Monday, November 23, 2015

Constellations in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible makes several references to constellations. Sometimes these constellations are well understood and sometimes they are not. In this entry I want to take a look at four passages of scripture that reference constellations and examine what they reveal to us about the astronomy of the ancient Israelites.

For each of these I will give my own translation retaining the Hebrew names for the constellations. Our knowledge of what specific constellations are intended in the Hebrew is dependent upon the Greek Septuagint translation (abbreviated LXX), the Aramaic Targum translation, to some degree the Latin Vulgate, and also traditions preserved in later writings.

Job 9:8-9

8 Spreading the heavens by himself, and treading upon the waves of the sea.

9 Making Ash, Kesil, and Kimah, and the rooms of the south.

Here are references to four constellations. Having a look at them in turn:

Ash is rendered as Arcturus in the KJV, but this identification is probably incorrect. Arcturus is a bright star found by following the “tail” of Ursa Major or “handle” of the Big Dipper as we call it, in a circular pattern to a bright star. KJV is here following Jerome's Vulgate translation “Arcturum”. LXX has Πλειάδα, “Pleiades”. There is a similar Hebrew word ash that means “moth” but I remain unconvinced it is related. The common theory has been to associate it with a Syriac word indicating a specific star or constellation while a minority have tried to tie it to an Arabic word for “beir”, in their culture the constellation Ursa Major looking like a funeral beir with mourners following it. The general consensus is that the reference is to not Arcturus, but the Big Dipper or Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation and many modern translations follow this. Thanks to a property of earths rotation called precession the Big Dipper would have been closer to the north celestial pole at the time of the Old Testament. This would have meant the stars of this constellation would never set. This gave then a special place in the north as part of the eternal cosmic mountain, Har Tsafon, dwelling place of the Gods. This same constellation finds a home on the west central tower of the Salt Lake Temple. It is noted for the ability to use the “pointer stars” (the two stars at the end of the “scoop”) to find Polaris at the North Celestial Pole. Anciently this would have worked about the same except the pole would be about halfway between the pointers and Polaris.

Kesil The Hebrew word means “fool” and is a fairly common word in the Bible. We mostly know a constellation is intended because of context. Here again KJV follows the Vulgate rendering it “Orion”. The Septuagint renders it ἕσπερον Hesperon which is the planet Venus. Most agree the Vulgate is the correct translation. It is generally accepted that the constellation may not come from the word “fool” but may be an import word which based on the Syriac would mean “giant”. The Targum likewise translates it as “giant”. The Arabs associated Orion with a giant and Nimrod the hunter. This ancient Babylonian hero was impious against the Gods and therefore chained in the sky as an example. The Babylonians themselves mention the constellation as early as 686 BCE in the tablets MUL.APIN as the “loyal Shepard of heaven”. Older 18th century BCE Sumerian tablets refer to the constellation as URU AN-NA “Light of Heaven” from the epic of Gilgamesh from which I get my pen name. In that story he fights the “Bull of Heaven” or the nearby constellation Taurus. The Romans also saw Orion as a giant and great hunter and a son of Posiden. He is stung by the scorpion found in the constellation Scorpius which stationed across the sky from Orion sets as Orion rises and rises as Orion sets. The Egyptians called it “Sahu” and associated it with Osiris giving it special significance for the dead in their journey across the sky. Orion is the brightest constellation in our sky and is one of the few most people can pick out due to its brightness and distinct shape. Now and anciently it is a winter constellation and is currently rising in the late evening at the time I am writing this. Several commercial groups use it in their logos and marketing from motion picture companies to telescope manufacturers. Oddly almost all cultures have seen the shape as a man, even though such association seems very abstract. In modern times Orion is famous for hosting one of the most spectacular and closest star forming regions called the Orion Molecular Complex that covers most of the constellation and manifests itself as several glowing nebulae including the famous M42 nebula.

Kimah The Hebrew word we think means a “heap”. Most commonly it is accepted to refer to the Pleiades but that is far from certain. The Pleiades are a tight group of stars that to a quick look appears as a prominent white smudge on the sky. With a bit more effort in a dark sky the ancients could see 6, 7 or even 9 stars in this constellation. Most cultures commented on the constellation. Interestingly in Japanese it is known as Subaru and are used as a corporate logo of the company of the same name. Modern telescopes have revealed there are actually over 500 stars that make up the cluster. These stars are passing through a dust cloud which creates a glowing blue reflection nebula around the brightest stars. Viewing with a simple set of binoculars will easily reveal about 100 stars. The Septuagint renders the word ἀρκτοῦρον Arcturus. The Vulgate renders it Hyades which is the easily identified triangular star cluster that forms the head of Taurus and is nearby the Pleiades. The Targum translates it as “hen” which was a name for the Pleiades viewed as a hen brooding over her chicks.

Rooms of the South There is not strong agreement as to the meaning of this phrase. Some ideas suggest very fanciful ideas that constellations visible only from the Southern Hemisphere are intended. Placing Job as a traveling world astronomer seems a bit much. The obvious meaning would be that this is a reference to the zodiac which is a set of twelve constellations that follow the ecliptic, or path of the sun. This view is supported by Ibn Ezra, a famous Jewish scholar. This path runs east to west and is inclined to the south by varying amounts through the year. The Babylonians were the first to record the constellations of the Zodiac and called them the “Houses of the Sun”. Each constellation would correspond to roughly one month of the Suns path around the sky.

Let's have a look at a companion scripture in Job:

Job 38:31-33

31 Canst thou bind

the chains of Kimah,


The bands of Kesil

Canst thou loose?

32 Canst thou bring forth

Mazzarot in his season?

or Aish with her sons

Canst thou guide?

33 Knowest thou the patterns of the heavens?

canst thou set its law in the earth?

There are some fun things happening with these verses. 31 and 32 have an inverted parallelism and 33 has a more straightforward parallelism. Kimah, Kesil and Aish appear again in reverse order from our earlier verse and rooms of the south has been replaced with the plural word Mazzarot. The alternate spelling Ash/Aish is due to an extra letter Yodh (י) appearing in this verse. It is generally agreed this small letter was left out of the earlier verse in error. The KJV gives the beautiful if nonsensical rendering “bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades”. This word translated as “sweet influences” occurs only here and it's meaning was a result of some rather creative guesswork. Instead it seems the mystery word was simply the victim of dyslexia on the part of a scribe. מעדנות found here should almost certainly be מענדות which would mean “chains” or “bonds” and thus parallel the bonds of Kesil.

The bonds of Kesil is supposed by some to reflect the idea of the constellation representing a fool or a giant or a foolish giant being bound in the sky and asking Job if he can untie him. This works at some level but still does not address the parallel for Kimah. If Kimah is the Pleiades then the idea that the stars are chained in a tight knot makes sense. To me the opposition to the large spread of bright stars that make Orion seems a natural parallel. So Job is being asked if he can bind the tight cluster of stars or scatter a wide fields of stars.

The next verse introduces another unknown constellation and this time KJV makes no effort to identify it but just leaves the word untranslated. Mazzarot is tied to specific seasons or times. The most compelling explanation is that there was also a scribal error here and the letter resh ר should be the similar looking lamed ל. This would make the word Mazzalot a plural of the word Mazel meaning “fortune” or “fate”. This word is familiar to many from the greeting in Hebrew and Yiddish mazel tov, “good fortune”. The best evidence for this is the occurrence of the word mazzalot in 2 Kings 23:5 where it is rendered, probably correctly as “planets”. Anciently there were 7 planets that wandered along the ecliptic through the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, giving this a strong tie to the rooms of the South from earlier. These planets included the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Their movement through the Zodiac has long been considered to influence or foretell fate. There is clear evidence that their movement was observed with their rather complicated “seasons” that would puzzle astronomers for centuries. Aish and her sons would probably be the Big Dipper with Aish being the quadrilateral of the “scoop” and her sons being the stars of the handle. It would be a nice opposite to the planets. In the world of Job this constellation was closer to the north celestial pole. This would mean it would never set but simply travel in a circle in the northern sky.

The final verse asks Job if he understands the movements of the heavens. Surely at his time no one really did. Planets would suddenly move in retrograde or advance at varying speeds. It would not be until much later when we understood heliocentric solar systems and elliptic orbits that we would develop the math to unstand the complex patterns of movement. That is not to say the ancients did not have their own complex ideas that gave approximations of these movements. The second half of the verse asks Job if he can enforce the results of the planetary movements in the earth. Here it is clear it is God and not the planets themselves that effect the earth. If anything the unknowable nature of planetary movement is given as examples of mans inability to predict or control his world. Determining the movement of the planets and their effect on mankind would be an exercise of combining learning and revelation. Something it pointed states Job is incapable of on his own. Without the aid of God, Job can no more read the planets or enforce their effect than he can set a new constellation in the sky.

For completeness I give two other verses from the prophets where these constellations are mentioned:

Amos 5:7-8

7 Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth,

8 Seek him that maketh Kimah and Kesil, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The LORD is his name:

Amos pairs Kimah and Kesil as Job did, reinforcing the idea that these are constellations that are close in the sky such as Orion and Pleiades. Here they are used as examples of God's creation. The ability to change the night sky from darkness to light and back again is used as an example of God's power, as is the water cycle. Amos, himself a shepherd, emphasizes the ability to find God through nature and science.

Isaiah 13:10

10 For the stars of the heavens and their Kesilim thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.

In an apocalyptic astronomical prophesy Isaiah uses Kesil in the plural. Here instead of “Orions” KJV opts for a more generic “constellations”. This may reflect a variation in usage over time or place or perhaps Orion as the brightest constellation is indeed used as a generic word for constellations generally as well as a specific word for Orion.


So what can be concluded from the above? It is clear we cannot know as much as we might like about what the ancients meant with the astronomical terms they used, and while I am satisfied with my conclusions, any positive identification must remain tentative. What does come across clearly are the following points:

  • The ancients intently studied and knew the night sky, having a system of constellations and observing motions of the heavenly bodies.
  • The night sky gave a sense of awe about the power of God and vastness of his creation.
  • The night sky with its shapes symbolized important stories and principles and were used as teaching aids by prophets and commoners.
  • There was a strong sense that the heavens held secrets that would help us make sense of life on earth, but understanding such things was beyond the reach of man without the aid of God.

It is my opinion that these concepts hold true today as well. As we look up at the night sky we can realize that little has changed from the time of the oldest prophets. The stars are a connection to them. Many of the old world would long to see what has been revealed by even simple instruments that allow us to observe details beyond anything they could see. As our knowledge of the night sky has improved we have discovered a universe more grand and expansive than man ever dreamed, but we return always to the amazing truth of our smallness before the Grand Creator of it all and our wonder that he would claim us as his children.


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