God Sees My Embryo and Knows My Days. Or is it My Members?

God Sees My Embryo and Knows My Days. Or is it My Members?
Psalm 139:16

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

The NIV English translation we selected above is softened and paraphrased from the original Hebrew. The original language is somewhat more earthy. Here is a raw word-for-word replacement of the Hebrew we’ve taken from the nice interlinear produced by Scripture4All:

embryo-of me ... they-saw ... eyes-of you ... and on ... scroll-of you ... all-of them ... they-are-being-written ... days ... they-were-formed ... and not ... and to him ... one ... in them

Here’s an excerpt from their interlinear document:

Scripture4All’s Interlinear for Psalm 139:16

Translators have found this verse troublesome. Take a stab at translating this yourself, using the raw words we have provided.

Here is our own attempt at a strict but readable translation. We have used [brackets] to enclose words added which aren’t in the original text:

[God,] your eyes they saw my embryo and all the days [of my life] [you] wrote them down in a book (or scroll) [while I was still an embryo] before any of those days happened [and also before any of my body parts were formed].

Did you come up with something similar?

Note our addition of the final “body parts” phrase which is not in the Hebrew.

The Hebrew word translated above as “embryo” is rooted in the primitive meaning “roll,” as in a roll of fabric. A fetus or embryo is such a rolled-up substance, destined to unroll into discernible body part members in the days ahead.

The New Spirit Filled Bible comments:

Substance . . . unformed   is language used for clay not yet formed into a pot, or a skein of thread not yet unrolled and woven (Ezek. 27:24). Here it is applied to the fetus of a human life.

Albert Barnes comments on the fetus or embryo as follows:

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect – This whole verse is very obscure, but the “idea” in this expression clearly is, “Before I had shape or form thou didst see what I was to be.” The single word in the original translated “my substance, yet being unperfect,” is גלם gôlem. It occurs only in this place, though the verb – גלם gâlam – is found in 2 Kings 2:8, where it is used in reference to the mantle of Elijah: And Elijah took his mantle, and “wrapped it together,” etc. That is, he rolled it up, or he folded it. The noun, then, means that which “is” rolled or wrapped together; that which is folded up, and hence, is applicable to anything folded up or undeveloped; and would thus most aptly denote the embryo, or the fetus, where all the members of the body are as yet folded up, or undeveloped; that is, before they have assumed their distinct form and proportions. This is undoubtedly the idea here. Before the embryo had any such form that its future size, shape, or proportions could be marked by the eye of man, it was clearly and distinctly known by God.

Modern versions do not inject unrolling “body parts” as we have. It is the days which unfold, not body parts. The King James and Webster’s instead point to “members” as the object unfolding and being written in the book. Here is the King James:

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. (KJV)

The King James Bible uses italics (and occasionally, brackets) to indicate supplied words inserted by the translators to improve the flow of English, or in this case, supply a word perhaps missing from the Hebrew. We have used brackets in our quotation of the KJV, showing these supplied and usually italicized words.   KJV Bibles show these in an italic font, but we have used brackets here instead.

And here is Webster’s:

Thy eyes saw 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. (Webster)

Spurgeon notes the conjecture of the King James writers, but finds it acceptable:

This verse is an exceedingly difficult one to translate, but we do not think that any of the proposed amendments are better than the rendering afforded us by the Authorized Version. The large number of words in italics will warn the English reader that the sense is hard to come at, and difficult to express, and that it would be unwise to found any doctrine upon the English words; happily there is no temptation to do so. (C.H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David)

The Pulpit Commentary wonders if there is corruption in the text. It would certainly fit if the original language referred to the unfolding fetus being formed into discernible body parts, known eternally by God and written in his book of days.

Verse 16. – Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; or, “my embryo.” The Hebrew text has but the single word גלמי, which probably means, “the still unformed embryonic mass” (Hengstenberg). And in thy book all my members were written; literally, all of them; but the pronoun has no antecedent. Professor Cheyne and others suspect the passage to have suffered corruption. But the general meaning can scarcely have been very different from that assigned to the passage in the Authorized Version. Which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. Modern critics mostly translate “the days,” or “my days,” “were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them;” i.e. “my life was planned out by God, and settled, before I began to be.”

Bible Bits likes the idea of corruption, and text gone missing, but modern translators probably are correct when they leave the speculative “members” or “body parts” out of their translations.

We’ll close with a few other translations of Psalm 139:16:

You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. (NLT)

You could see my body grow each passing day. You listed all my parts, and not one of them was missing.(Easy to Read Version)

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them. (NKJV)

Thine eyes did see my golem (embryo), yet being unformed; and in Thy Sefer (Book) all the yamim (days) ordained for me were written down, when as yet there were none of them. (Orthodox Jewish Bible)

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (ESV)

God bless you! And read the actual Bible for yourself! 🙂