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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

'Your eyes beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16)

This text is especially significant with respect to the whole discussion on the bibical evidence for the beginning of the person, body and soul, from one moment of conception.  This is because it not only falls within the general perspective of Scripture so far defined, namely that it perceives God to be the formative cause of each and every person, losing sight as it were of the 'human parents in the clear vision of the Divine Creator'*, but it is also one of the texts which specifically concern the absolute beginning of human life.  I shall consider some general observations on this psalm before examining it in more detail.

General observations on Psalm 139

The writing in this psalm is 'Often regarded as some of the most exquisite poetry in the Psalter, perhaps unsurpassed as a description of the inescapability of God's presence (cf. Amos 9: 2)'478; and in the words of another commentator, this psalm is 'beautiful ... but textually difficult'479.  Psalm 139 is also and elsewhere said to be 'The climax of Old Testament thought on God's omnipresence and foreknowledge'480.

There is some uncertainty as to what category this psalm belongs: lament481; thanksgiving482; imprecatory psalm483; or song of praise484.  It has a natural structure of four parts and a kind of conclusion which returns it to the theme with which it opens: Yahweh's "searching" and "knowing" of the psalmist485.  The "I-Thou"486 dialogue of this psalm makes it one of the most personal expressions of an Old Testament487 author.

If this psalm is in the last of the five books of the Psalter488, a structure which reputedly echoes the five books of the pentateuch489, then this raises the question of a kind of equivalence between Psalm 139 and the book of Deuteronomy490, as if to say the Psalmist expresses an experienced491 knowledge of himself in the desert, under the sun: a sun that does not compare to the eyes of the Lord.  For the 'eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun' (Sir 23: 19).

This introduces one to the particularly relevant theme of this psalm, and of the Scripture as a whole: what is not known to man is known to God492; and, it could be argued, what man can know follows on from what God already knows.  Furthermore, and with specific reference to the question of our origin: 'It is because God has created everything that he knows everything'493; and indeed other commentators call God's knowledge of the psalmist 'intimate', as it is 'based on the fact that Yahweh created him'494.  Finally, what God knows is also incomparable because 'Before the universe was created, it was known to him; so it was also after it was finished' (Sir 23: 20).

But there is as I say a particular relevance of this psalm to the question of our origin and this is in part because Scripture elsewhere regards this question as especially mysterious: 'As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything' (Eccles 11: 5); and it is almost impossible to consider this passage without thinking of the more well known one of a similar kind in Ezekiel (37: 5-6), and so to see an enumeration of the two works of the Spirit between them: the giving of natural life and the giving of supernatural life.  This could be said to be expressed in the use of two similar phrases in that same passage of Ezekiel: the first is when natural life is given to the bones: 'Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live' (37: 5); and then, following the completion of the work of that first gift of life, which culminates with the creature being covered in skin and thus recognizably human (cf 37: 6), comes the gift of 'breath' through which the person will live and know 'that I am the Lord' (37: 6), which is the gift of supernatural life.

In contrast, however, to the mystery of the action of God which effects life, both natural and supernatural, the Scripture is full of meditations which draw upon different kinds of perceptions concerning the nature and development of human life.  Job goes beyond the perception that he is made of clay and will turn to dust, when he says: 'Didst thou not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?' (Job 10: 10).  Later in the same book Elihu says: 'The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life' (Job 33: 4), which is his basis for claiming a human equality with Job: 'Behold, I am toward God as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay' (Job 33: 6).  Elihu then returns to these thoughts as his reason for a more general conclusion concerning the action of God: 'If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust' (34: 14-15).  Finally in the Wisdom Of Solomon we read that he was 'mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage' (Wis 7: 1-2).  Moreover, he realizes that intrinsic to this process is the reception of a soul (cf. Wis 8: 19-20) which, however, is not the same as the earth from which he was taken (cf. Wis 15: 8), because on his death he is 'required to return the soul that was lent him' (ibid).  Furthermore, the author sums up all that has so far been said in this discussion, and especially that concerning Genesis, Job, Ecclesiastes and Ezekiel, when he says so succinctly of the man who has devoted his life to making 'a futile god from the same clay-this man who was made of earth a short time before' (ibid): 'his life is of less worth than clay, because* he failed to know the one who formed* him and inspired* him with an active soul and breathed* into him a living spirit' (Wis 15: 11).

More generally Scripture says that the works of God are beyond the grasp of man (cf Eccles 3: 11), and while this could be the proportion as it were of the work of God to the time which is available to a man to devote to understanding it (cf. Eccles 8: 16-17), yet there is a sense that the work of God is in a way beyond the grasp of man precisely because it is the work of God.  This is in part conveyed by the 'Semitic idiom' which expresses the whole of a thing through the statement of opposites495, and so the whole of God's work is beyond the grasp of man: 'He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end' (Eccles 3: 11).  But on the other hand there is a more specific sense to what is beyond the grasp of man and this follows from a consideration of the context of the latter excerpt, which is the fact that the whole of chapter three refers to times: 'a time to be born, and a time to die' (Eccles 3: 2).  It is therefore in the context of the different seasons of things that the author draws attention, at the end of this chapter, to the beginning and to the end of man and animals (cf. Eccles 3: 19-21), such that one could almost contrast what man knows, which corresponds to the things between the beginning and the end of life (cf Eccles 3: 22), with what God knows, which includes the beginning and end of everything (cf. Eccles 3: 11).

In conclusion of these introductory reflections one might say that God's actively knowing presence is at the heart of the origin of man496 and is therefore the source of whatever man can know of the theological mystery of his own origin: the mystery as faith reveals it to reason, and the reason makes known through faith.

477 A. Maclaren, The Psalms, page 387 of Vol. III, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, MDCCCXCIV [1894]), which is part of the series entitled The Expositor's Bible, under W. R. Nicoll.  Abbrev. Maclaren.    Back
478 J. S. Kselman, SS & M. L. Barre, SS, Psalms, page 550 of The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, R. E. Brown SS, et al, (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1990).  Abbrev. NJBC, Psalms.    Back
479 T. E. Bird, The Psalms, page 472 of A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Dom B. Orchard, et al, ( London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1953 ). Abbrev. Bird.    Back
480 A. H. McNeile, The Psalms, page 374 of A New Commentary On Holy Scripture, C. Gore et al, (London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, reprinted 1939).  Abbrev. McNeile.    Back
481 NJBC, Psalms, page 550.    Back
482 R. E. Murphy, O. Carm., Psalms, page 600 of The Jerome Biblical Commentary, R. Brown SS, et al, (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd., 1968).  Abbrev. JBC, Psalms.    Back
483 L. S. McCaw & J. A. Motyer, The Psalms, page 538 of the New Biblical Commentary, D. Guthrie et al, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, third edition, 1988).  Abbrev. NBC, The Psalms.    Back
484 herder's commentary on the psalms edited by E. Kalt, translated by B. Fritz, OSB, (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1961), page 525.  Abbrev. hC.    Back
485 NJBC, Psalms, page 550.    Back
486 JBC, Psalms, page 600.    Back
487 Cf. JBC, Psalms, page 600.    Back
488 Cf. NJBC, Psalms, page 523: Introduction.    Back
489 NJB, page 815: Introduction To The Psalms.    Back
490 NJB, pages 6-7: Introduction To The Pentateuch.    Back
491 Cf. NBC, The Psalms, page 537.    Back
492 W. E. Barnes, The Psalms, Vol II, (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1931), page 638.  Abbrev. Barnes.    Back
493 Artur Weiser, The Psalms, A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell, (London: SCM Ltd., 1962), page 805.  This book is part of the Old Testament Library series, edited by G. E. Wright et al.  Abbrev. Weiser.    Back
494 NJBC, Psalms, page 550.    Back
* NJBC, Psalms, page 550.    Back
495 JBC, Psalms, page 600.    Back
496 Cf. C. A. Briggs and E. G. Briggs, A Critical And Exegetical Commentary on The Book of Psalms, Vol. II, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1909), page 498.  Abbrev. Briggs.    Back

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