Tohu Wa Bohu, Here to Dwell
Image: Susan Savage, Here to Dwell, 2011, oil on canvas, 12” x 16”. Image used with permission of the artist.
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-2 1 "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."
When my husband and I learned that I was pregnant in early June, we were excited but also nervous. We knew 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage in the first weeks of pregnancy. At our first ultrasound, my doctor confirmed the baby was 6 weeks and five days, had a heartbeat, and everything "looked good." We were ecstatic. Logically, we knew anything could happen, but the odds of a miscarriage drop to just 4 percent after 6 weeks with a confirmed heartbeat. The weeks went on. I was excited when I scheduled my bloodwork to learn our baby's gender at 10 weeks. When my doctor listened for the baby's heartbeat, she went still. Further examination showed that I had a "silent miscarriage." Our little one had died at 8 weeks, a full two-and-a-half week earlier, yet my body held onto the pregnancy. The next week of waiting for my body to recognize the death of my little one even as I still carried the pregnancy, of having to work and go on with "normal life" was a nightmare. The wait ended with a painful delivery that lasted all night just to “birth” a miscarriage.
Tohu wa Bohu
The story of God creating the heavens and the earth in the book of Genesis does not begin with life outside of Him, it begins with Him. However a theologian interprets the creation account, only life and light originates with Him. I find it fascinating that we have verse 2 instead of skipping to verse 3 when God speaks light into existence. The text could have said, “God created the Heavens and the Earth. God said let there be light, and there was light.” Simple, right? Instead, Genesis 1:2 states, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." The Hebrew description for the earth in this state is tohu wa bohu, which translates into “formless” and “empty.” The Hebrew conveys a sense of a space inhospitable to life, a wasteland without purpose. Yet this is where we first see the Spirit of God…and He is waiting.
Here to Dwell
I first encountered Susan Savage’s art when I organized Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Come to the Table CIVA exhibition in 2018. Savage states that her paintings are contemplative works imbued with a sense of “finding mystery in the ordinary.” During the weeks of my miscarriage, I meditated on her work as I lamented and poured out my grief.
Here to Dwell presents a simple image with a complex translation. A translucent sphere hovers in darkness over a nest of thorns resting on blue and green shadows. Savage uses a sphere in her works to represent the divine. She states, “The sphere is a perfect form; it has no beginning and no end. It is my way of introducing the presence of God into the works if I need more than just a warm color. In Here to Dwell the sphere is clear. It is present, but sometimes we aren't sure He is there. But scriptures tell us that He is. And that is the important part.”
Susan Savage remarks:
The thorns come from the rootstock of my lemon tree as a defense mechanism to protect the tender leaves and fruit of the graft from predators when the tree has been grafted. If they are ignored after a time, they can drain energy from the more desirable branches and eventually take over the tree. Besides providing protection, thorns can also be destructive. Symbolically they stand for sin, tribulation and grief. There are 47 passages in scripture that refer to thorns as destructive and hurtful, and that is the focus I had in mind when I configured the composition for Here to Dwell.
Suffering is present in this work but so too is faith. Faith is not a hard doctrinal statement just as hope is not a naïve wish. Faith and Hope are the Christian’s companions that illuminate our sorrow even as we work out our confidence in His goodness and presence.
Psalm 69:1-2 "For the director of music. To the tune of “Lilies.” Of David.
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.”
Like the Psalmists, we offer our grief alongside our prayers and creed. In this liminal space, faith and hope are expressions of God’s love in our hearts. Here to Dwell suggests another threshold moment found in the Gospels. We do not serve a God that stays distant from humanity but identifies with us. Jesus Christ is called the man of sorrows around the world. When we speak of "the passion of Christ,” we speak to God’s willingness to suffer rejection, pain and death to redeem our brokenness and restore fellowship with His Presence. God willingly waits in our darkness with us.
In our grief, the Spirit of God is hovering in a pregnant pause for an unknown time. Although I have a Master’s in Divinity in Apologetics, I don’t know all or even most of the reasons God would do this but at the very least, I believe this is a glimpse into our God’s creative process. Before He creates, He waits. God’s “useless” waiting has a divine purpose. And of all the mysteries in darkness, the greatest is this: He is Immanuel, “God with Us.”
About the Artist
Artist: Susan Savage
Professor Emerita, Westmont College
BA in Art and MFA in Painting from the University of California Santa Barbara.
"After more than 40 years in secondary and higher education, I settle into my studio to continue my pursuit of visually portraying the sacred in the ordinary. I am inspired by II Corinthians 4:18 which says, “Look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” With this motivating scripture in mind I strive to make visible that which is invisible, to embody the truths, promises, and attributes of the Christian faith through the visual relationships of common, familiar forms. As I search the scriptures as a source of revelation, I strive to visualize and portray the liminal edges of reality. Thus, the act of painting becomes a significant intellectual and meditative endeavor for me. Through this mindset I have come to appreciate the fact that objects have the power to absorb and reveal both human and divine demeanor. As I paint I am enticed by the mystery of what is yet to be as I discover the wealth of things once hidden. By lifting the commonplace to a state of contemplation, I attempt to paint what is not seen, and hope that it can become evident if one takes the time to ponder the relationships that are presented. There is eternal value in my task, and it feeds me. Silence, solitude, and simplicity all work together to reveal something contemplatively significant, even if words or explanations do not come easily."
For more on her work, visit https://www.susandsavage.com/