What is the biblical concept of ‘emptiness’?
Two biblical Hebrew words translate as “emptiness.” One, pronounced “rake,” most often means physically empty, as in “Don’t appear before me empty-handed” (Exodus 23:15), but may also describe “wicked people,” as in Judges 11:3.
The other word, “Tohu,” more philosophically describes the emptiness of the world before God’s creation. It is chaos, the opposite of Creation’s orderliness.
But this primordial physical disorder becomes symbolic of moral disharmony. Biblical order is both physical and moral.
“It is a fundamental biblical teaching that 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.” (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 6)
When the prophet Jeremiah describes the coming destruction of Israel, he teaches, “Watchers are coming from distant land, they raise their voices against the towns of Judah. Like guards of fields, they surround her on every side for she has rebelled against me.” (Jeremiah 4:16-17) The prophecy concludes, “I look to the earth, it is unformed and void (tohu); at the skies, and their light is gone.”
This reversal of Creation occurs because the people refuse God’s commandments and worship idols. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in “The Prophets,” “Civilization may come to an end and the human species disappear ... the world’s reality is contingent on compatibility with God.”
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, Congregation Beth Torah
May be historical gap between Bible, now
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I am not sure “emptiness” is a concept that the biblical writers share with us moderns.
We often use the word to express the lack of spiritual hope and joy; a feeling of nothingness/no feeling/despair. It is also the way we express the feeling that appears when we are spent, when we have nothing more to give, no empathy or compassion, nor are we feeling able to receive from others such expressions.
I went looking for feelings of emptiness in the Psalms, where almost all human emotions can be found, but I found in the midst of lack of hope and joy there was always a cry to receive from God new hope, new joy.
In the midst of Jeremiah’s cries in Lamentations 3 that God has left him to dwell in darkness, without hope, Jeremiah still lifts these immortal lines:
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ’The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’”
African Methodists are fond of quoting verses that call us to wait on the Lord, that declare God will deliver us from these moments or years of emptiness. We say, “Wait on the Lord and be of good courage, God will strengthen your heart, bring you through....”
God will fill the emptiness in God’s time.
The Rev. Betty Hanna-Witherspoon, Ebenezer AME Church.