K.L. Jones



Psalms write and express revelation, relationship, and response on and through the body; corporeal vocabulary, awareness of embodiment and somatic metaphors abound. This rhetoric draws people in through reference to common experience and uses somatic language to express thoughts and emotions which often escape conceptualisation, such as confusion, fear, and protection. Psalm 139 uses sensory language to stress how the Psalmist cannot escape God’s knowledge and power, and states that understanding God’s power is beyond humans. Movement, pressure, and touch highlight presence and protection, and sensory awareness establishes a relationship between the protector and protected. I consider translations of tesukeni and yeshupeni and sensory metaphors, closing with a treatment of sensory awareness and cognitive understanding within the Psalm.


Sensation; embodied experience; Psalms; Hebrew Bible

Sensation animates humans and enables them to explore themselves and their environment. In the Hebrew Bible (HB), created senses tend towards their creator; the corpus probes the relationship between divine creator and human creature and maintains that this relationship is neither built on nor sustained through cognition alone. God creates sensory faculties, uses them to reveal himself and to build relationships with humans, who can explore God’s presence and nature through enacted and imagined sensation.

The Psalms are a dynamic collection which voice human exploration and response to God and the world. They strikingly demonstrate how revelation, relationship, and response can be written in and expressed through bodies; bodies which stand for the person in toto: “the persons in the Psalms do not so much have a body, they rather are a body.”[2] Body language, including sensory language, characterises the poetry of the Psalms; corporeal vocabulary, awareness of embodiment, and somatic metaphors abound. This rhetoric draws people in through reference to common experience and uses somatic language to express thoughts and emotions which often escape conceptualisation, such as confusion, fear, and protection.

In Psalm 139, somatic language is used to emphasise that the Psalmist cannot escape God’s knowledge and power, and to state that understanding God’s knowledge is beyond humans. The Psalmist’s movement highlights God’s presence, and the Psalmist’s experience of pressure and touch highlights God’s protection. Sensory awareness establishes the relationship between creator and created, between the protector and protected. Creation and protection are imagined and communicated through the Psalmist’s senses, but imagination and experience do not lead to knowledge.

Ultimately, the Psalmist’s knowledge is sharply contrasted with God’s. When God senses or acts (vv. 1, 15–16), God knows. When the Psalmist senses or acts (vv. 2–3, 5–6, 13), they do not know. The only knowledge that the Psalmist has (v.14) is that God works to fashion their body. Whether proprioceptive, kinaesthetic or haptic, the Psalmist’s sensations show how limited their knowledge is and how essentially different it is from God’s understanding. The Psalmist can know about God and God’s actions through the senses but cannot understand God through them. In this work, I investigate how the senses can be used to conceptualise God’s creation and protection of the Psalmist, and how the Psalmist uses them to explore knowledge.

Approach of Study

In this study, I explore the connection between sensation and cognition. Like Avrahami and Goering,[3] I combine detailed lexical work with an awareness of how the senses function rhetorically and conceptually in the HB. Whilst I do not integrate ethnography into this work (pace Howes, Classen, Ritchie, et al.),[4] I do point towards contemporary views and uses of proprioception from an applied perspective.

I offer a translation of Psalm 139:1–18 and devote attention to sensory rhetoric. I consider translations of tesukeni and yeshupeni (s-k-k and sh-w-f) suggesting that metaphors about proprioception are organic in Psalm 139, but that they have been supressed by many translations. I discuss how these sensory metaphors are used to describe the Psalmist’s creation and their awareness of protection throughout life. To close, I turn to the relationship between sensory awareness and cognitive understanding within the Psalm and advance that Psalm 139 sets the limits of human understanding and wisdom over-against that of God.

As I will demonstrate, bodies enable emotional expression and communication between the persons mentioned in a psalm, or between the Psalmist and God.”[5] Though the idea that God created the senses is not unique to the Psalter, this creation is the springboard for the logical move that God communicates through them. In Psalm 139, successful sensory processing and sensory skill (the ability to distinguish a major or minor chord, to see brush strokes on a painting, to run or ride a horse), are not the basis for communication; the sensory act of creation and God’s revelation through the senses is most important.

Though the senses, in this Psalm mainly hapticity, kinaesthesia, and proprioception can be used to approach and know God; the distance between creator and created means that humans can never fully understand the revelation which they sense. Throughout, I advance that the sensorial creation of the person affects how they receive revelation and respond to God.

More than Movement: Proprioception, Kinaesthesia and Haptics

In Psalm 139, I maintain that there is a division between these senses, evident in representation of deep pressure, movement, and touch. I combine scientific perspectives on these three faculties with dominant perspectives from the HB,[6] and for this paper I define proprioception, kinaesthesia, and haptics thus:

A. Proprioception: the sense of movement upon or within the body, specifically pressure upon it.

B. Kinaesthesia: the sense of the body in motion. Kinaesthesia is often expressed in the HB through locomotion and is connected to the foot.[7]

C. Haptics/touch: the sensation of touch of or by the body, specifically upon the skin.

All people have some form of proprioceptive ability, and it is the first sensory faculty to develop. Proprioception (and by extension, kinaesthesia) accompany a person from the womb to death,[8] but the proprioceptive language in the HB is often overlooked, even by scholars investigating the senses.[9]

I suggest that proprioceptive language is clear in the connection between surrounding, soothing, and protection in the Psalms (or the HB at large). This connection is rarely explored from a sensory perspective but is frequently experienced. Deep pressure modulates and provides sensory distraction and comfort from sensory and emotional disturbances.[10] It forces proprioceptive receptors to function and the individual to locate their body, even if they are unable to articulate or comprehend this. The calming effect of proprioception is why babies are swaddled, why weighted blankets calm people and animals,[11] why cattle presses are used, why people hold one another tightly to comfort. Deep pressure provides localizing and grounding sensory contact, even when it is cognitively associated with panic.  

Kinaesthesia (a subcategory of proprioception) is about how a body moves; it is the sensation of the moving body and the act of moving (such as locomotion). It is more about what a body does than what a body feels. The haptic (or tactile) sense detects light pressure and temperature through receptors upon the skin, though deep pressure is detected by internal mechanoreceptors (so is a proprioceptive sensation).

With all three of these senses, what is sensed is either necessarily in, on, or the body of the sensor itself, and these senses help people to detect their body and their environment. The object of perception is in close proximity to the people who perceive it, just as, in Psalm 139, God is in close proximity to the Psalmist. In this work, I investigate how these senses are used to conceptualise God’s creation and protection of the Psalmist, and the Psalmist’s exploration of knowledge.

The Created Body

The one who planted the ear—do they not hear?

The one who formed the eye—do they not see? (Ps 94:9)

Psalm 94 links the creation of sensation to the sensation of the creator. Psalm 139 reflects on the way that the creator of the senses communicates through them. Exploring this, I propose that sensory creation underpins awareness of sensory protection. Because humans are created in a sensory way, they have some sensory imagination which can be used to apprehend (but not understand) God. Of course, not all humans are created with the same sensory faculties, and sensory function changes throughout life; Psalm 139 uses the most common sensory faculty (proprioception) and elsewhere the Psalter uses a fully multisensory and intersensory rhetoric which spans the senses.[12]

In Psalm 139, I suggest God interacts using protective proprioception in the womb and beyond it throughout the Psalmist’s life. Although the Psalmist uses four different verbs to describe the creation of their body (q-n-h (13a); ‘-sh-h (13bb, 15a) and s-k-k (13b)),[13] the link between sensorial creation and sensory revelation is clearest through the verb s-k-k (tesukeni) in verse 13. This root is usually listed as s-k-k II, “to knit, weave,” and is only attested elsewhere in Job 10:11, where it again refers to creation in the womb. Here, the parallelism of s-k-k with l-b-sh supports my reading of the first verb as “cover.” l-b-sh potentially (here talebishneni) conjures up more of a haptic image than a proprioceptive one as God clothes Job with skin and flesh (visible and external, like clothing) and covers (tesokekeni) him with bones and sinews (mostly non-visible).

S-k-k I is listed as “to cover.”[14] The HB contains rich language of covering as protection, in the concrete physical sense (e.g., Ex 25:20; 37:9; 40:3, 21) as well as in a more metaphorical sense (e.g., Job 2:23; Lam 3:43). In the Psalms, the verb is used to describe God’s intense and personal care. God covers (wetaseke) the ones who take refuge (khosey) in and love them,[15] continually singing with joy (Ps 5:12, Engl. 11); gives refuge (kh-s-h) under their wings and covers (yaseke) with their pinions (Ps 91:4) and covers (sekotah) the Psalmists head in the day of battle (Ps 140:8, Engl. 7).

I advance that there is a strong connection between the idea of God’s protection and proprioceptive memory. Covering in the HB, and proprioception in contemporary dialogue on the senses, are linked to protection, safety, and comfort.[16] Psalm 139:13 and Job 10:11 discuss God’s covering protection in the context of creation in the womb, a dark and potentially dangerous place. Awareness of how covering/proprioception and protection are linked outside of the womb in Psalm 139 supports the reading of tesukeni as “cover” in Psalm 139:13 and Job 10:11, rather than as “weave/knit.” These texts discuss God’s protection from the womb through life with a proprioceptive metaphor.

Contemporary scholars note the development of proprioception in the womb;[17] it is anachronistic to suggest that the Ancient Israelites were aware of this, but it is possible that they extended the awareness of God’s covering protection in their lives to conception of covering protection during creation in utero. If this is the case, Psalm 139 uses sensory experiences to understand the lifelong interplay of revelation and response through the senses.

The Sensing Body

Deep pressure can sound frightening but feel calming. This strange relationship between conceptual fear and sensorial pleasure extends into the Psalmist’s life, as they are covered and protected in a heavy but not hostile embrace. By encompassing the Psalmist in a deeply physical way, pressing or squeezing them in on every side and touching them, YHWH reveals presence and protection. In Psalm 139:5, the Psalmist is “bound up” (ṣaretani) in front and behind, with YHWH’s hand laid (wetashet) upon them.  

Waltke and Allen[18]acknowledge the hostile connotations of the homonyn ṣ-w-r, which is used for besieging and binding (e.g., Deut 14:25; Judg 9:31; 2 Sam 11:1; Jer 21:4, 9; Song 8:9); harassing (Ex 23:22; Deut 2:9, 19; Esth 8:11) and forming (Ex 32:4; 1 Ki 7:15). I advance, however, that the language of Psalm 139 does not describe hostile or manipulative control.[19] Imagined proprioception evokes feelings of entrapment and restraint at the same time as those of protection as YHWH soothingly surrounds. Although entrapment and restraint may cognitively seem coarse, they sensorially feel comforting.

In verse 5, it is unclear whether the language of God’s palm (kap) being set (watashet) upon the Psalmist evokes memory of touch or of pressure.[20] I advance that the metaphor of God encompassing the Psalmist with somatic force and resting their hand upon them combine to emphasise intense but not overpowering sensory attention. The nouns which stand as prepositions in this verse strengthen this, suggesting that the Psalmist is encircled from both sides and from above with protecting sensory attention.

In verse 10, the Psalmist states that whether their movements take them high or deep, their body is guided (tanekhni) (and grasped (weto’khzeni) by God’s hands. Elsewhere in the HB, ’-kh-z is collocated with yamim in 2 Samuel 20:9 and Psalm 73:23;[21] in Psalm 73 the Psalmist declares trust that they are continually with God, held (’akhazeta) by God’s right hand. 

Except in 2 Samuel 20:9 (where Adoni-Bezeq has his thumbs seized and cut off), ’-kh-z is never collocated with yamim or yad with a threatening sense. It is unwarranted to state, as Dahood does (through comparison with Job 16:12) that “the context requires a hostile meaning.”[22] With Brown, I suggest that “God’s powerful grip highlights the all-encompassing protection the Psalmist enjoys.” [23]

Discussing proprioception in Psalm 139:5, I have indicated that deep pressure can sound unpleasant but feel pleasant. In verse 10, the same phenomenon exists. Bound and grasped or squeezed and held firm, God reveals their presence to the Psalmist through proprioceptive memory and imagination. I propose that the Psalmist exploits the discord between expectation and sensory experience to emphasise the surprising comfort of YHWH’s encompassing protection.

The HB often links darkness with danger and chaos (cf. Gen 1:2; Job 38:8–9). In Genesis 1, creation happens when God causes light, in Psalm 139, God creates in the darkness. The Psalmist fears harm in (or from) the darkness, but they are comforted in the awareness that they and can apprehend God through proprioception in the darkness. Darkness is not “the place where no knowledge exists,”[24] it is a place where sensation is still present, where creation happens and where the Psalmist encounters God. Protection is conceptualised in Psalm 139 through sensory language and so too, I advance, is harm.

Many translations are reticent to translate yeshupenias bruise or crush,[25] and two ancient witnesses (Vulgate and Symmachus)[26] have operient[27] and episkepasei,[28] respectively, arguably leading to the emendation of yeshu(w)peni to yeshu(w)keni equivalent to. Reading yeshupeni as bruise/crush in Psalm 139:11 is often seen as “unsuitable,”[29] with emendation preferred. In Genesis 3:15 and Job 10:10 the semantics of the verb suggest physical harm, crushing or bruising, which I suggest are also present in Psalm 139:11. The Psalmist believes that the darkness will crush them as light turns to night.

Against emendation, and contra Driver (who translates as “to sweep close over”),[30] I retain the verb sh-w-p (yeshupeni) and translate it as bruise/crush. [31] The Psalmist fears that in the darkness their body will be harmed physically. The same sensory language which is used to conceptualise and communicate God’s protection is used to conceptualise possible harm. Reading yeshupeni as bruise/crush, I suggest that the Psalmist reminds themselves that since God created and revealed himself sensorially in the darkness of the womb, God can protect from sensory harm in the darkness. 

There is, I advance, a causal connection between light and darkness being irrelevant to God and God’s creation of the Psalmist’s inward parts. God created in a place where visual perception was difficult or impossible (“in secret”; “in my mother’s womb”), even undertaking detailed fashioning of the body “in the depths of the earth.” Divine eyes see the “unformed body” and divine covering (s-k-k) protects; God can surely see and prevent harm from befalling the Psalmist in the darkness. 

Reading yeshupeni in Psalm 139:11a as “crush/bruise” works flawlessly within this context. Fearing a physical threat which would be experienced sensorially (through proprioception or haptics) to the body in the darkness, the Psalmist remembers that YHWH created their body in the darkness. The Psalmist recalls the creation of their body through sensorial language and the comfort which God has given their body through the same sensory faculties. Awareness of the sensory rhetoric which underpins this Psalm moves the reader from the creation of the senses to the possible harm and help which can be experienced or imagined by the senses.

The Knowing Body

Tilford’s compelling book “Sensing World, Sensing Wisdom” investigates how the Wisdom corpus uses sensory metaphors as cognitive tools in organising reality. For Tilford, bodies are the modes of conceptualising and communicating cognition, and internal thought is processed and expressed with concepts from the physical domain.

The senses enable cognitive processing and communication, and in many cases even stand for the cognitive act itself. Avrahami states that kinaesthesia connects to “the personal acquiring of knowledge,”[32] but Tilford goes beyond this. Kinaesthetic metaphors, she argues, “reflect a particular conception of cognition, in this case one in which cognition is conceived of as a continual, self-perpetuated process.”[33] How one senses the world is entwined with how one conceptualises the world and acts within it. 

Goering also presents the senses in the Wisdom literature of the HB as “portals that mediated between a body’s exterior and its interior,”[34] observing that sensing how the world works generates the wisdom discourse. “Kinaesthetic self-control”[35] underpins moral action and right judgment, whilst wayward movement connotes a person’s folly. Mental processes are not only described kinaesthetically,[36] but in many places “the very process of thinking [is] kinaesthetic.”[37]

Tilford and Goering convincingly demonstrate that the HB inextricably links sensation and cognition. Building on this, I suggest that Psalm 139 sets the limits of cognition through sensation and establishes a dichotomy between the knowledge of the creator and the knowledge of humans.

Although the Psalmist praises God, this “doxology transcends the capacity of intellectual comprehension.”[38] Though they can praise God, they cannot understand what they praise. God understands the Psalmist through a relationship with them,[39] knowing their body and what they do with it. The Psalmist, however, only knows (and does not understand) through their relationship with God and through their body’s actions.

I advance that the Psalmist knows through the senses, just as Tilford emphasises. The Psalmist imagines themselves sitting (y-sh-b), rising (q-w-m), journeying, (’-r-kh), lying down (r-b-‘), going (y-l-k), fleeing (b-r-kh),  ascending (n-s-q), making a bed (y- ṣ-‘), rising on wings of the morning (n-sh-’), and dwelling (sh-k-n). They do not necessarily know through completing the actions, but in imagining themselves doing them. Kinaesthetic memory and imagination are key to exploring the locus and limitations of movement. The Psalmist imagines God knowing their movements (vv. 2–3), and imagines themselves making movements to discern the limits of God’s omnipresence, movements which are explorations to develop their knowledge of God. These movements, I suggest, also lead the Psalmist to realise that they do not understand.

In Psalm 139, ability and achievement in movement are unimportant. The Psalmist is not known and does not know because they rise swiftly, journey easily or far, flee fast or sit elegantly. They know because they can imagine kinaesthetically. It is important to note that kinaesthetic actions imagined, known and used for knowing are not all active movement. Awareness of sitting, lying down, making a bed and dwelling is disclosed; the body knows kinaesthetically through the absence of movement as well as its presence.[40]

The Psalmist knows sensorally, but this knowledge does not lead to knowledge about their nature. Instead, it leads to the realisation that they do not, indeed cannot understand. They declare that knowledge of YHWH is too wonderful, too high.[41] They cannot cognitively prevail over knowledge, they can only have knowledge of God’s acts towards them. Psalm 139 emphasizes the importance of the senses for gleaning knowledge; God knows the Psalmist’s kinaesthetic actions and the Psalmist is aware of God’s creative and sustaining presence. At the same time, the Psalm undercuts reliance on somatic perception for cognitive understanding; it is because the Psalmist knows of the wonder of their somatic creation that they know God’s works are wonderful. But rather than sensation being the way to obtain knowledge, it is through sensing that the limits of human knowledge are realised and set against God’s unlimited knowledge.

The Psalmist’s soul knows the works of God, specifically the work of their creation. I have argued that God’s protection in the womb and through creation is linked to an awareness of God’s presence, and to a knowledge of the Psalmist’s created nature in relationship with God. This knowledge is not an understanding of (or prevailing over) God’s creation, but an awareness of it, an awareness which leads to response.

Knowledge is not abstract and disembodied in Psalm 139,[42] but relies on the sensing body being multifaceted, not only a cognitive exercise. Awareness of one’s relationship with God and one’s nature is not the same as understanding; the Psalmist can be fully aware of God’s marvellous creation despite the fact that their intellectual faculties cannot comprehend God’s thoughts.[43] In this Psalm, response to and relationship with God is not on the intellectual level, but on the sensory level. The Psalmist can be “fully convinced”[44] without fully comprehending.

Brown intimates that God is the sensing searcher in Psalm 139: “the psalm begins with a pronouncement of God’s infinite and intimate knowledge of the self. Relational by nature, God’s encompassing knowledge crosses time and space to find and probe the Psalmist. Not simply a passing familiarity, God’s knowledge comes to accompany and lead, an irresistible knowledge that is welcomed as a long-lost friend.” [45] I suggest, however, that the emphasis is on the Psalmist as the one exploring the idea of God’s presence through sensory imagination. God does know the Psalmist in their travels across space and time, but the emphasis is on how that sensory language presents the Psalmist’s comprehension.

In the Psalmist’s imagination, movements are unlimited, traversing the common and the impossible, yet knowledge is limited. Imagining moving and being still, the Psalmist knows only that God created them and is with them always. Beyond this knowledge, the Psalmist cannot go. I advance that sensory rhetoric points to the multiple ways that humans can know God through the senses but also to the limited extent of this knowledge.

It is tempting to suggest that in Psalm 139, kinaesthesia is linked to cognitive knowledge and proprioception, and haptics to emotional, spiritual, or relational knowledge. The Psalmist’s kinaesthetic actions and imaginations are linked to God’s knowledge, and to their awareness that they cannot escape from God’s presence. However, I argue that whilst proprioceptive and haptic awareness depend on God’s actions, and are linked to awareness of God’s protection, they lead to the same awareness of God’s presence and the Psalmist’s inability to understand, just as kinaesthesia does. 

I also argue against a neat division between types of knowledge; in the HB, and in Psalm 139 particularly, types of knowledge are not stratified. The Psalmist claims that their soul knows that God’s creating works (which are partly sensory) are wonderful; sensory interaction leads to the soul’s knowledge of God’s wonderful creation. The Psalmist cannot comprehend or prevail over this knowledge, they cannot master it as God does. All the Psalmist can do is apprehend and appreciate the knowledge and relate it to their experience of God’s protection in creation and through life.


Theological truths are not developed abstractly, but through embodied experience, embodied experience which relies heavily on sensation. I suggested that in Psalm 139, personal sensory experience leads to sensory imagination and expression, and to the realisation of theological truths. After outlining the centrality of sensory and somatic metaphors, I developed a framework for understanding proprioception, kinaesthesia, and haptics in Psalm 139.

Turning to the text, I began with sensory language in the Psalmist’s praise of their creation, identifying proprioceptive language and questioning how and why these images may have been used. I suggested that God’s “covering” protection began in utero and that the imagined experience of this underpins the somatic theology of the Psalmist. The Psalmist declares that proprioceptive harm in the darkness is no threat to one whose form was created and protected in the darkness. With an awareness of sensory language in Psalm 139, I challenged translations of tesukeni as “weave/knit” and yeshupeni as “cover,” demonstrating how sensory creation ensures a lifetime of sensory protection.

I then drew upon the work of Tilford and Goering to discuss the relationship between proprioception, kinaesthesia, and cognition in Psalm 139. I advanced that the created senses allow people to enter the process of engaging with God but do not provide an understanding of him. In Psalm 139, kinaesthetic language describes imagined movement, movement which provides the knowledge of God’s presence wherever the Psalmist travels and whatever the Psalmist does physically. It does not, however, provide an understanding of God’s ways or thoughts.

Many of the movements which the Psalmist imagines are impossible; this suggests that sensory achievement is not at the fore, but that some form of enacted or imagined sensation is. Strikingly, kinaesthetic stillness is as important for knowing God’s presence as kinaesthetic movement, again supporting the claim that sensory achievement is unneeded. It is through the senses that the ability to rest is given. The body knows when it is not moving, when it is not hearing, when it is not seeing, and in this quiet the human-divine interaction still takes place. In the closing verses of Psalm 139, the Psalmist invites God to search them, mirroring the search that they have attempted through their sensory experience and imagination.

Few works investigate proprioception in the Ancient World, yet the HB is replete with metaphors of covering, surrounding, and the like. Further research in this area might explore the relationship between maternal imagery and proprioceptive metaphor; the link between proprioception, cognition and emotion in other texts; the dual use of proprioceptive language for danger and protection (e.g., the use of s-b-b).

Tilford and Goering demonstrate how kinaesthesia and cognition are linked in the Wisdom corpus yet work on other genres of the HB remains to be undertaken. Are there other texts which place limits on human understanding through sensory metaphors? Are certain sensory metaphors more strongly connected to achievement over exploration? Can a link be made to the nature of the sense experience and the presentation of knowledge acquired through it?

I have indicated that the creation of human senses enables communication and relationship between God and humans. If humans have bodies with this capacity, is it logical to suggest that the Ancient Israelites conceptualised God with a similar body? Are petitions to God’s ears (e.g., Pss 10:7; 17:6; 31:2; 71:2; 78:1) a corollary of this position; God has a sensorally active body which can communicate with the sensorally active bodies which God creates? If so, it is striking that the Psalmist critiques idols precisely because they have sensory organs but are unable to communicate with them (Ps 115).

I have investigated senses which are commonly overlooked, but the Psalter contains a plethora of sensory language. Work on the multisensory and intersensory nature of this collection could study whether the senses have the same or stratified functions, and how different senses reveal different (or the same) things about people, God, and the world. Because the revelation of the Psalter and the response of people within it is multisensory, people of various sensory abilities are given a role in the worshipping people. Revelation, relationship, and response do not rely solely on cognition, but neither do they rely on one sense alone.

In Psalm 139, sensory experience is inextricably linked to sensory revelation from God, the crafter of the senses. Here, the senses are sufficient for receiving revelation and having a relationship with God; cognition is not needed. Through the senses, the Psalmist can marvel at the wonder of their nature, can conceptualise God’s enduring protection and can respond to it.

Psalm 139 highlights that the senses enable apprehension of God but not comprehension of God’s acts. Knowledge is communicated, but understanding is not conferred. In this Psalm, senses do not succeed or achieve; they explore, with an emphasis on process rather than product. The process of sensory exploration is more important than any final understanding. It is emphasised that an individual does not need to use a sensory skill (such as running) to know God, but that they can use a sensory capacity (such as the process of moving and stillness) to explore their relationship with the one who created that faculty.

The Psalm links sensory protection in the darkness of the womb to sensory protection in the dark places of life, and describes God’s ensuring presence through abundant kinaesthetic, haptic, and proprioceptive language. Throughout, sensory imagination is connected to an exploration of response to this revelation. Ultimately, exploration leads to recognition that cognition is an inadequate ground for relationship and response. Praise comes forth when the Psalmist recognises that they can know sensorially but not understand God’s ways, and when they perceive that cognition is irrelevant for a relationship with God. 


Avrahami, Yael. The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible. LHBOTS 545. New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2012.

Brown, William P. Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Dahood, Mitchell. Psalms III: 101140. AB 17A. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995.

Driver, G. R. “Some Hebrew Verbs, Nouns, and Pronouns.” The Journal of Theological Studies 30 (1928–1929) 371–378.

Frank, R. Body of Awareness: A Somatic and Developmental Approach to Psychotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Gestalt Press, 2001.

Gillmayr-Bucher. “Body Images in the Psalms.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2004): 301–26. doi:10.1177/030908920402800304.

Goering, Greg Schmidt. “Kinesthesis and Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs.” In Sounding Sensory Profiles in Antiquity. Edited by Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Kruger. ANEM. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, forthcoming.

Howes, David, and Constance Classen, eds. Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. London: Routledge, 2014.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 60150: A Commentary. Translated by Wm. C. Oswald. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1989.

Krauss, Kirsten E. “The Effects of Deep Pressure Touch on Anxiety.” The American Journal of Occupational Therapy 41 (1987): 366–373. doi:10.5014/ajot.41.6.366.

Lickliter, Robert. “The Integrated Development of Sensory Organization.” Clinics in Perinatology, 38 (2011): 591–603 [693]. doi:10.1016/j.clp.2011.08.007.

Malul, Meir. Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview. Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2002.

Mazor, Yair. Who Wrought the Bible?: Unveiling the Bible’s Aesthetic Secrets. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

Ritchie, Ian D. “The Nose Knows: Bodily Knowing in Isaiah 11.3.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament87 (2000): 59–73. doi:10.1177/030908920002508704.

Tilford, Nicole L. Sensing World, Sensing Wisdom: The Cognitive Foundation of Biblical Metaphors. Ancient Israel and Its Literature. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017.

Waltke, Bruce K., J. M. Houston, and Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

[1] I wish to thank Greg Schmidt-Goering, in whose class I wrote this paper in Spring 2018. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewer whose comments were most helpful in revising the piece.

[2] Susanne Gillmayr-Bucher, “Body Images in the Psalms,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2004): 301–26 [325]. doi:10.1177/030908920402800304.

[3] Yael Avrahami, The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible, LHBOTS 545 (New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2012); Greg Schmidt Goering, “Kinesthesis and Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs,” in Sounding Sensory Profiles in Antiquity, edited by Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Kruger, ANEM 25 (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2019).

[4] Cf. e.g., David Howes and Constance Classen, eds., Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (London: Routledge, 2014); Ian D. Ritchie, “The Nose Knows: Bodily Knowing in Isaiah 11.3,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament87 (2000): 59–73. doi:10.1177/030908920002508704.

[5] Gillmayer-Bucher, Body Image, 305.

[6] Cf. the fine work of Avrahami, Senses of Scripture, on these dominant perspectives.

[7] Cf. Avrahami. Senses of Scripture, 75–84; Nicole L. Tilford, Sensing World, Sensing Wisdom: The Cognitive Foundation of Biblical Metaphors, Ancient Israel and its Literature (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017), 150.

[8]  Tilford touches upon this when she states, “movement is a process that begins with birth and ends with death.” (Tilford, Sensing World, 155).

[9] In part, this may be due to the complex relationship between kinaesthesia and proprioception. Tilford, following Gapenne, presents “proprioception as a generic term used to refer to a variety of sensations, including kinaesthesia, equilibrium, and statesthesis [perception of position],” and refers only to kinaesthesia. Malul states that “motion” and “equilibratory sensations” are both forms of kinaesthesia, connected in the HB. Tilford, Sensing World, 150n4; Meir Malul, Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2002), 102n3.

[10]Jean A. Ayres and Jeff Robbins, Sensory Integration and the Child: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges. (Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services, 2005), 110.

[11] Kirsten E. Krauss, “The Effects of Deep Pressure Touch on Anxiety,”  The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 41 (1987): 366–373. doi:10.5014/ajot.41.6.366.

[12] Cf. e.g., Ps 34:8; 65:3-8; 92:4; 119:103; 101:1; 150:4.

[13] q-n-h (qaanitaa in 13a) is usually translated as “to buy,” but refers to the creative act in Gen 4:1, Prov 8:22. The potential double meaning is exploited in, for example, Gen 14:9, 22. In Pss 74:2 and 78:54, the verb refers to a people and place which YHWH has acquired. ‘-sh-h (13bb, 15a) is commonly used for God’s creation of the world (e.g., Gen 1:7, 11; 12,16) and its inhabitants (Gen 1:25–6); God is praised for this creative act frequently in the Psalms (e.g., 104:24; 115:15; 121:2; 124:8). Each of the eight other attestations of r-d-m refer to weaving or embroidery in the context of the tent of meeting (e.g., Ex 26:36; 27:16; 28:39). In Ps 139 it evokes the idea of careful and intricate formation, fitting since the Psalmist proclaims that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the preceding verse. God is praised for this creative act frequently in the Psalms (e.g., 104:24; 115:15; 121:2; 124:8).

[14] Ex. 25:20; 37:9; 40:3, 21; 1 Kings 8:7; Ezek. 28:14, 16; Psa. 5:12; 91:4; 140:8; Job 3:23; 38:8; 40:22; Lam. 3:43-44; 1 Chr. 28:18.

[15] ta‘eṭerenuu  cover/crown v13

[16] “Covering” is, I suggest, more of a proprioceptive metaphor than a haptic one, because it does not refer to what the skin feels but to how the body as a whole feels.

[17] “When the foetus moves in the uterus, the movement generates both proprioceptive feedback as well as temporally coordinated tactile consequences of the motion, such as changes in pressure on the skin.” Robert Lickliter, “The Integrated Development of Sensory Organization,” Clinics in Perinatology, 38 (2011): 591–603 [693]. doi:10.1016/j.clp.2011.08.007. Cf. also R. Frank, Body of Awareness: A Somatic and Developmental Approach to Psychotherapy (Cambridge, MA: Gestalt Press, 2001), 71. 

[18] Allen, Psalms, 250; Waltke et al., Psalms, 535. Cf. also Dahood, Psalms III, 288. 

[19] “YHWH’s absolute control of the psalmist’s movements seems uppermost in the psalmist’s mind.” (Dahood, Psalms III, 288).

[20] Other attestations of sh-y-t with the noun yad are too various to support either position (cf. Gen 46:14, 17; Ex 23:1; Job 9:33).

[21] It is collocated with yad in Gen 25:26; Deut 32:41; 2 Sam 20:9; 1 Chron 13:9.

[22] Dahood, Psalms III, 290. It is probable that in the context of Job, Ps 139 is being interpreted to exploit the hostile/helpful dualism. Job states that the experiences which could be comforting are caustic in his suffering. Cf. Yair Mazor, Who Wrought the Bible?: Unveiling the Bible’s Aesthetic Secrets (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 143. This brings out the dualism in divine attention; God’s actions can be positive or negative depending on why and to whom God is carrying them out. Cf. e.g., the uses of p-q-d for visit/afflict.

[23] William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 209.

[24] Malul, Knowledge, 261.

[25] Instead favouring “cover” (ESV, KJV, NRSV); “hide” (CEB, HCSB, NCV, NLT, NIV); “overwhelm” (ASV, NAS, WEB) or “surround” (CJB).

[26] Though cf. the OG kataoatēsei (active indicative from katapateō, to trample/oppress)

[27] si dixero forte tenebrae operient me, reading operient (transitive verb IV conjugation of operio).

[28] Cf. HALOT 1147; BHS; Waltke et al., Psalms, 537n82.

[29] BDB, 1003.

[30] Driver, proposing that sh-p-p and sh-w-p are interchangeable in the Semitic languages, surveys attestations of the verbs in Assyrian, Syriac and Arabic. He pays particular attention to the Syriac roots s-w-p and s-p-p which denote an “underlying idea” of friction, by rubbing/polishing or crawling, and to the Arabic verb saffa in the IV theme. The Arabic verb refers to “a cloud approaching close to or skimming over the earth,” Driver states that examples of the Syriac verb, and of the Arabic verb being used intransitively and absolutely “point unmistakably to the true meaning of שוף in the Old Testament.” Genesis 3:15 corresponds to the Syriac verb (rubbed/abraded/grazed) and Job 9:17 and Ps 139:11 correspond to the Arabic: “it means ‘sweep close over’ or the like, so Ps 139:11a should be translated “surely the darkness shall sweep close over me.” G. R. Driver, “Some Hebrew Verbs, Nouns, and Pronouns,” The Journal of Theological Studies 30 (1928–1929) 371–378 [377].

[31] Waltke et al., also see emendation as unnecessary, and state that here, “the psalmist personifies the darkness” which crushes them. Waltke et al., Psalms, 557.

[32] Avrahami, Senses of Scripture, 77.

[33] Tilford, Sensing World, 149.

[34] Goering, Kinesthesis and Wisdom, 2.

[35] Goering, Kinesthesis and Wisdom, 1.

[36] Goering, Kinesthesis and Wisdom, 19.

[37] Goering, Kinesthesis and Wisdom, 12.

[38] Hans-Joachim Kraus, “Psalms 60150: A Commentary,” trans. Wm. C. Oswald. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1989), 517.

[39] William P. Brown, “Psalm 139: The Pathos of Praise,” Interpretation 50 (July 1996):280–84, [281, 282]. doi:10.1177/002096439605000307.

[40] I advance that this Psalm exemplifies the relationship between movement and stillness; through movement and stillness revelation to and from God is discussed and relationship with God is developed. This is significant for the study of the Psalter, since language of stillness and rest relies heavily on sensory language. D-m-m and d-m-m-h (to be silent/silence) describe being silent (107:29), ceasing (35:15) rest and waiting (c.f. e.g., 4:4 [where it is a form of knowing]; 37:7; 62:5; 131:2). Sh-q- ṭ (to be silent) describes sensory stillness of the fearing earth (76:9), God (83:2) and humans (94:13). r-p-h (to sink, fall down) also refers to sensory stillness, here of a more kinaesthetic nature (37:8; 46:11; 138:8). The juxtaposition of r-p-a and y-d-‘ in Ps 46:11 bolsters the claim that sensory stillness and knowledge are connected in a similar manner that sensation and knowledge are.

[41] loo ’u(w)cal laah is a complex expression. Waltke et al. state, “literally, loo ’u(w)cal laah means ‘I am unable to do it’” (Waltke et al., Psalms, 536); BDB suggests “I cannot [reach] to it.” The root ’-k-l is most often use as an infinitive with a subject, and it almost always has a person as the object of the preposition (with the meaning of prevailing over something physical). I read the statement as implying that the Psalmist cannot prevail over knowledge, with the implication that they cannot know it.

[42] Gillmayer-Bucher, Body Image, 314.

[43] Mazor, Who Wrought, 138.

[44] Brown, Psalm 139, 282.

[45] Brown, Psalm 139, 281.