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The Bible in a few places references the stars as a large number. Genesis 22:17, Deut 1:10, Deut 28:62 all make statements referring to the Nation of Israel being as "numerous as the stars of the sky". What does this mean? Was there some large number assumed as the number of stars? Does it just mean "uncountably large in number"?

Of possible relevance, Rashi (a 11th century Jewish commentator on the Torah) says on Deut 1:10:

But were they [the Israelites] on that day as [many as] the stars of the heavens? Were they not only six hundred thousand? 1

I'm unsure, for example, if Rashi's trying to say that they weren't at the height of their population, or they were still small enough to count, or if Rashi actually understood there as being more than 600,000 stars.

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Gen 22:17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore;

God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as the sand of the sea, and as the stars of heaven. These two metaphors are in direct apposition to each other, and explain each other. The former metaphor is more plentiful in the Bible, so let's take a look at it:

Psa 139:18 If I should count [God's thoughts for me], they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.

Psa 78:27 He rained [birds that they could eat] also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea

Job 29:18 Then I said, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand.

1Ki 4:20 Judah and Israel were many [under Solomon's reign], as the sand which is by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking, and making merry.

1Ki 4:29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore.

2Sa 17:11 Therefore I counsel that all Israel be generally gathered unto thee, from Dan even to Beersheba, as the sand that is by the sea for multitude; and that thou go to battle in thine own person.

1Sa 13:5 And the Philistines gathered themselves together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the sea shore in multitude: and they came up, and pitched in Michmash, eastward from Bethaven.

Jdg 7:12 And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the east lay along in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the sea side for multitude.

Jos 11:4 And they went out, they and all their hosts with them, much people, even as the sand that is upon the sea shore in multitude, with horses and chariots very many.

Deu 28:62 And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the LORD thy God.

If you actually read all of those, color me impressed. The point being: Several armies and peoples are compared in number to the sand of the sea. As are birds, camels, days, and thoughts. "As the sand of the sea", or "as the stars of heaven" are not to be taken literally - they are simply idiomatic expressions meaning "very, very many". The same way I might say, "I'm hungry enough to eat a horse", or "enough of something to fill the Grand Canyon". God promised to make Abraham's descendants very, very numerous. 600 000 men over 20 (that is, probably ca. 2 million people) may or may not be counted as "very, very many" - 2 mill would be more than Job's days (6000 years are about 2 million days), but less than the number of Jews in Solomon's days. And under Solomon's reign, it specifically says (twice) that the Jews were as the sand of the sea - and by implication also as the stars of heaven. Moreover, Deut 28:62 seems to speak as the promise fulfilled while the Jews still had only 600 000 fighting men.

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In Gen 15:5 God promises Avram that his seed shall be as numerous as the stars. It doesn't say "his seed living at any one time"; the straightforward reading is that it means all of them. The 603,550 men counted in the desert census (Num 1:46) are from but one generation. Since descendants of Avraham continue to be born to this day, we have not yet arrived at a total count, nor should we expect to.

Therefore the number of Avraham's descendants is uncountable. This is consistent with the Rashi comment in the question (there must be more stars than that). Note that Deut 1:10 doesn't use the phrase "as numerous as the stars"; it says Israel has been "multiplied" and is "like the stars" -- Rashi is saying that "multiplied" can't mean "as numerous as the stars" because they are only 600,000, so this must mean something else. That is, "multiplied" and "like the stars" in Deut 1:10 are two different descriptions; it doesn't mean "multiplied to be as numerous as the stars".

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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On the surface it seems like Rashi's bothered by the verse's saying that they were as numerous as the stars when there must be much more stars than 600,000. But then I don't know for sure how many stars Rashi actually thought there were. –  Mihaelo Yvo Jul 17 '13 at 4:10
@AL, oh I see -- is the question about Deut 1:10 then, or about "as numerous as the stars"? Deut 1:10 doesn't say as numerous as the stars but like, and from that Rashi understands them to be eternal, not numerous. However many stars Rashi thinks there are, it must be more than 600,000, as that's the reason for him raising the issue in the first place. –  Gone Quiet Jul 17 '13 at 12:34
OK thank you! Yeah the Rashi thing was a little bit tangential. I asked specifically about how many stars Rashi (or his contemporaries) thought there were in the Judaism and Physics SE sites but couldn't really get a solid answer other than there were a couple thousand documented stars and there is a medrash that on the surface seems to say there are 1e18 stars. –  Mihaelo Yvo Jul 17 '13 at 17:59
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Although Niobius' answer is good, it misses a bit of the point.

G-d gives a childless Avram two metaphors to understand (a) that he would have a lot of progeny, and (b) that they had both tremendous potential to achieve great heights and also to suffer great lows.

First, let me give you a fascinating look into how the Jewish Midrashic tales from the Torah expounded the words written there.

Gen: 15:6 says:

"And He took him outside, and He said, 'Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' And He said to him, 'So will be your seed.'"

As Rashi notes in his commentary to this verse, the phrase "He took him outside" implies that Avram was in-doors in the first place. But a legend cited at Genesis Rabba 44:12, states that what is really meant is that G-d took Avram outside of the universe to get a Hubble-like look at the stars from above themselves -- today we know that that view would literally show us billions and billions of stars out there.

The late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) (son of the legendary Israeli chief rabbi) notes that the promise is given again in Chapter 22 with an additional metaphor:

"That I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore, and your descendants will inherit the cities of their enemies." (Gen. 22:17.)

HaRav Kook saw the richness in these metaphors. On one hand, every single star is unique, and on the other hand, an individual speck of sand is only significant when it combines with the rest of the sand to fulfill their collective mission. Similarly, every Jew is unique and special. Yet, we also have a collective responsibility as a nation. HaRav Kook also noted that stars act as a mode of navigation, and similarly, the Jewish people were commanded to live to a spiritually higher standard than the rest of the world, become a Holy Nation, and serve as a “light unto the nations,” advancing the world’s spirituality. (See, e.g. Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3.) I would add that sand often is trampled under the feet of oppressors, just as the Jews have from time to time.

Yes, the metaphors of stars and sands indicate numbers of great magnitude over thousands of years, but the metaphors also indicate great significance, potential and purpose.

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