[25] Isaiah 47:13, Astrologers, the Zodiac, and the meaning of chodesh

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Isa 47:13 is a most interesting verse of Scripture because it teaches much about the Hebrew word chodesh and it condemns the Babylonian astrologers, as will be shown in this chapter. I will soon provide a literal translation of Isa 47:13, and one goal of this chapter is to explain why this translation is appropriate and accurate. Several of the Hebrew words with their Strong’s number are included after the corresponding English word(s) in the literal translation because they are discussed in this chapter.

First, some remarks should be made concerning the context. Isa 1:1 mentions that Isaiah’s recorded visions were during the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This approximates the period of Isaiah’s visions as from c. 760 to c. 700 BCE. The Neo-Assyrian period is from c. 1000 to 612 BCE, at the end of which Babylon captured the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (see page xxiv of Rochberg 2004). Hence Isaiah lived during the time of dominance by the Assyrian Empire. Isa 8:4; 10:5-6 is a prophecy that Assyria will soon conquer some of its neighbors. Isa 30:31-33 is a prophecy that Assyria will be defeated. Babylon was south of Assyria, and the Babylonian Empire eventually occupied more than the extent of the Assyrian Empire. Isa 39:5-7 is a prophecy that the House of Judah will be defeated by Babylon. This implies that Babylon would first defeat Assyria, which fully transpired in 612 BCE. During Isaiah’s lifetime, although the Assyrian Empire was politically dominant, the Babylonian Empire also existed to its south. Isa 47:1, 11 is a prophecy that eventually Babylon would be defeated, and Isa 47:13 is a taunt directed at Babylon. The “you” at the start of verse 13 is Babylon.

On page 8 of Rochberg 2004, she wrote, “The nightly watch of the sky seems to have been standard Babylonian practice since the reign of King Nabonassar (747-734 B.C.).” Recall the above remark that Isaiah’s visions were from c. 760 to c. 700 BCE. On page 2 of Swerdlow 1998, he wrote, “Prognosticate by the new moon they [the Babylonian astrologers] did, and by the full moon, and by the appearance of the moon, and by eclipses of the sun and moon, and by the risings and settings and conjunctions of stars and planets, and by halos and clouds and rain and winds, in short, by anything in the heavens, astronomical or meteorological, that could be taken as ominous, a prophetic sign given by the gods.” When Swerdlow began with the words “prognosticate by”, he meant that based upon the conditions that prevail during the time of the events mentioned, they would make predictions about the future with the intent that they would come to pass. With this historical context in mind, here is my literal translation of Isa 47:13.

Isa 47:13, “You [Babylon] are wearied with your many consultations. Now let [the] astrologers [1895 havar] of [the] heavens [8064 shamayim] stand up and save you, those who look-intensely [2372 chozeh] at [the] stars, those who-make-known [3045 yada] at [the] new-moons [2320 chodesh], what will happen to you.”

The Jewish biblical scholar Ibn Ezra (1089 – 1164) wrote a commentary on the book of Isaiah, in which he wrote that the two Hebrew words together, hovrev shamayim [1895, 8064], mean “astrologers” (see page 216 of Ibn Ezra). This viewpoint made its way into the KJV, so that the KJV does not show the word “heavens”, which is the literal meaning of shamayim.

The Hebrew word havar [1895] only occurs in this one place in the Tanak. From this Hebrew context alone, without any outside knowledge, there is insufficient information to determine the meaning of havar [1895]. Jerome was taught Hebrew by Jewish scholars, and he translated this from Hebrew into Latin c. 390. After his death the Roman Catholic Church accepted Jerome’s translation from Hebrew to Latin (except for the Psalms) as the Vulgate, its official text of the Old Testament, which the Jews call the Tanak in Hebrew. In the bibliography, on page 180 of the Vulgate Isaiah at Isa 47:13, we see the Latin words augures caeli, which means “seers of the heaven”. In Brenton for the Septuagint at Isa 47:13, the text shows the Greek astrologoi tou ouranou, which is translated “astrologers of the heaven”.

Generally, it is recognized that Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew was significantly better than the Septuagint translation into Greek from the Hebrew, although the Septuagint presents its own special problems because the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint was translated (this text is labeled the Vorlage) no longer exists. If we assume that the Vorlage was very close to the Septuagint that has survived, then there are many deletions and additions between the Vorlage and the Masoretic Text of the Tanak. The conclusions are that the Vorlage does not exist, and the Septuagint is not generally reliable for the purpose of determining the proper translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text into English. With appropriate careful reasoning, there are some situations where the Septuagint can help resolve some apparently ambiguous meanings of some Hebrew words. Nevertheless, Jerome and the Septuagint agree in this instance, and these are the earliest known sources that provide a meaning of the Hebrew havar [1895].

Page 211 of BDB discusses havar [1895], and the word “astrologers” never appears in this entry, although a partially related idea is presented. BDB gives the meaning of havar to “divide” as a verb, but concerning this meaning BDB comments “so most [commentators], but dub. [= dubious, doubtful]”. BDB quotes one source that proposes the translation “they that divide the heavens”, but BDB gives no alternative. The fuller explanation given by BDB is “the distinguishing of signs of the zodiac, or other astrological division of the sky”. The RSV gives the translation “those who divide the heavens”, thus agreeing with this approach to the translation.

BDB explains that the origin of the conjectural meaning “divide” is the similar sounding word in the Arabic language, habara, which means to “cut into large pieces, cut up”.

My translation from German to English from page 184 of the short article by Josua Blau has this to say about the use of the Arabic word habara as the explanation of the Hebrew havar 1895]: “However, the Arabic habara is based upon the explanation ‘cut’; indeed the subject of habra appears to be a ‘piece of meat’ and its meaning is ‘meat in (large) cut pieces’; thus one can surely not accept this explanation of [the Hebrew] havar.” Here Blau is emphasizing the need to have a similar context in order to reliably claim that a word from one Semitic language is a cognate to a word from another Semitic language. The context is different, so he fully rejects the explanation “to cut”. Thus Blau rejects the basis behind the RSV translation “those who divide the heavens”.

The theory of using this Arabic word as a suggested cognate to the Hebrew word havar [1895] does, at least momentarily, appear to be supported by the idea of the zodiac in the explanation of BDB. In order to determine whether the zodiac lends support to using this Arabic cognate theory (to divide the heavens), it is necessary to understand the origin of the zodiac and its meaning. This needs to be compared to the time at which Isaiah prophesied (c. 760 – c. 700 BCE).

On page 31 of the book by Koch-Westenholz the term zodiac is defined. Her definition uses the word ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the sun in the sky during a complete year as observed from the earth. Constellations (recognized star groups) appear in the sky at or close to the ecliptic. Her definition of the zodiac is: “The ecliptic is divided into twelve equal parts, [called] the signs of the zodiac. The zodiacal signs are a mathematical construction and do no longer correspond to the portion of the sky occupied by the zodiacal constellations whose name they bear. The zodiacal signs are: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.” These signs are used in horoscopes.

Concerning the origin of the zodiac, which refers to the division of the year into 12 equal parts, each originally containing one designated constellation, but no longer tied to the current location of that constellation, here is a comment by John Britton, a specialist in ancient mathematical astronomy, especially Babylonian astronomy. On page 244 Britton 1999 wrote, “Obviously the [Babylonian System A] theory [of lunar anomaly] was invented earlier, but it [this mathematical theory of astronomy] seems unlikely to have materially predated the zodiac, which seems to have appeared between -463 and -453. On balance, if we assign its [this theory of lunar anomaly's] invention to -440 +/- 15 years, we should not be too far off.”

Here Britton estimates the origin of the zodiac as 12 equally divided signs of the year between 464 and 454 BCE. On page x of Rochberg 1998, we note the following concerning the origin of horoscopes: “The appearance of horoscopes in Babylonia at the end of the fifth century B.C. [= c. 400 BCE] marks the point when the situation of the heavens at the time of a [person’s] birth came to be regarded as significant for the future of an individual.” On pages 20 and 25 Rochberg gives the year 410 BCE as the earliest known text of a horoscope. Horoscopes are based on the zodiac. Hence we see that the zodiac or horoscopes cannot be associated with any statement of Isaiah, showing a difference of 250 years. Thus the comment by BDB is out of place in its alleged association of dividing the heavens with the Hebrew word havar [1895]. Of course BDB was written before the date of the origin of the zodiac became known by historians of ancient astronomy. Thus BDB is out of date in this area. The origin of both the zodiac and horoscopes is ancient Babylon.

In an email sent by professor Lester Ness to the group HASTRO-L on June 17, 2004 he translated from the French on page 53 of the book by Auguste Bouche-Leclercq as follows, “However, it has been proven beyond doubt that the Egyptian zodiacs are all from the Roman period and freely imitate the Greek zodiac. At one blow, all the extravagant suppositions based upon their [the Egyptian’s] supposed antiquity are destroyed.” This was written to combat the erroneous claims that the zodiac originated in ancient Egypt. The Greeks copied the zodiac from the Babylonians and added some of their own ideas.

Edward Ullendorff suggested another meaning of the Hebrew word havar [1895] on pages 339-340 of his paper. He favored the two Hebrew words together, hovrev shamayim [1895, 8064], to mean “worshippers of the heavens”. He claimed that the Ugaritic word thbr (to worship) is cognate to the Hebrew word havar.

However, the Ugaritic context has nothing to do with signs or bodies in the heavens, so that there is no contextual link between the Ugaritic word and the Hebrew word. Besides, the writers who discuss ancient Babylonian astrology do not suggest that these astrologers worshipped the heavenly bodies. They made prognostications based upon what might be seen that was associated with the phenomena in the heavens. Deut 4:19, which emphasizes worship, is not specifically associated with ancient Babylon. The evidence of the greater historical context of Isaiah as well as the context within Isa 47:13 along with the translation of word havar [1895] in the Greek Septuagint, in the Latin Vulgate from the Hebrew by Jerome, and by Abraham Ibn Ezra all agree that its meaning should be the plural noun astrologers, yet the literal grammatical form of havar is that of a verb in the plural form. There is no good case for a different meaning based upon the context.

Without the contextual evidence from historical astronomy and astrology that became available c. 2000, this might still be debatable. Today's knowledge of ancient Babylonian history make it clear that havar should mean “astrologers”.

On page 302 of BDB Isa 47:13 is specifically written under meaning 1c for the Hebrew word chozeh [2372], and this verse has this verb in its plural form immediately preceding “at [the] stars”. BDB states of this context “as stargazers, in astrology”. Below the middle of column 1 on page 395 of BDB, Isa 47:13 is specifically written under the Hebrew word yada [3045], and it occurs in a plural verb form. Here BDB translates from yada to the end of the verse as follows, “who declare, at the new moons, of (the things) which are to come”. Here BDB translates yada “who declare”, but the context indicates that their declarations are predictions or prognostications. In painstakingly crawling through Isa 47:13, at last we arrive at the primary Hebrew word that provides the reason for exploring this verse in its context in detail. That is the Hebrew word chodesh [2320]. Here it occurs in the plural, and it is preceded by the single letter lamed, which is a preposition that is pronounced “l”. Pronounced together it is leh-chadasheem.

The question arises concerning whether leh-chadasheem means “every month (i. e., monthly)” or “at the new moons” in Isa 47:13. Consider the following factors.

(1) This plural form of chodesh with this preposition lamed occurs in five other places in the Tanak. These are I Chr 23:31; II Chr 2:4; 8:13; 31:3; Ezra 3:5. This preposition is flexible and its meaning depends on the context. It often means at, for, or on”. In all six cases (Isa 47:13 being the sixth case) it may be consistently translated “at [the] new-moons”. In the five examples outside Isaiah the context prevents it from meaning “every month”.

(2) The translation “every month” is usually given in Num 28:14; I Chr 27:1; Est 3:7 where chodesh in the singular occurs twice in all three verses, and the preposition lamed is absent before these three double cases. The end of Num 28:14 literally means “month on month for [the] months of the year”. In the Hebrew it is “chodesh [singular] b-chadshoh [preposition bet and singular] l-chadshay [preposition lamed and plural] ha-shanah”. Here the plural form of chodesh is different from the plural form in Isa 47:13, though both have the preposition lamed. These three consistent examples show that the expression that is literally “month on month” (no lamed and no plural) means “every month”; thus there is no need for another expression to mean every month.

(3) In theoretical Hebrew grammar it would be a possibility for lehchadasheem in Isa 47:13 to mean “every month”, but there is no biblical context in which this is an example that is implied by the context. As already stated above, on page 395 of BDB, Isa 47:13 is quoted to end as follows: “who declare, at the new moons, of (the things) which are to come”. Yet BDB contradicts itself on this, because on page 516, column 1, 9 lines from the bottom of the page, BDB states “every month” for leh-chadasheem in Isa 47:13. The Hebrew preposition lamed is very flexible, having a wide variety of meanings, so this is given as a grammatical possibility. Nevertheless, no known context implies that this was a method that was in fact used in the ancient Hebrew language to mean “every month”.

(4) Near the beginning of this chapter quotations from Rochberg and from Swerdlow were given to show that during the era of Isaiah, on each night the Babylonian astrologers examined the sky for anything unusual, and then such unusual events were used as the basis for prognostications. It would be needlessly redundant for the end of Isa 47:13 to mean “monthly” when in fact the examination of the heavens was a nightly matter. However, prognostications were made for every new moon even if it was a very typical new moon. More emphasis was placed on the new moons because that was of central importance to the Babylonian calendar since it began each month. Translations of reports to the Assyrian kings by those who supervised the nightly watchers of the skies that includes the time of the later life of Isaiah may be found in the book by Hermann Hunger 1992. The prior quotation by Swerdlow is almost a summary of Hunger’s book. The above considerations provide good reasons to reject the proposal found in some translations that leh-chadasheem in Isa 47:13 means “every month”.

Thus the following is an accurate literal translation. Isa 47:13, “You [Babylon] are wearied with your many consultations. Now let [the] astrologers [1895 havar] of [the] heavens [8064 shamayim] stand up and save you, those who look-intensely [2372 chozeh] at [the] stars, those-who-make-known [3045 yada] at [the] new-moons [2320 chodesh], what will happen to you.”

The NRSV reaches an accurate literal sense of the whole verse. Isa 47:13 [NRSV], “You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.”

Isa 47:13 shows that the Babylonian practice of predicting the future of nations and the future of kings by what is seen in the heavens is sinful. An example of the type of prognostication that was made by Babylonian priests is found on page 140 of Hunger 1992, catalogued as RMA 30, “If at the moon’s appearance its right horn becomes long, its left horn short: the king will conquer a land not his own.” On the same page RMA 37 has, “If at the moon’s appearance in intercalary Adar ([13th month] XII/2) its horns are pointed and (the moon) is red: the ruler will become strong and subdue the land.” More normal appearances also provided predictions. Babylon had a pagan priesthood, which did not use two silver trumpets to announce the start of a month. The Babylonian priesthood spread into Assyria so that the border between Babylon and Assyria was somewhat artificial to their priesthood. Before Babylon conquered Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh, in 612 BCE, this priesthood performed their nightly observations of the heavens and made their first forays at mathematical astronomy. The kings of Assyria recognized the supposed powers of this priesthood and received letters from this priesthood. One letter that is labeled number 303 (also labeled Harper 894) on page 208 in the book by Pfeiffer, was sent from an authoritative priest to the king of Assyria that contains the following: “On the 30th I saw the moon, it was in a high position for the 30th day; presently it will be as high as it stands on the 2nd day. If agreeable to the king my lord, let the king wait (for a report) from the city of Ashshur. The king my lord may then determine (for us) the (first) day (of the month).” The context of this letter mentions the phrase “saw the moon” as a contrast to not seeing the moon, so that this must refer to the first sighting of the crescent by the observer. Since this mentions that the moon was seen about as high in the sky as for a second day old moon, the author suggests that the king wait for a report from another location where perhaps the moon might have been seen one day earlier. The sighting was near the end of the 30th day of the month.

Here is a similar example from page 75 of Hunger 1992, where the completion of a damaged word in square brackets is by Hunger. It is catalogued as RMA 76: “We watched on the 29th day; the clouds were den[se], we did not see the moon. We watched on the 30th day; we saw the moon, but it was (already) very high. The (weather) of the 29th day has to do with it. What is it that the king my lord says?” Here the author suggests that if the weather had been clear one day earlier, it would likely have been seen. He wants the king to decide which of the two days should start the month. In both examples the Assyrian king was to officially declare the first day of the month on the basis of the information provided.

These examples and others like them make it clear that the sighting of the new crescent began the first day of the month in Assyria and Babylon. Because Babylonian prognostications were made for every Babylonian new moon regardless of whether anything unusual was seen at that evening, Isa 47:13 shows that the Hebrew word chodesh, new-moon, is also applicable to the Babylonian new moon!!! This shows that the fundamental concept that underlies the Israelite new-moon and the Babylonian new moon are the same. Since the Babylonian new moon day began with the sighting of the new crescent, provided that there was subsequent official recognition of this sighting, but without allowing a month to have more than 30 days, the same concept should apply to the biblical new-moon. Isa 47:13 is not the only evidence to be presented for this conclusion.