What is it with literalness and the Bible? I am committed to truth. I’d rather be corrected than wrong 100% of the time, no matter how embarrassing or painful. I agree that when something is written, we need to expect the author was intelligent and intentional, and that he meant what he wrote. We need to expect the most plain meaning first. We must carefully take into consideration context and condition. A 10th Century BC oriental writer had very different context that seems quite foreign if we do not understand it. Likewise a 1st Century Jew, or even a 1st Century Roman. But, some people insist on literalness regardless, until they are presented with something absurd like God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars of the heavens. They want to backpedal and emphasize the use of the word “as”. Well, go look it up. It is hard to get around.

Gen 22:17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.

There are other verses that reiterate, and Jer 33:22 specifies it to David’s and Levi’s descendants. The statement here though stipulates the similarity in the immeasurableness, rather than the actual count.

Of course, Heb 11:12 asserts the task is accomplished, a statement written nearly two thousand years ago, “Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”


I thought to do the math and build a spreadsheet and show the projected curve for Abraham’s descendants, but there are several confounding factors. We have too many assumptions to make. However, it is reasonable to assume that the growth in the number of descendants of Abraham has grown continuously, and will do so into the foreseeable future, even continuing to some extent into the remote future.

The problems we face estimating are defining the descendants of Abraham and in estimating the factors that will affect the future growth rates of that population. We can calculate the number of professing Jews as one way to estimate the number of Abraham’s descendants. That would certainly meet the criteria of the scripture by even the most conservative definitions. However, we could also include all those who can literally trace their lineage back to Abraham no matter how circuitous the route. This of course is impossible, but we could establish estimates for the necessary variables and make a reasonable guess.

We could also say there are 7 billion people today and use that for an upper bound. That is, there are less than 7 billion descendants of Abraham today. Given there were only about 1 billion people 200 years ago, it is easy to bound the total number of people ever. We can estimate something like double the current number for the last two centuries, and then it falls off rapidly. We’d need to get our calculus books out for a good approximation, but let’s use 20 billion. So, more than 3,000 years since God promised Abraham, we went from one to something significantly less than 20 billion. That is:

20 x 10^9. While earth’s population has grown at a staggering rate for the last several decades, that rate is plummeting. Estimators of all sorts have an astonishingly bad track record of accuracy, so they are probably wrong by some significant amount as to the number of years, but all estimators assert that the population growth rate on earth will diminish to zero. That is, we will get to somewhere between 8 and 13 billion and not add more to the total after that. Assuming this to be true, it will take many thousands of more years to bring the total number of people ever, the total number of descendants of Abraham, up by orders of magnitude.

Are you grasping the scope of the problem? God promised Abraham that the total number of people descended from him would reach to a range in excess of 1 x 10^20! Do you get it? The total amount of sand on the seashore can be estimated, depending on assumptions, to values between about 10^19 to as much as 10^21 (a few orders of magnitude higher for all sand on earth, but God did restrict the promise to the seashore), but the stars are conservatively estimated to as high as 10^24. That makes a billion-trillion a trivial amount.

The fact is, even assuming we humans move off this planet and begin to expand into the neighboring stars, we are still looking at needing tens of thousands of years before this promise can be literally fulfilled and true.

Do you believe that?

I’m not asking if you believe it will take more than 10,000 years more for God’s promise to be literally true. I expect you to be rational and accepting of obvious facts, but do you believe that in the actual, natural, physical, universe, the way it is, that God expects you to take literally that Abraham’s descendants will number as many as 10^24 people (that is a septillion, btw) before the end of days? Note, that while obviously Abraham had no means of imagining such large numbers, God did. God knows exactly how many stars there are (then, now, and when Abraham’s descendants would be exactly equal). He calls each one by name (Psalm 147 and Isaiah 40).

There is also the last battle, which the Revelation indicates the army against the Lord will number as the sands of the seas. Honestly, there isn’t room. The area of the surface of the earth is about 10^17 square inches, leaving significantly less than one square inch per soldier. Obviously, we cannot take that literally. 

So, can we really try to be dogmatic about literalness in any sense with the Bible? I think not. Does anyone in the whole world follow the instruction to keep a paddle (an entrenching tool or garden spade) with his belongings so he can make a hole to defecate in and be able to cover it over? (Deut 23:13, and Ezekiel reiterates.) Hebrews 13 gives significance to the context of this command for the New-Testament believer. Why is it ignored when so many other scriptures are taken literally and given great sanctity?

For fun, let’s consider the 10-generation injunction given in the law (Deut 23):

If I am a bastard child, then I cannot enter the assembly. (First)


If I have five children (as I have), then there are five more. (Second)


Let us assume they average two each, thus ten grandchildren. (Third)


Let us again assume an average of two children each, thus 20. (Fourth)


At this point it is difficult to assume any single person can keep track of us all, especially today, but also in ancient Israel. It is certain that some of these descendants of mine have relocated away from me and the rest of us, and how likely that I’m even still alive? How likely anyone will remember why this is going on? We would be about 100 years from the instance of the reason for my banishment from the assembly.

Sticking with the two children average, the 20 add 40 in the next generation. (Fifth)


Continuing an average of two for the next generation, add 80. (Sixth)


Again, add 160. (Seventh)


Now add 320. (Eighth)


Now add 640. (Ninth)


Now add 1280. (Tenth)


So, these are the descendants of the one illegitimate child to the tenth generation with a fairly conservative average. Note that we would be about 250 years later. No one would even be able to find my name in the records any more. Is it reasonable to suppose that this injunction to the tenth generation was to be taken literally?

There are many more examples. Not the least of which is tithing. The average regular church attender gives less than three percent, hardly better than the irreligious. Obviously the vast majority of observant Christians do not take the command to tithe literally.

We could discuss a flat earth, an earth-centric cosmology with a literally unmoving earth, and other apparent dictates of the Bible that might contradict what we know from direct observation and repeated testing. The flat-earth controversy dates back to at least Ibn Ezra, a thousand years ago. (Ibn Ezra referred to a circle (spherical) earth versus a square (flat) earth in passing, as though to point out his position and dismiss the opposing argument.) The biblical Greek speaks of the corners of the earth, which is obviously something a spherical earth does not have. The Hebrew words translated corners have some wiggle room, but many a Hebrew scholar has argued the case that to have corners, the earth must be flat and not round. (These scholars argued the “circle” referred to in the scripture was the vault of the sky, which is observable as rounded by all with eyes to see.)

One more tidbit. Genesis 1:2 indicates the earth (or land) was formless (phonetic Hebrew, tohu) and void (phonetic Hebrew, bohu). The word translated formless generally means formless, empty, without substance, and the like. It can mean confused or possibly devastated and laid waste. It is used in other passages of the Bible with these meanings. The other word, translated void, pretty much means void as we expect in English, void—emptiness, and it is used as such in two other passages. I’ve always heard this phrase, tōhū wābōhū, has special significance meaning either blasted to bits by some unimaginable catastrophe (specifically meaning the Biblical fall of the spiritual adversary, Satan), or something less violent and requiring no precursor, but still signifying a precreation state of nothingness. (And a couple of other less common meanings, but special, nonetheless.) However, no one ever mentions Jeremiah 4 where in the midst of his lament for the destruction of Judah he says, “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” While it seems obvious the prophet had in mind Genesis 1:2, he obviously didn’t think it was so special that he couldn’t apply the phrase to his homeland fallen before the armies that befell them for their lack of faith. It seems to me that if we are going to insist on literalness, we must harmonize these two passages. One cannot have it both ways. Formless and void cannot be something absolute in one passage and be something far less in multiple senses in another passage, especially when the words are used in the same way.

I suppose I should spell out the main point I am alluding to. If we insist on a special and idealized literal meaning to the first few chapters of the Bible, so as to insist on an interpretation of a 144-hour time span for the full creation of the universe, a mere 6,000 years ago (approximately), then why do we not also insist on a flat-earth interpretation of other scriptures, and an earth-centric cosmology, with an immovable earth (despite the other scriptures that specifically speak of the earth being moved)? There are other specifics that apply, such as the feasts, and other things not specifically overridden in the New Testament scriptures.

Again, it seems to me that one must put God first. Putting the bible first seems to me to be idolatry. One must commit to truth over religion. One must practice wisdom and reason and grow in the will of God, always moving in charity and freedom. That is grace. It is by grace through faith…

Not the law. Not dogmatism. Not fear of some cherished belief being found wanting.

Stand for what is right and heed Paul’s admonition to Timothy.

Footnote: I Googled something and stumbled upon Barfield. I am ashamed that I knew him not before now. I should have at least known his name, as a fan of CS Lewis. Oh well, I will rectify that.