Chaos, a term taken from the Greek mythology, according to which Chaos was the first existence and the origin of all subsequent forms of being (Hesiod, Theogon. 116; Ovid, Metatmorph. 1:5). The word itself (in Gr. χάοζ, immeasurable space) signifies the vast void, or the confused mass of elements from which it was supposed by the ancient philosophers that the world was formed. It has been employed in later times to denote the unformed mass of primeval matter described by the sacred historian in Ge 1:2, corresponding to the Hebrews words תֹּהוּ, to´hu, and בֹּהוּ, bo´hu, a waste void, a desert, a waste solitude, rendered in the Sept. ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος, invisible and without order. These two words, combined for the sake of the paronomasia into the phrase תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ, in which the repetition of similar terms is a Hebrew method of designating intensity or superlativeness, signify simply utter desolation.
The description which Ovid (1. c.) gives of Chaos itself, and of the formation of the world from the chaotic mass, is very remarkable. The following is a literal version:
Ere sea, or land, or sky, that covers all, Existed, over all of nature's round One face there was, which men have Chaos named — A rude, unfathomed mass, with naught save weight; And here were heaped the jarring elements Of ill-connected things. No sun as yet His rays afforded to the world; the moon Filled not afresh her horns by monthly growth; Nor hung the globe in circumambient air, Poised by its balanced weight; nor had the sea Reached forth its arms along the distant shore. Where'er was earth, there also sea and air; No land to stand upon, no wave to swim, And rayless air. Nothing preserved its form: Each thing opposed the rest; since in one frame The cold with hot things fought, the moist with dry, The soft with hard, and light with heavy things. This strife the God and kind? Nature quelled, By cleaving sky from land, and land from sea, And parting liquid sky from thicker air. These thus evolved and from the blind mass drawn, Disjoined in space, were tied in friendly peace: The fiery force of heaven's weightless arch Leaped forth, and chose the topmost point its seat; The air comes next in gravity and place; The denser earth drags down the bulky parts, Crushed with its weight; the water, flowing round, The outskirts held, and bound the orb entire.
"This statement bears so many striking resemblances to the Mosaic account of the creation that one can scarcely fail to regard it as having been derived by tradition from the same source. There is, however, this great difference between the scriptural and the heathen cosmogonies — that the former sets out with the emphatic declaration that the unformed mass was the creation of God; while the latter speaks of it as the already existing materials out of which he formed the world, or even as itself the cause and author of all things. Most interpreters, who have been ignorant of geological phenomena, have at once decided that the chaos of which Moses speaks was the form in which matter was first created. Some have even declared that there cannot have been any such interval as we have spoken of (Prof. Stuart, in Bib. Relpos. No. 21, Jan. 1836). But, on the other hand, the world gives intimations, in the rocks which compose its crust, of various and long-continued changes both of condition and of inhabitants. Hence we conclude:
(1) that the world has existed during some long period before the Mosaic record of creation in six days;
(2) that during that period it was the abode of animals differing in organization and structure from those now found on its surface; and
(3) that it has been exposed to various convulsions and reorganizations, more or less general. A favorite mode of explaining the Mosaic account, a few years back, was to take the six days of creation for unlimited periods, during which the changes we are speaking of took place. This ground has, however, been almost completely abandoned, both because the account, so understood, does not agree with the physical phenomena, and because such an interpretation is, to say the least, hardly admissible on exegetical principles. The first sentence of the inspired record may therefore be regarded as the majestic declaration of a fact, which the world had lost sight of, but which it deeply concerned men to know. What occurred subsequently, until the earth was to be furnished for the abode of man, is to be gathered, not from the written word, but from the memorials engraven on the tablets of the world itself. The succeeding verse of the Mosaic account then relates to a state of chaos, or confusion, into which the world was thrown immediately before the last reorganization of it. Nor is such a chaos opposed to geological phenomena, which plainly tell of 'critical periods' and of 'revolutions of organic life' (Phillips's Geology, in Cab. Cyclop. 2:264). Whether the chaos of which we are now speaking was universal, or was confined to those regions which formed the cradle of the human race, is a distinct question. The latter supposition has been adopted by Dr. Pye Smith, in his lectures On the Relation between the holy Scriptures and some Parts of Geological Science. To these lectures, as well as to the articles by Prof. Hitchcock, in the Biblical Repository (Nos. 17,18, 20, and 22), and to various papers which have appeared at different times in the Christian Observer, the reader is referred for a fuller discussion of this and kindred questions" (Kitto, Cyclop. s.v.). The difficulty advanced by some that geology (q.v.) gives no intimation of any such total break in the chain of organized beings as is implied in a chaotic condition of the globe just prior to man's introduction upon it, is hardly consistent with truth; for although the rocky tablets of the earth's crust do indeed exhibit a continued series of organized life, yet they also record great changes of species, and even wholesale demolitions of imperfect orders, not now extant, while they contain few, if any, specimens identifiable with those that inhabit the present surface of our planet. See also Hitchcock's Religion of Geology (Boston, 1855). SEE CREATION.