Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor



ABRAHAM AND THE STARS (Reply to Siements)
Allan A. McRae

From: JASA 18 (June 1966): 59-60

It is one thing to have an idea: it is quite another to express it so clearly that one may be sure that men who are working in a different field will correctly understand what one desires to say. Since Mr. Siemens received the impression that he did from my article on "Abraham and the Stars," I am forced to conclude that there may be many others to whom I also failed to convey the thoughts that I had in mind. I am grateful to him for calling this to my attention in this way.

It would be a real help to me in planning future publications if other readers would look up my article in the issue of September, 1965, and would inform me whether they did or did not receive from it the impression that Mr. Siemens received, and would point out to me the specific statements in my article that lead them to this conclusion. Such letters could be addressed to me directly, or in care of the Editor of the Journal.

It was not my intention to say that Abraham knew the number of the stars, but to point out that before the invention of the telescope almost any intelligent person could be expected to realize that the total number of visible stars was less than the population of a rather small town, and that it would be strange indeed to use the number of stars as an illustration of a vast number of people (called "a great nation" in Gen. 12:2, and "many nations" in Gen. 17:5). Abraham (or a later reader) might well have said: "The dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16), or the sand upon the seashore (Gen. 22:17) would be an excellent illustration of a vast progeny, but it is surely strange that God should use the stars in the sky for such an illustration. The stars might well represent a glorious seed, or a spiritual seed, but would hardly seem to be a proper figure to show that their number is to be extremely great."

The Encyclopedia Americana (1962 edition) says in its article on "Stars":

Modern counts show that roughly there are only 6,000 stars in the whole heavens of these six magnitudes which are visible to the unaided eye. As only half the sphere is above the horizon at any moment, and as all faint stars are blotted out by near proximity to this place it is doubtful whether the average person would ever count 2,000 stars on a given occasion.

Mr. Siemens' analogy of the difficulty of counting "a random pattern without superimposed grids" is hardly applicable since the stars present a fixed pattern, slowly revolving, and showing great variety of degrees of brightness. When there were no street lights to keep people from being vividly conscious of the revolving sphere of stars, most people would come to know a great many stars, almost as if they were personal friends. This was true even one hundred years ago. The Babylonians gave descriptive names to the various constellations, and many of the same names are used by astronomers today. Doubtless many a person, sitting outside through the long evening, without the opportunity of reading by artificial light, whiled away the time by counting the stars associated with particular constellations.

Abraham is noted for his faith in God. He knew God's promise would not fail. He trusted God's Word. Even if all the evidence then available suggested that the divine use of the stars as a figure for an innumerable multitude was not true to the visible facts, he could have faith that God's Word was true. Mr. Siemens himself gives evidence of the unfitness of the number of stars visible to the naked eye to represent a vast multitude, by his statement that in the somewhat hazier skies of Europe in 1602, before the telescope was available, men wondered "whether there might really be more than 1022 stars." The apparent unfitness of the illustration should have been obvious ta any intelligent person. Then science moved forward. The telescope showed the existence of innumerable stars, whose existence would hardly be suspected before, unless it were inferred from the statement in Genesis.

We must study the Bible with great care, being careful not to read into it anything that is not there. But when a fact or inference is as clear as this one about the stars actually being far more numerous than was apparent to the science of the day, we can safely rest upon the Biblical statements, knowing that future scientific discoveries may well add further proof, as in this case, of its complete dependability.
It was certainly no part of my intention to suggest that the Bible meant that the number of Abraham's
descendants was to be ' the same as the number, either of the grains of sand, or of the stars. In the Biblical
context both are clearly intended simply as illustrations of great numbers. But it is interesting that the
illustration that seemed not to fit at all has proved, in the light of new discoveries, to be actually a far better
illustration for the purpose than the one that formerly seemed to present no difficulty.