Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Numbering the Stars with a Fresh Pair of Eyes

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.
There’s only one problem. This encounter between God and Abram almost certainly takes place during the day, which changes everything. 

Read the passage again, and pay close attention to the ending.  This is Genesis 15:5-12:
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.
So the “number the stars” encounter apparently happened before the sun set: that is, while it was still daytime.  The passage continues from there, with God telling Abram about how his descendants will be sojourners and slaves in a foreign land, but would eventually return to the Promised Land.  By Gen. 15:17, “the sun had gone down and it was dark.

Understanding this passage as daytime radically changes the meaning of the passage:
  • 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.

  • Fra Angelico, Christ in Majesty (1447)
  • 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).
That one seemingly insignificant detail, the time of day, turns out to have radical implications of the meanings of the passage, and it suddenly stands out more clearly as a Christological prophesy (perhaps one of the ones that Jesus alluded to Abraham receiving, in John 8:56).

*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.

14 comments:

  1. Wow! That's really awesome. Love unearthing scriptural details that blow your mind.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beware, Joe, you are lurching into some dangerous passages. Try not to meditate too hard about these scriptures. Remember, Martin Luther was just a good Catholic priest until he started reading Galatians.



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whether Martin Luther was a good priest, is God's to judge. It is not because he meditated upon God's word that Martin lost his way. But because he substituted his own understanding for that of the Church.

      Eph 3:10
      Ephesians 3:10
      King James Version (KJV)
      10 To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,

      Delete
  3. I enjoy your posts, but this interpretation seems a bit far-fetched. Remember this event occurred as "the word of the Lord came to Abram by a vision" (Gen. 15:1). There's no indication of a physical chat between God and Abram, therefore no reason to assume the actual time of day has any significance. In a vision, God showed Abram the stars "And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness" (v. 6). There's just not anything more there. However, I am curious if you know of any historical interpretations that support your idea on this passage.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't disagree with either you or Joe. In fact, I like Joe's explanation and can find nothing in it which contradicts Catholic Teaching. However,

      1. Its a vision. So the time doesn't matter. God could have shown Abraham all the stars even during the day. Does anyone disagree?

      2. The word of God does not seem to be concerned with the time being discussed. Let me give you an example from another part of Scripture:

      1 Kings 19:21
      And he returned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat. Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him.

      We read that in seconds. And if we don't think about it, we assume it took place in perhaps minutes. But anyone who has cooked even a one pound chicken knows that it would have taken at the very least, a few hours, before any of that was edible. And that is with a fully stocked kitehen and all the modern conveniences.

      Consider one detail. What about the size of the pots? If the pot were big enough to hold a team of oxen, it would have taken forever to heat it up and bring it to a boil. But if the pots were small, it would have taken hours to chop up the oxen and then put them into many small pots and then cook each of the pots. In my opinion, even with assistance, this task would have taken at least a week.

      Now lets consider Abraham's? Were the animals sitting there next to him ready for him to slaughter them and cut them in half? Did he have to gather them in the fields? Did he have to hunt for the birds? We don't know any of those details, but I don't think we can assume that this happened in mere hours. It probably took days for him to accomplish this task, at the least.

      What do you think?

      Delete
  4. The Greek word in question is indeed translated as "seeds".

    In Galatians 3 the word is "σπέρμασιν" it is plural, and it is pronounced "spermasin" from the Ancient Greek word "σπέρμα" "sperma".

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=σπέρμασιν&la=greek

    The Greek language can say "offsprings", (plural) which as stated above is we don't have in English, which is source of much confusion with that passage, as such things are "lost in translation". We have "one offspring" or "many offspring", similar to the word "sheep", it can be both plural and singular depending on the context.

    Personally, I'd go with "seeds", because with a seed, there's the idea that something else is coming in the future, something much bigger than the seed. But alas I'm not any Catholic translating committees, which is probably for the best, as I'd be too tempted to write out "In the beginning was the word/speech/logic/eloquence/argument/news/proverb/story/etc. etc..."

    The Greek word "σπέρμα" can also be translated as race, family, or offspring, or even origin.

    It's where we get our English word "sperm" from.

    And I just ended a sentence in a preposition, time for bed...

    :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. St. Paul was giving an example of a spiritual understanding of Scripture. We find the same word play in Gen 3:15. The Seed is Jesus Christ. But we are all seed of the Woman.

      2 Corinthians 3:6
      Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

      CCC#117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

      Delete
    2. Hm? I guess my previous response to your message didn't take.

      I don't think St. Paul is here denying that "seed" can be interpreted as plural. He is giving an example of a "spiritual interpretation." There are many senses to Scripture. St. Augustine says that Scripture is pregnant with meaning. In the singular sense, this verse is about the coming of Jesus.

      In the plural sense, it is about all of us who are born of the woman and keep the testimony of Jesus.

      Rev. 12:17
      Revelation 12:17
      King James Version (KJV)
      17 And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

      Genesis 3:15
      King James Version (KJV)
      15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

      Delete
  5. Martin Luther, the execrable heresiarch, by his actions, revealed he was anything but a good Catholic Priest.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "This may be said to meet a possible objection that seed is equivalent to posterity or descendants, and is therefore a noun of multitude, and that S. Paul here denies this interpretation. But seed is sometimes used as a collective term, as for example, in the promise, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven,” and sometimes as a particular term; e.g., in Gen. xxi. 13: “Of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.” S. Paul, in interpreting the word here in the latter sense, might have appealed to the practice of the Rabbinical expositors, who all understood it of Christ. Moreover, if it were to be taken in the former sense, the prophecy would have failed of fulfilment, for all the nations of the earth have not been blessed in Abraham’s posterity, if by them we are to understand the Jewish people; on the contrary, the Jews are for a reproach, and a curse among the Gentiles."--Cornelius a Lapide

    https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/galatians/cornelius-a-lapide-on-galatians/chapter-1/chapter-2/chapter-3

    ReplyDelete
  7. And if it helps at all, the Vulgate has Gen 15:5 as, "Et dixit ei: Sic erit semen tuum..." Semen is singular/neuter/accusative

    (h/t Aquinas Study Bible Facebook page)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Folks, please, Joe is simply sharing insights, not attempting to start a new doctrine. And we always can read the Sacred Scriptures with those eyes, as did the early Church Fathers and even the Apostles. Beautiful post, "future Father" Joe!

    On another note--I would consider the source on the Mack Quigley comment above. His blog is absolutely filled with racial hatred and mixes it with Scripture. In fairness I only checked it rather quickly and perhaps it is meant as satire. I hope so. But unless it is attempting to be satirical, and perhaps it is, he is the one I would consider to be dangerous here. And extremely so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, on both points! We'd all do well to get starry-eyed over the Scriptures more often.

      Delete
  9. Mr. Heschmeyer,

    I have a question about one of your older posts, "St. Augustine on Our Separated Christian Brethren" from "Thursday, July 12, 2012." I can't find this passage in any online copies of St. Augustine's "Exposition on the Book of Psalms," nor can I find which prophet he's referring to when he says "The prophet refers to some men saying: 'When they say to you: You are not our brothers, you are to tell them: You are our brothers.' " Could you point me to the sources, please? (It's probably lack of education, but I don't understand what "Ps. 32, 29; CCL 38, 272-273" means.)

    Thanks!

    P. S. By the way, your explication of Genesis 15 is very compelling, though it does seem problematic that the whole encounter likely takes place in a vision, or possibly on a different day from the nightfall mentioned later. Do you have any response to those details?

    ReplyDelete