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Why Were Abram’s Descendants Likened To Dust And Stars?

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In Genesis 15:5 Abram is told that his descendants will be as the stars of heaven, whilst in Genesis 13:16 they are likened to the dust of the earth.

Is God merely using two different metaphors for the same thing… or are each of these blessings different?

This is the question we will explore in this episode of Caleb’s Journal.

Is numbering the dust the same as numbering the stars?

In our previous episode we saw that “numbering the stars” did not mean how numerous Abram’s descendants would be. Rather “numbering the stars” identified the 12 tribes that would descend from Abram and the story that would be told through them.

However, when we read the earlier blessing, given in Genesis 13, that Abram’s descendants are to be numbered as the dust of the earth, we see that a different Hebrew word is used for the word “number”.

The Hebrew word used here is מָנָה (mānāh).

And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number (מָנָה) the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered (מָנָה).

(Genesis 13:16)

מָנָה  (mānāh) means to count or number. 

So here we see that the dust of the earth relates to the quantity of Abram’s seed – in other words his descendants would be innumerable.

Abram’s descendants are indeed numerous. He had 8 sons, and today we can trace their descendants to the Arabic, Jewish and Anglo Saxon people. So when God told Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth he was referring to all of his offspring collectively. 

On the other hand the blessing likening Abram’s offspring to stars, given in Genesis 15, related to the descendants of his heir specifically.

Abram’s heir was his son Isaac, from whom would come the 12 tribes of Israel. It is to these descendants specifically that the promise of being like stars applied.

As dust illustrates the quantity of Abram’s descendants, the stars illustrate a unique quality promised to the descendants of Abram’s heir – the 12 tribes of Israel. 

What is the unique quality promised to the heir?

Stars illuminate the darkness of the night sky, and so the 12 tribes of Israel are destined to be exalted, or lifted up, to shine in a world of darkness. 

This qualitative interpretation is supported by Sirach who, in the second Century before Christ, in his commentary on the Abrahamic blessing, said:

Therefore by an oath [God] gave [Abram] glory in his posterity, that he should increase as the dust of the earth,

And that he would exalt his seed as the stars, and they should inherit from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.

(Sirach 44:22-23, Douay-Rheims Bible)

And listen to what Philo of Alexandria had to say about the Abrahamic blessing, two Centuries later:

“And after [God] has conducted [Abraham] out, he says to him, ‘Look up to heaven, and count the stars, if thou art able to number them; thus shall be your seed. 

He says quite appropriately, ‘Thus (houtos) shall be your seed,’ not ‘so many’ (tosouton), as though equal in number to the stars. 

He does not allude here merely their number, but also to certain other features, which pertain to perfect and complete happiness. 

The seed shall be, He declares, like the ethereal light displayed before him, heavenly (ouranion) as it is, pure and unshadowed, because night is banished from the heavens, and darkness from the ether. It shall be the likeness of the stars (asteroeidestaton)”

(Heir of Divine Things 86-87)

The early interpretations of both Sirach and Philo do not only speak of the multiplication of Abram’s offspring, but of their exaltation and transformation into the likeness of stars… into beings full of light, and the assumption of their power.

So on that night in Genesis, as Abram stood outside his tent gazing into the starry heavens he saw before him the story of his descendants, the 12 tribes of Israel, who would be exalted, or lifted up, to shine in glory like the stars.

The glory tells the story

But what exactly is this glory that they will emanate, and to what purpose?

Let us allow the Word of God to speak to us:

“The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.”

Psalm 19:1


“Thou art my servant O Israel, in whom I will be glorified”

Isaiah 49:3

So here we see that the glory that will be manifested by the nation of Israel is not their own glory but the glory of God.

What is the glory of God?

The glory of God is His entire Being, which is characterised by His Law. When this Law is fulfilled in us, through Christ Jesus, His Glory will flow from us as Righteousness and Justice, which will be a blessing to the nations – a light shining in the darkness.

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Isaiah 60:3

As the stars of heaven declare the glory of God – which is the Gospel story, so this same story is revealed to the world through the 12 tribes of Israel.

Just imagine the humble sense of awe Abram must have experienced as he was looking at that star studded sky outside his tent that night, recognising what impact his offspring would have on the world.

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