By Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
Over the years, I’ve gotten e-mails from a number of people asking me if planets, stars or constellations are mentioned in the Bible. Of course they are!
There are computer programs you can get that contain the whole text of the Bible and allow you to do global searches on words or phrases. When I just looked up “stars” I came across a number of instances. (And, in the process, I missed one of the most famous ones: the opening from Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”)
But of course, that’s just gathering data. As a scientist, what I do instinctively is to look the data over and try to find trends. And over the next few days I want to share some of these insights here. It’s not just that stars are mentioned in passing in the Bible; what is fascinating to me is how they are used.
The first instance of astronomical objects in the Bible is, of course, the first chapter of Genesis where their creation is described:
Genesis 1:16-19 reads: God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Father Michael Kolarcik wrote a beautiful blog about the opening of Genesis at the beginning of this series: https://cnsblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/06/cns-bible-blog-genesis-chapter-1-is-creation-good/.
I shouldn’t have to remind my readers here that this description, appropriate for the time it was written and the people for whom it was directed, did not intend to describe the science of astronomy, the nuts and bolts of how God made the stars. Instead, it carried a far more important message: that the stars were not themselves pagan
gods nor the random result of pagan gods messing about in the primordial chaos, as the mythological stories of the neighboring nations would have it. Rather they are the result of the one true God’s deliberate act of creation. For the first time, we are told that everything in the universe, including the lights in the sky, are but creatures … things made by God.
And because the stars are God’s creation, they are under God’s rule. We see that in Job 9:1-10: Then Job answered: “… how can a mortal be just before God? If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand. He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength who has resisted him, and succeeded? – he who removes mountains, and they do not know it, when he overturns them in his anger; who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number.”
Orion is perhaps the most famous constellation; the Bear, the Lion, the Pleiades are references to the familiar constellations of Ursa Major, Leo, and the famous star cluster in Taurus. These descriptions of the constellations are found without much ambiguity in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, while the Hebrew version uses words that ancient commentators usually connect with those constellations, though some argue that different stars are actually meant. Which stars are being talked about really doesn’t matter for our purposes, however. The important point is that even the stars are made by God.
That’s a pretty big God, even if your understanding of the universe is limited to seeing the stars as points of light in a dome relatively close overhead.
The power of God over the universe is most directly inferred in Psalm 147: Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure …
As we saw in Genesis where Adam is given the task of naming the animals, to give a name is to claim ownership — and responsibility. You don’t bother naming something that you don’t care about.
And if God cares about the physical universe, so shouldn’t we?
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)