One night you have a dream. You are floating in the utter blackness of deep space.
An eternity seems to pass, but nothing changes. It’s just you and the velvety, dark, star-sprinkled sky.
Far off, in the remote distance, you notice a tiny disk of light. Squinting, you see it slowly unfurl into a spangled, spinning, puddle of stars. Somehow you know this is the Milky Way. For eons you drift toward this glowing, expanding mass.
Scanning its starry arms, you hope against hope that you can pick out an insignificant dot that you’ve known all your life as the “sun.” For some reason, you seem to be attracted to a dim pin-point buried in an arm about two thirds of the way out.
After drifting closer to the little dot for many millennia, you are finally so near you can see planets! You spot a tiny Saturn with rings, and then make out Jupiter with its red spot.
Your heart leaps to see a blue-green marble appear.
Slowly the spinning orb grows larger… continents and oceans become visible under a blanket of clouds. As you descend through the stratosphere, mountain ranges and deserts flash past.
Now, below, you see splashes of light—cities aglow by night. Orienting yourself toward home, you feel yourself slowing as you fall. Through some amazing miracle, you gently land on your own front lawn!
Then you wake up, go outside and look up at the night sky.
You realize that the scene you dreamt isn’t make-believe.
Unbelievably this is reality. Every night that you look up into the starry, black sky, you’re peering into the furthest reaches of the universe. You are but one single inhabitant out of billions in this world, and even the earth is a speck within the scope of the wider universe.
You are mind-bogglingly insignificant.
As obvious as this is, our smallness is not something people spend much time pondering nowadays. With each new Hubble telescope image and NASA mission in the news, you’d think that we’d be more dumbfounded with awe.
You might be surprised that the biblical world was much more aware of this reality than we are. According to Jewish biblical scholar James Kugel, the Hebrew Bible is permeated, like the rest of the ancient world, with a fundamental sense of humility and “smallness of self.”1 Human beings saw themselves as a small part of a larger system, at the mercy of forces much greater than themselves—vast deserts and oceans, wild animals, storms, droughts, plagues and natural disasters. Only by banding together could they hope to survive.
This sense of smallness is at the very core of Israel’s consciousness of God, and it forms the very essence of biblical worship. The psalms and prophecies overflow with imagery of the tininess of man and God’s utter magnificence in comparison:
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers. (Isaiah 40:21-22)
It does seem remarkable, doesn’t it? Technology has shown us in more detail than ever before the immensity of the universe and our microscopic existence within it, yet we have little sense of humility as a result.
We assume that as the centuries go by, our increasing knowledge is causing us to grow more intellectually sophisticated. But Kugel wonders whether modernity has actually dulled our senses to reality, one that biblical peoples had no problems experiencing. He writes that
…something, a certain way of perceiving, has gradually closed inside of us, so that nowadays most people simply do not register, or do not have access to, what had been visible in an earlier age.
We are the ones who are numb and insensitive, unable to feel awe and wonder. Rabbi Abraham Heschel concurs, declaring that modern Westerners lack an ability to appreciate the grandeur of God:
Greeks learned in order to comprehend. Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use…To the modern man everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery. Obstinately he ignores the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself. He is sure of his ability to explain all mystery away.
The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind… The sense for the sublime, the sign of the inward greatness of the human soul and something which is potentially given to all men, is now a rare gift. Yet without it, the world becomes flat and the soul a vacuum.2
Our culture is so dazzled by its own brilliance that it’s blinded to anything bigger than itself. We’re like Cub Scouts on our first overnight camping trip. If we’d patiently wait out in the darkness, our eyes would gradually sensitize to nebulae and globular clusters and remote galaxies. Instead we’re goofing around with our fancy new flashlights and giggling inside our pup tents. When we finally look up at the sky, we can’t even make out the Milky Way.
1 James Kugel, The Great Poems of the Bible (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999), 30-43.
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 36.
Images are from Wikipedia.
marge willman says
Wonderfully written, Lois! I don’t know what inspired you to put these thoughts on “paper”, but it is something we all need to hear. I am currently in a study of spiritual and contemplative life and the readings point out a similar theme. The part about the Cub Scouts overnight made it clear.
Terri Girardi says
I was just reviewing SHADOWS in preparation for teaching the Feasts the next couple of weeks to wonderfully excited Gentile women. I happened on your post and thought I should take a moment and read it to help me shift my distractions from the computer. 😉
I was thinking about how we are “eyeball deep” into technology and it made me think of the former realities of worship – raw, responsive, etc. Then, I picture the side screen projectors at church and how I often actually watch the copy instead of the real. You’re so right – we’re moving backwards and taking it for granted…
Monica Sartin says
Excellent article with words that need to be spoken. Just the other night we hosted a Yom Teruah meeting at our house…a space in time that is to be holy, set apart and highlighted by expectations from being there for an ‘appointment’ with God. What else was there? Phones ringing, text messages, chitter chatter when speakers are trying to speak. We have gone very far backward in our reverence for our Holy God. We need to regain that which we have lost by realizing that we are walking into another dimension with HIM at the center.
Michelle Van Loon says
Wise post! And Heschel’s words are spot-on. Wow.
Jim MacGregor says
Being blinded by our own brilliance reminds me of —
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:5/ESV)
Although not stated in Revelation, we may wonder if the church at Ephesus (“abandoned the love you had at first”) was maintaining worship, evangelization, charity, and other practices as good works for their own sake rather than out of fervent love for Jesus.
It is evident that the church at Ephesus was fulfilling the true ideal of Church order and proper ministry. Outward appearances show everything flawless, as it should be in organization, work, and attitude. One author (G. Campbell Morgan) saw “abandoned the love you had at first” as pointing to a church that was faultless by worldly standards; that was so perfect in all their speech and actions that they did not speak to our needs as sinners facing daily difficulties. One author expressed his view of what the church at Ephesus might have been like by quoting from a poem (“Maud; A Monodrama” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson). The poet wrote of the “perfect” woman who was “faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, dead perfection, no more; nothing more”.
Susan Cooper says
Thanks this is very encouraging. It is so true.
When I was in my first early years at school , my report states that when poetry was read in class( don’t think they do that now) I used to stare in wonder out the window.
It wasn’t until I came into Torah that that wonder was defined, by realising every word Yeshua says is from Torah and the prophets.
By the way, Lois , It was Ray van DER Laan , who opened they way for me, I just caught an episode on TV of him sitting across from Nazareth it awakened in me the whole reality of the Bible and the awesomeness of YHWH . I got a few of his DVD sets. Then I started learning Biblical Hebrew and then The Path To Life – Torah appeared. . It is like a jewellery case that one keeps going deeper into and finding out more precious gems. Good luck with your book.
Ruth Harvey says
What more can be said but AMEN. Please God restore, open our hearts and minds.
Diane Olsen says
Lois, I love that you are writing about this. Just this morning, before I got to read this post, I read God’s response to Job, experiencing the humble sense of awe you are concerned with in your writing that we have lost. How I thank the Lord that I felt that!
May God bless you greatly as you continue to write and speak, and help to make known in your gifted way, the vital Hebraic and Jewish foundations of faith in Yeshua, helping us deepen more and more into a daily life of awe and Love.
Kathleen Meyer-Van Dyke says
Wow!!!! Well said. Psalm 8 immediately comes to mind. Here is verse 3.
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;”
Totally blessed by this writing.
Candis Stewart says
Thank you for sharing your inspiration!
kunjubi varghese says
This enlightens the golden chapter 19 Psalms.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament sheweth his handywork.
2Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night sheweth knowledge. 3There is no speech nor language,
Where their voice is not heard.
4Their line is gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
5Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
6His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it:
And there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
Chuck Weyh says
This is a converse image to the institutional egotism of our times, expressed for example in the bombshell book “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari. I am reminded of a point an atheist colleague once made, that “there is no ultimate power or reality, only things we haven’t discovered yet.” Atheists truly have great faith!