Astronomy in the Bible, archaeology

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The Nebra disc, 3,600 years old, shows the Pleiades

Bathsheba linked 
to the Pleiades

Map of Bible lands in ancient times

Maps of Bible lands


 


 


 

 

Bible Study Resource

Astronomy in the Bible

  • As early as the fourth century BC, the Chaldeans made exact astronomical observations and knew the course of the stars, especially the planets. They could calculate the time of the appearance of the new moon and predict solar and lunar eclipses. But they had only a hazy knowledge of the exact time the sun enters the celestial equator. 

  • Babylonian astronomy busied itself mainly with meteorological considerations, and their concept of the universe was basically mythological. 

  • The Greeks took over the Babylonian notion that the stars were gods, and Greek mythological names for the stars are used to this day. 

constellations, as the Greeks saw them

Above: some of the constellations, as the Greeks saw them

There are references in the Bible to the stars, but they were never endowed with any mythological life of their own. The only indication as to how much knowledge of the heavens the Israelites possessed comes from data on agriculture and the notions of meteorology and calendrical matters. lt is assumed that as a result of contacts with Egypt and Babylonia, the Jews had absorbed some of their more sophisticated knowledge of astronomy. However, these contacts do not seem to have affected the biblical view of the stars and planets. 

Section of the universe

The Stars of the Bible

The Bible often mentions stars and constellations (all luminous heavenly bodies, with the exceptions of the sun and the moon, are called stars), but only as a symbol of the greatness of God who had created them and alone could count them or direct their courses (Genesis 1:16; Psalms 8:3; 136:9; l47:4; Amos 5:8; Job 9:7; Jeremiah 31 :35).

Biblical people had no awareness of astronomy in the modern scientific sense. The Israelites' view of the universe was entirely empirical: what you saw was what was there. There were no theories about what might cause their movement, or what there might be that could not be seen. What emerges from the Bible is a concept of an orderly cosmos, huge and awe-inspiring, but completely under the control of the laws fixed by God. Within it, the stars are innumerable, but God had counted and named them all (lsaiah 40:26). 

The Nebra disk, constructed about 3,600 years ago

The Nebra disk, constructed about 3,600 years ago. It shows a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, 
and stars, including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades (see below)

Certain stars and groups of stars are referred to by name in the Bible: 

  • The Bear in Job 9:9 and the “Bear and its children“ in Job 38:32: Apparently these refer to the seven prominent stars of Ursa Major

  • Mazarot (Job 38:32): lt is not certain what this term meant. lt might mean all the constellations of the heavens as in ll Kings 23:5, or the twelve Zodiacal signs

  • The Pleiades (called Kema and Ksil in Hebrew, Amos 5:8; Job 9:9): a group of seven stars in the constellation Taurus, not far from Orion. The group is not very bright but it can be seen in Palestine just before dawn on a spring morning. For this reason. the power of awakening growth in spring has been ascribed to it

  • Orion, the "Hunter" (Job 9:9; 38:3]: Amos 5:8): This is the biggest constellation in the southern skies, containing such brilliant stars as Betelgeuse and Rigel. The range of colour and brightness of these adjacent stars find an illustration in l Corinthians l5:4l.

  • "Chambers of the South" (Job 9:9): The exact reference is not known. although the phrase may perhaps refer to the stars that appear above the horizon to travellers going southward along the caravan route to Arabia. It is reported that one of the stars of the Southern Cross (which may be what was meant) is visible at Eilat, the southernmost point in Israel. Or it may refer in a general way to the stars of the southern constellations. The Babylonians had no notion of a South Pole, and Job may be referring to this idea

  • Kaiwan (Amos 5:26) possibly refers to Saturn or to the planet Mercury

  • Day Star, son of Dawn (Isaiah 14:12) is rendered as Venus in the Septuagint and Vulgate, as this planet appears at dawn. Some scholars believe, however, that the name refers to the moon crescent which appears in the morning towards the end of the lunar month. Alternatively, no actual star may be intended and the phrase may be merely a poetic metaphor. 

The constellations of Orion, Taurus and Pleiades

Biblical concept of the Universe

There is evidence that the Israelite picture of the universe drew heavily on the naive concepts and “wisdom” of the Babylonians and other neighbouring nations. Both the many poetic allusions in Hebrew imagery and the story of Creation in Genesis (although with special features emphasizing its own theology) bear witness to such borrowing. The Babylonians, however, saw the world in a wider physical perspective and credited it with a greater age than did the Hebrew calendar and chronology. 

The picture that emerges from the Bible is of a universe with the earth at its centre. This universe was divided into three: 

  • the vault of the heavens, containing the sun, the moon and the stars 

  • the earth beneath 

  • the waters under the earth (Exodus 20:4) and those above the heavens which are the source of rain. 

In the Bible, there seems to be no great distance between the heavens and the earth. Without much effort, birds fly into the vault of heaven. The heavens are represented as made up of superimposed vaults (Dt. 10:14; I K. 8:27; Psalms 148:4) in the highest of which God holds court. The sun and the moon follow their courses through the heavens independently, while the stars are directed by the divine will (Psalms 147:4; Isaiah 40:26; Judges 5:20). 

The celestial vault rested on the earth, supported by a circular range of mountains (Job 26:10-11) while the earth itself either rested directly on the surounding waters, or was supported on columns rising up from the depths to support heavens and earth alike (l Samuel 2:8; Psalms 75:3; Job 9:6). Against this, there is the statement in Job 26:7 to the effect that the earth “hangs upon nothing”. The diagram below explains this idea. The biblical picture was based on empirical observation, but it was expressed in poetic and, ultimately, mythical language.

The Bible's ideas about the shape of the universe

A Monotheistic View

The most striking feature of the biblical vision is its decisive monotheism. Israel’s neighbours of the same period worshipped the stars. The Deuteronomist warned the Israelites against following suit but Isaiah II said: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name;” (40:26).: 

The Hebrew vision of the universe had no place for astronomy or astrology. Stars played little or no part in Israelite life, although some of them do seem to have been endowed with more qualities than those of an inanimate object. It is possible that stars which were identified with gods in pagan myths were transmuted into angels (see Isaiah 40:26 or Job 38:7 where “the morning stars rejoiced” at the creation). More important, Daniel assigns star-angels to the seventy nations. 

Later on, especially in post-Exilic times, the course of the stars and their effect on human destiny became the subjects of speculation. Chapters 72-82 of Enoch are an imaginary reckoning of the movements of the sun and the moon, which tells us much about the author of Enoch and current speculations, but little about current knowledge of astronomy. 

The Apocalyptic Vision 

Of much greater significance in Enoch and other apocalyptic writings including the New Testament, is the conviction that the entire world will ultimately be consumed by fire. Ezra speaks of a period of silence following the catastrophe, after which a new earth will be created.  The visions are echoed in the New Testament apocalypse (Book of Revelation), where John of Patmos refers to the final battle of Armageddon (19:19-21), the Last Judgment (20:11-15), and the visions of the new universe (21:1-8). 

The stars of Ursa Major (the Great Bear)

The stars of Ursa Major (the Great Bear)

 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Astronomy: stars and planets, Bible image of the universe

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