The Gospel reading for this past Sunday is one of the more famous passages from the Book of Genesis. God tells Abram (a childless, 75-year-old man) to number the stars. When he can’t, God says, “And so shall your descendants be.” One of the things that makes this scene so captivating is that, for anyone who’s ever stared up at the night sky out in a rural area, it’s easy to imagine what this would have been like for Abram. As one sermon put it:
Abram was standing there looking at what seemed to be an infinity of stars and began to wonder. In a time where a gathering of more than 1000 people would have been hard to imagine, Abram stands with his neck craned up at the stars and tries to imagine that many people. Maybe he even had to lie down on the ground to get a good look. Maybe the sheer number of stars just pushed him down to the ground. Maybe he felt as though the stars might take him away if he didn’t feel something solid beneath him.
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld,
God’s Promise to Abraham (from Bibel in Bildern) (1860)
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.
And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chalde′ans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him.
- Numbering the Stars: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Abram fails to number the stars, not just because there are so many of them, but primarily because he can’t see them. They’re there, but they’re invisible to him, because one star, the sun, radically outshines them all.
- Abraham’s Faith: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). That’s how St. Paul paraphrases of Genesis 15:6. As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It takes faith for Abraham to trust that God will give him offspring, when he is childless. But the “things not seen” here doesn’t just include Abraham’s offspring, but the stars. Remember that this is still the very ancient world: notions that the stars were still there during the day had to be taken by faith.
- Christ the Sun: Another thing that Abraham wouldn’t have known at the time was that, he actually could see a single star: the sun. This star so dwarfs the others, in terms of its illumination of earth, as to render every other star invisible by comparison. It’s not just the brighter star amongst the cosmos, but the star around which the world turns, and whose heat gives the world life. So it is with Abraham’s offspring. One of them, Jesus Christ, stands out in a radically different way.
- The Nature of the Promise: Because we assume that this passage takes place at night, we tend to think that the promise “So shall your descendants be” is a promise of the innumerability of Abraham’s offspring. But St. Paul seems to say that this is a misreading (or at least, an incomplete reading) of the passage.
In Galatians 3:16, Paul writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many; but, referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ which is Christ.”* If Paul’s point includes the promise of Genesis 15 (and it seems to: Paul referenced it in Gal. 3:6), then we should read the promise of Genesis 15 are being primarily about Christ, the Sun.
- The Moon and the Stars: If Christ is the sun, who are the stars? They’re the other offspring of Abraham, referenced (and prophesied) in this passage in a secondary sense. These offspring are the Saints, “those who share the faith of Abraham” (Romans 4:16; John 8:39). And filling out this celestial analogy is the moon, who reflects the sun. In the Church, that would be Mary, whose soul “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46), and who is “clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1), and surrounded by twelve stars (Rev 12:1; Mary was surrounded by the Apostles, cf. Acts 1:12-14).
|Fra Angelico, Christ in Majesty (1447)|
*St. Paul’s point is obscured a bit by modern English translations, which tend to be squeamish about using the terms “seed” or “seeds” to refer to offspring. For example, the RSV:CE uses “descendants” in Genesis 15:5 and “offspring” and “offsprings” (a made-up word) in Galatians 3:16. But in both Greek and Hebrew, the words would be “seed” or “seeds,” which would make this point appear more clearly.
**Special thanks to Dan Weger and Deacon Raymond Buehler for helping me organize my thoughts on this post.