Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bible Zodiac

The Signs of the Zodiac have been associated with horoscopes--ancient and modern systems promoting belief in the supposed connection between events visible in the sky and events on Planet Earth. The zodiac is a narrow band of constellations through which the sun apparently moves during Earth’s annual revolution around the sun. This apparent movement is caused by the real revolution of the earth around the sun. Day by day, we view the sun from a slightly different position in space. Therefore, the sun appears daily in a slightly different position with respect to background stars. Once each year the sun traces a giant circle through the constellations of the zodiac—Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and nine more.

Teaching this concept is a tricky business. If you are a “Taurus” it merely means that on the day you were born, the sun was surrounded by the stars in the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). Of course, those stars would not be visible in a sun-brightened sky. But wait six months! Taurus would then be visible opposite the sun in the dark night sky. Your birthday is six months away. There is a mystic appeal associated with these celestial movements and the imaginary personal traits assigned to the “signs” of the zodiac. But there is NO truth to the belief that movements of celestial objects entail meaning for human events, or ever did.

The Book of Job may have been penned at around the time of Moses. Even if it was written later, its events likely took place around the time of Abraham. The Book of Genesis, probably written by Moses, references lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide day from night, and to signal signs, seasons, days, and years. The sun swings through the twelve constellations of the zodiac once each year. Another way to describe this phenomenon is to note that the twelve constellations slowly revolve across the night sky, making one cycle in twelve months. Springtime constellations appear, for example, in the evening dark sky, slowly slide around, then appear in the same place exactly one year later to mark the onset of spring again.

Genesis states the “lights in the expanse of the sky” act to “separate the day from the night” (the sun’s daily motion) and “to mark seasons…and years (the sun’s annual slide through the zodiac). Other functions of the sun and moon are more familiar. They “give light on the earth,” one governing the day; the other governing the night. This description of the luminaries’ function is absolutely accurate in terms of determining days, seasons, and years. The causes of the changes in terms of rotation and revolution of the earth and the structure of the universe were not understood by the ancients, but residents of that time were exceedingly skilled at making meaningful observations to help determine days, seasons, and years.

Several translations of Job 38:32 mention “Mazzaroth,” including the KJV, ESV, and RSV. This term is used in the context of astronomical constellations, and there is little doubt that the Hebrews were aware of the zodiac and its season-heralding features. Explicit scientific explanations would wait for Copernican and Galilean astronomy several millennia later.

Bible authors were aware of other celestial features such as the Pleiades, the Great Bear (Big Dipper), Orion, and several bright planets. This discussion is not meant to tout scripture as an astronomy textbook. It may help us respect the inspired thought processes of ancient Bible characters and writers and arouse admiration for their powers of observation. All such references show the ancients’ respect for the natural world and affirm their appreciation of God as Creator.