Sunday, November 22, 2015

Stars of Joseph

The dreams of Joseph is a  known episode from the bible (Genesis 37 9): "Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.”" (The quote is from NKJV but you can see many other translations here")

An interesting question, from an astronomer's point of view is just which eleven stars Joseph saw in his dream (If you are a soccer/football fan you can probably think of your favorite team). I didn't find much discussion on this or an answer so I will suggest my own interpretation to the text.

My attempt is to give the dream a realistic meanning. The first thing to notice is that Joseph could not see the sun and moon and the stars together. While it is possible to see the sun and the moon together it is impossible to see stars during daylight (surly not 11 stars). So the dream is not a single moment but span over some time. Another  thought is that Joseph saw the planets but at that time in the ancient world only 5 planets (beside the sun and moon) were known which leaves us with six unidentified stars. Another option is to choose the brightest stars in the sky (seen from latitude 32 North), However what is the meaning of a bowing star, and the brightest stars are not seen at the same time or even in the same season, and it seems just to be random stars which is quire meaningless.

Lets consider the action of "bowing". Bowing is a gesture in which one falls down and then rise up again, and this reminds me of a setting or rising star. A setting star performs the bowing and the rising star gets up from that same bowing.

Pondering all these points, here is my  suggestion. Joseph saw 11 stars setting or rising, together with the sun and the moon. The number 12 is a famous one. There are 12 months in the calendar and there are the twelve tribes (Sons of Jacob) and there are the 12 constellations which represent the different months. Let us assume that each star is actually the brightest star in one of the Zodiac's constellation (or the complete constellation) so Joseph saw all 11 constellations. This is possible every night if you observe from sunset to sunrise.

Joseph's dream spanned over an entire night. Immediately after sunset Joseph saw the little moon crescent sets as well and than saw some constellations set and some rise. The old Jewish scholars also paired between each tribe and a month/constellation so which constellation Joseph didn't see? His own constellation of course which is either Aquarius or Pisces (according to different Jewish traditions).

Notice that the moon sets immediately after the Sun (and before the stars) so the time was a new Lunar month which is the beginning of a new month in the Hebrew calendar. Taking that information a leap forward and calculating the age of Joseph (17 at that time) from the creation we find that the dream happened in the beginning of the 11 or 12 Lunar month of year 2216 from Adam which in converting to our Gregorian calendar will be circa January or February 1544 BC (the conversion formulas are not accurate to give a specific day). I
I find it interestng that such intepretation can lead to an actual date.

Also I find the intiutive solution to the dream to be wrong. Jacob, Joseph's father interpret the 11 stars as Jospeh's brother and sister while he is the sun and Josephe's mother (poor Rachel which has passed away alread) is the moon. I suggest to think about the 11 stars as eleven years that passed on Joseph in Egypt with 2 more years until he was released from prison. The sun was an important god for Egypt and the fact that all celestial objects bows to him means that he will have some control over the nature as he had some lter during the drought years.

Joseph dream
Joseph's dream - Unknown artist from Henry Davenport Northrop book 1894

For some reason this well known picture of Vincent van Gogh "Starry Night" reminds me of Joseph's dream.
Starry night - Van Goch
Starry night - Van Goch 1889 -  (MOMA New-York)
A huge moon and 11 stars and maybe the tree seems a bit like a bonfire which resemble the sun...

The painting gave inspiration to Don McLean with his version of "Starry Night" in the song "Vincent"