This phrase, taken from Psalm 139, is used by some Christians as a proof text that transition for a transsexual is sin. Is that accurate? Let’s look at the whole text on the topic of in utero formation in that Psalm.
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. – Psalm 139:13-16
The general theme of Psalm 139 is that God knows all about us, even if we think we can hide from Him. Verses 13-16 amplify that point, showing that God even knew all about us, not only before we were born but before we were conceived.
The remaining verses (17-24) praise the greatness of God’s knowledge, and then introduce the idea that the Psalmist (attributed as David) vehemently opposes wicked people, the people who oppose God. In the last two verses of this section, connecting it back to the main theme, in humility David recognizes that there may be some wickedness in him. He invites God, who knows all about him, to search for that wickedness and lead him away from it.
Now that we have the general context, let’s take a closer look at how we were made.
In the very beginning of the text, we may be puzzled by the word “reins”. After all, we are not riding a horse in the womb. It is the Hebrew word “kilyah”. Both words can either be translated literally as kidneys, or figuratively as the seat or source of emotions, feelings or affections. It is similar to how we figuratively ascribe those same things to the heart in current usage. Considering both the context (why would just one body part be singled out?) and the fact that the Hebrew word is translated as “kidneys” 18 times in the KJV, it is reasonable to conclude that here the reference is to emotions, feelings and affections: in other words, to a non-corporeal part of our nature. We are not created tabula rasa (Latin for blank slate). According to conservative commentary, this is not a controversial translation.
So what does it mean when it says God has possessed David’s reins (and by extension possessed them for everyone)? This is the Hebrew word “qanah”. When used in connection to God, it refers to that which He originated and created. It connotes a sense of ownership. Note that at least in this verse, it does not say that God possesses our entire body, just the reins. But there is more to look at.
There is also the parallel statement that God covers us in the womb. That appears to be a straightforward statement. But some commentators try to stretch this verse to say that this means that God created our physical body. This is because while the Hebrew verb “cakak” is usually translated as cover or defend or enclose, there is an alternate meaning (used as a translation twice out of the twenty-three times the word appears in the Old Testament): to weave together.
In this context, the meaning of “cakak” appears to be most accurately translated that God protects us and hides us in the womb, not that He created our physical body. The point is moot, however. The next verse does give a clearer indication of God’s work in our physical development in utero. And this brings us to the phrase being used to declare that being transsexual and acting upon it is sinful.
It is hard to imagine any quarrel with “wonderfully” being part of the text. The idea of the gestation period culminating in birth being a miracle, a marvel or a wonder is common. The use of the word “fearfully”, however, might be troublesome for some people.
What we have to understand is that there are two types of fear in the Bible. One is positive and the other, manifested in two different ways, is negative. The Hebrew word in this passage, “yare’”, can be translated in either way. Used in this context, it is the positive type. It speaks to the awesome reverence that one has for God, recognizing how much greater He is than mankind. While it includes an understanding of God’s power and what He could do to us, it is far more encompassing than that, because a true understanding of that greatness includes all of His nature, including His compassion, His wisdom and so on. Therefore, He is worthy of all glory, honor and respect.
Immediately following this phrase is that His works are very marvelous. This connects directly to both how we are made and how very special is the birth of a baby.
So we can acknowledge who made us according to Scripture. But where and how were we made?
The next verse begins with a return to the idea that we were covered in the womb. But while we were being made in secret, we were not hidden from God. Indeed, how could we be hidden from the one who made us? Yet immediately following, there is a statement that conveys something so unexpected from what has been stated up to now, that even David describes it as curious. We were made in the lowest parts of the earth.
Now if we are made by God, wouldn’t we expect to be made in heaven? What’s going on here? Is there a contradiction? How do we explain this? These are questions that need to be answered.
The Hebrew phrase “tachtiy ‘erets” is translated literally here. The word for earth carries with it a sense that it is used in contrast with heaven. David uses the same Hebrew phrase in Psalm 63:9. It describes where those who are seeking to kill David (implicitly because he is a follower of God) will be sent after God judges them. In both cases, we are talking spiritually, not about the earth’s core.
In the New Testament (Ephesians 4:9), the KJV translators used the same phrase in English as Psalm 63:9 to describe where Jesus descended spiritually while his body was in the tomb between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It is what is referred to in the Apostle’s Creed in the phrase “He ascended into hell.”
Now let it be understood that this is not referring to the place of final, eternal destruction. Indeed, we could not have been born if our formation occurred in such a place. Revelation 20:14 states that even “death and hell” will be thrown into the place of final, eternal destruction. So there is something even worse than this reference to hell. But we should still understand that the lowest parts of the earth is not a very nice place.
So guess what, those of you Christians who accuse us of sin merely because of our transsexual identity? You were formed in the lower parts of the earth, right alongside of us!
Lest we become high-minded, let us quickly move on to the rest of the passage. Most of the last verse (also the last sentence) seems to follow from the preceding three verses. But we do have to be careful with the word “unperfect”. First of all, the prefix “un” would be “in” or “im” in modern English, as in the phrase in the Declaration of Independence “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Today, we would use the word “inalienable”.
In the same way, we can understand this word better as “imperfect”. But before we jump to a conclusion that this is referring to birth defects, we have to consider that in the early 17th century, “perfect” was often used as a synonym for “complete”. In fact, the lack of awareness of this causes confusion in the understanding of other parts of Scripture. But that discussion is for another time.
The Hebrew word here is “golem”. This is a word that has evolved into vastly different meaning in Jewish folklore and in Modern Hebrew. But the word, used only this one time in the Old Testament, is generally agreed by scholars to mean embryo or fetus. For whatever reason, the translators used a euphemism (perhaps for the same reason that there was a time when you could not say the word “pregnant” on television or radio and had to use a phrase like “with child”). But the meaning is the same. We were formed from nothingness to a state of being incomplete but continually fashioned until we were ready to be born.
We know that birth defects do occur. Can we derive an understanding of the cause of birth defects from this passage? To ask it another way, does God cause them or allow them?
Where does Satan have power and authority, even if it is a limited leasehold? According to the Bible, it is on and in the earth. Three different times, the Gospel of John calls Satan the “prince of this earth”. A slight variation is presented by Paul in 2nd Corinthians 4:4 where Satan is called the “god of this world” (note the lower case “g”). Satan is also referred to as either the ruler or power of darkness.
Now put this information together with Jesus talking about people being punished by being cast into “outer darkness”. Furthermore, 2nd Peter and Jude refer to the angels who rebelled against God. From these accounts, we are told that they are cast into hell and chained in (or under) darkness to be held until the end of time judgment.
Where else can one get more into the earth and away from heaven than in the lower parts of the earth? The connections are all there: hell, darkness and punishment.
Finally, let’s look at an Old Testament lesson on this subject: the book of Job. What did God grant Satan in Job 1:12 and 2:6? Limited authority to attack Job, first his possessions and family and then Job’s own body. Also, we note that Satan told God that he had been walking up and down the earth (surveying his territory, one might say). In addition, it was God, not Satan who brought up the topic of Job, and by the end of the story we can see God’s purpose in doing so.
Ultimately, the Christian has to discern what the Bible says about the cause of birth defects, God or Satan. When the question is framed that way, the inclination would be to blame Satan, not God. Seeing that Satan has some authority in this realm, that the lower part of the earth and darkness is part of his habitation, and that he is the author of harm and evil against people, the inclination is correct. Satan sticks his wicked finger into what was originally God’s perfect creation in His own image. As a result, no one is created without “spot or blemish” (i.e., imperfection).
In the next post, we are going to look at the implications of the Biblical teaching that it is God who creates the seat or cause of emotions in a person. In later posts, we will look at more verses that are used to talk about how we were made.