Star Gazing

I find the science behind the Star of Bethlehem fascinating. I have always loved astronomy and Psalms 8 and 19 are among my favourites. The heavens declare the glory of God in more ways than one.

If, like me, your faith is not a blind one but uses the reason that God has given us all to bolster it and if you, like me, enjoy scientific truth searching then I think this will encourage you.

The truth is that God announced His first coming with clear signs in the heavens – which you can see now using computer software that you can buy off the shelf. These include the Star of Bethlehem which turns out to have been a particularly close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus (the second and third brightest objects in the night sky after the Moon) that took place on June 17th 2BC.

I won’t repeat here what Rick Larson has dealt with in depth in his excellent website and DVDs. To understand what I have written below I strongly recommend you read the materials at that site first.

I have created two short stories below based around pivotal events which led to the Magi (or the three wise men as they are more commonly known) leaving their city in the East and coming to a stable in Bethlehem in Judea some time up to 2 years after the star appeared. You can read that story in full in Matthew’s gospel chapter 2 verses 1-12.

The first story deals with a hypothetical lesson taught by the old testament prophet Daniel to the children of his fellow Jewish captives in Ancient Babylon about 585 BC. During this lesson, which presumes knowledge about the stars from previous lessons, Daniel explains how the Magi would know when the Messiah was coming.

The second story tries to describe the reaction of the successors of the Magi, many generations and centuries later, when they finally see the events occurring in the heavens that they had been awaiting so long.

[The Magi themselves are a fascinating study in their own right. The empire appropriate administrative systems that Daniel and his fellow Jewish exiles (Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego) put in place lasted for over a thousand years from about 600 BC to 500 AD surviving numerous dynasties and bringing untold blessings to the peoples of central Asia for all that time (Gen. 12:3). But that needs another blog.]

Daniel the Prophet Teaches Messianic Astronomy

Asenah was looking forward to today’s lesson with his super “uncle” Daniel. It was going to be on his favourite subject: Astronomy. His uncle could be scary at times but he knew so much that was fascinating and never more so than when it came to the stars. He knew all about the names of the stars and the wandering stars and the comets and meteors and eclipses and….. and well everything there was to know about everything in the sky above them. So Asenah was excited.

“Today, I am going to teach you something very special about the coming Saviour of the world.” Daniel said. Asenah knew that the stars contained a very ancient story in them about this coming Messiah who would be his people’s salvation as well as that of the whole world.

“You know that God named the stars as our esteemed prophet Isaiah and a writer of the psalms has said. So can you tell me which stars are connected with the coming King?”

Asenah and the other students knew the answers, this was an easy question. He put his hand up.

“Go ahead Micaiah, son of Shadrech” Daniel had asked Asenah’s brother for the answer.

“The wandering star Jupiter, the King of the wandering stars, and Regulus the king star in the constellation of Leo, the symbol of the tribe of Judah.” Micaiah answered.

“Very good, Micaiah. Those are indeed the two main stars associated with the coming King.”

“Anyone else want to tell me what a conjunction is?” The question that Daniel asked this time was not so easy but still several hands went up.

“Yes, Samuel son of Meshach, what is your answer?”
Samuel was one of the brighter ones in the class. He answered confidently: “A conjunction is where a wandering star and a fixed star or another wandering star meet up and dance together.”

“Well done Samuel, that is true. So today I am going to speak to you about triple conjunctions and one to look out for in particular.”

At this stage Daniel brought down one of his large star charts and spread it out on the table in the middle of the classroom. On it was drawn an accurate picture of the part of the sky above them that included the constellation Leo:

(Daniel’s star chart might not have been quite like this but would have contained the same details)

“As you know, I have a lot of these charts.”, Daniel said, stating the obvious (they were all around the classroom from floor to ceiling), “You also know how I told you what Shem, the son of Noah, told our father Abraham about the coming Messiah, how he was to look out for His signs in the heavens.

We know from our fathers the importance of the king star, Regulus, and the king wandering star (or planet as you could call it), Jupiter. You also know that Jupiter, the king planet wanders in and out among the 12 constellations of the tribes of Israel doing dances with them. So, now I am telling you, that when you see the king planet Jupiter doing a dance around the king star Regulus in the constellation of our tribe Judah – when it crowns the king star with a triple conjunction – then know that the Messiah is about to come.”

Asenah never forgot that lesson.

The Capital of the Parthian Empire 3 – 2 BC

Melchior was on star gazing duty that evening. He and his Magi companions and ancestors had been observing, taking notes and drawing up star charts for centuries now. Always the focus was on the king planet Jupiter and the king star Regulus. For over 500 years they had continued to look for the predicted dance and so often it had seemed tantalizingly close. But over the last 9 months it had finally happened.

In September of the previous year, Jupiter passed as close as it ever has to Regulus and went on its way.

Jupiter passing Regulus in September of 3 BC

In December it was half way through the constellation on its way westward when it turned back for its second pass by Regulus. It reached Regulus this second time in February. In the middle of May it went back for its third pass thus fulfilling the requirements of a triple conjunction for the first time in all the centuries they had been looking for it.

So now Melchior was out again observing and his companions had joined him because something remarkable had started happening in June. Venus was coming closer to Jupiter and tonight it looked like they would be so close they would be indistinguishable from each other. Such a close conjunction was a rare sight, but it was even more significant after the triple conjunction that had been happening over the previous 9 months.

Melchior wondered if the Messiah had been conceived in September and was being born tonight in Bethlehem in Judea as the prophet Micah foretold. These were indeed exciting times!

Jupiter and Venus in an extraordinary conjunction on June 17th, 2 BC.

The three Magi loaded up their camels. They were taking a visit to the neighboring Roman empire on a mission to see their new born king. The king planet would lead their way westward.

An Explanation and some References

The above stories about Daniel and the Magi are mainly based on information that you can find at Rick Larson’s excellent website Bethlehemstar.com. If you haven’t already read the material on that site please do so before asking me any question about this post since most of the answers to your questions can be found there.

However, some of the above stories are at least partly speculation. I will deal with some of the more speculative points below.

  1. There is no direct evidence that Noah’s son Shem interpreted the gospel in the stars to Abraham. They were both alive at the same time on earth (Shem lived to a very great age) and it is possible that Abraham met Shem. Some scholars believe that Shem was Melchizedek (see Genesis 14:18–20 and Hebrews 7). But there is no biblical evidence to suggest that Shem told Abraham what to look out for nor that Abraham subsequently passed down that information to his descendants so that Daniel knew it. It is a nice idea though, it could have been true. Either way, we are left wondering why the Magi were so knowledgeable about the star that had appeared for just one day (June 17, 2BC) and why they thought it was so special.
  2. The gospel in the stars is a theory that many people have problems with. I like it and think that it glorifies God to say that He has written the gospel in the constellations. But since we have the bible it is not something I get hung up about. If you don’t agree I don’t blame you. Just don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is no better explanation that I know of for the Bethlehem Star than the one described in detail at Larson’s site. I have written more about the gospel in the stars in this post.
  3. There is a good reason to believe that each of the 12 tribes of Israel had a corresponding constellation. The connection between the constellation of Leo and the tribe of Judah is one of the more obvious ones. I am slow to say what the other ones are but, take it that Daniel and the Magi would have taken some of this for granted even if, these days, Christians are (understandably) not inclined to look to the constellations. Again, Rick Larson does a good job of dealing with this problem.

The pictures in this post are screen shots from a computer application called Starry Night: Complete Space & Astronomy Pack available online. I love the way it is possible to verify the positions of the stars and planets on any night in history (or in the future) using a computer program. God created the universe with such order inbuilt.

Oh, and yes, the implications of this are that Jesus was actually born on June 17th, not December 25th.

Basic Faith

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

It is impossible to please God without faith.  Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those that sincerely seek Him. (Hebrews 11:1, 6 NLT)

When people ask me what we have to believe I have often said the Gospel requires very little faith in reality, at least to start with.  All we need to believe is that God exists and that He is good.  Everything else can be logically built upon those two foundations.  If God exists and is good then it follows that He would do all that the bible says He has done.

No one can prove God is, but then neither can any of us prove that anything ultimately exists since we cannot know the basic materials on which matter is built.  The more we split the atom, the more there is to split.  So, rather than being unreasonable, we logically believe in some basic building blocks (atoms, nucleus, protons, neutrons and electrons) and our engineered inventions (everything from fridges to freight carriers and beyond) are built on those beliefs.  They work because the things we believe about materials are true, i.e. God made materials the way we have found out (Proverbs 25:2).  We then build our lives on these beliefs even though we cannot see the basic building blocks of anything.  Depending on what we work at and, to some extent, what we want to find out, we know these things at different levels.

Take the example of a microwave oven.  You can “know” a microwave at different levels.

  1. A user might just know how to turn it on and what level to set it at to heat up the food he puts into it.
  2. A curious person might get to learn that a microwave works because it heats up the water in food using a specific type of electro magnetic wave.  This might help them to understand why some things shouldn’t be put in a microwave.
  3. At a deeper level someone else might understand the size of a water molecule and the wave length of the electro magnetic wave used in a microwave.  The connection between the two is what causes the water to heat up.
  4. The manufacturers of microwave ovens may need a team of people with different understandings of how it works and how to improve the design to stay ahead of the competition.

And so it goes on.

In the same way, the bible tells us to be reasonable.  Believe in some basic things: God is and He is good.  After that, everything God has caused to be written in His book is reasonable and makes sense.  And you can go as deep or be as shallow in knowledge as God and you want to be with that book – and Him.  Whatever about knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1-3) just make sure you are not content with being shallow in His love (Eph. 3:19).

God says: “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).  He is.

The bible goes onto say that God gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  He is not willing that anyone should perish (1 Tim. 2:4).  In other words He is good.

Start there.

Coherence

“What is the difference between a bird and a car?” I heard the Holy Spirit saying to me in my thoughts this morning.

Don’t mock, God is quite capable of speaking to you too in plain English.

A wagtail had just mounted my car outside and flitted about in its inherent freedom.

A bird is so much part of God’s creation, it is coherent in it I thought in reply.  It has that peculiar thing called life about it, autonomy, awareness of its environment, capable of responding dynamically to things.  When it dies it will decay quickly and be recycled.

A car has to have an artificial man made environment created so it can function in it.  It needs roads, petrol stations, parking lots.  It is dead, hardly aware of its surroundings, capable of little or no autonomous action, has little capability of responding to dynamically changing surroundings.  It needs to be driven. When it breaks down it will have to be scrapped and the parts recycled with difficulty.  It moves through God’s creation but doesn’t really cohere to it or fit in very well.  The quest to create autonomous cars still won’t give the things life.  We haven’t understood what does that properly yet in our education system.

I had been asking God about inventions.  He was pointing out to me that an element of invention that He values greatly is how it might cohere or fit into His creation.

Later on today my daughter was going over her biology homework with me.  She needed to learn about the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle.  In a similar way to the way water is recycled (Eccl. 1:7) God wastes nothing.  Paradoxically, when things can be recycled efficiently then it is possible to introduce huge amounts of waste without damaging the environment.  Hence the fact that God allows trees and plants to produce a super abundance of seeds, most of which never become trees or plants like their parents.  Waste is not waste when it is recycled.

A narrow view of the Gospel would have us ignore or play down care for the environment.  Climate change and dealing with plastics are the realm of the liberal, ungodly left  in popular evangelical teaching.

However I believe God cares a lot about these things and He wants His followers to do the same.

Biblical Creativity: Summary

God’s creation is wonderful as any, even cursory, look over it will reveal.  I have really enjoyed meditating in depth about the 6 days of creation as it is literally revealed in Scripture.  It seems every day I spend some quality time with God on this subject I get a new insight.

However, I realise that it is hard for any reader to understand the journey I have gone on with Jesus to get to this point.  I doubt if anyone is as excited as I am about the connection between the Sea in Heaven and the water present at creation. Or the fact that quantum physics has been explaining (since the beginning of the 20th Century) some of the connections between the physical and spiritual creations (e.g. quantum entanglement – the relationship between two entities that transcends space and time including the speed of light).

But for those who are still interested here are a couple of mind maps summarising what I have written in this series so far:

God

Of course you may not agree with the above.  Personally I’m a young earth, 6 day literalist currently which probably means I’m mad as far as many people are concerned.  But I didn’t always hold this position and I would hope that I’m open to having my mind changed on such secondary matters.  The truth about these things matters but not as much as the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection for instance.

Either way I’ve really enjoyed taking the Genesis account literally, matching it with what I know of science and, as a result, getting some neurons connecting in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise done.  God knows whether I am discovering some of  His thoughts in the process, or whether I am, in fact, mad 🙂

Physical Creation

In my blogs on Biblical Creativity to date I have tried to understand what God would have had to do to create something from nothing.  This includes trying to understand what the word “thing” means when there was no such “thing” before any “thing” was created.

It seems that water was there before anything else.  If the spiritual was created first then that water could have been created as the Sea before God’s throne in Heaven.  Formless and void at first, it was the womb from which everything else physical had its birth.

Day 1: We now know that light is a phenomena which has an electric and magnetic component to it mixed in such a way (with a precise range of frequency and wavelength) that we can see it.  It is just a small part of a much larger range of similar possible EM phenomena much of which we use in communication.  Once light was created, we perceive its absence as night.

Day 2: Once God created objects He created the space between them as a immediate consequence.

Day 3a: It seems to me that the idea of physical movement is only introduced at this stage.  One of the most common movements is spinning and that could have been used to separate out the land elements from the overall watery mixture.

Day 3b: Plant life is created before the sun which is just a strong source of the narrow band phenomena called light.  I’m not sure why God did it that way (or got it recorded it in this order if you like) but maybe He couldn’t wait to start doing something that He knew we would enjoy.

Day 4: He stretches out the heavens.  The macroscopic and microscopic levels are the best places to look for contradictions to any simple mechanical understanding of the universe or ourselves. Einstein found them at the macroscopic level and described them in the theory of Relativity and Bohr found them at the sub-atomic layer and described them in quantum physics.  Quantum physics helps us understand free will through Heisenberg’s uncertainty theorem for instance (see Dr. Caroline Leaf’s excellent work for more details of this and other connections between quantum theory and the Bible’s descriptions of spiritual realities).

Maybe one day I’ll write a book about it all.

Well done if you’ve read this far.

Biblical Creativity: Light and Life

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (John 1:1).

John the beloved disciple or follower of Jesus was a poet.  He inter-weaved the creation account throughout the opening verses of his gospel speaking of the two main principles of creation: Light & Life.  He wrote:

“In Him was life and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:4,5).

According to John’s gospel, Jesus is for (or pro) life in the most fundamental way possible.  Like a pregnant woman He has life within Him.  Again, according to John, that life is intimately connected with light or understanding.  The life of Jesus gives understanding.

A few chapters later in the same gospel, Jesus ties together spiritual birth with physical life.  He says it is not enough just to be born as a human: “You must be born from above.”

The fundamental problems with our society stem from a lack of spiritual life.  The fact that so many otherwise seemingly sane people want to deny the rights of physical life to the most vulnerable members of our society can only be explained by this.  There is a darkness that comes over people’s minds when they refuse the light of Jesus’s words.

In Ireland many people have reacted vehemently against the hypocrisy of a religion which, on the one hand, promotes a pro-life campaign and, on the other, denies rights to women and covers up the abuse of children.  As a Christian with no denominational adherence I can fully understand that position.

However should we use that as a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Being for (or pro) life is a more fundamental issue than any religion.  It is tied in with the very nature of God Himself.

Biblical Creativity 3b (cont.): A Closer Look at Seeds

What is a seed?

A seed is a stored program.  A program is a set of instructions for doing something.  A seed stores a set of instructions for making a plant of some sort.  An acorn contains a set of instructions for making an oak, a hazelnut for making a hazel tree, etc.  So God’s idea was to enable plants to reproduce themselves by storing the instructions for making a new one in a secure capsule called a seed.seeds

The seed is perfectly designed to keep the information safe.  Keeping information safe in the event of an apocalypse is one of the things that mankind is concerned about.   The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is part of a global effort to preserve information and secure food supplies in the event of a nuclear winter or something equally as catastrophic. We can argue about how pointless that might be another time.

Seeds can last for millennia without decay and still work when planted in the right conditions.  They contain humidity, gravity and light sensors which constantly monitor external conditions.  When the right conditions occur the stored program is started and a plant begins to be born out of the death of the seed itself.

One of the reasons I think that God created seeds and plants first before He even made the Sun, Moon and stars is because a seed is such a fundamental idea:

  • We speak of something being seminal in the sense that it is the seed of an idea that gives birth to a whole series of consequences.  God’s idea of making seeds is, of course, the most fundamental of those ideas.
  • Jesus describes seeds as like the words of God.  If seeds fall into the right type of soil then they produce multiplicative fruit, seeds upon seeds.  Similarly if God’s word falls on the right type of soil in our hearts it also will produce fruit.  (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8 -see also my previous blog on this subject).
  • The idea of a stored program is fundamental to all creation.  It is only in the last few decades that we have discovered just how fundamental it is.  Every person has a unique identity contained in our genes, stored in the DNA in every cell of our body more efficiently than any storage method man has yet devised. If you were to take any cell in your body and put it under a microscope it could be identified as yours.  The same applies to every single person in the world (except identical twins – but even they are unique because of other genetic factors).

Unfortunately I haven’t studied enough genetics to really explore this fascinating aspect of creation in more depth.  But there is more than enough in what I do know to cause me to gasp in wonder at God’s creativity.

Surely with such creativity in our Maker it is surprising we are not far more creative ourselves?  I believe that creativity is released in us as we connect more closely with the creator, think His thoughts after Him and seek to implement them into the fabric of our everyday lives.

Can I encourage you to go and seek the creative Face of God?

He has – perhaps surprising and unexpected – creative answers to your daily dilemmas.

Biblical Creativity 3b: Seeds and Plants

11 Then God said, “Let the land sprout with vegetation—every sort of seed-bearing plant, and trees that grow seed-bearing fruit. These seeds will then produce the kinds of plants and trees from which they came.” And that is what happened. 12 The land produced vegetation—all sorts of seed-bearing plants, and trees with seed-bearing fruit. Their seeds produced plants and trees of the same kind. And God saw that it was good.

13 And evening passed and morning came, marking the third day.

Genesis 1:11-13

Up to the second half of day 3 God has been putting in place frameworks:

Day 1: Light and time

Day 2: Space and objects

Day 3a: Motion

Now He starts to have some real fun.

Seeds are stored programs of considerable complexity designed with sensors that determine when conditions are right for them to start running their internal programs (i.e. to germinate).  One set of programs produces an oak, another a wisteria, etc.  God’s creative brilliance begins to shine as he thinks up everything from roses to rhododendrons, figs to fruit trees and everything in between.

He couldn’t even wait for the boring sun 🙂

The major creation of this day is plant life.  What an idea!

Biblical Creativity: Day 3a Motion

Then God said, “Let the waters beneath the sky flow together into one place, so dry ground may appear.” And that is what happened. 10 God called the dry ground “land” and the waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:9-10

On Day 3 God introduces us to flow or motion for the first time.  This has the very significant effect of enabling the materials that were in suspension in the water from the beginning to separate out and so the dry land appears.

I’m loving this.  The elegance, comprehensiveness and beauty of the creation account is staggering:

In the beginning God creates all the materials (elements) that He wants to work with.  They exist in an amorphous watery mess suspended on nothing in darkness.  The Spirit is pregnant with ideas and the Word then is spoken.

On Day 1 the framework of time and space is spoken into being and light is the measuring tool that constrains and simultaneously illuminates everything.

On Day 2 space is created and so now objects can be made.  The first distinguishable objects are the heavens and the earth.

On the first part of Day 3 God introduces the idea of motion.  The earth (and everything else) spins and (just like in a centrifuge) dry land appears.

Now God has the base on which He can start making beautiful things.

Biblical Creativity: Day 2 Space

Then God said, “Let there be a space between the waters, to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth.” And that is what happened. God made this space to separate the waters of the earth from the waters of the heavens. God called the space “sky.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the second day.

Genesis 1:6-8

The concept of space is so fundamental we can easily miss its significance.  If there was no space there could be no objects.  You, I, trees, rocks and any of the myriad objects that exist can only exist in the context of their being a thing called space between them.

So the second day’s creation of this simple thing called space is as fundamental as the concept of light to all creation.  Without light we can neither see nor understand anything.  Without space we cannot even be defined.

The first thing God defines using space is the difference between the heavens and the earth.  These are the two fundamental objects of God’s project of creation.

In the world of programming where I work, man has also understood the fundamental importance of objects.  Object oriented programming is a way of understanding how to create anything in software and is based on this concept of defined entities with space between them.  The creation of space enables the creation of objects.

So you’ve taken space for granted but what an astonishing idea!

What are the fundamental objects of your project?

Biblical Creativity Day 1: The EM Spectrum

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.[a] The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 1:1-3

In my last post on this subject I looked at the raw materials God had to work with when creating everything.  Quite surprisingly the only raw material is water which somehow seems to have been there without God having yet said or done anything.

Peter says this about how it all happened:

They deliberately forget that God made the heavens long ago by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water. Then he used the water to destroy the ancient world with a mighty flood. And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed.

2 Peter 3: 5-7

In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth and somehow there is water there from which the earth was brought out.

Back in Genesis 1:3 we see the creation proper starting with “And God said: Let there be light.”  We know from John’s gospel that the Word that was spoken with all that creative power is actually Jesus (John 1).  When God speaks He manifests His image and in a sense – from our point of view at least – begets His Son.  Of course Jesus was always there but He is not manifested to us until God speaks.  And the first thing God speaks is “Let there be light.”

Light is also a synonym for understanding – without Jesus we would have no understanding of God so that is the first gift God gives us all.

It should be noted that this light has nothing to do with the sun which isn’t created until the fourth day.  This seems counter intuitive – everyone knows that the day starts when the light from the sun appears above the horizon.

However light is fundamentally something different from what we see.  Light is part of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum which consists of everything from gamma rays, through x rays, ultraviolet, visible, infrared and all the radio waves (HF, VHF, UHF, microwaves, etc.)  It is only in the last 150 years that we have been able to use a lot of these waves to communicate, heat our food and see bones under flesh.

These waves all obey the same God given laws.  They fundamentally frame everything we do.  Space and time are constrained by the speed of light (which is the same as the speed of all the EM waves in a vacuum).  Nothing can go faster than it.  As you approach the speed of light it always looks to you like it is travelling at the same speed.  Eventually time stops when you go that fast.   So it is fitting that light frames the first idea of time, that of the day (with no sun involved).

So this first day light is more fundamental than the sun or any other source of light.

A practical application when you are creating anything is to start with making it clear what you are doing.  Communication is everything.  Unless there is first understanding (light) between all the parties involved nothing else can happen.

God spoke and so must we if we are to create anything.