What Every Mormon Should Know About Astronomy

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (12 Feb 1999)
©1999 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

Index, Home

Contents
1. Heavens Testify of Christ
2. Christ is the Evening and Morning Star
3. Constellations Tell the Savior's Story
Notes
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). 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 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 Heavens Testify of Jesus Christ

God often speaks in the language of numbers, dates, signs, and symbols (Mark 8:19-21). For example, 7 angels head earth's 7 1,000-year periods, and the 7th angel presides over them all, even as 7 presidents head the Quorum of the Seventy, and the 7th president presides (D&C 88:108-112; 107:93-94). Similarly, there are 7 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."(1) Moreover, the Lord has purposely designated 12 members in a quorum of apostles or of deacons and 12 tribes of Israel, as well as 12 hours in a day,(2) 12 months in a year, and 12 constellations in the zodiac. With that in mind, when we learn that there are 12 cycles completed by Venus in 7 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).

2. 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 our morning and evening star, the planet Venus.

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 A.D. 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.

3. 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.(3) That corresponds well to the Hebrew tradition that the signs of the constellations date back to Enoch.

The Book of Enoch,(4) which was once in the Bible and was accepted by the Savior's apostles as written by Enoch himself (Jude 1:14), declares, "Thus, the signs, the durations of time, the years, and the days were shown to me [Enoch] by the angel Uriel" (Enoch 75:3, italics added). 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.(5)

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.

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.(6)

Notes

  1. Lee, Harold B., Stand Ye in Holy Places, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974, p. 251.
  2. There are also 12 hours in the night. See John 11:9, Matthew 20:9, and D&C 33:3.
  3. Thurston, Hugh, Early Astronomy, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994), p. 135-137.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Enoch 35:3. See footnote 4.