Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Psalm 139 and David's "ordained days"

Heh folks,

Just a reflection for the day.

One of the passages most frequently cited in attempts to refute the open view of the future is Psalm 139:16. Here David says that God viewed him while he was being formed in the womb (vs. 15) and then adds...

your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be (TNIV).

It is argued that this suggests that "our days are numbered" before we're born. God knows exactly how long we're going to live, in other words. So, when someone dies, by whatever means (even murdered children!), people says, "It was their time to go." Moreover, since there are a trillion variables affecting how long a person lives, including the free decisions of other people, if God foreknows the exact time of our death he must foreknow everything.

The argument initially looks impressive, but there are, in fact, a number of strong objections against it. In this blog I'd like to address what I think is the most important one (for others, see my book, God of the Possible). In a word, the Hebrew in this passage is notoriously ambiguous, rendering a number of differing translations possible. The King James Version, for example, reads:

"Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. "

To modernize this translation a bit, the KJV is saying, "Your eyes saw my body when it was yet unformed. You recorded in your book all my body parts which eventually came to be fashioned, and you did this before they existed (as formed body parts).

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation in essence agrees with the KJV. It reads:

Your eyes saw my unformed limbs;
they were all recorded in Your book;
in due time they were formed,
to the very last one of them.
How weighty Your thoughts seem to me, O God.

So the Hebrew is obviously sufficiently ambiguous to allow experts to disagree on what was pre-recorded in God's book. The issue of whether David's "days" or "unformed limbs" were pre-recorded in God's book must thus be settled on other grounds, the most important of which is the immediate context of the passage.

Given that this whole passage is about God's intimate knowledge of David when he's growing in the womb -- not about God's foreknowledge of David's life -- I would argue it's more reasonable to favor the translation that has God pre-recording David's body parts. If so, David is simply expressing God's loving care in making sure all that's supposed to eventually be part of David's body is in fact being formed in the womb. (By the way, it's important to remember that we're reading poetry here. It's thus a mistake to try to draw out metaphysical conclusions about what this implies for folks who are born with body parts missing or deformed!).

In any event, Psalm 139:16 clearly provides no objection to the open view of the future.

There's my reflection for the day.

Blessings on you