Boundaries

You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.   Psalm 139:5 NASB

Behind and before– What does it feel like to have God’s hand heavy upon you?  Does it feel comfortable?  Gracious?  Or do you feel as if you can’t move?  Pressed?  Coerced?  Curbed?  In this verse, the emphasis comes first, and in this case the emphasis is on “behind and before.”  “Behind” (ʾāḥôr) comes from the root ʾāḥar (“to tarry, delay, defer”).  The Hebrew sentence reads, “Behind and before You hem me in.”  Let’s start with ʾāḥôr.

The verb is hardly used in the Tanakh, but the derivative, ʾāḥôr, shows up in one particularly important verse, Exodus 33:23, where it is mistakenly translated “back parts” in older English Bibles. Obviously, God doesn’t have “back parts,” and since the root is used to indicate temporal relations, I have suggested the proper translation is about God providing a vision of the future to Moses.[1]  Debate over the proper translation of Exodus 33:23 will probably continue, but in this psalm, the application of temporal relations is also critical.  The psalmist isn’t simply saying that God restrains us with physical barriers.  He is also saying that our lives are  temporally constricted.  At one end we are delayed.  We are waiting, but not in hope.  This verb also produces the word ʾaḥărît, commonly temporally translated “future,” but with the very odd notion that the future is behind us.  You will recall “H. W. Wolff has likened the Hebrew conception of time to the view a man has when he is rowing a boat. He sees where he has been and backs into the future.”[2]  This is the first boundary.  But it’s at the end of life, not the beginning.

Now notice the order of these temporal boundaries: “Behind and before.” We might have thought differently. We might have thought “Before birth and behind (after) death.”  But this isn’t the way the psalmist expresses it.  We’ll need to understand something about the word qedem (“before”) if we’re going to solve this conundrum. qedem comes from the root qādam, meaning “meet, confront, go before.”  “The root qdm incorporates two basic concepts: first, (and most often) ‘to confront (meet) someone with either a good or bad intent,’ second, ‘to precede someone or something either temporally or geographically.’”[3]  But notice the comment on the noun, qedem.

The noun qedem has either a geographical meaning, “east,” or a temporal notion “ancient time, aforetime.” This noun occurs sixty-one times. It denotes an idyllic state whereas ʿôlām, ʿad denote perpetuity, zāqēn, agedness, and riʾšôn primacy (q.v.)

The “East” may have either good or bad connotations. On the one hand it is the location of Eden, but on the other hand, it was the habitat of the men who built Babel (Gen 11:2).[4]

It seems appropriate to note that “East” is the direction of “new,” for example, the rising of the sun, the beginning of the day, the cosmic manifestation of “birth.”

Now we have this quite unusual wording about human temporal relations.  Strictly speaking, the psalmist writes that his life seems hemmed in between the end and the beginning, exactly the opposite of the way we would have expressed it.

But the psalmist’s perspective is correct.  We don’t start from the beginning, at least we don’t consciously start when we are born.  Our understanding of ourselves begins when we realize our finitude, our end.  That’s the beginning of human being.  Prior to that time, we exist as if we were innocent bystanders in the Garden. Human consciousness begins when we are kicked out, when we confront our demise.  We might wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t.  In order to really understand who we are, and to operate on the basis of our true role in life, we must first face our inevitable death.  We are hemmed in by the fact that we won’t always be here.

Once we have confronted the end of life (the future), then we can deal with the beginning (qedem). We can meet and confront our origins only after we have settled our termination.  But knowing we will not live forever allows us to engage all those circumstances, situations and emotional conditions that brought us into the world.  In other words, you and I will only be willing to unpack why we got here if we know that we won’t be here very long.  As long as we keep pretending that life will continue without interruption indefinitely, we have no motivation to look deeply into our origins.  But once death knocks, we have every reason to participate in the fearless inventory of our beginnings.

And the psalmist helps us see that God Himself has ordered life this way.  He kicked us out of the Garden.  He provided the prime directive for human existence that can only be accomplished in conflict.  He pushes us toward confrontation.  He refuses to allow us to retreat to innocent ignorance.  He hems us in.“ . . . the human being is, in himself, lacking, incomplete; the fatal illusion is to ignore finitude.”[5]

Topical Index:  behind, ʾāḥôr, before, qedem, ʾaḥărît, future, life, death, Psalm 139:5

[1]R. L. Harris comments in TWOT, “Theologically, the only instance that calls for discussion is Ex 33:23, ‘thou shalt see my back, but my face shall not be seen’ (KJV, most versions the same). But in no other place is the word used for the back of a person’s anatomy. This is gab or gaw or ʾōrep. The word ʾāḥôr means ‘back’ in the sense of direction.” (TWOT, Number 68d).

[2]Harris, R. L. (1999). 68 אָחַר. In R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament(electronic ed.) (34). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3]Coppes, L. J. (1999). 1988 קָדַם. In R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament(electronic ed.) (785). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p. 127.

16 Comments

  1. “…And the psalmist helps us see that God Himself has ordered life this way.  He kicked us out of the Garden.  He provided the prime directive for human existence that can only be accomplished in conflict.  He pushes us toward confrontation.  He refuses to allow us to retreat to innocent ignorance.  He hems us in.“ . . . the human being is, in himself, lacking, incomplete; the fatal illusion is to ignore finitude.”…”

    Skip, I find this conclusion to be an astounding truth! I think it is a truth for ALL OF US. I will attempt to add my emphasis:

    …God HIMSELF has ordered life this way. [He and not the Adversary – not deserving of any parallel comparision!]

    HE kicked us out of the Garden. [Deliberately!]

    HE provided the PRIME DIRECTIVE [consisting of p-r-e-c-i-s-e-l-y the realities of our unique and personal lives]…

    …for human existence [with which we have to grapple, not run away from, or blame another]…

    …that can ONLY [no other way], be accomplished in CONFLICT. [for conflict provides the opportunity to see ourselves from His perspective]…

    …HE [yes, HE, and at the time if His choosing!]…

    …PUSHES US [for otherwise we cannot grow up, but remain spoilt, whimpering and complaining children]…

    …toward CONFRONTATION [yes, to give us a chance to become more and more like Him (even though our steps falter)]… 

    …He REFUSES [what loving graciousness!]

    …to allow us to RETREAT [to refuse to see]

    …to innocent IGNORANCE [for though innocence may sound good, it can be fatal for grown-up, since invariably, ignorance pairs itself with darkness]. 

    He hems us in.“ [that we may have the opportunity to acknowledge our need and ‘hopefully’ choose (for He does not force us), to willingly and freely obey Him]

    . . . the human being is, in himself, lacking, incomplete [for He has put eternity in our hearts, (could that mean we are meant to become more than mere human?)]

    …the fatal illusion is to ignore finitude.” [to ignore the implications of our finitude; to ignore our dire need for His Fatherhood in our journey]

    Thank you Skip! Your post got me excited…

    1. Ah, then the expulsion from the Garden is really the “birth” of being human. Before that “birth,” Man did not exist as a fully functioning free will agent in the likeness of God, right?

      This really changes things.

      1. Sounds like you are right!

        Apparently, what happened in the Garden was altogether necessary, not to ‘argue’ about (as if it should not have happened), but to be understood, so we may come into the life it offers.

        Thank you Skip.

        1. If man had to sin to become human, however, (if I understand that part right) then there is no free will offered the human: they ‘have’ to have evil, which is no choice at all (and the East is right about fatalism, too). Wouldn’t it be more accurate to think that, regardless of choices, there is a Way for us to be all we were made to be? That would be the only way free choice remains free, right? Otherwise, I loved it. (Didn’t catch that one)

          1. So often humans learn the hard way. That’s what the expulsion from the Garden was all about. Wrong choices. Consequences. Learn from your mistakes. The Garden is water under the bridge, and new opportunities await.

            1. I think I’m responding to both Laurita and Thomas:

              It seems to me that now, in hindsight and AFTER the fact, we can say ‘wrong’ choice. But there may have been no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choice, just CHOICE. Could it be that it was not until AFTER the choice (which did seem reasonable, at least to Eve – 1Tim 2:14), that the consequences brought about the awareness of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices? Could it also be that the created being now becomes aware of other facets to his being – his body, his soul, his spirit? Is it that eventually the being realises the need for reconnection, since now, something he had (connection, fellowship, oneness… with the Creator) has now become a felt/experienced loss?

              I’m sure if we are patient enough, Adam and Eve will have the chance to explain… ? It doesn’t mean however, that we shouldn’t try to understand now. It’s just that we’ll always have limitations. Perhaps that is why knowledge needs to be yoked to revelation…

          2. Laurita, I didn’t perceive these comments about our expulsion from the perpective of deterministic fatalism. Rather, it affirms that regardless of the choices of any free agent, the plans, purposes and intentions of God are not thwarted…”all things work together for good”. Even more, although that “good” originates in God alone, its “working out” benefits us as well.

      2. Skip, please clarify what you meant by “fully functioning”. Is that something that only is defined by temporal action or is it inherent, having been given by the design of our Creator?

  2. I am using an actual Tanakh and the translation reads “before and behind” in two versions and the Artscroll Tanakh reads “Back and front”…. now I am really confused. Which is the “correct” translation so I can understand the verse proper-like….. *help

    1. I guess my question is…. Does the order MEAN something or does it mean nothing? I believe there is order, as you have pointed out… rowboat example… however, I don’t know….

      1. The order is extremely important, maybe even more important than the words. Consider Gen. 2 where it “shifts” the order of heavens and earth too earth and heavens. As a consideration, the 2 translations are telling you the same thing. One is a “literal” translation while the art scroll takes into account the Hebraic view. Picture yourself rowing in a boat, where you’re going is behind you (because you’re facing backwards) but behind you, is your future. What you are looking at is where you’ve been. Now read both translations and you can see that they are the same. What God showed Moshe is His Glory, (what He will accomplish, which is “behind Him”) but it works both ways as, where God has been He leaves His scent. Apparently God has a rowboat as well! ?. “Let us make man in our Image…)

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