The Beth Alpha synagogue, just west of the Jordan River, houses an impressive array of mosaics, one of which—a zodiac circle—lies on the floor at the centre of the synagogue.
The mosaic’s hub displays the sun god, Helios, flanked by two horses on either side. Circling the image of Helios are depictions of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Each segment holds the zodiac sign together with its Hebrew name. Located in the four corners of the mosaic are personifications of the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.
Undoubtedly, the Jewish community at Beth Alpha was well versed in the sun’s and moon’s movements in the sky, and at least a thousand years earlier, the biblical figure Job clearly bore a similar knowledge of astral bodies and their courses.
In Job 38:31–33, God questions Job concerning his role, or lack thereof, in ordering the stars and constellations in the night sky. He questions Job concerning the Pleiades, a cluster of stars in the shoulder of Taurus the bull—the second segment moving clockwise from the top. Furthermore, God inquires whether Job can ‘loose the cords of Orion’, the hunter, depicted as the archer in the mosaic—the fifth segment of the zodiac mosaic, moving anti-clockwise.
The subtle irony of divine questioning in Job 38:31–32 is that God reuses Job’s own words to rebuke him. Earlier, in Job’s lengthy and heated discussion with his three friends—and to illustrate God’s omnipotence—Job reminds them of God’s magnificent work in creating and ordering the stars in the night sky. In doing so, he declares, ‘Who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south?’ (9:9). Ironically, God recalls these same constellations—and the very words of Job—to reprove him and remind him of his humble position.
Talgam, Rina (ed.). 2014. Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press), pp. 298–302
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8“Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
9when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
11and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
12“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
13that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
14It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed like a garment.
15From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
16“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
19“Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
20that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
21You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
22“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
24What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
25“Who has cleft a channel for the torents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
26to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man;
27to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
28“Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
30The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
31“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiʹades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
32Can you lead forth the Mazʹzaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
33Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
34“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that a flood of waters may cover you?
35Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36Who has put wisdom in the clouds,
or given understanding to the mists?
37Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cleave fast together?
39“Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
41Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?