As the Jews were taken off to exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, God was killing several birds with one stone. He was accomplishing his perfect purpose not only for his people (discipline for idolatry and lack of compassion) and for his land (finally giving it the 70 years of sabbatical rest it was due), but he also also had purposes for Israel’s pagan oppressors who were living in error and fear, worshiping the sun, moon, and stars.
He sent them a good Jewish boy to point them to the truth. Daniel was a slave among the Babylonians, but he was also God’s ambassador, chosen to teach them about the one true Lord of all creation.
Here begins a tale of a Jewish encounter with stargazers, back in the Babylonian exile.
Babylon was built on the Euphrates River and was at times the largest city in the world. The Chaldean people of this area, who had been absorbed into the Babylonian Empire, were famous for their fixation with the heavenly hosts, and their “wisdom” affected all the peoples who followed them. The Medes, Persians, and Greeks also adopted some of their systems, and we in the West have also inherited a great deal from this hand-me-down astrology of the ancient empires, as we shall see below.
During the early nomadic stage of the first cultures, which usually preceded agricultural development, the moon cult was more prominent than sun worship. As people became more settled, they felt themselves to be at the mercy of the weather and “fortune” for successful crops and military victories. As such, moon and sun cults, along with observation of the stars and planets, became more established.
The Chaldean priests developed a theory of connection between what was observed in the heavens and occurrences on earth.
During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers developed a new empirical approach to astronomy. They began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the universe and using an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. So great was this contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science that some scholars see it as the first scientific revolution. However, Astral theology, which gave planetary gods an important role in Mesopotamian mythology and religion, began with the Sumerians of the same region. The Sumerians practiced a basic form of astronomy, which in turn had a major influence on the sophisticated astronomy of the Babylonians.
They also used the sexagesimal (base 60) place-value number system, which simplified the task of recording very large and very small numbers. The practice of dividing a circle into 360 degrees, and an hour into 60 minutes, are examples of their methodology that we still use today.
Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of the astronomical traditions that later developed in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy, in classical Indian astronomy, in Sassanid, Byzantine, and Syrian astronomy, in medieval Islamic astronomy, and in Western European astronomy. Classical Greek and Latin sources frequently use the term Chaldeans for the astronomers of Mesopotamia, who were, in reality, priest-scribes specializing in astrology and other forms of divination.
They thought that man’s life and happiness were dependent upon the stars and planets in the heavenlies. The fertility of the soil was seen as dependent upon the sun shining and the rain falling from heaven, and the damage done by storms and floods that often hit the Euphratean Valley also came from above. Therefore, they reasoned, the gods had their seats in the heavens, and could inflict prosperity or disaster as they wished.
Keeping the volatile heavens happy was considered necessary for prosperity – and even for survival.
The days of the week in many languages reflect this ubiquitous influence of worshiping the skies, and how it spread out from the Chaldeans:
Sunday – Day devoted to the sun god
Monday – Day for the moon god
Tuesday – Tyr or Tiw was the Norse god of war – the planet Mars (Mardi)
Wednesday – from the Norse god, Odin, also known as Woden or Wotan – Mercury
Thursday – Thor’s day, connected to the planet Jupiter
Friday – from Norse goddess, Frigga – Venus
Saturday – Roman, “dies saturni” – Saturn
Enuma Anu Enlil (In the days of the gods Anu and Enlil) is the name of a series of tablets that have been found which deal with ancient Babylonian astrology. They are a collection of around 6500 – 7000 omens that interpret a wide variety of celestial phenomena and their effects on the planet.
Here is an example of an ancient report made by observing the moon:
If the moon becomes visible on the first day [of the month]: reliable speech; the land will be happy.
If the day reaches its normal length: a reign of long days.
If the moon at its appearance wears a crown: the king will reach the highest rank.
Does God love these people, trapped in false hope and evil practices? YES!
Seeing their lostness and fear as they hopelessly tried to control their fate by understanding and worshiping creation, God sent one who really could communicate with the power behind the universe and who really was able tell what’s on God’s mind and heart.
Daniel’s life and example showed the Babylonians the contrast between worldly wisdom and astrology, and God’s wisdom and sovereignty.
God sent them someone who spoke their language and could present the truth in the best way possible – through their favorite art and science, and from the very highest ranks.
In a set-up initiated by God (God is an initiator, he pursues all people with love) the king was plagued by a troubling dream that none of the Chaldeans with all their wisdom could solve. None of their magic and divination could help them. Only Daniel was able to solve the mystery, and he rose to the challenge to not only interpret the dream, but also to perceive what the dream had been without being told! In this supernatural slam dunk, Daniel’s life was saved and the entire empire started to learn that there was One who was sovereign over all the powers they had ever known before.
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things…” (2:20-22a)
Daniel explains to the king (27-30);
“No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…. As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than other living men, but so that you, O king, may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.”
Daniel talks about the God of Heaven who makes and controls the skies in order to effectively reach the Babylonian nobility in terms they understand. Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, proved several times over that the God of Israel not only knows the future, but is sovereign over it.
As a result, King Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate before Daniel, saying,
“Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries.” (2:47)
Daniel and his friends are promoted to the highest ranks in the kingdom, and more than that, in time, Nebuchadnezzar encourages his people to worship the one true God. He leads the Babylonians to look not to the stars, but to their Creator – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By the fourth chapter, we can see the huge transformation that has happened in the life of King Nebuchadnezzar as he shares his testimony:
“How great are His signs
And how mighty are His wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom
And His dominion is from generation to generation.” (4:3)
“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (4:37)
The Babylonian exile was a time of lamenting for the Jewish people as they mourned the loss of the temple and the Beautiful Land, but even in their suffering, God brought great mercy to the lost people of Babylon.
His vessel of truth was a Jewish lad who knew his God.