Old Testament Astronomy 101

Posted: 17th December 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

As awe-inspiring as the Hubble Space Telescope photos are (linked in my previous post), I couldn’t help my curiosity from being raised by the verses I had selected to go along with the photo. Specifically, Job 38.31-32:

Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades or loose Orion’s belt?
Can you bring out the signs of the zodiac in their season
or guide Aldebaran and its satellite stars?

The text above is from the REB (similarly the NEB) and appears to be a minority rendering based on comparisons to more mainstream translations. The table below compares this textual choice with that of the TNIV and the ESV, as well as the KJV:

REB TNIV
31 Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades or loose Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring out the signs of the zodiac in their season or guide Aldebaran and its satellite stars?
31 Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
NRSV KJV
31 Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?
32 Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children?
31 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
32 Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?

31a: The Pleiades (cf. Job 9.9, Amos 5.8)

There seems to be little disagreement in translation about v.31 referring to the constellations of Pleiades or Orion. According to John C. L. Gibson’s commentary, for the phrase “the sweet influences of Pleiades”, the KJV translators likely “had in mind the genial onset of spring associated with the appearance of the Pleiades preceding sunrise in the east.”

According to JewishEncyclopedia.com, the expression “Can you bind” is a transposition of the following phrase, “the chains”. There doesn’t appear to be any other wordplay in the original, so we might as well just approach this verse straight on, as most translations do. Though I do admit that the consonantal connection of “chains” (or “cluster”) and “cords” in the NRSV (similarly NASB) is a welcome touch. “Binding the Pleiades” certainly seems to anticipate modern astronomy’s observations of the gravitational attractions within this group of stars.

31b: Orion’s belt (cf. Job 9.9, Amos 5.8, Isaiah 13.10)

In Keightley’s Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy, he notes that “the ancient Hebrews seem also to have regarded [Orion] as a huge giant bound with chains in the sky […]” So the question is whether it is the belt of Orion, the band of three bright stars across the constellation’s midsection, or the chains of a fettered giant that are being loosened. Gesenius’ Lexicon refers specifically to the state of being bound with respect to the Heb. mowshĕkah (translated above as “belt”, “cords”, “bands”).

Is this an example of one traditional description (“Orion’s belt”, as used by the TNIV and REB) obscuring a different cultural image or reference?

Given that both the Pleiades and Orion are bound in some sense, the point of the verse (other than the obvious questioning of Job’s capabilities) seems to be the celestial contrast between the Heb. qashar (tn. “bind”) and the Heb. pathach (tn. “loose”).

32a: Mazzaroth (cf. Job 9.9, 2 Kings 23.5)

The NET Bible has the following note:

The word מַזָּרוֹת (mazzarot) is taken by some to refer to the constellations, and by others as connected to the word for “crown,” and so “corona.”

The “crown” connection noted by the NET is championed by Ewald, who claims that the reference is to the Northern and Southern Crown constellations, corresponding to the “chambers of the South” in Job 9.9.

Transliterated Hebrew words rarely communicate much meaning in general English, so using “the constellations” (TNIV, also NASB) or “the signs of the zodiac” (REB) is to be preferred, with the understanding that meaning of the underlying Hebrew is uncertain. The REB underscores an astrological connection between the individual constellations and the zodiac by translating the Hebrew as “the signs” rather than “the constellations”. The related Heb. mazzalah in 2 Kings 23:5 is noted as perhaps being derived from a word related to rain – as in a season of rain ushered in by a zodiac sign in the heavens.

It is interesting to note that the Heb. mazzarah (constellations) and the Heb. ‘eth (season) are feminine nouns and the former is plural is a plural feminine noun – thus, the KJV’s use of the pronoun “his” to describe “seasons” (Heb. ‘eth) here seems doubly misplaced, while “their season” used by the other translations is generically appropriate.

32b: The Bear (cf. Job 9.9)

The NET Bible has the following note for Job 9:9, which also lists the same constellations by name:

The Hebrew [in 9:9] has עָשׁ (’ash), although in 38:32 it is עַיִשׁ (’ayish). This has been suggested to be Aldebaran, a star in the constellation Taurus, but there have been many other suggestions put forward by the commentaries.

Arabic has a similar word, na’sh, which means “bear” and an expression where the three stars of the Big Dipper’s handle in the constellation Ursa Major (Big Bear) are referred to as “daughters of the bear”. Thus, a translation reading “the bear with its children” (cf. TNIV, NRSV) would be using Ursa Major as the referent, with perhaps the bowl of the Dipper and the handle being depicted. Also, Ursa Minor (Little Bear) could also be in view here.

The KJV’s reference to Arcturus recalls a common way of finding stars in the night sky: “Arc to Arcturus then speed to Spica.” That is, if you follow the arc formed by the three stars that make up handle of the Big Dipper (away from the bowl itself), you will come to the star Arcturus and then Spica. “Arcturus with his sons” would most likely refer to the star, Arcturus, and the three stars of the Big Dipper’s handle. However, most commentaries seem to dismiss Arcturus as a probable translation.

Aldebaran surrounded by the Hyades is in the middle left. The Pleiades are in the lower right.

The NEB/REB’s decision to translate ‘ayish as Aldebaran is evidently based on a Syriac witness as well as that star’s visual proximity to the Hyades star cluster (“its satellite stars”), which lies between Orion and the Pleiades mentioned in v.31.

Of final note: Aldebaran, the Hyades and the Pleiades are all in the constellation Taurus, which is in astrological battle with Orion. The link between these two constellations is historic and it would be consistent for the Biblical astronomers to focus on some of the brightest and most prominent features of these two constellations.

  1. Excellent post, ElShaddai! I love the stars, and especially enjoy reading about the ancients’ astrological mythology.

    A few quick comments:

    “Binding the Pleiades” certainly seems to anticipate modern astronomy’s observations of the gravitational attractions within this group of stars.

    Hmm…I’m not sure this follows at all. The unusually closeness and seeming permanance of the star’s grouping within the constellation noted through years of observation would seem to account for this verse. We have no reason to think that the author had some special revelation of Laplace’s celestial mechanics!

    In Keightley’s Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy, he notes that “the ancient Hebrews seem also to have regarded [Orion] as a huge giant bound with chains in the sky […]”

    Keep in mind that we only know what “the ancient Hebrews seem” to have thought based upon their sacred writings, including the Bible. In fact, it was probably this very verse that led to Keightley’s supposition; if there are other extrabiblical references (Midrashim, the Talmud, etc.) that source this view, I’d be very interested in seeing them.

    It is interesting to note that the Heb. mazzarah (constellations) and the Heb. ‘eth (season) are feminine nouns and the former is plural – thus, the KJV’s use of “his” to describe “seasons” here seems doubly misplaced, while “their season” used by the other translations is generically appropriate.

    Consider that the gender of ‘eth would not come into play for the gender of the pronoun modifying it. Also note that mazzaroth‘s morphological plurality doesn’t necessitate a plural pronoun especially in Hebrew, which utilized plurals for more than number (consider elohim, generally with singular pronouns). It appears that this particular noun was fossilized as a collective noun for the Zodiac (as an hapax legomenon, it is naturally a plurale tantum); this is borne out when one sees that the LXX transliterates the plural as a neuter singular μαζουρωθ and uses the singular neuter pronoun in the genitive (this pronoun is also masculine “his” but concord with μαζουρωθ implies neuter “its”). This appears to be an instance of LXX influence on the typical Masoretic source for the KJV; it also leads back to the question of how representative of earlier Hebrew thought the LXX actually is. None of this makes me claim that I know the best way to translate this verse! Your suggestion is still preferable for clarity, but since I prefer to read more cultural context in the text itself, I’d prefer Mazzaroth and “its”.

    All in all, an interesting survey. Thanks for your work!

  2. Correction: μαζουρωθ is also used in 2 Kings 23.5, which makes it the more likely that it was a plurale tantum (never occurs in singular). In 2 Kings, it’s used with a plural masculine/neuter pronoun, so probably not “Zodiac” in its specialized sense, but merely constellations.

  3. Nathan Stitt says:

    Thanks for another fresh perspective. Out of curiosity, do you have a paper copy of the NET Bible, or are you grabbing the notes from a digital source? I’m asking because I’m considering buying a hard copy.

    BTW, thanks for including pics!

  4. Stephen: if there are other extrabiblical references (Midrashim, the Talmud, etc.) that source this view, I’d be very interested in seeing them.

    Thanks for the feedback! Not sure that it gives you what you’re looking for, but in addition to Keightley, JewishEncyclopedia.com had this reference re Orion as a bound giant:

    Of the ancient versions, the LXX. has “Orion” in Job and Isaiah, while Targum and Peshiṭta render by “Giant.” In this there is a reminiscence of an ancient, perhaps pre-Semitic, myth—also current in variants among the Greeks—concerning a giant bound to the sky, whom the Hebrews, with characteristic reflection upon his presumption to resist and defy heavenly power, labeled “Fool.” Nimrod was associated with this “Fool” by later folk-lore.

    Regarding the Pleiades – yes, all I meant to convey is that the language “bind the chains” evoked the thought of gravity binding the stars together in a cluster. Supposedly in 250 million years, the Pleiades cluster will pass through Orion and be pulled apart… loosening the cords of Orion as well?!

    Consider that the gender of ‘eth would not come into play for the gender of the pronoun modifying it.

    Yes – you are correct. My comment was pointed to mazzarah and not ‘eth. I’ll annotate the text appropriately.

  5. Nathan asked: Out of curiosity, do you have a paper copy of the NET Bible, or are you grabbing the notes from a digital source?

    No, I never picked up a physical copy of the NET Bible – I’ve been using the online tools. Especially the comparisons with multiple translations to the Greek and Hebrew. I suppose I should give the NET a fair shake as a translation, but there are already so many choices…

  6. Thanks for that quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia! I’m amazed at the congruity of the astrology of the East and Ancient West (“the bear” for instance, and Orion as a humanoid figure). The presence of giants in early Semitic belief is consistent with the position that Genesis 6 and the Nephilim hearken back to ancient Semitic mythology. Fascinating stuff!

  7. Brian says:

    Very interesting post ElShaddai

    how long has the cluster of stars known as “Orion” been known? Is Job late enough for that reading to not be an anachronism? Just wondering.

  8. Brother Wayne says:

    Is there any evidence from Hubble or other high-precision modern astronomical measuring instruments that, from the perspective of earth, the stars in the Pleiades are moving closer together AND that the three stars in belt of Orion are moving farther apart? If so, Job would not have been able to detect such minute movements, but it would mean God said these words not only for Job at the time but also for us as an added measure of faith in God’s Word (Romans 15:4).

    For Brian–Since “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim 3:16) and in Job 38:31-32 God is speaking to Job, I would suggest that “the cluster of stars known as ‘Orion'” has been known…since God created them ;-).

    The heavens truly do declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1)!

    Worship Him who made the heavens, the earth, and the sea (Rev 14:7, Ex 20:11).

    Blessings in Christ,
    Brother Wayne