Monday, November 12, 2007

What is Abraham's "Seed"?

This posting is an adaptation of the sermon I gave at Temple Shalom, Oxford, FL on the 9th of November 2007

Each week we read a portion ("parashah") of the Books of Moses ("Torah"). In this week’s parashah there is a verse you’ve heard before. In Genesis 26:4, God, speaking to Isaac, reinforces the oath He swore to Isaac’s father, Abraham:

... and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these lands; and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed

This promise, in somewhat varied forms, is also given in Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 22:18, Exodus 32:13, and is referenced in the New Testament, Galatians 3:8: "The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU."

The importance of this promise to us is reflected in the decision to include a number of stars in each window of the top row of stained glass windows in our sanctuary here in Central Florida. They represent the “stars of heaven” in God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac.

The focus of my talk this evening is the meaning of the “seed” of Abraham.

While researching, I came across a skeptic website. Having nothing better to do, they’ve taken the entire bible, verse by verse, and annotated it with skeptical comments. That they have devoted so much time and effort to their self-appointed task speaks volumes of the power of our Torah.

From "God promises to make Isaac's descendents as numerous as 'the stars of heaven', which, of course, never happened. The Jews have always been, and will always be, a small minority."

Perhaps they have a point! If we consider Abraham’s “seed” to simply be his biological genes, passed down via DNA to his descendents, God’s promise has not been fulfilled. The 14 million Jews alive today constitute 0.2% of the current world population of over six and a half billion. There are billions and billions of stars in the heavens. If Abraham’s “seed” is measured in mere millions, we are orders of magnitude from satisfying God’s promise!

Has God gone back on His promise to Abraham and Isaac?

You get your genes from your biological father and mother. But there is something else you get from your parents, ... and also from your uncle Joe and your aunt Bertha ...

No, it is not cholesterol! :^)

You can also inherit it from your children ...

No, it is not gray hair and insanity! :^)

You get it from your neighbors and friends and teachers and books and TV and the Internet. What is it that you get from all these sources?

Well, it’s the cultural equivalent of genes, which are known as “memes”. Memes include things like the language you speak, songs, customs, clothing styles, technological and scientific knowledge, basic concepts of justice and morality, and so on.

I think the “seed” of Abraham is not limited to his genes, but also includes perhaps the greatest meme ever conceived, the idea of a single, Universal God!

Before that meme was proclaimed by Abraham, people believed there were “spirits” in objects like the idols Abraham’s father sold in the marketplace. There was a separate “god” in the wind, the oceans, the planets and so on.

Abraham recognized that God was Universal. That is the core belief of Judaism and we say it twice during our service:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

(Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God — the Eternal alone.)

I think the Universal God meme is the true “seed” of Abraham. It has passed to all the nations of the world via Judaism and its sister Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam.

Does anyone know who came up with the word “meme”? It was Richard Dawkins in his popular book “The Selfish Gene” published in 1976.

Our Universal God Meme and The God Delusion

Dawkins latest book is “The God Delusion”, published last year. He thinks Abraham’s meme is a delusion, a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. In this book he is pretty harshly opposed to organized religion. You might call this book an atheist manifesto.

It includes sentiments like “When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.” He regards organized religion as not only a delusion, but also a great danger to society.

I agree to a point - some ultra-fundamentalists have misused religious organizations. But, let’s not “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. I think, in general, synagogues, churches and mosques have had a positive influence on society and civilization.

Today, the three Abrahamic religions together constitute more than half the world’s population. There are billions of people alive today who have inherited the “seed” of Abraham, the meme of a Universal God!

We Jews are a tiny percentage of the world’s population but, through our memes we have made contributions all out of proportion to our numbers.

A few weeks ago I was explaining the symbolism of our stained glass windows to a visitor and, after mentioning the "stars of Abraham" in the top row, I mentioned the meaning of the small circular stones in the second row of stained glass windows. There are thirty-six of them and they represent the thirty-six Tzadikim (Righteous people) who are alive today and "for whose sake the world exists".

No one knows who they are or how a successor is chosen when one passes away. Although I’m not a “literal believer”, as I explained this symbolism I was overcome by a religious-spiritual feeling. I choked up. I feel something special when I come here. or indeed to any religious sanctuary.

Our Building Committee and our spiritual leader went to great trouble and considerable expense obtaining stone from Israel for the wall below those stained glass windows. When I touch that Jerusalem stone after nearly every service here, it recaptures the special feeling I had when I touched the western wall in Jerusalem several years ago.

When I say the Shema, when I touch my siddur (prayer book) to the Torah and then kiss it, when I chant in Hebrew, I feel something very special.

I invite you, during the Oneg (refreshments after the service), to touch the Jerusalem stone and feel a special part of something bigger than all of us.

The men should use the area to your left and the women the area to your right :^)
(Genders are strictly separated at the wall in Jerusalem,
not so in our very Reformed congregation.)

That something bigger than all of us is the ineffable something that embraces each of us and all of us together. It is the Universal God our patriarch Abraham introduced to the world. The “seed” of Abraham is the meme that has embraced billions of people and that “seed” has indeed blessed all the nations of the Earth.

And, who knows, when human life is sent to colonize space, they may read Genesis 26:4 as “… I will multiply your seed on the stars of heaven.”


joel said...

The problem is not with God nor with the Bible quotion. The problem is that readers are not being literal enough in their interpretation. (A first in the history of Bible analysis.) The word is "seed" not " "seedlings" or 'fruit." A seed is just one gamete. A more accurate calculation of the number of seeds would show that for 25,000,000 gametes per ml., 2.5 cc. discharge and population of 5 million males, it is possible for Abraham's seed to one day rival the number of stars. (Assuming they quit discovering more universe.) Considering that Abraham may have had a low sperm count problem, it would have been very logical for God to be speaking to him in these terms. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Quite a creative (and at the same time strictly literal interpretation of the biblical text! Only an orthodox atheist could have come up with that one!

According to your interpretation, God is telling Abraham his low sperm count problem will still, given the multiplication of multiple ejaculations, provide adequate numbers over time. He repeats that pledge to Abraham's son Isaac, who apparently inherited his dad's low sperm count problem!

Since you came up with this interpretation, and we now know there are billions of billions of stars (and presumably God would have known that in 2000 BC when He made the promise to Abraham and Isaac) how many ejaculations would Abraham and Isaac have to have had to reach a billion billion sperm?

Unless Abraham and Isaac (and you can throw in all their sons) can reach a billion billion sperm over their lifetimes, your paraphrase of a critique of Freud "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" may not apply in this case. (I.e, sometimes a cigar IS a phallic symbol.)

I look forward to further literal analysis!

Ira :^) Glickstein

joel said...

I was hoping that you wouldn't notice that I was off by a factor of about a billion. I'll have to draw on another notion that is even more tenuous. The Greeks had the concept of the homunculus. Each "seed" of a male contains within it a perfectly formed and detailed human. That human contains miniature testes and correspondingly the miniature seeds of the next generation, ad infinitum. I think we ought to get up to a billion, billion at least. Or, perhaps both the stars and Abraham's seeds are literually infinite. With respect -Joel