There’s a Bad Star on the Rise

In the course of the arguments of Moses and Aaron convincing Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, we find fascinating ideas that are illuminated by astronomy.

Near the beginning of Parshat Bo Pharaoh makes a strange claim or statement:

Exodus 10:10: So he [Pharaoh] said to them, “So may the Lord be with you, just as I will let you and your young children out. See that evil is before your faces.

שמות י י: וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יְהִי כֵן ה’ עִמָּכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם

What exactly does this mean? Rashi, the great medieval commentator cites a midrash that explains this as referring to a star:

Rashi:  See that evil is before your faces: [Understand this] as the Targum [Onkelos] renders it. I have [also] heard an Aggadic midrash, however [which explains the passage as follows]: There is a star named Ra’ah [i.e., רָעָה meaning evil]. Pharaoh said to them [Moses and Aaron], “With my astrology I see that star ascending toward you in the desert [where you would like to go], and that is a sign of blood and slaughter.” When the Israelites sinned with the calf, and the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to kill them, Moses said in his prayer, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With Ra’ah He took them out…?’” (Exod. 32:12) This is what he [Pharaoh] said to them, “See that Ra’ah [evil] is opposite your faces,” [implying that their blood would be shed in the desert]. Immediately, “The Lord repented of the Ra’ah [the sign of the star]” (Exod. 32:14), and He turned the bloodshed [symbolized by this star] into the blood of the circumcision, for Joshua [in fact] circumcised them. This is the meaning of what is said: “This day I have rolled away the reproach of the Egyptians from you” (Josh. 5:9), for they were saying to you, “We see blood over you in the desert.” -[from Midrash Shir Hashirim, Wertheimer 1:2]

רש”י: ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם” – כתרגומו ומדרש אגדה שמעתי כוכב אחד יש ששמו רעה אמר להם פרעה רואה אני באיצטגנינות שלי אותו כוכב עולה לקראתכם במדבר והוא סימן דם והריגה וכשחטאו ישראל בעגל ובקש הקב”ה להרגם אמר משה בתפלתו (שמות לב) למה יאמרו מצרים לאמר ברעה הוציאם זו היא שאמר להם ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם מיד וינחם ה’ על הרעה והפך את הדם לדם מילה שמל יהושוע אותם וזהו שנאמר (יהושע ה) היום גלותי את חרפת מצרים מעליכם שהיו אומרים לכם דם אנו רואין עליכם במדבר

Now, it is certainly possible to understand this in a straightforward narrative context. However, with some astronomical knowledge (and a bit of Egyptology…), this midrash can be understood even better.

If you search your memory from history classes that that included ancient Egypt, you probably remember that Ra was the name of an important Egyptian deity – their Sun god. (Note: I’m oversimplifying 2000+ years of Egyptian paganism here; between the beginnings of Egypt and the period of the Exodus, the relative prominence and characteristics of Egyptian gods varied and changed – a lot!)

It’s not much of a jump from that to the idea that when Pharaoh warns Moses about a star named רָעָה –Ra’ah” that is rising to face them in the desert, that it refers to Ra – Pharaoh’s god – whom he predicts will visit evil upon the Israelites if they head into the desert. (Perhaps he hoped this sort of curse or doom would deter them from fleeing after their alleged “three day holiday vacation” was over.)

This is more than just a hypothetical astrological warning. The Sun – a star but not a god – does actually “rise up”. Obviously, this happens on a daily basis. However, it also happens annually, or seasonally, at exactly the time of year that the Exodus occurred – and relates further to the Exodus narrative.

The Sun crosses the Celestial Equator twice a year, on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in Autumn, going from the northern hemisphere to the southern and in Spring rising up from the southern to the northern hemisphere.

What does this mean? If we view the sky as a sphere around the Earth – a useful model called the Celestial Sphere – and project the Earth’s equator onto that sphere, that is called the Celestial Equator.

As the Earth travels around the Sun annually, from the point of view of people on Earth, the Sun appears to move through the Celestial Sphere. The Ecliptic is the Sun’s apparent path over the course of a year through the Celestial Sphere. The Ecliptic and Celestial Equator intersect at two points, on the Equinoxes, and these are the times when the Sun crosses the Celestial Equator – the beginning of Spring and Autumn.

Celestial Poles, Celestial Equator and the Ecliptic (from Cosmic Perspective, from Pearson)
Celestial Sphere showing Poles, Celestial Equator and the Ecliptic

The Spring – or “Vernal” – Equinox is at a point called the “First Point of Aries”, even though it is now in the constellation Pisces.

This is because, when the ancient Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus defined it in 130 BCE, it was located on the eastern edge of the constellation of Aries, near its border with Pisces and the star γ Arietis. This was the point at which the Sun entered the constellation Aries, hence the name First Point of Aries. Over the past 2000+ years, the Earth’s precession has caused the intersection of the Ecliptic and Celestial Equator to move along the Ecliptic and it is now in Pisces, but has retained its name as the First Point of Aries.

Celestial Sphere model of sky, showing constellations and Celestial Poles (from Cosmic Perspective, from Pearson)
Celestial Sphere model of sky, showing constellations and Celestial Poles. Note that the Ecliptic crosses the Celestial Equator in the constellation Pisces.

In a Sun worshipping pagan culture, the return of the Sun to the northern hemisphere, and the beginning of the Spring-Summer agricultural seasons (in the northern hemisphere) that it heralded, must have been an annual “big deal”. In ancient Egypt, the narrative of their pagan deities in fact had the sun god passing through the underworld every night and returning in the day. It would not be far-fetched to think that they similarly would have noted and marked the “rising” of the Sun to prominence at the beginning of Spring, and thought of it as their god “rising up”, as the Sun in fact does.

That coincides with the time of the Exodus, as it says “הַיּוֹם, אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים, בְּחֹדֶשׁ, הָאָבִיב” – “Today you are going out, in the Spring Month” (Ex. 13:4). So perhaps Pharaoh was trying to scare the Israelites out of wanting to go out at all by warning them “Ra is going to get you!” Especially now when he’s rising back to prominence! It is worthwhile to note that the plagues, against which the Egyptians’ obviously received no protection from their gods, occurred during the time of the year when “Ra was at his weak point”. Perhaps Pharaoh was expecting that now, with the beginning of Spring, Ra will start to fight back. If so, he was obviously in for more disappointment…

This understanding of the Exodus timing also helps explain another comment by Rashi, on Exodus 8:22:

שמות ח’ כא-כב. וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה אֶל משֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר לְכוּ זִבְחוּ לֵאלֹהֵיכֶם בָּאָרֶץ: וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה לֹא נָכוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן כִּי תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם נִזְבַּח לַהֹ’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הֵן נִזְבַּח אֶת תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם וְלֹא יִסְקְלֻנוּ

Exodus 8:21-22: Thereupon, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said, “Go, sacrifice to your G-d in the land.” But Moses said, “It is improper to do that, for we will sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to our G-d. Will we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, and they will not stone us?

Rashi comments on the meaning of “the abomination of the Egyptians”:

תועבת מצרים: יראת מצרים, כמו (מלכים ב’ כג יג) ולמלכום תועבת בני עמון, ואצל ישראל קורא אותה תועבה. ועוד יש לומר בלשון אחר תועבת מצרים, דבר שנאוי הוא למצרים זביחה שאנו זובחים, שהרי יראתם אנו זובחים

The abomination of the Egyptians: Heb. תּוֹעִבַת מִצְרַיִם, the deity of the Egyptians, like “and for Milcom, the abomination of the children of Ammon” (II Kings 23:13), but for the Jews, [Scripture] calls it an abomination. It may also be explained in another manner: the abomination of the Egyptians: Our slaughtering is a hateful thing to the Egyptians, for we are slaughtering their deity.

Rashi is saying that the animals the Israelites would sacrifice in worshiping God, i.e. sheep (primarily), are a deity of the Egyptians, and it would be offensive to the Egyptians to do so in front of them. Doing so would lead to the Egyptians reacting violently against the Israelites.

I used to always find this idea puzzling. Based on my (fairly sketchy) knowledge of ancient Egypt, I knew they worshiped the sun god (as above), a Nile god, a bunch of other gods, but sheep… really?!? (Well, actually, yes, sort of; stay tuned…)

Then a couple years ago, I came across a comment by the Ralbag, a.k.a. Gersonides, great medieval astronomer rabbi. Regarding the command to take the Korban Pesach – the Pascal sacrifice (a lamb…) he explains:

ralbag mazal tleh

 

 

 

 

 

This mitzvah was to give them true belief in God, and to remove them from the Egyptians’ ‘lost’ beliefs. For the Egyptians worshipped the constellation ‘ram’ [Aries] and therefore thought that the slaughter of a sheep would anger their gods and bring upon them wondrous evil [punishments]. This mitzvah comes from G-d to slaughter the ‘whole’ [one] of this species, the male [ram]… (Ralbag on Exodus 10)

When I read this, suddenly it all made sense! They didn’t worship everyday run of the mill sheep in a meadow or pen; they worshiped the constellation Sheep – Aries – which, as explained above, was intrinsically related to their sun god’s ascendance every Spring.

Upon subsequent further Egyptology research (admittedly, only cursory, Wikipedia research…) I found that in fact the connection between Ra and sheep/rams is even greater than that.

 

Ra in the underworld

Ra was thought to travel on two solar boats called the Mandjet (the Boat of Millions of Years), or morning boat and the Mesektet, or evening boat.[3] These boats took him on his journey through the sky and the Duat, the literal underworld of Egypt. While Ra was on the Mesektet, he was in his ram-headed form.[3] …

During the evening, the Egyptians believed that Ra set as Atum or in the form of a ram. The Mesektet, or the Night boat, would carry him through the underworld and back towards the east in preparation for his rebirth. …

Iconography

Ra was represented in a variety of forms. The most usual form was a man with the head of a hawk and a solar disk on top and a coiled serpent around the disk.[3] Other common forms are a man with the head of a beetle (in his form as Khepri), or a man with the head of a ram. Ra was also pictured as a full-bodied ram, beetle, phoenix, heron, serpent, bull, cat, or lion, among others.[6]

He was most commonly featured with a ram’s head in the Underworld.[3] In this form, Ra is described as being the “ram of the west” or “ram in charge of his harem.[3]

(excerpted from Wikipedia page on Ra)

Embed from Getty Images

(picture of Ra on his boat; note the ram head, from Getty Images)

So, in fact, Ra was actually depicted as a ram! Sometimes… (It should be noted that the ram imagery was a relatively late development in Egyptian history, although well established well before the Exodus took place. A millennium or two earlier, when the Sun’s equator crossing was in Taurus, they more prominently worshipped their deity with a bull-imagery.) Furthermore, the imagery of Ra as ram-head was specifically related to the evening or when the “ram” was “of the west” – the very same time as the Paschal sacrifice was slaughtered, roasted and eaten!

We see that Rashi and Ralbag were exactly right. The Israelites were demonstrating their rejection of the Egyptian’s pagan beliefs – and simultaneously showing their commitment to God – by sacrificing an animal that was a representation of their major deity at exactly the time – both of the day and the year – that the ram deity was supposedly prominent.

It is also worth noting that the arrangement of leap years in the Jewish calendar is supposed to ensure that Passover never occurs before the Spring Equinox – i.e. before the Sun has entered Aries (or would have, back then.) We want to maintain the seasonal significance of the timing of the Paschal sacrifice, even if we no longer actually perform the sacrifice, and even if the “spring constellation” including the “First Point of Aries” is no longer in Aries.
This is the incredible significance of the Paschal lamb and its very prominent synchronicity with the Sun entering the northern celestial hemisphere, and formerly the constellation Aries.


 

Ex-post “Posto” Addendum

Thanks to Mike Gerver’s comments on the original post (and thanks to Carol for connecting us!), which prompted more Egyptian research (mostly by him; thank you Mike!)


Comments (edited slightly by me…)

Mike Gerver Very interesting! One thing I wonder about, though. Did the name of the Egyptian god Ra have an ayin sound (a laryngeal stop) at the end? Presumably that sound would not be rendered into English if it were there, so I cannot tell from the English transliteration “Ra.” If the name of the god did not have an ayin sound at the end, and if Pharaoh actually was telling Moshe and Aharon, “See that Ra is before you,” is it likely that it would be transcribed into Hebrew as “See that רעה [evil] is before you”? That seems very natural to us Ashkenazim, because we don’t pronounce our ayins, but I think it would have been a less natural thing to do at the time of the Exodus, when ayin was just another consonant, that was pronounced. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it is not as neat an idea as it seems at first to those of us who drop our ayins. Unless, of course, the Egyptian god Ra does have an ayin at the end of his name–does anyone know how it is spelled in hieroglyphics? And can you think of a play on words in Tanach that depends on leaving out an ayin? My feeling is that it’s not something that would be done, though there are plenty of plays on words in Tanach that involve leaving out or substituting other letters.

 

Alan Gersch I confess to having no real knowledge of Ancient Egyptian… But look here (where I just did a few minutes of very minimal research”…)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_language#Phonology

Alan Gersch I’m not sure how linguists or Egyptologists figure out these pronunciations, but it sounds like there’s a lot of wiggle room… e.g. “The following is the vowel system posited for earlier Egyptian”… it’s only “posited”… Nevertheless, FWIW the author(s) of this article do say “Two consonants, alef and the ayin, are generally pronounced /ɑː/.” …

 

Mike Gerver The Wikipedia article you cited actually directly answers my question. If you scroll down to the section labeled “Morphology,” and look on the first line, it says that the word for “sun” has the two consonants r and ayin, where ayin is represented by the usual International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for ayin, which the article says is “thought to have been something like a voiced pharyngeal fricative” in Egyptian. The earlier part of the article, under “Consonants,” says that pharyngeals were only merged with glottals (i.e. the distinction between ayin and aleph was dropped) in the early Coptic period, so the Eglyptians would still have been pronouncing ayins at the time of the Exodus, which is between the Middle and Late Egyptian periods. So the name of the Egyptian god Ra would indeed have been pronounced something like the Hebrew word רעה, and the drasha posted in Astrorav works perfectly!

Mike Gerver This is further supported by the spelling in the Torah of רעמסס, Rameses, which the Wikipedia article says (in the section on “Egyptological Pronunciation”) means “Ra has borne him.” So the first syllable of רעמסס should have been pronounced the same as the name of the god Ra, and it indeed ends in an ayin, as transcribed from Egyptian to Hebrew around the time of the Exodus.

 

Alan Gersch Thanks, very much for the follow-up research! Awesome! (Of course, now I have to add it – or a link to this – to my original post…)

 

Mike Gerver Alan, yes, by all means add this to your original post. It will be more convincing if people know that Ra has an ayin at the end.

 

 

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