This is Part 2 of a series of guest pots by David Burnett. Part 1 is located here. – MSH
PART 2 – Early Jewish Qualitative Interpretation of Genesis 15:5 and Related Texts
Philo of Alexandria and the Saying “So Shall Your Seed Be”
In commenting on Genesis 15:5 in Who Is the Heir? 86-87, Philo states:
“When the Lord led him outside He said “Look up into heaven and count the stars, if thou canst count their sum. So shall be thy seed.” Well does the text say “so (οὕτως ἔσται)” not “so many (τοσοῦτον)” that is, “of equal number to the stars.” For He wishes to suggest not number merely, but a multitude of other things, such as tend to happiness perfect and complete. The “seed shall be (οὕτως οὖν ἔσται)”, He says, as the ethereal sight spread out before him, celestial as that is, full of light unshadowed and pure as that is, for night is banished from heaven and darkness from ether. It shall be the very likeness of the stars.”
Here Philo argues from the grammar of the LXX of Gen 15:5 that the adverb οὕτως should be understood not merely quantitatively but qualitatively as well, suggesting that the promise to become as the very likeness of the stars was the original intention of the scribe. The promise of Gen 15:5 for Philo entails being transformed into beings full of light, being in the “very likeness of the stars,” and participating in their celestial life.
In Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo similarly comments on the patriarchal promise of star-like seed as it was retold to Isaac in Gen 26:4a:
“What is the meaning of the words, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven?” Two things are indicated, in which the nature of all things in general consists, (namely) quantity and quality – quantity in “I will multiply,” and quality in “as the stars.” So may (thy descendants) be pure and far-shining and always be ranged in order and obey their leader and may they behave like the luciform (stars) which everywhere with the splendour of ethereal brightness also illumine all other things.” (QG 4.181)
Philo here again sees implicit within the language “so may thy descendants be” the promise of the ethereal life of the stars. In Gen 26:5, Abraham’s seed will be multiplied as the stars of heaven and be given all these lands “because Abraham obeyed my voice.” For Philo, Abraham acts as the stars act who are always “ranged in order and obey their leader.” In both of these texts Philo seems to axiomatically employ the phrase “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” as if it were to be taken as a kind of adage that was intended to denote celestial immortality.
Sirach, Exaltation as the Stars, and the Linking of the Abrahamic and Davidic Promises
In a paraphrase of the Abrahamic promise as reiterated in Gen 22:17, the Greek text of Sirach 44:21 states: “For this reason, God promised him with an oath to bless the nations through his seed, to make him numerous as the grains of dust, and exalt (ἀνυψῶσαι) his seed as the stars, giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” The Greek text of Sirach limits the numeric aspect of the promise to the dust, while becoming as the stars is seen as referring to exaltation (ἀνυψῶσαι). Surprisingly, commentators on Romans 4 universally cite this text as a source for the expansion of the land promise in early Judaism in attempting to determine what it might mean for Paul to “inherit the cosmos,” yet without any reference to or discussion of the significance of the exaltation as the stars as it relates to the inheritance of the earth. This exaltation in Sirach 44:21 results in “giving them an inheritance (κατακληρονομῆσαι) from sea to sea,” linking the qualitative interpretation of the Abrahamic promise with the language of the Davidic royal inheritance of Psalm 72:8 (71:8 LXX), “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Later in Sirach 47:11, the link is strengthened all the more with the employment of the language of exaltation, this time speaking of David: “The Lord took away his sins and exalted (ἀνύψωσεν) his power forever; he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel.”
It is important to note that we may find something similar in Rom 4:6-8. In the middle of an argument framed by Genesis 15, Paul introduces David saying that he “also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Paul portrays David as if he were, like Abraham, being “credited righteousness,” quoting from Ps 32:1-2, which speaks of the forgiveness of David’s sins. In a relationship similar, and quite possibly parallel, to that of Sirach 47:11, David’s forgiveness is connected to his receiving the promise of exaltation, almost interchangeably with that of Abraham.
A similar tradition linking the Abrahamic and Davidic promises in astral terms can be found in Jeremiah 33:19-22, which shares its rhetorical and theological shape with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:
“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me.”
The language of day and night coming at their appointed time is more than likely a reference to the greater and lesser lights (sun and moon) and the stars from Gen 1:14-18, where the celestial bodies were “set in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from darkness.” The constancy of the ruling order in heaven kept by the celestial bodies is likened here to the everlasting rule of the Davidic monarch. It is important to note here that instead of the term for “stars” normally used as the referent for the multiplicity of seed in the Abrahamic covenant formula, the author chooses to employ the term “hosts of heaven,” assuming their interchangeability.
The source of this particular literary pattern of linking the rule of the celestial bodies to the rule of David (or his seed) is more than likely found in Balaam’s prophecy referring to David, and later in early Judaism to the coming Messiah: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Num 24:17). Here in Num 24:4 and 16 and Gen 15:1, the Davidic oracle and the Abrahamic promise are both described as a vision (מחזה), both speaking of their seed in astral terms, and both narrating the coming dominion over the land.
Apocalypse of Abraham, the Power of the Stars, and the Rule of Nations
The late first century to mid second century CE text, the Apocalypse of Abraham, re-narrates Abraham’s counting of the stars from Gen 15:5 in the context of an ascent to heaven where he is welcomed above the stars. In Apoc. Abr. 20.3-5 the Eternal Mighty One addresses Abraham:
“‘Look from on high at the stars which are beneath you and count them for me and tell me their number!’ And I [Abraham] said, ‘When can I, for I am a man.’ And he said to me ‘As the number of the stars and their power so shall I place for your seed the nations and men, set apart for me in my lot with Azazel’.”
Here Abraham’s seed is promised not merely the number of the stars, but their power, which is understood in terms of the rule over nations and men, which seem to have been allotted to the Eternal Mighty One or to Azazel and his company.
Taking into account the textual evidence cited above from early Hellenistic as well as Palestinian Jewish sources, I believe it is clear that there existed a tradition within Early Judaism of reading Gen 15:5 (and 22:17 and 26:4) qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Considering the wide diffusion of this particular tradition, it would be fair to assume Paul was not only aware of it, but may have also used it himself in his expounding of the Abrahamic promise in his corpus, and more particularly in Romans 4.
A commonly recurring feature in the qualitative interpretations of the Abrahamic promise is an apparent relationship between becoming as the stars and the rule of the nations. Sirach connects exaltation as the stars to the Davidic promise of the inheritance of the nations (44:21). Similarly, in the Apocalypse of Abraham, receiving the power of the stars is connected with being placed over the nations (20:5). At this point in the study it is necessary to pose the following question: How are we to understand the apparent relationship between becoming as the stars of heaven and inheriting the rule of the nations?