Bobby, the Bible, Stars and ConstellationsAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Astronomy, Bible, Bobby's World, Cool Stuff, Environment, Galileo, Heaven, Hebrew Bible, Psalms, Worship
Banished to the Library
This evening I want to combine areas of my life that most people think have no connection at all … passion for God’s word, the “Stars” and “Constellations.” I have learned that there are very few areas of life that the Bible does not at least touch on. So you might learn something about the Stoned-Campbell Disciple if you read this whole post 😉 In this blog I will be sharing some photos I have taken down thru the years as well.
I discovered the stars while in the 6th grade. I got in trouble (not an unusual occurrence in those days). I do not recall what I did but I was exiled – banished!! – to the most lonely place on the planet in elementary school, the library! I was sent to a table to contemplate my life of crime. I could not get up or move (knowing me I probably did though). There was only one book that was already on the table. I do not recall the name of the book nor do I know why it was on the table. The book had lots of pictures in it. It was a book with pictures of stars. I had never actually noticed the stars before. I flipped thru the pages of that book and stumbled upon a pic of the Pleiades and I was blown away by how incredibly stunning they were. I was mesmerized. Over the years I have taken dozens of photographs of the Pleiades.
A year I got a little 2.4″ (60mm) refractor telescope in the 7th grade. The box said “254x! I had no clue the marketers aimed that at dummies like me. It was from JC Penny. It was overpriced. And it was largely useless but I found the Pleiades! Since then I have had several “loves” in my life: Stars, girls, getting baptized when I was 20, surfing and beach volleyball, motorcycles, craft breweries, my daughters, guitars, and the Bible. At one time or another each of these have been consuming passions. Now its been years since I’ve been around water and sand consistently but the rest pretty much has stayed the same. I even still get in trouble from time to time.
So what about Stars and Constellations … do they have anything to do with the Bible (which is an all-consuming passion as most know)?
The Heavens are telling the glory of God (Ps 19.1)
I love the book of Job. I have been studying it intensely as part of a book project on creation & new creation. Years ago when my knowledge of the Hebrew Bible was considerably shallower, I was surprised that Job confessed how seductive the stars are. He knew how beautiful they can be. It is only since the pollution (lights and smog) of the last 200 years (since the Industrial Revolution) that humanity has been pretty much criminally deprived of these wonders, especially in cities. So beautiful are they, they evoke a worshipful awe. I have experienced this under the dark sky many times … note Job’s confession. A confession that can only be made by one in awe of the beauty of the heavenly bodies.
“If I ever looked on the sun in its splendor
or the moon moving in her glory,
and was led astray in my secret heart
and raised my hand in homage …
I would have been unfaithful to God on high”
The Bear and Her Cubs (Job 38.32)
Every civilization that has come down to us in recorded history, has imagined pictures in the night sky, we call them “Constellations.” They seem like they have always been there. Many times it is the same group of stars with slightly different names for the picture. The Chinese, the Maya, North American Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Hebrews all had them. Where did these constellations come from? Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities of the Jews that constellations were known by Adam, Seth, Enoch and Noah. In fact, the descendants of Seth were “inventors of that sort of wisdom which is concerned with the heavenly bodies, and their order.” This knowledge was preserved in stone so not to be lost to humanity in the Flood (maybe Josephus is right). The truth is no one knows where the notion of the constellations come from historically. However we know that our knowledge of them comes to us from the Greeks who borrowed this wisdom from the ancient inhabitants of Iraq, the Sumerians. The names we have for the Constellations thus come from Sumer sometime before 2000 B.C.
Eudoxus of Cnidus (408-355ish BC) a student of Plato, and teacher in his academy (including Aristotle), loved the stars. He traveled to the Greek colonies in Italy, Sicily and to Egypt to learn the “ancient” wisdom. It is from Eudoxus that the ancient names from Mesopotamia are adopted into Greek culture (and from them to everyone in the West). He tried to create geometry that would mimic the motions of the stars and planets. His work specifically on constellations has been lost. But it was widely used in antiquity and the Greek poet Aratus, writing about 270 B.C., preserved much of Eudoxus learning in a long poem called “Phaenomena” and describes the constellations in detail. It was common for people in the ancient world to have memorized Aratus’ poetry, including the apostle Paul. In Acts 17.28, Paul quotes from the fifth verse of Aratus about “god” creating the heavens and earth: “for in him we live and move, in him we exist; as some of your own poets have said, ‘We are also his offspring.” So Eudoxus passed on wisdom from around 2000 BC, it became immersed in western culture, and Paul found in a pagan poem about gods, stars and constellations an opportunity to preach the Creator of those beautiful pictures in the sky that nearly seduced Job. I just find that kind of cool.
Gemini the Twins (Acts 28.11)
The most commonly known constellations of stars are called The Zodiac. “Zodiac” comes from a Greek word that means “circle of animals.” Sometimes the zodiac was called a “circle of signs” in ancient culture. In Job we hear the questions the Creator God asked his servant …
“Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?
Can you loose the cords of Orion?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
(Job 38.31-32, NIV)
Enoch, before the Flood, according to Jewish tradition invented these signs of the Zodiac (we learn from this, and from Sumer, that they come from the very dawn of civilization). Another tradition indicates that the twelve loaves of the Bread of Presence in the Temple represented the the “signs.” Josephus, again, tells us that the stones on the High Priest’s breastplate referred to what the Greeks called the Zodiac …
“Each of the sardonyxes declares to us the sun and moon; these I mean that were in the nature of buttons on the high priest’s shoulders. And for the twelve stones, whether we understand by these the months, or whether we understand the like number of signs of that circle which the Greeks call the Zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning.”
These “signs,” or constellations, were sometimes identified with the various tribes of Israel. Based on Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33, Josephus informs us that the tribes sometimes had the following banners identifying them in battle:
Taurus the Bull – associated with Manasseh, Ephraim and Levi
Gemini the Twins – Levi/Simeon (see Acts 28.11)
Cancer the Crab -Issachar
Leo the Lion – Judah
Virgo the Virgin – Asher (when this “sign” appears Israel knew it was time for harvest)
Libra the Scales – Asher
Scorpius the Scorpion – Dan
Sagittarius the Archer – Ephraim
Capricorn the Goat – Zebulun
Aquarius the Water Carrier – Reuben
Aries the Ram – Gad or Naphtali
In Wisdom He Made the Heavens (Ps 136.5)
In the Bible the heavens are evocative of the glory of God himself. The Stars speak, or bear witness, to not only his creative power but of his unending love and unfathomable wisdom. The mystery of the stars points to the mystery of the Creator. Imagine a night sky without a single solitary electric light in the world. Imagine, a night with not a single exhaust fume from cars, planes, trains or modern factories. The sky is like black velvet and instead of half a dozen stars people may or may not see in Tucson but instead you see six THOUSAND (or as God said to Abraham, “count them if you can!“). Only in that black sky can we understand Job’s “temptation.” Now imagine you are in the court yard of the Temple of Yahweh and suddenly music stirs within you and the priest leads you and your fellow Israelites in this hymn … In my head, I see the priest pointing to the zenith …
“Alone he works great marvels;
HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER
In wisdom he made the heavens
HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER
(Psalm 136. 4,5)
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech [do you hear it!!??]
and night to night declares knowledge”
“When [we] look at your heavens, the works
of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are
mindful of them,
mortals that you should care for them”
The Stars and Constellations have humbled more than Job and the Psalmists.
The Stars that You Established (Ps 8.3)
The Stars in the Constellations are most impressive. It is to humanity’s great loss that people cannot look up in the sky and see something that literally moves us in our soul. How do we hear the “speech” that the Israelites sang about if we do not have “eyes to see and ears to hear?”
Four thousand years ago the Sumerians, near what we call the Persian Gulf, knew the constellation Leo and its brilliant blue-white star, Regulus. The Sumerians called it “King” (you can tell where our name for it came from I hope!). It is an awe inspiring Star for sure. Four thousand years ago, one of these ancients, ironically the king, was under great duress and believed something so beautiful, and primordial, had to be a deity. So he lifted hands (recall Job’s temptation) and prayed this prayer …
“In the evil of the eclipse of the moon which in the month on the day has taken place, In the evil of the powers, of the portents, evil and not good, Which are in my palace and my land, because of the evil magic, the disease that is not good, the iniquity, The transgression, the sin that is in my body …
Because of the evil specter that is bound to me and [text
Have petitioned thee, I have glorified thee!
The raising of my hand accept! Harken to my prayer!
Free me from my bewitchment! Loosen my sin!
Let there be torn away whatsoever evil may come to cut off my life”
Oh I can testify that I have prayed words very much like these, not to Regulus but to the Creator of Regulus. But the King of Sumer felt drawn to the grandeur of the star because it reflects God’s own beauty.
The prophet Amos, living in Israel in the 8th century BC, drew on the evocative power of the stars and constellations to call our ancestors to repentance to avoid God’s judgment upon the opulence and injustice they practiced in the name of religion. I am not only moved by the fiery power of Amos, but humbled by the knowledge that the stars he names are the same ones I look up and see after all these thousands of years …
“These are the words of the LORD to the people of Israel: Resort to me, if you would live, not to Bethel; go not to Gilgal, nor pass on to Beersheba; For Gilgal shall be swept
away and Bethel brought to nothing. If you would live, resort to the LORD, or he will break out against Joseph like fire, fire which will devour Israel with no one to quench it;
he who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turned darkness into morning
and darkened day into night,
who summoned the waters of the sea
and poured them over the earth,
who makes Taurus rise after Capella …
who does this, his name is the LORD”
(Amos 5.4-9, NEB)
The Earth is Full of Hesed (Ps 33.5)
The Hebrew Bible is so essential to our faith. The God inspired historians, psalmists and prophets constantly remind us that the world, that Creation itself, practically oooooozes the glory, majesty, and steadfast love of God.
“The earth is full of the HESED of the LORD” (Ps 33.5)
“The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6.3)
“The earth is full of your possessions; in wisdom you have made them all” (Ps 104.24)
“The earth is full of your HESED, O LORD” (Ps 119.64)
“All the earth will worship you” (Ps 66.4)
“His splendor covers the heavens, and the earth is full of his praise” (Hab 3.3)
The Stars, the Constellations, and the Hebrew Bible do two things for us. We avoid paganism/pantheism in which we deify the splendor of “nature” (it is hard to explain real idolatry apart from the glory and beauty in creation, see Wisdom of Solomon 13.1-19). The world is not divine. Yet there is no notion of the secular “nature” in the Bible. Nature is creation defanged, demystified and secularized. In Scripture, the world, the stars, the constellations are always “creation.” As such, like humanity, it is filled with the glory of the One who made it. An encounter with the beautiful Pleiades does not drive us to worship them but to worship the One who made them. They are beautiful because he is beautiful.
On the other hand this stress on Stars, Constellations and the Hebrew Bible protect from the equally grave error of Gnosticism. Creation is not an afterthought by God. Creation is not ephemeral to God’s Purposes. Creation is not simply decoration for humanity. In fact the Hebrew Bible makes it abundantly clear that it is arrogant and sinful human pride that makes humans think the world revolves around them or is here solely for “us” and our use. The Stars, Constellations and the Hebrew Bible (it is understood that in this phrase I mean because the stars and constellations are IN the Bible) remind us that Creation reflects divine beauty and glory. It reminds us that Creation exits and functions as it does because Yahweh is intimately caring for EVERYTHING in his Creation from the Pleiades down to the sparrows he personally feeds. Creation is Spiritual, personally sustained by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1.1-4). To disparage creation is to disparage Christ the Creator and Sustainer of all things.
The Stars, Constellations and the Hebrew Bible remind us that we are fully imaging God and functioning as God does, and intended for us, when WE care for his world as he does. Seeing beauty in Creation leads us to appreciate God the Ultimate Artist … I close with the wise words from the Wisdom of Solomon that rang true for Paul …
“For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13.5).
Find the Stars
Find a DARK Sky – even a moonless sky – and put a blanket down on the ground. Get lost in the Stars and Constellations. You will join a tradition that goes back to the dawn of civilization … maybe to days of Enoch. Who knows. You will find yourself reflecting on the magnitude of God and the insignificance of ourselves … which opens us up to worship.
I hope you have enjoyed this journey with Bobby, the Bible, the Stars and Constellations