Abraham’s Seed: Heavens, Earth, and Sea Made New

In a recent post, I explored the threefold order of creation—heavens, earth, and sea—and suggested that in Genesis 1 God stamps heaven’s order, his own threefold nature, on the creation, giving earth a trinitarian shape. So what happens to the three-level architecture of creation after Genesis 1?

We don’t have to wait long to find out. In Genesis 6-8, as God rains down judgment on the old world, the heirs of the post-flood world are hidden away in the ark, a three-story model of that world. Our minds might also go to God’s house in the midst of Israel, the tabernacle, with its inner sanctum, outer sanctum, and courtyard: a liturgical world haunted by God’s presence and hidden at the center of the world it was meant to transform. (Jim Jordan’s fuller, and somewhat different, analysis of the tabernacle’s symbolism is developed, for example, here and in Through New Eyes. Alastair Roberts has recently written about the three-storied symbolism of the ark and the correspondences between ark and tabernacle.)

But in between the ark and the tabernacle, there’s Abraham, the man God chose to found a people who would be the seed of a new world. God’s purposes for re-creation are revealed in the symbols embedded in God’s promises to Abraham, symbols connected to the earth, the heavens, and the sea.

Abraham’s Seed: The Dust of the Earth

When Abram and Lot separate after Abram’s return from Egypt, two aspects of God’s promise come under apparent threat. The best of the land—the Garden in the midst of the land of Canaan—is chosen by Lot, and Abram goes into a self-imposed exile from the Garden. And if there had been any hope that Lot, Abram’s heir apparent, might be his proxy seed, that hope is definitively closed down when Lot departs.

It’s in this context that the first symbol of Abram’s offspring comes: “I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, which, if a man can count the dust of the earth, then he can also count your seed” (Gen. 13:16). Clearly, dust is an appropriate image because there’s lots of it, and Abram’s seed will be uncountably numerous, too.

But it’s appropriate in another way, too. God has just told Abram to look to the north, south, east, and west. Abram’s seed will possess the land in every direction. When any of the four winds blow, their visible form is the dust they carry with them, and no region of the land can escape that blowing dust. As dust spreads throughout the length and breadth of the land, so too will Abram’s seed.

Abram’s dust is also a reminder of the first dust, the raw material of earth that God’s breath turned into a living creature, man. Abram’s seed as the dust of the earth foreshadows Abram’s seed as the new humanity, a new man taking possession of the world.

Abraham’s Seed: The Stars of the Heavens

The second symbol of Adam’s seed is revealed to Abram after he has driven Chedorlaomer and Co. out of the land. On Abram’s return from battle, the king of Sodom puts on airs, claiming sovereignty over the rescued souls and offering booty to Abram, as though Abram had fought in his service. But Melchizedek, another and a better sort of king, blesses Abram. That blessing is confirmed in the next chapter by God himself, who says: “Go ahead, look at the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them. . . . So shall your seed be” (Gen. 15:5). The stars of the heavens, like the dust of the earth, are numerous, and this is the immediate point that God makes: count them if you can.

But just as the dust of the earth is a symbol appropriate to its context, so too are the stars of heaven. Abram stands among kings: he has conquered oppressive kings; he has spurned a pretentious king; and he has been blessed by a righteous king. But who will reign in Abram’s place when he dies? Not just a single heir ruling merely on earth, replies God, but a host of princes ruling and giving light as the stars reign in the heavens.

Abraham’s Seed: The Sand of the Shore of the Sea

The final symbol for the numerous offspring of Abram—now renamed Abraham—is revealed by the angel on Mount Moriah after Abraham proves his faith by offering his son. There’s first a repetition of the stars symbol, “Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your seed, as the stars of the heavens,” which is followed by a new symbol, “and as the sand which is on the shore of the sea” (Gen. 22:17). Once again, the immediate meaning of the symbol is multiplication. If you’ve managed to count the stars by now, try adding in the sand.

But the sand on the shore of the sea strikes another chord: Abraham’s offspring have now been typified by all three realms of creation: first the dust of the earth, then the stars of the heavens, and finally the sand on the shore of the sea. It’s not obvious that sand lends itself to symbolic interpretation like the dust and the stars do. But that may be the point: our attention is turned away from sand per se to its association with the sea, which completes the threefold symbolic portrayal of Abraham’s offspring, filling the fulness of creation.

And with our attention fixed on the sea, perhaps we’re also meant to think of the Gentile nations. On the one hand, the Gentiles surrounding Abraham’s seed always threatened to overwhelm Israel and obliterate the stamp of heaven on earth. On the other hand, it was just those nations—the Gentiles out of whom Abraham was called—who from the beginning were meant to be blessed by Abraham and his offspring.

Not Many, But One

Abraham, then, is the center of God’s new world, his new creation. His seed will be the dust that blows to the four corners of the earth, the stars that rule in the heavens above, and the sand that borders the seas on the lower edge of the earth. One might expect that the rest of the Bible would be a story of unhindered multiplication, of fruitfulness and filling and dominion. But first come failures, and pruning, and a remnant, and over the course of 14 generations thrice over, the narrowing to a singularity: the multitudinous seed is compressed to One in the Son of Abraham.

And from that One comes a new multiplication. His followers are scattered the length and breadth of the earth by the winds of persecution. They are carried over the seas where they make disciples on the islands and the distant coastlands. And they are the light of the earth, shining God’s glory to the world by love. They—we—are the people of Christ, a new creation.

Another sort of compression also comes with Christ. The final new creation isn’t a mere recapitulation of the old threefold heavens, earth, and sea. Why is it that the vision of new creation in Revelation has no sea? In this new age, something new is happening. The old distinction between sea and land—between Gentile and Jew—has been rendered irrelevant in Christ. The wind of the Spirit has blown on the sea and turned it to dry land. The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Land has overwhelmed the sea. And in the end, even the distinction between Heaven and Earth is erased, as Heavenly Jerusalem descends, and the ruling light is no longer the sun in the sky but the Lord God in our midst, around whom we shine as stars forever.

Christ and his people: the ark. Christ and his people: the tabernacle. Christ and his people: the seed of Abraham, the seed of a new world.

Joshua Jensen is a Bible translator in northeast Cambodia, where he lives with his wife, Amy, and their little multitude (count them if you can).

Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.