My favourite constellation, Orion, is rising again in the early morning before sunrise. To reference A Game of Thrones, Winter is Coming.
The Hunter won’t be visible in the evening sky for several months yet, but to see him in the early morning brings me hope that, even though it’s currently pushing 100° Fahrenheit (a horrendous 37.8°C), cooler temperatures will be on their way with the slow turn of the seasons.
Orion is one of the constellations that most looks like what it’s supposed to be, and has been seen as a human figure by just about every culture that’s ever been concerned with the night sky. The Arabs know him as al-Jabbar, the Giant. To Indian astronomers he was Prajapati, a king of legend. And to the Greeks and Romans, whose astronomical names have come down to us, he was Orion, the Hunter.
Orion is one of only a half handful of constellations to be directly mentioned in the Bible. Given the prevalence of pagan astrology in the ancient world, it seems God didn’t want too much focus devoted to mere created heavenly bodies.
We can, if we’re careful, though, learn a few things from the constellations without stepping across the line into ascribing them influence or power of their own.
Orion appears in God’s speech to Job, in which He points out the limits of human power and understanding. “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?”, God asks Job (Job 38:31). Obviously not. No human, not even all humans working together, could tie a string around the star cluster we call the Seven Sisters, nor can we unfasten Orion’s belt.
The mythological story of Orion backs up this lesson. Orion was a mighty hunter, perhaps a Greek version of the Biblical Nimrod, famed for his ability to track down and kill the beasts of the earth. Pheasant, duck, deer, wild ass, wolf, leopard, lion – to Orion it was all one. He could hunt them all.
According to the legend he became boastful of his hunting prowess, arrogantly declaring that there was no creature that he could not subdue and kill.
The Greek gods were a vengeful lot, and if there was one thing that was guaranteed to trigger their smite reflex, it was mortals getting uppity like this. To teach him a lesson (and presumably pour encorager les autres), the goddess Hera sent a tiny scorpion with deadly venom in its stinger to attack the mighty hunter and bring him down.
The Greek gods being slightly incompetent as well as vengeful, Orion saw the scorpion and crushed it under his foot. But as it died, it stung him, injecting its venom and killing the great hunter.
After the pair were dead, the gods placed both of them in the sky at opposite ends of the heavens: the constellations of Orion and Scorpio. As Orion rises, Scorpio sets, and vice versa, so that the two legendary adversaries never share the sky with one another.
The first lesson from the constellation Orion, then, is that human power and understanding have limits. We may think we’re pretty special, a mighty hunter able to subdue and overcome any problem, but we can no more compete with God than we can untie Orion’s belt or cause the constellations to rise and set.
Orion is depicted in the sky with upraised shield and club, ready to strike at the charging bull of the constellation Taurus with its eye Aldebaran blazing redly. His club puts me in mind of Benaiah, the mighty man of King David’s army who, armed with only a club, struck down a huge Egyptian with a spear.
This is a feat that we kind of gloss over, as unused to the realities of ancient combat as we are. A club is a weapon you have to get up close and personal with. A spear gives you a standoff distance even if it’s only a relatively short thrusting spear about six feet or so in length. Benaiah had to get past this spear, wielded by an Egyptian that the Bible, which is known for understatement, describes as “huge”, and strike him hard enough with effectively a big stick to kill the man outright.
This is the same guy that went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. Apparently just because he could. The lion was in a pit; it wasn’t going to be a danger unless you went down there. And in the damp, cold and slippery ground of a snowy day, Benaiah goes down there and kills it. Maybe there was something down there he wanted.
His beast-killing is another facet that makes him rather Orion-like, but one of the main lessons I like to draw from Benaiah’s story is the attitude of God to our sin.
It’s not enough to imprison it. The lion may be down in a pit, but it still needs killing.
Taurus isn’t mentioned in the Bible (though the Pleiades are within the boundary of the modern constellation), but as a bull, it has obvious Biblical symbolism. The bull was a sacrificial animal; it was the blood and ashes of bulls that were sprinkled on the Levitical priests to consecrate them for God’s service.
The bull Taurus is no tame domestic animal, though. It’s a great wild ox, the ancient aurochs of history which was bigger and fiercer than even the bulls of the modern corrida or the half-domestic cattle of the third millennium before Christ. The wild ox, whose strength was comparable to the terrible Leviathan and who represented irresistible power and fierceness.
Orion is this bull’s enemy, frozen eternally in combat with the dreadful Taurus. And God implies that He is the One who looses his cords. We might symbolically cast Taurus as the fallen old nature, bestial and apparently irresistible, and Orion as the new man in Christ. God is the One who releases the inner Orion to strike down the old nature and kill it.
And the way this is accomplished is through the sacrificial side of the bull. Like the sacrifice of bulls under the Mosaic Covenant accomplished the covering of sins and achieved forgiveness from the LORD, so the final sacrifice of Christ, to which all those ancient bulls looked forward, accomplished through His blood the ultimate forgiveness of sins and cleansing from both the guilt and the power of sin.
Reading Christian typology onto the pagan myths of our constellations is a chancy business, but apparently that’s what we’re doing. After all, the Greeks did not invent most of the Northern Hemisphere constellations, even though it’s their names and myths we use. The Babylonians and Sumerians and Egyptians knew Orion as a warrior or hunter and Taurus as a bull, and based on the similarity of the names we do have for constellations in the Bible, the ancient Hebrews saw the same pictures in the sky.
We don’t have to follow the Babylonian example and bow in worship of the heavens, nor should we ascribe influence of their own to the patterns in the stars. They’re just created things.
But they’re placed in the patterns they are in by the hand of God, and it seems reasonable to carefully re-imagine the constellations in part or in full as a viable symbol system to convey Biblical truth.
The final lesson I want to draw from the constellation Orion is the one that brings me back around to where I started.
The rising of Orion in the early mornings fills me with hope that despite the horrible Texas summer heat, that relief is coming. This is a very Biblical hope; a sure confidence and trust rather than a vague wishful thinking. It’s this that the Bible talks about when it talks about the hope we have in Christ. We have an assurance that despite the circumstances, despite whatever the weather of our lves can throw at us, that the Day is coming. As surely as the progression of the seasons (which was guaranteed by God to Noah for as long as the earth endures) that our deliverance is at hand. The final day of salvation when God will at last put an end to sin once and for all. It may be a hundred degrees here in Texas, but Winter is Coming. It may be as hot as an oven in the furnace of our circumstances, but we have a hope that is steadfast.