The Night Sky of Genesis

I’ve just started something I’ve failed at many times: re-reading through the whole Bible.

While I’ve gone cover-to-cover several times, I’ve only succeeded a handful of the many times I’ve committed to doing it. As such, to help me succeed, I’ll be holding myself to blogging on a series of scenes, characters, thoughts and concepts as I journey through the narrative.

Those of you familiar with the Bible would know that the first book lined up is Genesis. It’s a book rich in imagery, symbolism, thematic repetition, and prophecy.

The book deals in vivid word pictures. The very initial chapters explode off the pages with declarations of light and darkness, eruptions of plant life and creatures, and names and assignments given in rhythmic poetry. Man enters the scene in immediate and intimate contact with God and tasked with a divine mission to rule as God’s steward at the apex and most central piece of His created domain.

There are a host of exciting things to trace throughout the narrative, but a truly compelling and often missed thread begins with what Genesis says of the stars.

Take a look below:

He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate (וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל) light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the fourth day. (Genesis 1:16-19, NIV) 

The sun is given its domain over the morning and the moon as a lesser light over the evening (1:16). The two are separated and given a degree of ownership over each space. The sun is indicated as a “greater light” whereas the moon is a “lesser” light.

But the stars are talked of in different terms. Whereas the sun and moon are given two respective spheres of influence, the stars are given a governing role in both the domain of the light and in the domain of the darkness. Beyond the obvious referent being that stars are visible during both day and night, there is a deeper significance to this governance and separation when we connect this image to a similar scene.

Between Good and Evil

Unlike the sun and moon, the stars are set to “govern” both day and night. And they are tasked to separate (וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל) that which is light from dark. Another translation of the verb would be “and to distinguish”, a translation often opted when the same verb is used in Leviticus 10. The passage is from a scene in which Aaron and his sons are commissioned by Moses and the LORD in their priestly duties:

Then the LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish (וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל) between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:8-11)

 As the passage says, the priestly duties of the Levites were to distinguish between what it meant to be obedient or disobedient to God. Just as the stars were meant to separate between the light and the dark, so too were the priests meant to distinguish between the ways of right and wrong, righteousness and unrighteousness.

By incident of the serpent’s deception, man ends up with the knowledge of “knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5) at the expense of his intimacy with God. Though this sets him up for the later evil that culminates in Babel – and beyond – it does also begin to prepare him for the arbitrating duties between right and wrong of his priestly office.

Man will always be the rightful leader of creation. He is familiar with the chaotic forces within himself, the evil and dysfunctional inclinations that he has, as well as the better part of him that still yearns for righteousness. When he opts to relinquish his stewarding office, he becomes the most dysfunctional member of the created order. But when he rises to take the mantle for which he’s destined he becomes its crowning achievement: a steward able to tend to the upkeep of creation and – remarkably – its improvement.

Paired with the imagery of Genesis 1, a word picture develops of those who follow God as a set of stars meant to govern and commentate over both that which is good and of the light and that which is evil and of the darkness. They stand at a cross roads between the domain of light and darkness and stand to separate the good from the wrong.

It is this distinction, between the light and the darkness that serves as the first image of the cosmic struggle between good and evil, of which man is a central character. But later in Genesis the stars take on an even greater and more specific significance.

The Number of the Stars

The middle section of the Genesis account follows the journey of Abraham. Called from relative obscurity in modern day Iraq, Abraham becomes God’s single champion in the confused years following the Flood. Taking him from Babylon on a journey throughout the Ancient Near East, God makes a series of covenants and promises to Abraham throughout the narrative, namely: that his descendants will grow into a great nation, and that one day they will have a land of their own – Israel.

The scenes in which God makes these promises are starkly illustrated.

It is often under the night sky that God speaks to Abraham in bold, dynamic, direct, and promising terms about the course that history will take. It is not in the “teeming” (Gen. 1:20, 21) activity of the day, but in the stillness of a lesser light (Gen. 1:16) that God whispers in declarative terms (Gen. 15:12-16, 17-21).

It is to the stars that God compares the number of Abraham’s descendants:

Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be,” (Gen. 15:5).

I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars,” (Gen. 22:17).

The scene is dramatic: a lone man in the deserts of the Ancient Near East looking up in the full night sky and seeing the future generations promised to descend from him, shining against the darkness that not only occupied the night but also the world contemporary to him. What is at first as a single man’s struggle against the bigotry, ignorance, blindness, pettiness, and brutality of the world is prophesied to become the fight of an entire people group who bear the same assignment to fight as the light against the darkness.

And while it is the quantity of the stars that is significant in this scene from Genesis, it is later in the biblical narrative that God’s people are compared to their quality.

God’s People Glorified

Relying on the thematic backdrop we’ve surveyed, Daniel employs the stars when he prophecies:

Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3, NIV)

Just as the stars in Genesis shine brightly against the darkness of the night sky, so too do those who follow God shine brightly against the darkness of their own day.

The world is in need of people who that brightly, no matter the context or assignment. Without the leading presence of men and women who are aligned with God, the darkness that our world has altogether been familiar with since the beginning will blanket our spaces, communities, and relationships. Without the fire and genuine conviction of such people, phony religiosity will replace the spaces rightfully belonging to the life-giving presence of God’s people.

Paul’s words in Philippians summarizes it nicely:

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15, NIV)

Notice how Paul illustrates a united church community, one that does not “grumble or argue” as one that is shining like the stars.

An immediate takeaway is clear when we step back and survey what Paul says in light of the Biblical narrative: how well is your church community doing in remaining united in their mission to lead the community? What would change if you were to become a uniting presence in your space of ministry, work, or relationship?

Our mission as God’s people is one that is likened to the stars: blazing brightly in both the light and the darkness, separating the right from the wrong, and uniting those around us in a common mission to make God’s presence felt in every space on earth.

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