Fearfully and Wonderfully Transgender: A Trans Woman’s Reflections on Psalm 139

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It’s distressingly common for trans people to have Psalm 139 weaponized against them, particularly verses 13-16. You might find it strange that a portion of an ancient song that has been regarded as a comfort to so many is treated by some as though it’s a prescriptive text meant to police the personhood of another human being, but that is part of the strange way many evangelicals have learned to read and apply the Bible.

I know because I grew up evangelical and used it the same way against myself. My own experience with the psalm is one of internalized transphobia. I used it against myself growing up. Even though when I was growing up, trans people like me didn’t seem to be on the radar of most cisgender, heterosexual evangelicals, I grew to hate this text because of how I would flog myself with it. The way I was reading it was flawed similarly because the way I was reading myself was flawed. Before I transitioned, I was used to seeing my trans nature—this weird sense I had that I was actually a girl—as at odds with who I was created to be. It never occurred to me to read the passage as affirming the trans part of me. I had always chalked that up to being in me “because of sin” or “because of the fall” in some sense, and that it wasn’t actually the real me, and that by embracing it and living as my authentic self, I would be rebelling against God’s intended creation of me.

Eventually, I came to accept myself for who I was, but it was a long and scary road to reach that point. And I came to a new understanding of Psalm 139 and myself. Also, I wasn’t trans because of the “fall”—it was just who I was.

Here is how I would translate Psalm 139:13-16:

For you created my most secret depths,
You embroidered me in the womb of my mother.

I praise you because I am fearfully made distinct. Your works are distinct—and my soul is well aware.

One could also understand the Hebrew phrase נוֹ ָראוֹת ִנ ְפ ֵלי ִתי (nôrāôt niplêtî) as “I am fearfully made marvelous,” or “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (as it is most often translated). I chose “I am made distinct” for the word ִנ ְפ ֵלי ִתי (niplêtî) because its root, פלא (p-l-’), though it can mean to “be wonderful/marvelous,” can also be understood in relation to its by-form פלה (p-l-h), suggesting that it could mean in this instance to “be distinct.” According to the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), the basic meaning of פלא is to “be different, conspicuous.” HALOT even suggests a gloss of “unusual” for this passage, which is interesting because the first occurrence of the verb ִנ ְפ ֵלי ִתי elides the aleph (א) and behaves more like its by- form פלה (it’s more common for roots that end in ה to elide the letter when the root is conjugated, though this isn’t unheard of with roots that end in א either—Hebrew nerds, see Gesenius § 75qq).

It’s entirely possible that I’m way out on a limb here. Honestly, my view of this passage doesn’t change whether one understand the phrase in question as “fearfully and wonderfully made” or “fearfully made distinct.” But the possibility of understanding this as “distinct” or “unusual” enriches the beauty of the passage for me. The fact that even the unusual or conspicuous way the passage plays with the appearance and omission of the א (and the fact that it even lends doubt over which specific verb—פלא or פלה—is intended as the root) helps me appreciate the deeper, more holistic sense of what David was communicating—presumably it is David, as the psalm is referenced as ְל ָד ִוד (“by David”? “for David”?).

If we assume David to be the author of this psalm, it’s important to understand that what David is doing is praising God for being intimately and thoroughly acquainted with him. It’s no accident that the word he uses for “created” is the verb קנה (q-n-’), which can also mean to “buy, acquire, possess” (“create” is its rarer usage) as opposed to ברא (b-r-’), which is the verb famously used in Genesis 1:1 and has an organizational, arranging quality to it.

I rendered ִכּ ְליוֹ ָתי (kilyôtāy) as “my most secret depths” because the word ִכּ ְליוֹת (kilyôt), literally meaning “kidneys,” is often paired with ֵלב (lēb, meaning “heart,” as in the seat of human emotions).

I don’t know what David’s “most secret depths” were—the depths of his soul making up the fabric of his being. But I’ve known all my life what mine were. It took me 28 years to allow her to come to the surface, being hidden as she was for all that time. And I’m so glad I’ve been able to live authentically today, no longer trapping myself in a façade meant to please all those around me and remaining miserable.

If I was created by this God whom David is praising, then I would like to think that this God made all of me—including the person I was suppressing for almost three decades.

The best part about this is that I don’t have to explain myself to cis people. God knows the depths of my humanity, and they don’t conform to how others may want me to be.

And that’s fearful and wonderful.

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