Apocalypse in the Stars

Scholars have long speculated on the astronomical imagery of Revelation. Astronomy plays a big role in Austin Farrer’s Rebirth of Images, and Bruce Malina has written a couple of books on the subject (Social Science Commentary on RevelationOn the Genre and Message of Revelation). He it doesn’t address the Apocalypse directly, Roger Beck’s Brief History of Ancient Astrology adds some further insight.

One of the clearest bits of astronomical imagery has to do with the four living creatures that constitute the Father’s throne (Revelation 4:7). Lion, calf, man, and eagle correspond to Leo, Taurus, Aquarius, and Scorpio (this constellation was seen as a bird of prey by some ancient astrologers). These four constellations of the zodiac are spaced at regular intervals around the ecliptic, and each constitutes the “solid” sign of a particular season. That is, each is the middle of three signs for a season: Taurus for spring, Leo for summer, Scorpio for autumn, and Aquarius for winter (Beck, 55). 

Each of these four constellations is associated with a different element. Leo is hot and dry like fire; Taurus is cold and dry like earth; Aquarius is hot and wet like air, and Scorpius cold and wet like water (Beck, 60). The actual creatures don’t fit their elements. As Beck points out, it’s a “geometrical schematization” rather than a realistic classification” (61).

Each of the creatures calls out a horse as the Lamb breaks the first four seals of the scroll (6:1-8). They call out in this order: Lion, calf, man, eagle/scorpion. Seasonally, this order works backwards through the year: Summer, spring, winter, and ending the autumnal death. The clock of heaven works in reverse as the horsemen are released.

Several of the horses themselves also are linked with constellations of the zodiac. The first, white horses is given a bow, like Sagittarius; the second has a sword, and is linked with Virgo, often identified in ancient astronomy with Dike, the goddess of justice; the black horse carries a scale, like Libra. The fourth horseman is given “authority,” but no tools to carry out his authority (unless we think of sword, famine, death, pestilence, and beasts as tools, 6:8).

Here’s the thing: The constellations are linked in triangular relations with two other constellations, and in each case the constellation associated with an apocalyptic living creature is triangulated with a constellation linked with the horse that the creatures summons:

1. Leo is triangulated with Sagittarius (and Aries), forming a triangle of fire-constellations.

2. Taurus, who calls out the red horse and its sword-bearing rider, is triangulated with sword-bearing Virgo (as well as Capricorn), forming a triangle of earth.

3. Aquarius, the third living creature, calls out a black horse whose horseman carries scales, like Libra, with whom Aquarius is triangled (Gemini is the other constellation). Those three form a triangle of air.

4. Scorpio is triangulated with Cancer and Pisces, forming a triangle of water. The scorpion/eagle creatures calls out a green horse ridden by death. The astrological associations are not obvious here.

We have a multiple association: The living creature is linked to a constellation of the zodiac; each constellation occupies the same central position in its season; the living creatures call out horsemen that are also associated with constellations; and in three of the course cases the constellation related to the horse and the constellation linked with the living creatures are linked in ancient astrological lore. It’s hard to imagine that this is an accident.

What does it mean? Given the association of stars with angels in the Bible (e.g., the “morning stars” sang together at creation, Job 38:7), the message is at least this: The bright heavenly warriors, the astral angels, summon other angels from heaven to carry out God’s will on earth. 

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