The Countability of the Stars of Heaven: On a Case of Thinking the Infinite in the Hebrew Bible

Friedrich Hartenstein

Even if one does not follow an evolutionist scheme of the development of thinking in antiquity, a transformation of the guiding conceptions of the world and humans is clearly evident in the monotheistic tradition formation of the Second Temple period. With Psalm 147:4f. as a reference point, the paper traces how the cosmic transcendence of YHWH, who “counts the stars” he has created (cf. Isa 40:26), indicates his superiority over the limited capacities of humans (the countability of the stars for YHWH corresponds to their uncountability for the human mind, cf. Gen 15:5; Jer 33:22, etc.). A comparison with a hellenistic epithet for the Egyptian god Thot who "calculates the heaven and counts its stars" makes clear how biblical texts had their part in broader cosmological transformations in the second half of the 1st millenium B.C. As in other writing cultures of the time they attest to a (conceptual) thinking in metaphorical language but not in functional terms as in Greek philosophy. In the case chosen for the paper the verbal and nominal expressions of counting and ordering hint at a specific concept of the infinite via the practical as well as speculative idea of a comprehensive capture of the celestial phenomena (restricted only to the divine): an example of a epistemology of early Jewish texts uniting “empirical” and reflected mythological ways of expression.

Friedhelm Hartenstein (München)