at the chaos in our culture not because we are repressive kill-joys. We mourn because we see a culture that has turned so far from the Fountain of living water that it no longer knows the refreshing taste of true life.

    In the beginning God overcame the darkness with the light of his Word (Gen. 1:3). We say ‘no!’ to the chaos of our day, not in the name of culture wars, but in the name of the One who is the radiance (Heb. 1:3) of the knowledge of God’s glory (2. Cor. 4:6).

    [1] Martin E. Marty, “The Three Hebrew Words that Describe Our Time,”

    [2] Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido: Main Entry Editions, 2010), 191-192.