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What Does It Mean To Number The Stars?

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One night in Genesis God took Abram outside his tent and told him to look into the night sky. He told Abram to number the stars, and that this would tell him something about his future offspring. 

“And [the LORD] took [Abram] 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 offspring be.”

Genesis 15:5

What did He really mean by that? 

Did God really mean that Abram’s offspring would become as numerous as the stars or did He mean something else?

Why Did Abram Need To Number The Stars?

Why did God tell Abram to go and look at the night sky in the first place?

Genesis 15:2 tells us that just before going outside Abram was lamenting the fact that he had no offspring. 

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…”

Genesis 15:2

In the Honour and Shame culture of his day not having your own biological heir was considered Shame. So you can understand why, in his old age, Abram was somewhat concerned…. In his culture much depended on having offspring.

In answer to this lament the Lord God told Abram to go outside and look into the night sky:

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.”

Genesis 15:5

And God connected the number of the stars with a promise:

“So shall your offspring be.”

Genesis 15:5

We are now going to explore what it means to number the stars.

Does “to number” refer to quantity?

The common interpretation of this verse connects the number of Abram’s promised offspring with the number of the stars in the night sky… pretty much saying that Abram’s offspring will be so numerous that it will be impossible to count them all.

However, you may be surprised that this is not what God actually meant here.

The word “number” occurs twice in this verse, and in both cases the same Hebrew word is used…. The Hebrew סָפַר (sāpar).

Whilst סָפַר (sāpar) does carry the meaning of counting or numbering it has an additional meaning as well, a meaning which is not purely numerical.

Other words that are derived from the same Hebrew root include the word for “book” – סֵפֶר (sēper), and the word for “scribe” סֹפֵר (sōpēr).

This extends the meaning of the word to not only mean counting or numbering, but also to narrating, observing and understanding… the ability to communicate a story.

So with this understanding Genesis 15:5 could be interpreted as:

Look toward heaven, and carefully observe the stars, if you are able to tell their story.

Genesis 15:5

The question then arises what is the story that the stars communicated to Abram?

The stars tell the gospel story

To the untrained eye looking into the night sky the stars appear to have no order.  The sky appears to be filled with masses of randomly placed twinkling stars.

However the position of the stars is not random, they have been ordered precisely. 

At the most basic level the stars in our night sky can be divided into twelve signs which collectively form the Zodiac.

Now twelve is an interesting number… as there are also twelve tribes which collectively form the House of Israel.

So, as Abram was gazing at the stars, he recognised that they represented the twelve tribes of Israel which would descend from him.

Numbering the stars therefore did not refer to the quantity of Abram’s offspring but pointed to the identity of his promised offspring and the story that would be told through them. This story is the greater story, the Gospel story.

Next time we are going to look at the second part of verse 5 to explore the promise God gave to Abram when He said “so shall your offspring be.

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