“God is more glorious than the moon; he shines brighter than the stars.” (Job 25:5)
Where were you?
The weekend we landed on the moon I was on Catalina Island. Every summer my paternal Grandmother and Aunt took my sisters and me to this little Southern California getaway 30 miles from Los Angeles out in the Pacific. It was, and is, a magical place. Saltwater taffy, abalone sandwiches, diving for coins tossed by people from the pier, the glass bottom boat, flying fish, the Wrigley Mansion, the “Big White Steamer,” the shops and the shopping. Catalina Island was one of my favorite places in the world when I was a kid.
The “Eagle,” the Lunar Module, landed on the surface of the moon early on Sunday afternoon (Pacific Daylight Time) July 20th just as we were heading back across the channel for home. Neil Armstrong opened the hatch and climbed down the ladder onto the surface of the moon nearly seven hours later. By that time, I was in the den with the whole family crowded around a black and white TV with “uncle” Walter Cronkite narrating the event. My dad was an engineer who worked in the space program, in fact, there was piece of equipment on the “Eagle” that he had actually helped to develop. He always said that was one of the proudest achievements of his career, and so, we felt like we had a personal stake in what was happening on the moon that day. I remember experiencing it as a moment of family pride – pride as a member of the Skinner family, pride as a member of the American family, and pride as a member of the human family.
A Woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet
Before leaving Catalina that day for home 50 years ago, in one of the little gift shops that crowd the narrow streets along the beachfront in Avalon, I found a little figurine of Mary standing on the moon. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is a potent Biblical symbol –
“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.” (Revelation12:1-2)
Here in the Southwest we’re all pretty familiar with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In fact, the Dallas Catholic Cathedral is the “Santuario de la Virgen de Guadalupe,” and in its courtyard there is this big statue of Mary standing on a crescent moon. This moon is a standard part of the traditional iconography of the Virgin Mary in the Western Church, but I bought that little figurine of Mary standing on the moon the day we landed on the moon in 1969 completely unaware of its Biblical/Theological significance. It just seemed to me to be an appropriate way to mark that historic moment. That little figurine has long since gone missing, but my memory of it, and of the momentous occasion of its acquisition, has become a cherished one, and here on the 50th anniversary of that day of the first man on the moon, I’m thinking about it and its meaning.
The Moon in the Bible
References to the moon in the Bible fall into two general categories: literal and symbolic. Genesis 1:16 announces the creation of the literal moon as “the lesser light to the rule the night,” and the creation of the sun, moon, and stars routinely get mentioned in Biblical texts that talk about God as the Creator. They establish His mighty power and great wisdom (Job 38). The literal moon in the Bible marks the “times and seasons” that are fixed by God’s authority.
“Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.” (Psalm 104:19)
The lunar cycle was a standard way of setting dates in the ancient world. For our spiritual parents, the Jews, the date for their most important holy day each year, Passover, was established by the keeping track of when the first full moon after the northern vernal equinox took place.
Symbolically, the moon was viewed in Scripture as a witness to God, sometimes as a rival to the one, true, and living God, and as a consistent and cautionary “sign of the times.” Psalm 19 is the classic Biblical text for what’s known as “general revelation,” the way that God makes Himself known through the order of creation, and while this Psalm does not explicitly reference the moon, the moon is clearly implied in it when the Psalmist wrote –
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (19:1-4)
Theologically, the moon “talks about” two things – God and human beings.
What the Moon “Says” about Us
Psalm 8 describes what the moon “says” about us as human beings –
“When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (8:3-4)
That sense of awe we feel in the presence of the magnitude and majesty of the universe when looking out into space on a dark night in a remote place is the feeling that the Psalmist was describing here. It can accentuate our sense of cosmic smallness, feeling like a speck of dust in a vast universe. Stephen Crane, one of the great American novelists, wrote a poem that speaks for many –
“A man said to the universe: ‘Sir, I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘That fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.’”
Biblically, the experience of looking at the heavens, at the work of God’s fingers, at the moon and the stars that God has established, while initially generating these feelings of insignificance, doesn’t leave us there. Looking at the glory of the moon might make us legitimately wonder, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” But the Biblical witness is that the God who made those stars and that moon has made us just a “little less than” Himself, “crowned us with glory and honor,” and given us “dominion over the works of thy hands; putting all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:5-6). This is an affirmation of the stewardship mandate of our Creator to be His “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:4).
After the creation of all that is, including the sun, moon, and stars, human beings, male and female, were given dominion over it and were told to subdue it (Genesis 1:24-30). In the second creation story, after God made the earth and the heavens, the LORD God told His human being to “till and keep” creation (2:15). The enormity of outer space and our audacity as human beings to think that we can explore its darkest corners and penetrate its deepest mysteries is hardwired into us. It’s part of God’s image in us, and part of God’s mandate to us. The moon in the sky is a perpetual witness our God-given potential.
What the Moon “Tells” us about God
Psalm 137 explains what the moon “tells” us about God –
“[Give thanks] to him who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever; the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever; the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (136:7-9)
Paul, in his first mission to the Gentiles (Acts 14), found a point of contact with his target audience by pointing to God’s faithfulness in the order of creation –
“God did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (14:17)
When this idea “grew up,” it became part of Paul’s classic argument in Romans 1 –
“…what can be known about God is plain… because God has shown it…Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (1:19-20)
The roots of this idea go back to Old Testament texts like Psalm 136:7-9 in which the psalmist said that it was by watching the constancy and regularity of things in nature like the moon’s regular cycle of waxing and waning that helped him see and affirm the “steadfast love of God” – God’s unconditioned and unchanging commitment to us and care of us. The order and beauty of creation is not just a “proof” of the existence of God, as St. Thomas Aquinas so famously argued in the thirteenth century, but for God’s goodness as well, and this should easily elicit from us the response of praise. As Psalm 148 puts it, our voices should join in the chorus of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” –
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights…Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens… (148:1-4)
But we don’t, and Biblically this gets at the heart of our problem as human beings –
“Although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1:21)
We are forever “exchanging” our worship of the Creator God for the worship of created things (Romans 1:23), and one of the things that was frequently worshiped in the ancient world were the planets. Old Testament Law explicitly warned God’s first covenant people about “lifting up their eyes to heaven, seeing the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and being drawn away and worship them and serve them” (Deuteronomy 4:19). This is a thought deeply imbedded in the soul of our Biblical parents, the Jews, and passed on to us as Christians by their spiritual DNA (John 4:22; Romans 11:18).
“There is a well-known Midrash that says that as a small child Abraham looked up at the sun and wondered if that could be the force which brought the world into existence. But then the sun set and the moon rose. Abraham likewise asked if the moon and stars could be the heavenly forces guiding the world. But then the night ended and the sun returned. In time, Abraham recognized that there must be a greater force which created and guided the beauty and harmony of creation. Perfect design implies a perfect Designer. Only an infinite God could have created a universe of such infinite beauty and precision.” (https://www.aish.com)
When the world’s rejection of God reaches its terminus resulting in final judgment, among the signs of its imminent approach that the Bible consistently describes is the darkening of the moon (Matthew 24:29; Acts 2:20; Revelation 6:12; 8:12). If the constancy of the moon’s cycle bears witness to the steadfastness of God’s care and concern for us, then the disruption of that cycle warns us of an impending and disastrous change.
The Woman on the Moon
So, what about Revelation 12:1-2 and the image of that woman in the throes of childbirth, clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, and that fearsome red dragon just waiting to devour her child when born? Trying to make sense of the vivid symbols of the book of Revelation can sometimes feel like a Rorschach test – what you see often says more about you than about the text. One of the well-established keys to a proper understanding of what we find in the book of Revelation is to understand that John paints his verbal pictures with familiar colors drawn from the palette of the Old Testament. The meaning of the word pictures found in the book of Revelation are often suggested by their previous appearances in Scripture, which is why many interpreters have found the key to understanding John’s vision in Revelation 12:1-2 in Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37:9-11 –
“Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?’ And his brothers were jealous of him…”
In Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37 the sun, moon, and stars represented his brothers bowing down to him. This idea so offended them that they plotted to destroy Joseph intending to remove him from his role as a leading man in the story of God’s saving work. And in John’s vision in Revelation 12 the woman who is clothed with the Sun, crowned with the stars, and who stands on the moon is bearing a child that the dragon must similarly destroy. That child is the Christ, the promised Son of Israel who bears Him, embodied in the person of Mary. In Genesis chapter 37 Joseph was chosen to carry the promise that Revelation chapter 12 makes clear is the Christ who was born of Mary. He is the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). Just like the moon reflecting the sun’s light, so Jesus reflects the glory of the Father (2 Corinthians 3:18), giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). The final word picture in the book of Revelation brings this all into focus when the Kingdom has finally come, and John is shown a world where there will be no need for the sun or moon to shine upon it because “the glory of God will be its light, and the Lamb of God will be its lamp” (Revelation 21:22-23).
“Their voice goes out…”
On this anniversary of our landing on the moon, as I gaze into the nighttime sky, I am listening to the witness of the moon, and what I hear is a word about God’s creation of the universe, and our place as human beings in it. What I hear is a word about God’s constant care for every living thing, and about our duty as human beings to always praise and thanks Him. What I hear is a word about how easy it is for our hearts to be turned as human beings from the glory of the Creator to the grandeur of the creation, and about the dire consequence of such idolatry. But most importantly, what I will hear is a word about how Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary and the promised Son of Israel, is the light who shines in the darkness, and about how the darkness will never overcome Him.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (19:3-4)