“… the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”… 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15: 1-2, 4-6)
What does the deep field image released earlier this year (above) from the James Webb telescope have to do with God’s promise to Abram? I suspect the knowledge it reveals would have expanded Abram’s understanding of God’s pledge. It certainly enhances mine. I find it nearly impossible to fathom a promise of such magnitude.
You know the story of God’s promise to Abram. After introducing us to a childless couple, Abram and Sarai, the Lord told him to move his household to a new land where they will become “a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). Abram followed God’s leading to Egypt and back. He was blessed with land and wealth, but the aging couple remained barren.
We find Abram at the start of Genesis 15—blessed with everything he could want except a child of his own. Then God greets him with the biblical refrain “do not be afraid.” When is that exhortation followed by anything other than good news? Sure enough, God reaffirms the promise from chapter 12.
Abram’s response is not enthusiastic. Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson refers to it as a lament. “Rather than praising God for this new promise, Abram cried out regarding the deepest hurt and unfulfilled hope in his life: He and Sarai were still childless,” he wrote. For Jacobsen, this lament is Abram making his problem into God’s problem.
How does God respond? He does not silence or scold Abram. God knows Abram did his part, and yet the most important part of God’s promise remained unfulfilled. So, God does the unexpected—he expands the promise. “Look towards the heavens and count the stars… So shall your descendants be.”
Pause & Reflect
Many of us have failed to deliver on a promise. To clean the kitchen. To take a child to the park. To be there for a loved one or friend at the appointed time. Most of us have been on the other side as well: the one lamenting a parent or friend or colleague’s unfulfilled promise. Imagine one of those disappointing moments and consider how the situation would have changed if the unfulfilled promise had been expanded.
What is the Deep Field Image?
Scroll back to the deep field image from the James Webb Space Telescope. More than a decade ago, Hubble peered into seemingly empty patch of space. Some debated the value of even looking into the darkness. But Hubble captured the well-known Ultra Deep Field image. For Webb’s first deep field image what we see is a very tiny region of the sky. Imagine extending a grain of sand an arm’s length away towards the sky. That is the size of the area of space this magnificent image conveys.
What are those heavenly lights Webb is revealing? Remarkably, most of them are not stars. Almost every object in the image is a distant galaxy (there are a few foreground stars, and they show the six-pointed pattern from the Webb telescope optics). You can see the spiral structure in a few of the galaxies. The faintest ones come close to revealing the earliest moments of our universe, over 13 billion light years away (that is how long it took the light to reach the Webb telescope).
To understand the extent of God’s promise, present-day science gives us a new appreciation for how many stars there are. Our Milky Way contains about 100 billion stars. Astronomers estimate there may be as many as 2 trillion galaxies. If our galaxy is average, that means there are 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in our universe. That is 200 sextillion!
Of course, that is only an approximation. The precise number of stars in our universe remains incalculable. What this estimate tells us is that the number of stars in the universe is of a magnitude that is unfathomable.
Pause & Reflect
There is something both unsettling and comforting about the night sky. The magnitude suggests our insignificance while simultaneously telling us of God’s glory (Psalm 19). What do you feel when you look up at the night sky or consider the images from Hubble and Webb? In what ways do they inspire (or not) your faith in God?
A Promise Fulfilled
It is no wonder that God added “if you are able to count them” when God brought Abram outside and told him to look to the heavens. If we apply astronomers’ efforts to count the stars to God’s promise, Abram’s descendants would number 200 sextillion—that is 25 trillion times more than the earth’s current population.
I suspect Abram looked up at that night sky and hoped for hundreds, maybe even thousands of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. Maybe he could conceive of millions when he imagined subsequent generations. But I don’t think there was anyway Abram could fathom 200 sextillion descendants.
Perhaps God only intended for Abram to count the lights that spanned the area of space within Abram’s line of sight. To consider the entirety of space is either hyperbole or nonsensical. Those deep field images from Webb and Hubble have completely changed how we understand the dark spaces between the countable stars. Even within Abram’s horizon, the magnitude of God’s promise is incalculable.
You will remember, with Sarah’s laugh, God’s promise was fulfilled in the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21). Abraham remained faithful to God, even willing to sacrifice his long-awaited heir (Genesis 22). God, in turn, sparing Isaac, remained faithful to Abraham.
Again, God reissued the promise: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven.” As if that was not enough, God offered yet another uncountable promise that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous “as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).
Science can expand our understanding of the magnitude of God’s promise to Abraham. It is a promise that continues today in the incalculable grace that we find in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a promise given to me and to you and to all 200 sextillion of his descendants. Thanks be to God!
(Thanks to Anton Koekemoer for help getting the science right for this devotional.)
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI