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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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Astronomy, that science which treats of the laws of the stars, or heavenly bodies, considered in reference to their magnitude, movements, and respective influence one upon another. Astronomy may be divided into empirical and scientific; the first being founded on the apparent phenomena and movements of the heavenly bodies, the second upon their real phenomena and movements. The knowledge of the ancients was limited to the first; or if they possessed any truths connected with the second, they were nothing more than bold or fortunate guesses, which were not followed out to their legitimate consequences, nor formed into a systematic whole.

The cradle of astronomy is to be found in Asia. The few and imperfect, notices which have come down to these times give a concurrent testimony in favor of this statement, and therewith agrees the fact that the climate, the mode of life, and the occupations of the Oriental nations that were first civilized, prompted them to watch and observe the starry heavens. The Chaldeans are accounted to have excelled in astronomical knowledge.

Pliny, in his celebrated enumeration of the inventors of the arts, sciences, and conveniences of life, ascribes the discovery of astronomy to Phoenician mariners; and in the same chapter he speaks of astronomical observations found on burnt bricks among the Babylonians, which ascend to above 2200 years B.C. Alexander sent to Aristotle from Babylon a series of astronomical observations, extending through 1900 years. The astronomical knowledge of the Chinese and Indians goes up to a still earlier period. From the remote East astronomy traveled in a westerly direction. The Egyptians at a very early period had some acquaintance with it. To them is to be ascribed a pretty near determination of the length of the year, as consisting of 365 days 6 hours. The Egyptians were the teachers of the Greeks.

Some portion of the knowledge which prevailed on the subject would no doubt penetrate to and become the inheritance of the Hebrews, who do not, however, appear to have possessed any views of astronomy which raised their knowledge to the rank of a science, or made it approach to a more correct theory of the mechanism of the heavens than that which was generally held. Nor, if the Bible is taken as the witness, do the ancient Israelites appear to have had extensive knowledge in the matter. They possessed such an acquaintance with it as tillers of the ground and herdsmen might be expected to form while pursuing their business, having, as was natural, their minds directed to those regions of the heavens which night after night brought before their eyes: accordingly, the peculiar Oriental names of the constellations are derived from circumstances connected with a nomad people. A peculiarity of the greatest importance belongs to the knowledge which the Israelites display of the heavens, namely, that it is thoroughly imbued with a religious character; nor is it possible to find in any other writings, even at this day, so much pure and elevated piety, in connection with observations on the starry firmament, as may be gathered even in single books of the Bible (Amos 5:8; Psalms 19).

As early as the days of the patriarchs the minds of pious men were attracted and enraptured by the splendor of the skies (Genesis 37:9); and imagery borrowed from the starry world soon fixed itself firmly in human speech. The sun and moon were distinguished from other heavenly bodies, in consequence of their magnitude and their brilliancy, as being the lights of heaven and earth (Genesis 1:16); and from the course of the moon time was divided into parts, or months, of which the oldest form of the year, the lunar, was made up. Every new moon was greeted with religious festivities. While, however, the sun in his power, the moon walking in brightness, and all the stars of light conspired to excite devotion, their influence on the hearts of the ancient Israelites, who were happily instructed in a knowledge of the true God, the one Jehovah, the sole Creator of the world, stopped short of that idolatrous feeling, and was free from those idolatrous practices to which, among nations of less religious knowledge—and especially among their own neighbors, the Babylonians, for instance—it is unhappily known to have led.

As early as the time of the composition of perhaps the oldest book in the Bible, namely, that of Job, the constellations were distinguished one from another, and designated by peculiar and appropriate names (Job 9:9; Job 38:31). In the Bible are found—1. the morning star, the planet Venus (Isaiah 14:12; Revelation 2:28); 2. the Pleiades (Job 9:9; Job 38:31; Amos 5:8); 3. Orion, a large and brilliant constellation, which stands in a line with the Pleiades. The Orientals seemed to have conceived of Orion as a huge giant who had warred against God, and as bound in chains to the firmament of heaven (Job 38:31); and it has been conjectured that this notion is the foundation of the history of Nimrod; 4. Arcturus (Job 9:9), the Great Bear; 5. Draco (Job 26:13, 'the crooked serpent'), between the Great and the Little Bear; a constellation which spreads itself in windings across the heavens; 6. Castor and Pollux (Acts 28:11), Gemini, or the Twins, on the belt of the Zodiac, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 23:5, under the general name of 'the planets.' The entire body of the stars was called 'the host of heaven' (Isaiah 40:26; Jeremiah 33:22).

No trace is found in the Old Testament of a division of the heavenly bodies into planets, fixed stars, and comets; but in Judges 1:13, the phrase 'wandering stars' is employed figuratively.

After the Babylonish exile the Jews were compelled, even for the sake of their calendar, to attend at least to the course of the moon, which became an object of study, and delineations were made of the shapes that she assumes.

At an early period of the world the worship of the stars arose from that contemplation of them which in every part of the globe, and particularly in the East, has been found a source of deep and tranquil pleasure. 'Men by nature' 'deemed either fire or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to be the gods which govern the world;' 'with whose beauty being delighted, they took them to be gods' (Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-2). Accordingly, the religion of the Egyptians, of the Chaldees, Assyrians, and the ancient Arabians, was nothing else than star-worship, although in the case of the first its origin is more thickly veiled. The sun, moon, and seven planets excited most attention, and won the greatest observance. We thus find among the Babylonians Jupiter (Belus, Isaiah 65:11), Venus (Isaiah 65:11, where the first is rendered in the common version 'that troop,' the second 'that number'). Both these were considered good principles. Mercury, honored as the secretary of heaven, is also found in Isaiah 46:1, 'Nebo stoopeth;' Saturn (Amos 5:26); Mars (2 Kings 17:30): the two last were worshipped as principles of evil. The character of this worship was formed from the notions which were entertained of the good or ill which certain stars occasioned. Astrology found its sphere principally in stars connected with the birth of individuals. It concerned itself also with the determination of lucky and unlucky days: so in Job 3:3, 'Let the day perish wherein I was born;' and Galatians 4:10, 'Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.' The Chaldeans, who studied the stars at a very early period, were much given to astrology, and were celebrated for their skill in that pretended science (Isaiah 47:13). In Daniel 2:27; Daniel 5:11, the calculators of nativities are named. Comets were for the most part considered heralds of evil tidings. The Orientals of the present day hold astrology in honor, and stipendiary astrologers form a part of their court.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Astronomy'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​a/astronomy.html.
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