Without Form and Void: the Sea and Silence

Dark-Blue-WatersI don’t know that I have read a book quite like Silence, Shusaku Endo’s brilliant work of 1966. I am very grateful it as been translated to English, though it is a frankly unsettling read that will keep you thinking for years (as it has me). But it is not disturbing in the typical sense of creepy, voyeuristic, or gratuitously violent. Oh, there is violence, but in his novel you feel as if you are experiencing the violence, the confusion, and the uncertainty of the characters. It should be mandatory reading for everyone, but particularly for all Christians.

The work excels on many levels, but Endo is a particular master at depicting the sea.

And that brings me to Genesis 1:2. I was recently preparing a lesson on this verse and was reflecting on the curious passage, often misinterpreted:

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Being 21st century Americans we are apt to understand the phrase “without form and void” as a representation of the earth in some sort of gaseous and cosmic cloud. Instead, the verse points to the fact that the earth’s initial characteristic was that it was absolutely uninhabitable by man. It was void, i.e. it was “barren and uninhabited,” which might be a clearer understanding according to the Hebrew (see Isaiah 45:18; Deuteronomy 32:10; Jeremiah 4:23-26). Further there was darkness over the face of the deep. And “deep” refers to raging waters, roaring waves, floods and the abyss—all conditions hostile to man. Man could not live in this sort of world.

And so back to Endo. Here is a single selection from his book showing how he depicts the threatening nature of the sea—vivid, terrifying, silent, uncaring. In this passage, two men have been staked to posts in the sea, and left to die as the tide moves in,

“The moaning sometimes ceased. Mokichi had not even the strength to encourage himself with a hymn like that of yesterday. Yet after an hour of silence the voice was again brought to the ears of the people by the wind. Hearing this sound, like that of an animal, the peasants trembled and wept. In the afternoon the tide gradually comes in again; the black, cold color of the sea deepens; the stakes seem to sink into the water. The white foaming waves, swirling past the stakes, break on the sand, and a white bird, skimming over the surface of the sea, flies far, far away. And with this all is over….And the sea, which killed them surges on uncannily, in silence.”

Such ominous words. This depicts well the sense of Genesis 1:2—a place which is not yet ready for man and woman, those made in his very image. But God is poised to act.