The Abrahamic Covenant; How Many Stars?
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
The Vision of the Lord Directing Abram to Count the Stars (woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 Bible in Pictures)
Come Follow Me lesson February 7–13; Genesis 12-17, Abraham 1-2; Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
Much of what is discussed in this essay is taken from The Infinite Creation, Unifying Science and Latter-day Saint Theology (Cedar Fort Inc., 2020) chapter 18 and The Infinite Fall, A Scientific Approach to the Second Pillar of Eternity (Cedar Fort Inc., 2021) chapter 8.
Abraham was foreordained to his calling, “And God…said unto me: Abraham… thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” (Abraham 3:23) We are not specifically told in the scriptures that Adam was also foreordained. However, we are told that all who receive the priesthood are, “…called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works…” (Alma 13:3). Abraham’s calling was to be the father of all who accept the gospel, whether his biological children or not, “…as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father…” (Abraham 2:10). We are further told in Galatians, “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29) We are told in the Doctrine and Covenants that this Abrahamic promise, this covenant, was an eternal covenant, “…and as touching Abraham and his seed…both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars...and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:30-31). Abraham would not even be aware of all those that would fall under his covenant. “Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting” (Isaiah 63:16).
If Abraham’s seed was to be as innumerable as the stars, how many stars are there? If you are to gaze out into the night sky in a remote area of the world, where there is no light pollution and where the sky is full of stars, and count the number of stars you can actually see, the number turns out to be somewhat less than 10,000. That number is only about 0.000003% of the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone (about 100 - 400 billion; NASA and World Book, nasa.gov, November 29, 2007). There is no reason to think that the number of visible stars in Abraham’s day would have differed greatly from today.
One of those visible “stars” is Andromeda. Apparently for nearly three thousand years after Abraham, Andromeda was just another star. But then, around 964 AD, a Persian astronomer by the name of Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi was the first person known to formally describe Andromeda as a nebula (a cloud) in his Book of Fixed Stars (Tillman, Nola Taylor, The Andromeda Galaxy (M31): Location, Characteristics & Images, Space, space.com/15590-andromeda-galaxy-m31.html, January 09, 2018). That’s pretty much how things remained for another thousand years.
Then, in the 1920s, there arose a Great Debate among astronomers as to whether the Milky Way galaxy was the entire universe or whether there was more to the universe than just what apparently could be seen in our galaxy. Harlow Shapley held the position that the Milky Way was the whole universe, and that the strange patches known as nebulae lay inside of our one and only galaxy. On the other side of the debate was Heber Curtis who had seen novae (stars that suddenly exhibit a bright burst of light and then slowly, over a few months, return to their original state) in Andromeda, and argued that it must be a separate galaxy (Tillman, 2018).
The debate continued, unresolved, until 1925, when Edwin Hubble, using the new 100-inch Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson near Los Angeles, identified a dozen Cepheid variable (pulsing) stars within Andromeda. The regular pulses of the Cepheid variables allowed Hubble to calculate the distance from the earth to those pulsing stars. Shapley had previously calculated that the Milky Way was around 100,000 light-years across (we now realize that his number was nearly twice too large, it is actually about 52,850 light years across), but Hubble's calculations of around 900,000 light-years (less than half the distance we now recognize) placed Andromeda way too far away to be within the Milky Way (Tillman, 2018). Our galaxy must only be one of several or many galaxies.
We now realize, thanks to the Hubble telescope, that there are around 100 - 200 billion galaxies in the universe. Galaxies contain, on average, about 100 billion stars, so that means there are around 1-2 x 1022 stars (ten thousand trillion) stars in the known universe. It has been estimated that around 110 billion people have ever lived upon the earth. That estimate places the entire earth population to date within the range of the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone (100-400 billion stars).
By extension, the Abrahamic covenant also included all his righteous ancestors, all the way back to Adam, at least – the first man by whom this covenant exists in eternity. Paradoxically, the Abrahamic covenant even includes Adam as a son of Abraham because of his accepting Christ and being baptized after the fall. (see Moses 5:14-15 and 6:51-69)
We read in Moses 6:64-68:
“And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man. And he heard a voice out of heaven, saying: Thou art baptized with fire, and with the Holy Ghost. This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever; And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity. Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons. Amen.”
Adam and Eve taught their descendants the same principals, “And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters” (Moses 5:12). Enoch taught the same gospel, “And the Lord said unto me [Enoch]: Go to this people, and say unto them—Repent, lest I come out and smite them with a curse, and they die. And he gave unto me a commandment that I should baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, which is full of grace and truth, and of the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and the Son” (Moses 7:10-11).
God appeared to Adam and his posterity in the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, “And the Lord administered comfort unto Adam, and said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them forever”(Doctrine and Covenants 107:53, 55). This blessing sounds very similar to the Abrahamic covenant and it could be called the Adamic covenant. This covenant, like the later Abrahamic covenant, is timeless, eternal. We apparently all agreed to both these covenants in the great premortal council. The consequence of both the Adamic and Abrahamic covenant is that all people are both the children of Adam and the children of Abraham, and all people are partakers of both the fall and the redemption, whether they are direct biological offspring or not.
Genesis chapter 5 gives only one linage from Adam, that of his son Seth, down to Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Genesis 11:10-26 then recounts the genealogy from Shem to Abraham. Matthew 1:2-16 gives the genealogy from Abraham down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke 3:23-28 gives a genealogy of Joseph from Adam, going through the same linages of Seth, Shem and Abraham. The two lists are identical from Abraham to David, but then differ radically from that point. It is very likely that these genealogies are inventions from tradition, much like many Medieval knights’ genealogies are partly or largely fictitious, connecting them, often for a fee to the genealogist, to ancient, noble families. No matter the genealogy, the Biblical story is largely one of a single family, with little reference to others. However, no matter who those others were, they (we) are all sons and daughters of both Abraham and Adam, whether part of the “linage” or adopted into the linage. This decedency can even extend to those born before Abraham, or even before Adam (see other essays on this website – such as Adam as the First Man).
The traditions that were built up around the story of Adam, Eve and their descendants, as well as around Abraham, going all the way back to the early Hebrews, proved to be a stumbling block for the Jews. Christ told them, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Luke 3:8). This declaration by Christ emphasizes the global nature of the Abrahamic covenant – all people can become the children of Abraham – the actual genetic linage is largely irrelevant. The same may be said of the Adamic covenant. All may become the sons and daughters of Adam – the actual genetic linage is largely irrelevant. Adam is our eternal, immortal father – the father of all those who have ever lived..
Abraham discusses the right of the “firstborn” in Abraham 1:3. He says, “It [the High Priesthood] was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me.” (Abraham 1:3) This right of the “firstborn,” the High Priesthood, is not confined to only the literal firstborn, rather, it is conferred upon all worthy sons of Adam, and sons of Abraham. It is clear that the term “firstborn” in this context is a metaphorical title. As in Doctrine and Covenants 93:22, “And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.”
Thus, the title of firstborn is an infinite, eternal right that has existed since “before the foundation of the earth.” That right was often times, throughout history, not given to the literal first born of a certain patriarch. For example, the right of the “firstborn” was taken from Esau and given to Jacob (Genesis 26-27). David, who was the youngest of Jesse’s sons (1 Samuel 16), was also made the “firstborn” (Psalm 89:20, 27).The Apostle Paul referred to the “church of the firstborn” as a heavenly blessing: “To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect…” (Hebrews 12:23). Furthermore, we are told in the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants that all those who enter into the Celestial Glory are members of the Church of the Firstborn,
“That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power; And who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true. They are they who are the church of the Firstborn” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:52-54, 70).
Abraham clearly equated the “firstborn” with the “first man” in stating, “…firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam…” ( Abraham 1:3). We are all, male and female, called Adam (Genesis 5:1-2). Furthermore, the right of the firstborn is given to all those, male and female, who inherit the celestial kingdom (Doctrine and Covenants 76:52-54, 70).
In referring to Christ in his letter to the Colossians, Paul stated in chapter 1, verse 15, “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:” Here Christ, not Adam, is referred to as “the firstborn of every creature.”
The implications of these metaphorical vs literal references to the “first man” or “firstborn” are enormous. What appears to be a simple choice between these two options of a chronological “first man” or the title “first man” – a mere flip of the coin, if you will – has an enormous impact on how we understand the relationship between science and theology. If we choose the chronological “first man” option, then we create a huge gulf between science and religion, and we are forced to reject either science or religion while doggedly adhering to the other. However, the gulf disappears with the metaphorical title “first man.”
If we choose the option of one over the other (science vs religion), science does not come out the loser. Science is impartial, it doesn’t care whether or not it has converts. It can continue on without any believers because belief in science has no impact on the truths it reveals. Religion, on the other hand, requires faith (Hebrews 11). Without faith, there is no religion. Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). But faith is difficult enough to practice without being forced to abandon all common sense. For example, an absolute, literal, medieval belief in the bible story that the sun stood still upon Gibeon (Joshua 10:12-13), implies that the sun rotates around the earth, whereas all the scientific data since the seventeenth century shout that the Earth revolves around the sun. Does God want us to please him by having “faith” in the archaic, medieval belief that the sun revolves around the Earth, when so believing requires us to abandon common sense? Such is not the God I worship. My God is a God whose glory, “…is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36).
On the other hand, if we accept that the term “first man” is a metaphor, as the scriptures just reviewed suggest, then there is no conflict between what we read in the scriptures and what we have learned through the discoveries of science. The tipping of the scale one way or the other based on two words among the millions in the scriptures, seems such a trivial issue. The gospel of Jesus Christ offers so much joy and beauty in our lives; “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). “Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:36). Those who love Jesus Christ and who are sons and daughters of Adam and Abraham should not fear any truth – revealed by the prophets or as revealed by science. “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).
Abraham was fearless in his search for knowledge and righteousness. He stated (Abraham 1:2),
“And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.”
Should we be prepared to demonstrate our “faith” by casting aside truth as revealed by science in favor of terms in the scriptures such as “first man,” which were meant to be metaphorical? The purpose of the scriptures is not to convince us that humans first appeared on earth only 6000 years ago. The entire purpose of all the scriptures is to convince us that Jesus Christ atoned for our sins and has opened the path for us to be resurrected and live our lives in such a way that we can return to the presence of our eternal Father in Heaven. That truth is not a metaphor, but does involve a great deal of faith.
It may be that we honor Adam as the “primal parent of our race” in much the same way that we honor Abraham as the father of all righteous. Paul told the Galatians,
“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham… For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:8-9, 27, 29).
In 1839, the Prophet Joseph Smith told the Twelve Apostles and some of the Seventies,
“The Priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation. He obtained it in the Creation, before the world was formed, as in Genesis 1:26-28. He had dominion given him over every living creature. He is Michael the Archangel, spoken of in the Scriptures. Then to Noah, who is Gabriel; he stands next in authority to Adam in the Priesthood; he was called of God to this office, and was the father of all living in his day, and to him was given the dominion. These men held keys first on earth, and then in heaven” (History of the Church, 3:386).
It is clear from the Prophet Joseph Smith that Noah was “the father of all living in his day,” and it is clear from Paul’s statement to the Galatians that Abraham is the father of all who join the Church. In this same light, we honor Adam as the “primal parent” of the entire human race. In light of The Infinite Fall it matters not one whit whether or not there were human beings on Earth before Adam. We honor Adam as the primal parent of the human race no matter whether members of that race were born before him or after him.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD