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B'resheet/Genesis 15:5 And He brought him outside and He said, "Look at the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them."
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In our text, the 'He' is, of course,HaShem; the 'him' and 'you' is Avram. HaShem has come to Avram in a vision to encourage him and promise him a great reward, but Avram responds that a reward is meaningless to him since he has no son to whom it would be an inheritance. After HaShem assures him that he really will have a male heir from his own physical seed, our text introduces the next stage in this conversation which leads eventually to the Covenant of the Pieces.
There is much debate among the commentators as to what exactly is going on here: is this all a vision or is this a physical activity? RabbiHirsch points out that this has to be more than simply counting stars; "it would hardly have been necessary to take [Avram] out in the open to realise this thought. Surely Abram knew how numerous the starts were, how countless for the human eye." Gersonides tells us that "in Abraham's day the number of stars was not known," but Abravanel qualifies this by saying, "only the visible stars; the stars that are not visible can most certainly not be counted." Chizkuni clearly understands the whole experience to be a vision, "this was part of the dream; it only seemed as if G-d brought him outside," with the Radak offering more detail: "The prophecy started inside his tent. He 'took him outside' in a prophetic vision, just as happened to Ezekiel." Nahum Sarna writes, "the oral promise is reinforced by a visual experience. It is not clear whether this is real or part of a dream theophany."
Bekhor Shor, on the other hand, follows the main flow of the text, proposing that "He showed him the stars during the daytime." The Torah narrative goes on without a break to report how HaShem instructs Avram to gather and prepare the animals for a covenant ceremony - which he will need day-light to action - then observes that "as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Avram, and a great dark dread descended upon him" (B'resheet 15:12, NJPS). It would appear that HaShem brought Avram out to look at the stars in broad day-light - surely an impossible task. So what is going on here?
The early Sages suggest yet another alternative: that Avram was still involved in astrology or the influence of the stars and planets. TheBaal HaTurim observes that "the gematria of 'and He brought him outside' is equivalent to that of , 'his astrology'", while the Talmud imagines this conversation: "Now Abraham had said unto Him, 'Sovereign of the Universe! I have gazed at the constellation which rules my destiny, and seen that I am not fated to beget children.' To which [God] replied: 'Get outside your astrological speculations: Israel is not subject to planetary influences'" (b. Nedarim 32a). The Midrash has HaShem telling Avram, "You are prophet, not an astrologer" (B'resheet Rabbah 44:12), citing the words of the prophet, "Do not learn to go the way of the nations, and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; let the nations be dismayed by them!" (Jeremiah 10:2, NJPS) as a proof-text.
We should notice that HaShem instructs Avram using the verb 'look'. This is not the most common verb for vision - , to see or look, with a wide range of meanings including, "look at, look upon, consider, take notice of, pay attention to"1 - but the less frequently used , "to look at, behold, see, have regard for."2 Gordon Wenham writes that 'look' suggests a long look.3 Comparing this with some of the other places where this verb is used, shows us how this works. At the conclusion of the story of Elijah defeating the priests of Ba'al at Mt. Carmel, Elijah knows that G-d is about to break the drought that has been on the land for the last three years, so he tells his servant boy, "'Go up and look toward the Sea.' He went up and looked and reported, 'There is nothing.' Seven times Elijah said, 'Go back'" (1 Kings 18:43, NJPS). This is not a casual glimpse around the horizon, but a close examination of the sky, a detailed scan from one side of the firmament to the other, a prolonged inspection of the heavens. In the narrative of Moshe's conversation with HaShem at the bush that burned in the wilderness, HaShem opens the negotiation by providing identity: "He said, 'I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.' And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at G-d" (Shemot 3:6, NJPS). While this could refer to a glance or a quick peek between his fingers, given both the fascinating sight of a bush burning without being consumed and the compelling nature of G-d, this almost certainly means "to gaze" as we see in "Let your eyes look forward, your gaze be straight ahead" (Proverbs 4:25, NJPS).
This, then, is how Avram is to look at the heavens in order to count the stars: a lengthy, attentive, penetrating stare. Much the same level of intensity is needed to understand HaShem's earlier promise to Avram: "I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted" (B'resheet 13:16, NJPS). Both promises need extreme ocular vision to be able to approach a count - in practice, they are both uncountable by man; they are humanly without number. So many will Avram's descendants be. HaShem, on the other hand, can make such a promise because - as the Psalmist tells us - "He reckoned the number of the stars; to each He gave its name. Great is our L-RD and full of power; His wisdom is beyond reckoning" (Psalm 147:4-5, NJPS).
Following a different line, both Jewish and Christian scholars see more in this promise than simply the physical. David Kimchi comments that "previously He compared them to the dust of the earth and now to the stars; both expressions are rhetorical." Terence Fretheim explains that "the stars are not a sign to Avram, but a rhetorical move to make a point about the promise in the face of his questions: G-d keeps promises. The image does not centre on power, but on stability and sheer numbers (note the repetition). This rhetorical shift from dust to stars suggests stability and security in a way that dust does not."FootNote(4) Looking at Psalm 8, Walter Brueggemann notes that "this is not an argument, but a revelation. This is a vision, a disclosure that surprises old reality. The same G-d who gives the promise is the one who makes it believable: "When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty" (Psalm 8:4-6, NJPS).5 Avram is invited to see the larger picture and, on the basis that G-d - who created the very stars that Avram is to search out - has engaged with him (and through him, mankind in general) and given him such status, believe that He can also keep His promises about descendants.
In today's modern world, where visual over-stimulation is used to market everything from food and clothing to personal hygiene products and every form of technology, it is ever more more important to make sure that we know what we are looking at. Estate agents (or realtors) use very wide-angle lenses (10-22 mm focal length) to make the rooms in the houses they sell look larger, advising that personal inspection is essential before making a decision to buy. Supermarkets wrap food in plastic film carefully tinted and glossed to make the food look fresher, riper or more attractive. Fights in movies look real, but are staged with the protagonists as much as several feet apart and filmed from an angle that makes that distance invisible. Bright lights and colours, flashing signs and loud music draw young people into entertainment venues where, destabilised by the over-stimulation, they are easily persuaded to over-spend, over-drink and more.
As believers, called to follow Yeshua and His standards of holiness, we always need to ask the questions. What are we looking at? Do we understand what we see? We critically need the discernment of the Holy Spirit to guide our eyes and our understanding. Sometimes, even a glance may be too much; at other times, careful and detailed examination is necessary to be sure what is going on and protect ourselves from exploitation or simply being taken advantage of. Whether appeals for money or speeches by politicians, we need to slow down and ask the Ruach to help us to see beneath surface appearances and discern the truth in what people say and what is put before us. If the devil himself can masquerade as an "angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14), "it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" (v. 15, ESV). We are called, like Avram, to "count the stars" and recognise not only the G-d who created them, but His promises and goodness to "us who believe, according to the working of His great might" (Ephesians 1:19, ESV). Then, like Avram, our faith will be credited to us as righteousness in Messiah Yeshua.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 407-408.
2. - Clines, page 256.
3. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), page 329.
4. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 117.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 143.
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 15:33034; Hebrews 11:8-12; James 1:16-18
Application: Appearances can be deceiving and if we are not to be deceived then we need the moment-by-moment guidance of the Ruach and His gift of discernment. Be like Avram, count the stars and know the truth of what you see so that "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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