Astronomy of the Bible
I’ve been doing a great deal of reading lately, trying to see how many different areas of life connect to the mindset that I’ve explained in my last couple of posts (see here and here). I’ve found some fascinating books of all different stripes, and I’m anxious to share what I’ve learned from them. So it is with the book I will be discussing today: Astronomy of the Bible, published in 1908, by Edward Walter Maunder, a co-founder of the British Astronomical Association.
I was on board with the book from the very first paragraph, where Maunder asks the question “why should an astronomer write a commentary on the Bible?” and goes on to explain that the parts of the Bible that include astronomy deserve rigorous and passionate attention from experts in astronomy, not only theology. I could not agree more. We have, for too long, been content to use the design of the universe to say “this proves God” and stop there; it is time we start exploring and appreciating the implications of that statement.
Maunder makes another good point in emphasizing that, in order to understand the significance of the heavens to the Biblical authors, we need to be able to look at the heavens through their eyes, and nowadays, only the astronomers pay nearly as much attention to the night sky as the ancients did.
Speaking of the ancients, Maunder spends much of his time correcting misconceptions about biblical astronomy, such as the idea that the Israelites derived their myths from the Canaanites, that they pieced together different fictional accounts of the world, or that they were behind other cultures in their knowledge of the heavenly bodies. He offers extensive proofs arguing that these accounts have the facts exactly backwards. I had considered the textual evidence to support a single original account or event in many of these passages, but I had never thought to look at the astronomy for evidence; my eyes have been opened.
However, these details are not Maunder’s main point; there is an argument behind his arguments. The substance of this argument is found not inside the book, but on the back cover. “Although working in science, the author maintained his lifelong Christian beliefs. One aim of this book is to show that religious belief and scientific observations… can be reconciled.” (emphasis added)
The first sentence, with its depiction of a noble scientist still managing to cling to his sweet little Christian belief system, puts a bad taste in my mouth. The idea that science and religious belief are enemies, or at best surly strangers who must be “reconciled” is a decidedly atheistic one. It pits physical evidence against Christianity, when in fact, as Maunder both mentions and demonstrates, they are symbiotic and even inseparable.
There are many things I like about Maunder’s volume. He lends some insight, though not as much as I’d hoped, into a few astronomical events in the Bible. His biblical knowledge is clearly extensive, and he finds many references to astronomy in the Bible that I’d never even noticed before. This is clearly his passion, and he excels in it.
I have one quibble with this book, an issue I have with Protestant Christianity generally: Mr. Maunder seems to lack a poetic soul. While he does, to his credit, wax eloquent about the beauty of the heavens, he stops there. He knows the motion of the spheres, but not the music of the spheres, the way a man can understand the sheet music for a symphony – and so respect its composer – without feeling the power of it.
I first noticed this when Mr. Maunder discusses pagan creation myths, which he describes in 1908 British fashion as “uncouth and barbarous” (21). This struck me because I happen to be very fond of the Norse myths in particular. No doubt, thanks to Chesterton and Tolkien, I have a rather romanticized view of the Norse. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a female slave of theirs. But I still think there’s something in those myths; I have to admit I find them more flavorful than the Genesis account, although of course the latter has the advantage of being factual.
A quote from the book will perhaps best illustrate my point. Maunder frequently rephrases the astronomical allusions in the Bible in modern astronomical terms. For instance, when God asks Job (referring to the constellations):
“’Canst thou guide the Bear and his sons?’… We might put it shortly as, ‘Canst thou turn the earth on its axis regularly and continuously, so as to produce this motion of the stars round the pole, and to make day and night?’ But modern astronomy can ask the question in a deeper and a wider sense.” (135)
While Maunder’s description may be “deeper and wider” in terms of science, I feel like it leaves something else out – the meaning, the personality of the night sky. I admit, as cool as I think astronomy is, I like the original question better. I will talk more specifically about the stars in a later post. For now, I will leave you with this request: learn all about the universal symphony – the physical universe – that you can. But let increased knowledge of the music heighten, not destroy, appreciation of its meaning.