Abraham the Astrologer (Lech Lecha)

From the moment he first encounters God, Abram is promised that he will become the progenitor of a great nation. Ultimately his name will be changed to reflect this destiny – Abram will become Abraham, meaning av hamon goyim, “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). But for the duration of parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham remains childless, and even he—a man of such great faith that he uprooted his family in response to a divine call—begins to doubt God’s promise. Our parsha offers us a fascinating window into Abraham’s struggle with faith and doubt, offering us a way to navigate our own theological uncertainties.
As our parsha relates, following Abraham’s journey to Canaan, his descent to Egypt on account of famine, his subsequent return to Canaan, and his war against the four kings, Abraham finds himself in a crisis of faith: “O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless” (15:2). In response, God takes him outside and instructs him to “look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be” (15:5). The parsha book my children read beautifully illustrates this page with a dark sky filled with connect-the-dot constellations in the shape of little babies. And indeed, this sounds like a rather poetic promise—Abraham will have as many children as the stars in the sky—until we realize that Abraham was not just the first monotheist, but also an eminent astrologist.
Perhaps the most extensive treatment of astrology in the Talmud appears on the penultimate page of tractate Shabbat (156a), in which the sages debate whether the Jewish people have a mazal or not. (Mazal refers to a celestial body – when we say mazal tov, we are basically wishing that the stars should align.) The issue under discussion is whether astrological predictions apply to Jews, or whether divine providence overrides astrology. The third-century Babylonian sage Rav, who argues the latter, cites evidence from Abraham’s dialogue with God under the starry sky. According to Rav’s reading, Abraham expressed concern to God that his horoscope indicated that he would not have a son. God then took Abraham “outside” – not just outside into the night air, but also outside of his astrological mindset. God informed Abraham that while the planets control the fate of the Jewish people, God controls the movements of the planets. Even though Jupiter was situated in the west, God would move it to the east, thereby altering Abraham’s destiny and ensuring him an heir.
This is not the only Talmudic source that associates Abraham with astrology; after all, he came from the land of the Chaldeans, who were known for their astrological prowess. In tractate Bava Batra (16b), for instance, the Talmud interprets the verse “and God blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1) as signifying that Abraham was so knowledgeable about astrology that all the kings of east and west would come to seek his wisdom. But it seems from Rav’s reading of the verses in our parsha that the true greatness of Abraham was not his skill at reading the stars, but rather his willingness to relinquish astrology in favor of faith in God.
The Torah relates that after God told Abraham to count the stars, Abraham “put his faith in God, and He reckoned it to His righteousness” (15:6). The Torah’s term for righteousness, tzedakah, is nearly synonymous with tzedek, the Hebrew name for Jupiter, which serves to explain why it is that particular planet that God had to shift. And indeed it took tremendous faith for Abraham to believe in God, especially when we consider that this exchange with God about counting the stars seems to have taken place not at night, but in broad daylight. This is apparent from the biblical verses that immediately follow God’s instruction to Abraham to count the stars. Abraham, commanded by God, takes a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove and bird and sacrifice them for the covenant of the pieces, and “as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him” (15:12). If the sun set during the covenant of the pieces, then God must have told Abraham to go outside when it was still day.
God told Abraham to count the stars at a time when there were in fact no stars visible in the sky, such that he could only imagine their presence. This kind of imagining is an affirmation of faith that recalls the anonymous inscription discovered in the wall of a German internment camp following World War II: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when He is silent.” Abraham had to count the stars even when he could not see them, and he had to believe in God’s promise even though the heavenly signs indicated otherwise. No wonder he serves as such a powerful religious model for us today, reminding us then even when God’s face is shrouded in darkness, we must nonetheless conjure forth points of light.

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