Astronomy, Mathematical Genius and the Patriarch Abraham

Here’s a story of ancient astronomy—and Abraham.
Gary Dorning/AMIBA

Did you ever wonder why God told Abraham to take that journey of faith into the land of Canaan? What if I told you that it was in relation to astronomy and advanced mathematics? Perhaps that sounds crazy, but archaeological discoveries and ancient texts have helped shed light on the remarkable life of Abraham before his sojourn into the Promised Land—and one of the reasons why he had to leave.

The Genius of Ancient Babylon

Modern scientists have been coming to grips with the sheer mathematical genius of the ancient Babylonians. Here’s an example: Remember the Pythagorean theorem from those math classes you took in school? Around the early 500s b.c.e., Greek mathematician Pythagoras discovered the theorem for working out the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle. (If you’re like me, you may need to break out the dictionary for that one.) Since that time, Pythagoras’s name has been given to the method. But the Babylonians had already discovered it over 1,200 years earlier!

The discovery of a mathematical tablet dating to around 1800 b.c.e. showed text fulfilling the triangular equation of a2 + b2 = c2.

Plimpton 322, Babylonian tablet listing pythagorean triples (c. 1800 B.C.E.)

The artifact, found 100 years ago and known as Plimpton 322, has only recently been reexamined. Scientists have also been stunned by the general knowledge of trigonometry it displays. Like the Pythagorean theorem, trigonometry was classically attributed to the Greeks around 120 b.c.e. Yet here is a Babylonian document displaying trigonometric understanding around 1,700 years earlier! What’s more, Babylonian methods of figuring trigonometric calculations are arguably more advanced than ours today. Mathematician Dr. Daniel Mansfield stated: “Our research shows [Plimpton 322 is] a trigonometric table so unfamiliar and advanced that in some respects it’s superior to modern trigonometry.” (Read here to find out why.)

Tablet of observations of the planet Venus. The tablet itself dates to the 7th century B.C.E.; however, the observations on it go back as far as c. 1700 B.C.E.

Added to triangular calculations, the Babylonians had at least a pretty good idea of the value of pi: 3.125 (today, we know it to be 3.14…). And their genius went beyond complex mathematics—it was also directed toward astronomy. Some of the earliest known astronomy texts from Babylon describe observations of the planet Venus. The Babylonians also could work out and predict when and where eclipses would occur, hundreds of years in advance. They were able to predict where certain planets could be found in the sky at a given point in the future. Greek philosopher Callisthenes (fourth century b.c.e.) acquired a series of Babylonian astronomy documents covering running observations from throughout the prior 2,000 years. And much “later” on—some time after 400 b.c.e.—a Babylonian tablet was written showing a “trapezoid procedure” for calculating the path of the planet Jupiter. This method displayed one of the foundational principles of calculus—thought to have been discovered 1,400 years later.

What does any of this have to do with the patriarch Abraham?

Abraham—Astronomer and Mathematician

The book of Genesis states that Abraham was originally from the Chaldean city of Ur. The Chaldeans were a Babylonian tribe of especially gifted scientific people. Abraham grew up right in the thick of the scientific discovery happening in Babylon during the 1900s–1800s b.c.e. Not only was he exposed to Chaldean-Babylonian astronomy and mathematics, ancient historians record that he was a leading light in these fields.

Third-century b.c.e. Chaldean historian Berosus wrote, “In the 10th generation after the Flood, there was among the Chaldeans a man righteous and great, and skillful in the celestial science.” While Berosus did not name this man, first-century-c.e. historian Josephus stated that he was referring to the patriarch Abraham. (This also becomes clear against the biblical account, where we not only read of Abraham’s “righteousness,” but also that he was born into the 10th generation after the Flood; Genesis 11.) Further, Josephus pointed to sixth-century b.c.e. Greek historian Hecataeus, saying that Hecataeus not only mentioned Abraham by name but also composed an entire book about the patriarch’s exploits. (Unfortunately, only two fragmentary works from Hecataeus’s many writings have survived to this day.) First-century b.c.e. historian Nicolaus of Damascus also wrote of Abraham’s prominence before his sojourn in Canaan.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1614) referenced first-century c.e. historian Philo of Alexandria in saying that Abraham, through astronomy, “together with the motions of the stars and other heavenly bodies … found out the knowledge of the true God, while he lived in Chaldea.” He further referenced a number of ancient historians who collectively agreed “that Abraham the holiest and wisest of men, did first teach the Chaldeans, then the Phoenicians; lastly, the Egyptian priests, [astronomy] and divine knowledge” (Chapter 2, Section 2). Thus we see Abraham attributed by many as one of the chief instructors of the elite Chaldeans in their advanced knowledge—as displayed above!

Yet Abraham did not just study and teach science for science’s sake. Through it, he proved the existence of the one true God. Josephus wrote:

“[Abraham] was the first that ventured to publish this notion,

“That there was but one God, the Creator of the universe … This his opinion was derived from the irregular phenomena that were visible both at land and sea, as well as those that happen to the sun and moon, and all the heavenly bodies, thus:— ‘If [said he] these bodies had power of their own, they would certainly take care of their own regular motion; but since they do not preserve such regularity, they make it plain, that in so far as they cooperate to our advantage, they do it not of their own abilities, but as they are subservient to him that commands them; to whom alone we ought justly to offer our honor and thanksgiving’” (Antiquities of the Jews 1.7.1).

In short: Abraham grew up in a world where multiple gods were worshiped, including planetary deities. Abraham, as an astronomer, knew that the paths and patterns of heavenly bodies were constant and predictable. Thus, he knew that they could not be freethinking, independently behaving gods. Then the fact that they even existed in the first place, and all worked together in perfect harmony, proved that there was a Creator who established the mathematical laws by which the heavens perfectly operate. Thus, Abraham proclaimed the existence of one God, the Creator and Lawgiver, to his fellow Chaldeans.

Rejected by Chaldea, Embraced by Egypt

Shamash (left), the Babylonian sun-god (c. 2300 B.C.)

Of course, one can imagine that in a society such as Abraham’s, the teachings of the true God were not well received. The skilled mathematicians and astronomers of Chaldea were certainly discerning enough to understand Abraham’s arguments, but they refused to teach them to the people. Instead, they continued to peddle the popular doctrine to the Babylonian populace that they were subject to a plethora of celestial gods. The quarrel with Abraham came to a head, as Josephus described:

“For which doctrines, when the Chaldeans and other people of Mesopotamia raised a tumult against him, he thought fit to leave that country; and at the command, and by the assistance of God, he came and lived in the land of Canaan.”

This is where the familiar biblical story of Abraham picks up, in Genesis 12, with God’s instruction that Abraham immigrate to a new land. After moving to Canaan, a famine forced him to relocate temporarily to Egypt. Josephus provides further details for Abraham’s time in Egypt:

“For whereas the Egyptians were formerly addicted to different customs, and despised one another’s sacred and accustomed rites, and were very angry one with another on that account, Abram conferred with each of them. … He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for, before Abram came into Egypt, they were unacquainted with those parts of learning; for that science came from the Chaldeans into Egypt, and from thence to the Greeks also” (Antiquities of the Jews 1.8.2).

Thus we see Abraham had a massive impact on the education of the Egyptians, in transferring to them the primarily Chaldean skills in math and astronomy. Is it any coincidence that after this time period, Egypt began to rise on the scene as a truly powerful empire?

Abraham’s Legacy

The Abraham of the Bible is known as the righteous, faithful patriarch—father of the Israelite peoples through his son Isaac, and father of the Arab peoples through his son Ishmael. Yet we see through multiple complementary historical accounts that he was a renowned astronomer and mathematician whose instruction was heavily impressed upon the ancient Chaldean and Egyptian worlds. And while his name hasn’t yet been discovered in ancient Babylonian inscriptions, the scientific tablets that have been found give a unique insight into Abraham’s world—and could even be the product of some of his own teaching!

What we are rediscovering about the skill and knowledge of ancient Babylonia is truly remarkable. Ancient Babylonian wisdom continues to be preserved to this day—such as contributing to our 360° circle as well as our 60-second minute and 60-minute hour.

And, to a limited extent, modern science has followed Abraham’s wisdom in astronomy. We know that it is ludicrous fallacy to worship as gods the planets, stars and moons with their perfectly predictable patterns and behaviors. But it seems that we have gone a step too far—in now believing that there is no God.

Abraham used the cosmos to prove the existence of God. The fact that it exists at all, and follows specific patterns and laws, necessitates a Creator and a Lawgiver. And the particular, incredible aspects of the universe, becoming plainer every day, show more and more clearly that this did not just HAPPEN—this was the result of careful and deliberate creation.

Forget about how “advanced” we are as a society today. Surely to believe that no God exists—that every particle, law and function in the universe is a product of accidental nothing—is more mindless than the antiquated beliefs in numerous gods.

I wonder what Abraham would say to us? Undoubtedly our godless societies would drive him out too.