What Every Mormon Should Know About Astronomy
Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (12 May 2000).
©2000 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.
|1. Heavens Were Created|
|2. Heavens Testify of Christ|
|3. Evening & Morning Star|
|4. Constellations Inspired|
|5. Solar System Timepiece|
|6. Hebrew Calendar|
|7. Planet Time Reckoning|
|8. Signs of Second Coming|
Enoch, Abraham, and Moses all had revelations on astronomy, and Joseph Smith called the first newspaper of the Church The Evening and the Morning Star. Why this preoccupation with the heavens?
When Abraham gazed into the Urim and Thummim, he was swept away in a vision of the heavens. Beyond the violent hurricanes of Jupiter and the twisted rings of Saturn, past swirling black holes and the blinding explosions of living stars he traveled until he approached the throne of God. Then, “face to face, as one man talketh with another,” he spoke with the Lord, and like Enoch before him and Moses after him, he was shown “those things which [God’s] hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof” (Abraham 3:11-12).
Clearly, the purpose of this remarkable revelation to Abraham was not simply to impress him. Abraham was taught astronomy — and not just the basics. He learned, from the Being who organized it all, “the times and seasons in the revolutions thereof”of stars and planets, the earth and the sun (Abraham 3:4). He then was directed to pass it on to the rest of the world through the ruling culture of Egypt (see Abraham 3:15).
Other prophets appear to have had a knowledge of astronomy as well. Alma refuted Korihor’s agnostic teachings by declaring that “all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). Mormon, while describing the uselessness of defying the power of a God who can halt the earth so the sun appears to stand still, explained that “surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun” (Helaman 12:15). The priests and magicians of various ancient religions, including the “wise men from the east” who were guided by the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2), also studied signs and omens from the night sky. Why was the ancient world so preoccupied with the heavens? Why was astronomy so important that certain key prophets had to learn it firsthand?
1. The Lord Created the Heavens With Us in Mind
The Lord literally created our heaven and earth. Though Latter-day Saints fully believe this statement, we may not fully capture the significance of it. Consider the prophecy that a new star would appear to herald the Savior’s birth (Numbers 24:17). The same God who revealed the prophecy also planned and made possible the astronomical event. Beyond predicting a forthcoming occurrence in a vast and complex universe, He had to arrange primordial circumstances so that that particular star would appear in that part of the earth’s sky on that important night — all in cooperation with an overarching celestial order that would remain intact for the earth’s entire existence.
We often overlook the fact that part of creating the earth was designing a space governed by time instead of eternity — systems of planets and stars that would rotate and revolve around one another in such a way that exactly the right conditions for life would exist:
He hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;
And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehendeth the earth and all the planets.
And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years…(D&C 88:42-44)
Thus, the lengths of our days, months, and years are not random, but are carefully planned.
Yet, according to scripture, the movements of the planets among the stars do more than mark time and give light. They also serve as signs:
And I, God, said: Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven, to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years. (Moses 2:14, emphasis added)
He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions. (Daniel 6:27, emphasis added)
These signs or symbols in the heavens serve as witnesses of God’s work and plan, and were designed to be read from our perspective on earth. Sometimes, though, our grade school image of the solar system — although accurate — hinders us from seeing the heavens the way the Lord intended. For example, the planet Venus swings around the sun in a nearly circular orbit that takes 225 of our days. But when observed from our moving earth, Venus becomes a beautiful and symbolic evening and morning star, with a cycle that requires more than twice that long. So even though the earth circles the sun, the heavens were intended to be viewed as if the earth were at rest, making it possible for men throughout history to observe the same patterns in the planets’ motions. It’s as if the place you’re standing on earth, wherever that is, is the center of the universe — or at least the center of an immense theater displaying the story of the Son of God.
2. The Heavens Testify of Jesus Christ
God often speaks in the language of numbers, dates, signs, and symbols (Mark 8:19-21). For example, seven angels head earth’s seven 1,000-year periods, and the seventh angel presides over them all, even as seven presidents head the Quorum of the Seventy, and the seventh president presides (D&C 88:108-112; 107:93-94). Similarly, there are seven stars in the sign or constellation of the Big Dipper on the Salt Lake Temple, which was explained by President Harold B. Lee “to represent the great truth that through the priesthood of God the lost may find their way.” Moreover, the Lord has purposely designated twelve members in a quorum of apostles or of deacons and twelve tribes of Israel, as well as twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year, and twelve constellations in the zodiac. With that in mind, when we learn that twelve cycles are completed by Venus in seven periods of 1,001 days each, we can recognize from the numbers alone that its orbit is not the result of chance. The Lord has said, “I will give unto you a pattern in all things that ye may not be deceived” (D&C 52:14).
3. Jesus Christ is the Evening and Morning Star
The Savior said, “I Jesus…am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star” (Rev. 22:16). By this He was almost certainly acknowledging the sign or symbol of the planet Venus. Because it is between the earth and the sun, it always appears near the sun in our sky and is only visible near dusk or dawn. Thus, to us it is an evening and morning star.
According to Native American tradition, the cycle of Venus is like the life of the white, bearded god who visited them in the first century AD. Their legends are so similar to the account of the Savior visiting the Nephites, that there seems little doubt that they refer to Jesus Christ. Venus is born as an evening star rising in the west, dim but growing brighter every day. Several months later, just when it nears its brightest point, it dies, plunging quickly into the earth and disappearing as an evening star. For several days it remains underground, fighting evil forces, until it conquers death and resurrects in the east as a radiant morning star. The parallels with the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior are obvious.
A second witness for this sign is provided in another “evening and morning star,” the planet Mercury. Since Mercury is the nearest planet to the sun, it is quite difficult to see; however, it repeats a birth, death, and resurrection cycle similar to that of Venus. Its orbit is so short, it completes more than three of these cycles each year. Amazingly, on three key dates in the Savior’s life, all of which involve birth or rebirth symbolism, Mercury was exactly at the beginning point of its cycle. Those three dates — determined by the Hebrew calendar, with the help of modern revelation — are the Savior’s birth during the night preceding 6 April 1 BC, his baptism (a rebirth) on Saturday, 6 Oct AD 29, and his resurrection (another rebirth) on Sunday, 3 April AD 33. The chances of all three of these dates occurring when Mercury is at precisely the same point of its orbit is so slim that the phenomenon itself constitutes strong evidence for the accuracy of these dates.
However, since the above dates are still debated by scholars, let’s consider two more examples using modern dates from the Restoration which are not in question at all. The official “resurrection” date of the Book of Mormon, as calculated on the Hebrew calendar, appears to have been Thursday, 25 March 1830 (the Hebrew calendar’s spring New Year’s Day), when it was finally completed and ready to be sold. The official “resurrection” date of the temple was Sunday, 3 April 1836 when the keys of temple work were restored.
Again, Mercury was right at the beginning of its cycle. Thus, five birth-symbolism events on the Hebrew calendar, three from the Savior’s life and two from modern Church history, all align with this symbolic point in Mercury’s cycle. The heavens do indeed bear record of Jesus Christ.
4. The Constellations Tell the Savior’s Story
But the celestial testimony of the Savior does not end there. The very position of the stars in the sky tell us that Jesus is the Christ. Though some researchers have assumed that star constellation figures evolved from primitive imaginations, evidence now indicates that they form a pictorial scientific “star map” that originated about 2900 B.C at about 36 north latitude.
That corresponds well to the Hebrew tradition that the signs of the constellations date back to Enoch.
The Book of Enoch, which was once in the Bible and was accepted by the Savior’s apostles as written by Enoch himself (Jude 1:14), declares, “For the signs, the seasons, the years, and the days, Uriel showed me [Enoch]” (Enoch 74:4-7). Here as elsewhere in the scriptures, the constellations are called “signs” (Gen. 1:14; Rev. 12:1,4, JST). A detailed study of the ancient symbolism of these figures, combined with scriptural references and a knowledge of their star names, implies that the Lord meant for the constellations to graphically display the entire mission of the Savior.
For example, the Serpent Bearer wrestles with a serpent which is reaching for a crown, even as Christ overcame Satan, who sought for God’s glory. The Serpent Bearer is also crushing the head of a scorpion, which in turn is stinging him in the foot, reminiscent of the great promise given to Adam and Eve that the Savior, who would be the seed of the woman, would bruise the serpent’s head, even though the serpent would wound his heel (Gen. 3:15).
There were apparently a total of 48 original figures, 3 accompanying each of the 12 constellations in the zodiac. While some of these have been modified over time or have unclear meanings, others are unmistakable. A ram breaks the bands of death (Mosiah 15:20,23), the lion (associated with the tribe of Judah, Christ’s lineage) tramples a fleeing serpent (Revelations 5:5), and a dragon at the top of the sky enfolds one third of the stars of heaven in his coils (Isaiah 14:13; Revelations 12:4, JST). Thus, the Psalm that proclaims, “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Psalms 19:1) can be taken literally. The heavens are silently bearing witness of the glorious gospel plan, and once a Christian learns this sacred meaning of the constellations, it can forever change how he looks at the sky.
5. Our Solar System is a Precision Timepiece
The origin of a clock with 12 hours and 60 minutes is so ancient it has been lost in antiquity. But the pattern from which it emerged is right over our heads. While our sun serves as an hour hand that travels through 12 month-long periods (like “hours”) to complete one full cycle of one year, our moon marks 60 half days during an average month. Such patterns from the heavens have always influenced clocks and calendars, which were kept to determine when religious feasts, festivals, and other rituals took place. In fact, that is one practical reason that ancient priests were often astronomers.
However, keeping time may have originally had a deeper purpose. As indicated earlier, the cycles of Mercury may have timed — or prophesied — certain events in the Savior’s life. Certainly the movements of other planets among the stars have symbolized other major events of the earth’s history, as well, from the Fall to the Flood to the Restoration. It appears that the Lord’s “signs and wonders” were designed in detail to display in the heavens what men would chronicle on earth.
6. The Hebrew Calendar Testifies of Latter-day Events
When the Lord revealed to Moses the law designed to prepare Israel to receive the Savior, He also prescribed in detail certain holidays and rituals and ordinances which Christians know symbolized the life, mission, and teachings of Jesus Christ. Those ordinances were to be performed on very specific days on a lunisolar (meaning months aligned with the moon, years aligned with the sun) calendar similar to today’s Hebrew calendar. For example, every year at the full moon of spring, the Passover lamb would be sacrificed. Centuries after Moses, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was sacrificed along with the Passover lambs (John19:14). Thus, the calendar included more than symbolic representations. It also predicted the precise timing of the events symbolized.
It might be easy to assume that the Hebrew calendar is no longer important for us since it kept track of rites and events long past. After all, the Savior came and fulfilled the Law of Moses. However, the Savior’s mission is not yet finished and His gospel and church are still rolling forth. There is evidence that the Hebrew calendar is still tracking dates significant to the gospel plan. For instance, there are two great festival seasons on the Hebrew calendar. While the spring festival at the meridian, or midpoint, of the year symbolizes the first coming of Christ at the meridian of time, the larger celebration in the fall apparently symbolizes events pertaining to His second coming. It was opened by the Feast of Trumpets, when 7 priests blew 7 trumpets on the 1st day of the 7th month (Lev. 23:24), apparently symbolic of the 7 angels who will sound the trump at the beginning of the 7th millennium (D&C 88:94-106). Interestingly, the angel Moroni who now sounds the trump atop our temples the world over, delivered the sacred plates to the Prophet Joseph Smith on Saturday, 22 September 1827, the very day of the Hebrew Feast of Trumpets that year.
Just as the Savior was born and sacrificed on special Hebrew calendar days, so was the Prophet Joseph Smith. His birth on Monday, 23 December 1805 coincided with the Hebrew day marking the winter solstice, leading to the suggestion that it symbolized the return of the light of the gospel to a dark world. Moreover, Thursday, 27 June 1844, the day on which the Prophet went “like a lamb to the slaughter” (D&C 135:4), was one of four Hebrew “days of atonement.” The Law of Moses actually required priests to sacrifice two lambs every day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon (Num. 28:3-8). Because the Hebrew day begins about sunset, the morning sacrifice was near the meridian of the 24-hour Hebrew day, and the afternoon sacrifice was near the end of the day. The morning sacrifice appears to have represented Jesus Christ, who would come in the meridian of time, and the afternoon lamb might well have symbolized the Prophet Joseph Smith, who came in the latter days and did “more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).
7. The Planets Also Reckon Time
The ancients tracked the paths of seven heavenly “wanderers” who made their way around our sky-the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets (for which our days of the week are named). Abraham, in his magnificent vision, learned that these heavenly bodies form a sophisticated timepiece that keeps time in accordance with specified governing stars. He was given what could be called Abraham’s Law: the periods of the moon, sun, and planets form an orderly sequence of increasing values, designed to keep time (Abraham 3:5-9). Abraham also learned that the precise length of a year on earth is not a random number, but was carefully chosen to be exactly 1/1,000th of the revolutions of Kolob, or one day to the Lord.
Just as the sun and moon move through the constellations as if part of a huge clock, so do the planets seen from earth with the naked eye. They are so close to being in a plane that they appear to journey through the same groups of background stars. Those stars are the twelve constellations of the zodiac, and they serve as the twelve “numbers” on the clock face. In fact, they include four bright stars, known anciently as the royal stars, that are about a quarter of a circle around from each other like the numbers 3, 6, 9, and 12. Each of the twelve tribes of Israel were identified with one of these zodiac constellations (Gen. 37:9).
The visible planets (including Uranus, which is barely visible to the trained eye) circle clockwise around these twelve numbers at particular time intervals, as if they are the “hands” of the clock. Jupiter crosses one constellation per year, so it functions like an hour hand that counts years. Interestingly, the Lord told Moses to count years by sevens and to let the land rest every seventh year (Leviticus 25:3-4). Uranus spends almost exactly one “week” of 7 years in each zodiac constellation, so that it accurately keeps time in the manner the Lord commanded.
Saturn is especially interesting. The Lord explains that he counts one year to a day, as when Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness, one year for each of the 40 days they searched out the promised land (Numbers 14:33-34; compare Ezekiel 4:6). Saturn revolves around the sun in about 30 years even as the period of the moon’s phases is about 30 days, so Saturn counts years as the moon counts days. Thus, the moon is like a second hand, and Saturn like a minute hand; that is, even as the moon counts 60 alternating periods of the dark and light periods of a day, Saturn counts 60 alternating dark and light halves of the year.
According to Abraham’s great vision, the stars are organized in an order of “governing.” Our sun is apparently in a sequence of stars which increase in power and authority until one comes “nigh unto Kolob” (Abraham 3:9). Abraham tells us that the next in command above the sun is a star which governs fifteen stars (Abr. Fac. 2, Fig. 5). Perhaps it was after Abraham taught the Egyptians what he had learned (Abr. 3:15) that Egypt began to keep one calendar which was peculiar in comparison to other ancient calendars. The first day of their year was determined by the sun rising together with the brightest star in the sky, which we call Sirius (the “Dog Star” in our winter southern sky). Even today there is a native African tribe that has somehow long known things about Sirius which have only been discovered in modern times, such as the existence of its invisible, heavy companion star with a fifty-year orbital period.
It may be that Sirius, not only the brightest star in our sky but also one of the nearest, is the star which Abraham described as governing our local “neighborhood” of stars.
8. Signs in the Heavens Will Precede the Second Coming
The Lord’s message in the heavens is as relevant to us today as it was for our forbears. According to the prophets, several well-known heavenly signs will herald the second coming of Jesus Christ. “But before that great day shall come, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon be turned into blood; and the stars shall refuse their shining, and some shall fall” (D&C 34:9). The astronomical interpretations of these signs are not completely clear.
When the sun was darkened at the death of the Savior, it lasted three hours (Mat. 27:45), ruling out a three-minute total solar eclipse. Reports from as far away as Turkey indicate that several hours of darkness began at noon so that the stars became visible.
Astronomers have no ready explanation for this event. However, the “moon turning to blood” is the ancient way of describing a lunar eclipse when the moon looks reddish because it enters the earth’s shadow. A lunar eclipse also probably occurred at the death of the Savior (Acts 2:20).
Stars falling seems to refer to a meteor storm, when “falling stars” can be seen at several per second, as was witnessed by the saints being driven out of Jackson County on 13 Nov. 1833. It occurs when the earth travels through the debris of a disintegrated comet, causing tiny particles to race through our atmosphere and burn up from air friction. Meteor storms can sometimes be predicted, but not very well, so astronomers watch the heavens on given nights and hope for the best.
The Prophet Joseph Smith described another sign: “[T]hen will appear one grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven. But what will the world do? They will say it is a planet, a comet, etc.” (Teachings, pp. 286-287). Thus, we should be aware that eclipses and comets are not just random events, but are sometimes given as signs of the times.
According to D&C 121:31, the “glories, laws, and set times” of the sun, moon, and stars will be revealed “in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times.” In other words, we live in a time when the movements of God’s signs and wonders in the heavens will be understood. It’s time that the spiritual meaning behind their creation was understood as well. All that astronomy encompasses bears record of a God who truly “stretcheth out the heavens as a…tent to dwell in” and “measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out the heavens with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance” (Isaiah 40:22, 12). Whenever we look at our heavens, we see a witness of Jesus Christ and the entire gospel plan (Moses 6:63). As Enoch exclaimed:
I blessed the Lord of glory, who had made those great and splendid signs, that they might display the magnificence of his works to angels and to the souls of men; and that these might glorify all his works and operations; might see the effect of his power; might glorify the great labor of his hands; and bless him forever.
- Lee, Harold B., Stand Ye in Holy Places, p. 251.
- There are also 12 hours in the night. See John 11:9, Matthew 20:9, and D&C 33:3.
- See Hunter, Milton R., Christ in Ancient America, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1972.
- The date of the Savior’s birth has been debated for centuries since historians cannot accurately identify all of the events mentioned in the nativity accounts. When the Church was restored on 6April 1830, it was understood to have been 1,830 years since his birth (D&C 20:1), and living prophets have interpreted that to be literal to the very day.
- This date is indicated by the Hebrew Calendar because it was the day of atonement, which is the proper day for reconciliation and covenant-making with God. It also explains why a multitude would be gathered to hear John the Baptist and be baptized.
- The next day, the weekly newspaper announced that the Book of Mormon “is now available for purchase.”
- Pratt, J.P. “The Restoration of Priesthood Keys on Easter 1836,” Ensign (June, 1985), pp. 55-64.
- Thurston, Hugh, Early Astronomy, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994), p. 135-137.
- Laurence, Richard, The Book of Enoch The Prophet, reprinted by Wizards Bookshelf, San Diego, 1995. It is also called 1 Enoch. Other versions have entirely mistranslated many astronomical references.
- For example, Seiss, Joseph, The Gospel in the Stars, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1972, or Bullinger, E.W., The Witness of the Stars, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1967. Translations of star names should be taken from Kunitzch, Paul and Smart, Tim, Modern Star Names and Their Derivation, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrossowitz, 1986.
- Today’s Hebrew calendar requires a few minor corrections, which have been made in the dates included in this article.
- Proctor, Scot Facer, Witness of the Light, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, p. 22.
- The day 10 Tishri is the day of atonement, 10 Nisan is the day for choosing the Passover lamb, and 10 Tebeth is a fast of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar. The fourth such day, spaced equally around the year, is 10 Tammuz, on which the prophet was martyred.
- Temple, Robert, The Sirius Mystery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976).
- It occurred in AD 33. Phlegon, Olympiades he Chronika, 1:101, trans. by Paul L. Maier, in Chronos, Kairos, and Christos (Winona Lake: Eisenbraun’s, 1989), p. 125.
- Humphreys, C.J. & Waddington, W.G., “Dating the Crucifixion,”Nature, 306 (Dec. 22/29, 1983), pp. 743-6.
- Enoch 35:3. See footnote 9.