Among fundamentalists there are few as notable and infamous as Ray Comfort. Known primarily for his Way of the Master evangelism program and organization, Comfort has been a vocal opponent of evolutionary science, Big Bang cosmology, and much more. He is also known for his various documentaries which include 180: Changing the Heart of a Nation (2011), Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith (2013), and The Atheist Delusion (2016). Comfort is a prolific writer as well with such titles under his belt as Hell’s Best Kept Secret (1989), God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists (1993), and a short work entitled Scientific Facts in the Bible (2001). In 2016, Comfort released an updated version of Scientific Facts in the Bible which will be the focus of the next few posts in the “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers” series.
“No Ordinary Book”
Comfort’s intention in Scientific Facts in the Bible is to point to “compelling evidence that the Bible is no ordinary book.”1 He starts with Jeremiah 33:22 – “As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured…” (KJV). Comfort notes that this passage was written twenty-five hundred years ago and that it
claims that there are countless stars (described as the “host of heaven”). When this statement was recorded, no one knew how vast the stars were, as only about 1,100 were observable. Now we know that there are billions of stars, and that they cannot be numbered.2
In one sense, Comfort’s argument makes sense: the text says that there are innumerable stars and we know today that there are literally innumerable stars in the cosmos. But is that what this passage is discussing? Is this really a lesson in cosmology?
Light in the Darkness
The first thing we need to ask ourselves is, “What is the context?” After all, a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.”3 The chapter wherein the phrase rendered in the KJV as “the host of heaven” is part of a section that is dated to near the end of reign of King Zedekiah (32:1) and during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (32:2). Nebuchadrezzar attacked the capital of Judah for two years beginning in 589 BCE, finally taking the city three years later in 586. During that time, Jeremiah was stuck within the walls of the city and watched as slowly but surely its resources diminished and hope began to fail. The city, Yahweh declared, would fall “into the hands of the Chaldeans and into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (32:28, NRSV). Invariably this meant death and destruction for the city’s inhabitants and, as was common in that era, the death of the king and the royal court including any descendants who might have a claim to the throne.
Yet even in the midst of such dark and desperate times there was hope.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness” (33:14-16).
What this reveals is that Yahweh will guarantee that not only will the city of Jerusalem be restored but that the house of David itself will once again reign on the throne.
For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time (33:17-18).
It is against this hopeful backdrop that we find the words quoted by Ray Comfort as evidence of prescience.
As is clear from Comfort’s citation of Jeremiah 33:22, he does not provide the verse in full which reads,
Just as the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will increase the offspring of my servant David, and the Levites who minister to me.
The surrounding context helps us understand this promise, particularly in light of the two other variations of it found in 33:17-18 and 33:19-21. The point of all three is to reinforce the idea that not only will Israel be restored to her former glory (33:14-16), she will always have a Davidic heir on the throne and the Temple cult will always have priests “to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time” (33:18).
But why the appeal to “the host of heaven” or “the sands of the sea”? Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures should recognize this type of language immediately and recall the promise made to Abram by Yahweh that his descendants would possess the land of Israel in perpetuity (Genesis 12:2) and that those descendants would be innumerable:
[Yahweh] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them….So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5; cf. 22:17, 26:4).
The human eye can only perceive objects in the night sky that have sufficient magnitude to be seen. That ends up being around nine-thousand.4 If we use the hermeneutic Comfort employed in interpreting Jeremiah 33:22 here then it seems that Yahweh is only promising Abram around nine-thousand descendants. That doesn’t seem like a very long-lasting lineage. But we need not use Comfort’s hermeneutic because it is ridiculous. Consider the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 1:10
“The LORD your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:10).
By some counts, there are around one billion trillion stars in the universe.5 Are we to imagine that 1 billion trillion Israelites departed Egypt for the Promised Land? Of course not. Nor are we to think that since there are only ten-thousand objects in the night sky visible to the naked eye that only ten-thousand Israelites departed Egypt for Canaan. That isn’t what is going on with these comparisons.
Missing the Point
No one in the Ancient Near East knew exactly how many stars were in the night sky; there were too many to count! And that is the point of the comparison. When Yahweh challenges Abram to count the stars and then promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, he is saying that just as there are a lot of stars up in the sky so also will Abram have a lot of descendants. The same principle is at work in Jeremiah 33:22: there are a lot of stars and a lot of grains of sand and so there will be plenty of Davidic descendants for the throne and plenty of priests to serve in the Temple. Not only has Comfort missed the point, his hermeneutic acts as a sword cutting against his views on the Bible’s advanced scientific knowledge as well.
1 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters Publications, 2016), 4.
2 Comfort, 4-5 (emphasis Comfort’s).
3 D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second edition (Baker Academic, 1996), 115.
4 Bob King, “9,096 Stars in the Sky – Is that All?” Sky and Telescope, September 17, 2014. Accessed 6 September 2018.
5 UCSB Science Line, “About how many stars are in space?” University of California at Santa Barbara. Accessed 6 September 2018.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.