The Stars of Abraham
Bible-readers do not have to advance very far into the text before they find the Lord's invitation and promise to Abraham: "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your descendants be" (Gen. 15:5).
Now, most of us would agree, I believe, that this text refers to the numerous promised progeny of Abraham. The command to "count the stars" appears to imply as much.
Well, not so fast. The verb saphar does, indeed, mean "to count." The etymological root of the word, however, is richer and a tad more complicated. In its various forms and contexts, sphr can mean not only "to count," but also "to recount," or "to take account of," or "to make accounting of." That is to say, the purely numerical sense of the root rather quickly extends to forms of narrative and interpretation. The heavens, according to the Psalmist, declare (mesapharim, give an account of) the glory of God; the stars transcribe a story. Stars form the handwriting on the surface of the sky. They hang in the heavens in order to be read.
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Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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