16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, 18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:14-18)
One element of “last days madness” is the seeking after signs. Despite the official teaching of Dispensationalism that the next event on the prophetic calendar is the “signless” coming of the Lord to rapture the church, Dispensationalist teachers continue to talk about the “signs of the times”. The current craze seems to be an expected series of “blood moons” occurring in connection with Jewish festivals in the next few years. Genesis 1:14 is being used to support that view.
Never mind that these reddish moons are not miraculous or supernatural signs, but predictable natural phenomena; regulated, like the closely-related phenomenon, the eclipse, by the position of the moon in relation to the earth and the sun. Never mind that they occur on Jewish festivals because these holy days are keyed to the lunar calendar. I want to challenge the use of Genesis 1:14 to prove that the sun and the moon were given for signs of this kind in the first place. Because I have a particular aversion to this kind of reckless use of Scripture, which unfortunately characterizes Dispensationalism.
What is meant by “signs”?
There are five basic units of time: the day, the week, the month, the year, and the season. (The smaller units, such as the hour and the minute are just arbitrary subdivisions of the day, and were unknown to the ancients anyway.) Of these five, only one is not marked by the heavenly bodies – the week, which is a memorial of Creation. Therefore, we ought to expect the four words in Genesis 16 to refer to those other four units. We clearly have three of them – seasons, and days, and years. Must not the fourth refer to the regular cycle of the moon and to its phases? There is nothing against it in the lexicons. The basic meaning of the word oth is “a signal”. This might include the ordinary as well as the extraordinary; but the fact that the other units given are ordinary favors this view.
The Role of the Sun
The motion of the earth in relation to the sun determines days, years, and seasons. A day is a cycle of sunlight and darkness caused as the earth rotates one time on its axis. A year is the time it takes for the earth to circle the sun. A season is a part of a year, commonly a fourth part, but differently reckoned according to time and place. In biblical times, the Hebrews counted two seasons: summer and winter. For us, the additional distinction of autumn and spring is important. The tilt of the earth's axis causes a gradual and continuous change in the lengths of days and nights, in temperature, and in weather, as the earth moves in its circle around the sun.
The Natural Month and its Uses
Only the month and its four parts are marked by the moon. But this is a very important matter. Besides the religious festivals of Israel, the planting of crops has always been timed by the moon and its regular phases. The influence of the moon on germinating and growing plants is not understood, but it is real.
The Month as a Temporal Marker
Also, the month has an important function which we use without appreciating. We do not reference a particular day in terms of the year, the season, or the week of its occurrence: we use the month. For example, my birthday occurs each year on the 20th day of the month of August. This is the ordinary way of locating a given day in the year; and thus of memorializing events. Thus it is has both historical and religious, as well as personal, utility.
The same day could also be referenced as the 232nd day of the year, or the 233rd in a leap year. But it is easier to remember one number out of a possible 30 than one number out of 365. Some of us have enough trouble remembering an anniversary! I can imagine some wife telling her husband, “Harold, our anniversary is on the 256th – not the 265th.”
In 1950, the 20th fell on Sunday in the third week of August, which was the first day of the 34th week of the year. But weeks do not begin or end at the boundaries of months or years, so this would create confusion. In 1949, for example, August 20 fell on Saturday, the last day of the 33rd full week in the year. Each ensuing year begins on a different day of the week. So we do not reckon annual events by the day of the week.
As you can see, the format of month, day of the month, and year is most convenient for memorializing dates of importance, such as religious festivals and holy days. The religious calendar of Israel was therefore a lunar calendar. It was governed by the appearance of the new moon at a regular and exact interval of about 29 ½ days. The months were normally reckoned at thirty days, but adjustments had to be made to keep them synchronized with the actual cycles of the moon. Each month, the new moon was looked for, and according to Newton, when it appeared on the 30th day, the new month began then. This system of regular verification eliminated any chance of errors in calculation.
The Lunar Year and the Solar Year
The lunar year was not used to measure long periods of time: the solar year was used for that purpose. Its beginning and ending could be determined exactly by the annual return of the sun to the same position in the sky, so its exact length of 365 1/4 days was known. It is about 11 days longer than a true lunar year; which, consisting of 12 months of 29 ½ days, measures 354 days.
The months of the ancient peoples, like weeks, ran continuously in sequence, independent of the solar year and its boundaries. This independence was necessary, because the cycles of the moon and the sun do not coincide. The first month of a given solar year was the month in which it began, and the last month was the month in which it ended. This is exactly analogous to the relation of weeks to months. The first week of a month is the week in which it begins, and the last week of the month is the week in which it ends. For example, the first week of June, 2015 was the week that began on Sunday, May 31 and ended on Saturday, June 6. And the last will be the week that begins on June 28 and ends on the fourth of July.
Modern Man's Artificial Month
Neither the lunar months nor the lunar years were synchronized with the beginning or ending of the solar year, as our artificial months of 30 and 31 days are. Our solar calendar only employs the illusion of months; for it simply ignores the lunar phases. They have to be separately indicated on our calendars. At present, new moons occur in the middle of our man-made “months”, for to us it is of no importance that they follow the phases of the moon – a month is only a period of time to modern man.
“Signs” Means the Phases of the Moon
Given the importance of the normal use of the moon for reckoning time, then it is inconceivable that the main purpose of the moon would not be mentioned in our text. This is especially unlikely, given that the role of the sun is fully covered, and yet the focus of the discussion in these verses is explicitly upon the purposes of the two great lights God has just made!
The “stars”, a term which includes all the astral bodies seen in the night sky, unlike the moon and the sun, give negligible light to the earth, and have none of the ordinary functions ascribed here to the sun and the moon. Accordingly, they are barely mentioned.
Supernatural Signs Exploit the Regularity of Nature
Taking all these things into account, it is unlikely that the author has in view the supernatural omens that are usually considered as predicted by this verse. The rare use of the sun as a sign in Scripture involves an event which disturbs the regularity of its ordinary function. This is why it is so effective as a sign. When the sun stood still in the days of Joshua (Joshua 10:12-14), it was obvious that God was at work. When it went backwards (2 Kings 20:8-11), Hezekiah could not doubt that the promise of his healing was a word from heaven. The three hours of darkness that covered the land when Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:45) was not an eclipse, for an eclipse is impossible when the moon is full, as it is at the Passover. It was, like the earthquake, the rending of the temple vail, and the other strange events that occurred at that time, an omen or portent of miraculous nature, which pointed to the cosmic significance of Jesus' death.
As far as I know, there has never been any supernatural sign given in connection with the moon. Blood moons and eclipses are natural phenomena that can be predicted without any extraordinary insight. They do not occur by special providence. The only sense in which they could be considered signs is when their occurrence synchronizes exactly with some important and unrelated event; as we naturally consider some rare coincidences to be signs.
Howard Douglas King
June 11, 2015