The Hebrew word tōhû is generally translated in two ways. It can denote the arid wilderness, where wadis disappear (Job 6.18), the deranged wander (Job 12.24; cf. Isa. 40.23), and Israel was found (Deut. 32.10). It can also mean the chaotic state before creation (Job 26.7); in this sense it can be paired with bōhû (Gen. 1.2; Isa. 34.11; Jer. 4.23) and by extension can mean any empty, formless reality, especially other gods (1 Sam. 12.21; Isa. 41.29; 44.9), or defeated nations (Isa. 24.10; 34.11; 40.17).

These two concepts are linked in biblical tradition (Isa. 45.18) and in underlying mythology. Ancient Near Eastern myths of creation frequently describe a battle between the creator, generally a storm god, and primeval forces, most frequently watery; reflexes in biblical traditions include the sea, the deep, and Leviathan, whose chaotic powers must be kept under control (see Job 9.8; 26.8–13; 38.8–11; Pss. 89.8–11; 104.6–9; Isa. 27.1). Canaanite tradition in the texts from Ugarit and elsewhere also narrates a conflict between Baal, the Canaanite storm god, and the god Mot (Death); the domain of the latter is the arid desert as well as the underworld. In biblical tradition creation can be depicted as the triumph of Yahweh over the sterile forces of drought (see Gen 2.4–5); this is then applied to the creation of Israel (Deut. 32.10) and to its restoration (Isa. 35.6–7; 43.20; 51.3). Thus God's defeat of the forces of chaos, both water and desert, is a necessary prelude to creation as well as an ongoing activity. (See also Israel, Religion of.)

The Hebrew pair tōhû wābōhû is also the basis of the English and French word tohu‐bohu, meaning “chaos and confusion.”

Michael D. Coogan