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Bible Study Resource

Astrology is a system of foretelling the future, based on the belief that the movements of the stars determine the course of events. lt seems to have begun in the lands of the Euphrates where the stars and constellations were worshipped as divine, but belief in the divine powers of the stars was current among the Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Egyptians and, by the 4th century BC, in Greece as well. 

Astrology in Mesopotamia

The Babylonians associated the stars with the gods themselves, the sign for a god being a star. They watched the planets as they moved through the sky, and from their changed positions read the wishes of the gods. The planet Venue obscured by clouds

  • In the Babylonian system, the morning star (the planet Venus, see right) was identified with the goddess Astarte

  • The planet Mars was similarly identified with Nergal, the Babylonian god of death.

  • The Bible mentions Chevan (Amos 5:26), the Babylonian name for the planet Saturn. 

ln addition to the planets, the Assyrians and Babylonians also discovered groups of fixed stars; these were also identified with deities. A standard work on astrology was constructed by the Babylonians as early as the 16th century BC. Their observations of the stars and of signs in the heavens were translated into astrological theories for the foretelling of future events. As a result, seeing the future through astrology became an inseparable part of the Babylonian religion. 

A tablet showing the signs of the Zodiac, from Gezer, Hellenistic times

Isaiah (47:13) mentions three distinct groups of professional astrologers among the Assyrians and Babylonians:

  • those who divide the heavens 

  • who gaze at the stars 

  • who at new moons predict what shall befall you. 

Dividing the heavens:  Babylonian clay tablets have been found announcing coming events predicted by the astrologers, and giving notice of favourable or unpropitious days, something also mentioned by Isaiah. The phrase used by the prophet, 'divide the heavens', gives us an idea of the methods used by astrologers. They divided the sky into sections and gave a particular meaning to each section. The earliest division of the sky was based on the idea of the 'four winds of heaven'. A cuneiform text of the 8th century reads: 'The god Enlil holds the rule over the 33 stars of the northern sky, the god Anu over the 23 stars to the side of the equator, and the god Ea commands the stars of the southern sky'.

In the library of Ashurbanipal, for instance, one such tablet contained an itemized list of eclipses in the first half of the month of January. The significance of the eclipses depended on the region of the sky in which a given eclipse could be seen. There were separate tables for divination by solar and lunar eclipses and by the movements of the stars.The planet Mars

Stargazers: Another type of atrologer had detailed tables listing the gatherings of the stars and their significance. Thus one of the tablets recorded a prophecy that 'when Mars (called Opin in Babylonia) approaches Scorpion, the prince will die of the sting of a scorpion and his son will succeed to his throne.' In the course of time, different systems of divination from the stars, many of them very intricate, were developed. 

Monthly Prognosticators: Sages who read divine omens from the appearance of the new moon were called 'monthly prognosticators'. A big 'book' on astrology by one Sargon of Akkad, written towards the end of the 3rd millenium BC, lists various symbols and omens, for instance: 'if the new moon is seen on the first of the month and on the 27th of the (same) month, evil will befall (the country of Elam), and if the moon is seen on the first of the month and on the twenty-eighth of the (same) month, evil will befall the land of Ahuru.' The exact angle of the crescent at the time of the moon’s appearance also served as an omen. 

The relief of Tyche, surrounded by the Zodiac panel, from the Nabatean Khirbet-al-Tannur, 1st century

Worship of the 'Host of Heaven'

In Canaanite religion, worship of the heavenly bodies was only secondary, although there are a number of hints in the Bible pointing to the worship of the moon and the sun (Dt. 4:19; 17:3; ll Kings 23:5; Jeremiah. 8 :2; Job 31 :26-27; Ezekiel 8:16) and warning the Israelites against these cults. lt seems that Jericho was named after the cult of the moon and the same name, Jerah, belonged to an Arabian tribe (Genesis 10:26; 1 Chronicles 1:20). In spite of the prohibition against sun-worship, people like Samson and Shimshai, and places like Beth-Shemesh, Ain-Shemesh or Ir-Shemesh seem to have been named after the sun-god. 

Worship of the stars and planets, 'Mazalot' or 'Mazarot' (Job 38:32) was listed among the sins of the Israelites, derived from foreign cults (ll Kings 17:16-17).  In Jerusalem, incense was burned 'to Ba‘al, to the sun and the moon and the constellations, and all the host of the heavens' (ll Kings 23 :5). Josiah 'burned the chariots of the sun' to root out this practice (ll Kings. 23:11). 

The Bible contains many negative hints of the existence of astrology. Alone among oriental peoples, official Judaism (though not ordinary people) rejected beliefs and practices connected with astrology. 

The wheel of the Zodiac fro the mosaic floor of the 6th century synagogue at Beth-Alpha

The wheel of the Zodiac fro the mosaic floor of the 6th century synagogue at Beth-Alpha

Signs of the Zodiac

By noting the direction of the sun from the south horizon when it cuts the meridian at noon, the Babylonians were able to identify the sun’s track through a belt of 12 star clusters called the Zodiac, corresponding to the twelve 30-day months of the Babylonian year. The star clusters of the Zodiac are not systems with any relationship between themselves. They are simply signposts of the seasons. These milestones, the zodiacal constellations. were groups of stars whose rising and setting positions roughly corresponded to that of the sun at a particular season. The phenomenon of the rising and setting of stars show that the sun changes its position relative to the fixed stars, as if retreating eastwards through a complete circle in the celestial sphere (see the sun’s apparent annual retreat through the zodiacal constellations, below). 

the sun’s apparent annual retreat through the zodiacal constellations

Stargazing led the ancients to visualize their constellations in human and animal form, which they called the signs of the Zodiac. Assyrian stone border markers of the 12th and 13th centuries BC were incised with signs for the constellations which lay in the path of the sun, as shown below: the Scorpion, the Archer, the Lion, Cancer, the Charioteer, Orion, the Twins, etc. . . . The division of the Ecliptic into twelve equal signs of the Zodiac star clusters, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagit- tarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, dates from a later time. 

Assyrian stone border marker incised with signs for the constellations which lay in the path of the sun, 12th-13th century BC

Assyrian stone border marker incised with signs for the constellations 
which lay in the path of the sun, 12th-13th century BC

The Zodiac in the Bible

Biblical hints about the stars, Kema and Ksil and their association with “the Bear and its children” and with “Mazarot” (Job 38:31-32) are significant. So is a similar word, “mazalot" in ll Kings 23:5, listed in the worship of the “host of heaven". Though the position of “mazarot“ is not identified, this may suggest that the signs of the Zodiac were already known to lsrael in pre-Exilic times. 

The biblical term “mazalot" (or mazarot) was apparently used for the imaginary belt in the sky containing the twelve constellations, within which lie the paths of the principal planets and the sun. Though little is known of the belief in omens related to the stars beyond its condemnation in the Old Testament, it is a noteworthy fact that in post- Exilic times (the last centuries BC), astrology began to be influential in the lives of ordinary men and women, among many Jews too, as may be seen from the numerous references in the book of Daniel. Under the influence of current astrological theories, many Jews held that human life and activity were strictly regulated by the movements of the heavenly bodies, which themselves were ruled by angels, as the book of Enoch insists. An astronomical work from the Dead Sea Scrolls describes the physical characteristics of people born under a given sign of the Zodiac. 

Later Midrashic literature, besides reproducing much astronomical and astrological lore, added a specific symbolism of its own by correlating the twelve tribes with the twelve constellations of the Zodiac.  However, the signs of the Zodiac, the planets and the stars had none of the significance for the Jews which they had in Babylonia or, later on, in Greece. 

There is an obvious correlation between the signs of the Zodiac and some of the symbols of the Christian apocalypse (Revelations 4:4, 6; 9:3, 5; 12:1; 21:19) although again these have no mythological significance. 

Astrology in Graeco-Roman Times

Long before the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Hellenic world had been in touch with Babylonian astrology. “Chaldean" means “astronomer” in Aristotle's “Fragmenta”, taking the term used for the astrologers‘ guild in antiquity. The sages of Greece gave the occult art a new aspect which changed an oriental belief into something which, outwardly at least, appeared far more rational. From being a mysterious art whose use was restricted to Asiatic royal courts, foretelling the future by the rules of astrology was popularized. It became open to any man to learn his fate from the position of the stars at the time of his birth. This wider scope demanded a much greater range of omens than were known to the Babylonians. The Greeks used their knowledge of mathematics to invent a multiplicity of omens and interpretations. The work of the Roman Claudius Ptolemaus includes a resume of Greek astrological systems which later provided the basis for mediaeval astrology. 

The world, as envisaged by Claudius Ptolemaus

The world, as envisaged by Claudius Ptolemaus: a printed map from the 15th century
depicting Ptolemy's description of the known world

The existence of an extensive literature on astrology is perhaps illustrated by the reference in Acts 19:19, where people who had been baptized in Ephesus are reported to have burned books to the value of 50,000 dinarii. Astromancy was forbidden to Christians just as it was to Jews. 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Astrology, signs of the Zodiac, the 'Hosts of Heaven'

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