The Vernal Equinox

In the previous article on The Biblical Year, I stated that an intercalated month would be necessary every so often in order to keep the biblical lunar months lined up with the solar year. From the Bible, we already know that YHVH commanded that the year begin in the spring (aviv, greening ears), and that a month was to begin on a new moon, since that’s what the root of the Hebrew word chodesh (month) means: to renew or be renewed.

We have also learned that God has provided a measurement system in the heavenly array that can be viewed each night:

Genesis 1:14 KJV – 14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

Accordingly, anything that could be used as a reference point for this necessary intercalated month should be related to the heavenly lights and the appointed times.

In the previous article on the Aviv Barley, it was pointed out that the ripeness of the barley can be said to be tied to the activity of the sun, and hence can be used as a corroborating reference point for the start of the new year. However, there is another measurement that is also hinted at in scripture that also, and more directly involves the lights of the firmament. This has to do with the arrival of the vernal, or spring, equinox.

Now many believers in Yeshua will not accept this as a valid method, because it is not directly stated as such in scripture. I would simply reply: neither is the search for aviv barley. However, I do believe that YHVH has gifted us with reason and the ability to search all things out for his glory. So let’s look at where the idea of following the equinox comes from.

First of all, there are some historical notes in some contemporary reference works:

“That the vernal equinox occurred in Nisan [Aviv] is attested by Josephus (Ant. 1. x. 5) and also in cuneiform literature (Muss-Arnolt p. 77). Nisan corre­sponded to the first zodiacal sign (Ar­ies) in which the vernal equinox fell. The sacred year was determined by the annual festivals and the first of these fes­tivals was henceforth fixed by the Pass­over moon.” “Equinox and the Calen­dar,” Dictionary of the Bible, James Hastings, p. 765.

Fausset’s Bible Encyclopedia, under “Year” [Hebrew year] reads, “They [the Jews] be­gan it with the new moon nearest to the equinox, yet late enough to allow of the firstfruits of barley harvest being offered about the middle of the first month. So Josephus (Ant. iii. 10,5) states that the Passover was celebrated when the sun was in Aries” (p. 727).

Below is the actual quote from Josephus, the Jewish historian writing for Rome in the first century CE who is mentioned above. He mentions this remark in relation to the biblical calendar in use in his day:

“In the (Greco Roman) month of Xanthicus, which by us is called Nisan [that is, Aviv], and is the beginning of our year, on the fourteenth day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries (for in this month it was that we were delivered from bondage under the Egyptians)…

Josephus, Antiquities 3:10:5, circa 93-94 CE, Whiston Translation.

So what could the constellation of Aries have to do with fixing the timing of the biblical calendar? Were the Jews using pagan astrology to determine dates? I don’t believe so. However, in order to understand this quote from Josephus, it is helpful to understand another Hebrew word, and how it is used in scripture: tekufah.

The Hebrew tekufah (Strong’s No. 8622) is assumed by a few to be the spring equinox. It appears four times in the Bible with the following literal meanings: Exodus 34:22; at the year’s end (marg.: revolution of the year) 1Samuel 1:20; when the time was come about(marg.: in revolution of days) 2Chronicles 24:23; at the end of the year (“in the revolution of the year” – margin) and Psalm 19:6[concerning the sun] “His going forth [is] from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.” Tekufah means at the end of a complete circuit and not the vernal equinox at the beginning of a year.

– Donald Mansager, Yahweh’s Restoration Ministry

While I do not agree with everything in that article from YRM above, I would agree with Mansager that the word tekufah does not necessarily mean the equinox, as many claim today. However, I do think it’s significant that it does mean revolution, or completion of a circuit. This, to me has great importance in how it came to be associated with the equinox.

Much of genuine astronomy is lost on our generations today, because as we live in more and more urban and city environments, the lights of the stars are becoming washed out by our man-made city lights. In general, we no longer refer to the heavens as a guide or template for our place in the cosmos throughout the year. Other than sunrise, sunset, and a beautiful full moon once in a while, we rarely take notice of the shifting luminaries month after month.

However, there is an ancient method of identifying when the sun has completed one complete circuit (tekufah) through its orbit; this has come to be known as the sidereal year. This method has also been documented independently by Hipparchus of Nicaea, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, as early as 150 BCE. A detailed explanation from a physics site at the College of St. Benedict St. Johns University can be found here.

In brief, this method involves locating where the sun is in relation to the field of stars behind it, as in the diagram below. I believe, this is why the quote from Josephus is so significant; there is a distinct possibility that this method of identifying the annual cycle was what he was referring to. If the Jewish leaders knew that the sun was typically in the constellation of Aries when the beginning of the year was near, they would be able to accurately corroborate the other identifiers of the barley and another cycle of the sun, what we call today, the equinox.

I believe the word tekufah also demonstrates at least a rudimentary understanding of a very basic astronomical calculation called the solar year.

There [is a way] of finding how long it takes the sun to complete its apparent revolution in the heavens, or, in other words, how long it takes the earth to make a complete revolution [tekufah] around it.

[This] consists in observing the exact time at which the sun reaches the equinoxes. In ancient times astronomical observers were able to do this by noting the days when the sun rose exactly in the east or set exactly in the west. By observing the rising and setting from day to day, they could find not only the day, but almost the hour in which the sun was on the celestial equator. Of course, with our more exact instruments we can get this time with still greater precision.

The period between two returns of the sun to the same equinox is called the solar year or equinoxial year.

– T. Kirkman, College of St. Benedict St. Johns University

While complex calculations can be very precise as to the exact moment of equinox today, the simplest way to recognize it is when the sun rises due east and sets due west, as in the sunrise chart below.

Image result for equinox by setting sun
Equinox image by the Chicago Tribune

Additionally, this is true no matter where you are on the earth, as mentioned at

…the sun rises due east and sets due west, for all of us, at the equinox. The equinox sun is on the celestial equator. No matter where you are on Earth, the celestial equator intersects your horizon at due east and due west.

Both of these methods were well known to many ancient cultures who were thoroughly familiar with the night skies, and many detailed astronomical observations and calculations were consistently made. Consider Stonehenge, or the pyramids of Giza, for example. The equinox was also clearly identified by other ancient cultures such as the Mayans and Hopis in the Americas. Many of their fascinating structures are still standing, demonstrating astronomical alignments that still amaze us in our current age, even with all of our advanced technology.

While I am not suggesting we adopt pagan practices to determine the biblical calendar, I mention these examples to show that people throughout history have very capably been able to determine when certain astronomical events would take place. All of this was conducted by simply studying Creation around them.

One final note: by looking at the current day Jewish ministry of, they have the following to say about how the beginning of the year was calculated in ancient Israel in an article entitled, “How does the spring equinox relate to the timing of Passover?”

While the Sanhedrin presided in Jerusalem, there was no set calendar. They would evaluate every year to determine whether it should be declared a leap year.

Several factors were considered in the course of their deliberations. The primary factor, which overrode all others, was the spring equinox. If the spring equinox would fall later than the first half of Nissan [i.e., Aviv] (i.e., on the 16th or later), then the year was automatically declared to be a leap year.

However, it wasn’t enough for Passover to fall after the equinox, when it was “officially” spring; spring-like conditions needed to be evidenced. If in the land of Israel the barley had not yet ripened, and the trees were not yet blossoming with seasonal fruit—that, too, was sufficient reason to delay Nissan by adding a second month of Adar. Spring should be felt; it should be bright and green.

Now, I realize that just because a Jewish website mentions their ancient traditions does not suddenly resolve all concerns with this method. But I do believe that it demonstrates an additional measure of evidence that this very possibly was the case in ancient times. And this documentation is from those who are extremely familiar with the parameters of the biblical calendar.

In summary, I believe the Israelites, like every other ancient culture, also had the ability to calculate occurrences of the equinox, and would be able to closely monitor the arrival of the spring or vernal equinox along with the ripeness of the aviv barley.

If the heavenly lights, through the sidereal place of the sun in the constellations, and the location of the rising and setting sun were indicating the “turning” [or, tekufah] of the year was near, then the barley was looked at to see if it was truly aviv. If it was not, then the year was intercalated with an extra month to allow the grain to finish ripening (to become aviv), and the new year started after the thirteenth month.

Are these methods specifically mentioned in the Bible? No, I freely admit they are not. Do any of these methods (the sidereal year, the solar equinox, or searching for the aviv barley) flatly contradict YHVH’s word? I do not believe they do. In fact, I believe they are very closely associated with the assessment of the heavenly lights as established in Genesis 1:14.

Deuteronomy 19:15b, HCSB  A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

You may remember I mentioned earlier that I believe YHVH has gifted us with reason and the ability to search all things out for his glory. In my opinion, cross-referencing these natural processes, which were clearly and easily observable by ancient cultures, including the Israelites, would provide an accurate assessment of the start of each year. This would always guarantee with multiple “witnesses” the proper placement of the moedim (appointed times) for the rest of the year. The new biblical year was in this fashion very simply and practically established in harmony with the sun, moon, and physical seasons, all of which God gave us to mark time (Gen. 1:14).