Blood Moons and Balderdash

This year’s “blood moons” or “super moons” have attracted much attention.  And rightly so.  It’s a beautiful phenomenon!  The distressing part is the number of people attributing religious meaning to them.

The popular religious interpretation has been that the moons are a sign of a coming judgment, and is supported by two biblical verses:

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.

-Yoel (Joel) 2:31


And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 

-B’resheit (Genesis) 1:14-15

Therefore, so the rationale goes, the occurrence of a blood red moon must be one of the “signs” for which HaShem gave us “lights in the expanse of the heavens.”  However, such logic does not stand up to scriptural scrutiny.  Indeed, it is forbidden.  Shall we explore?

You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.

-Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:26

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.

-Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18:9-14

Interpreting omens is explicitly forbidden in Torah.  Since it is forbidden, we must assume that the “signs” of B’resheit 1 are not omens. Given the context of those verses, it would be reasonable to assume that those “signs” are the myriad ways in which people have used the sun, moon, and stars as tools.  In addition to their use for years, seasons, days, and general light, people use the heavenly bodies to tell the passing of hours and months.  We are instructed to use them to calculate holidays.  The stars help us in traveling, and the moon allows us to anticipate the tides.  We can also use them to plan for different phases in agricultural cycle, and the Egyptians could anticipate the annual flooding of the Nile.  Moreover, the word used for “signs” can also be understood to mean “signals”–a word more closely associated with practical instruction than with celestial divination.

Now, if HaShem explicitly and repeatedly condemns the interpretation of omens, then He would not send them to us, unless he meant to test us, right?  And if He sent them to test us, then they would not actually forebode anything, would they?  Indeed, we are later informed that the interpretation of omens was twice among the reasons for the conquest of the Israelites.  First, it was cited as a reason for the Israelite’s conquest by the Assyrians:

And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.

-2 Melechim (Kings) 17:17

And by the Chaldeans some generations after the reign of Manasseh:

And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.

-2 Melechim 21:6

Why? The use of omens leads us to worshiping the thing used for divination, instead of HeShem.  It leads us to obeying soothsaying instead of Torah.  The Covenant is unchanging.  We do not need omens for further instruction.

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

-Devarim 4:19

When we assume that HaShem’s Will is changeable or hold the heavenly bodies in too high regard, it does not go good places, as described by Yehezkel (Ezekiel) (8:14-16):

Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.”
And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east.

But there’s another reason not to look for omens of impending judgment.  The prophets tell us not to.

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion,
    and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
    and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?

-Amos 5:18-20

And again:

Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood,
    who draw sin as with cart ropes,who say: “Let him be quick,
    let him speed his work
    that we may see it;
let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near,
    and let it come, that we may know it!

 -Yesheyahu (Isaiah) 5:18-19

HaShem’s judgment is not something to seek out or desire.  Why then should we look for omens presaging it?  Moreover, why would HaShem send us celestial signs of a judgment we should not seek?

Finally, the blood red moon of Yoel 2 has already come to pass. The bulk of that chapter (along with chapter 1) describe a drought and famine HaShem sent to the land to punish the people for their iniquity.   As often happens, the drought culminated in fire, and Yoel called on the priests to call a fast.  As the flames leaped around the walls of Jerusalem like an invading army, the priests and city folk fasted and repented.  HaShem heard their plea and sent early, abundant rain, quenching the fire, ending the drought, and bringing abundant harvest.  This was HaShem’s judgment.  BUT Yoel uses the circumstances of the fire to warn of further judgment:  the siege of Jerusalem (the topic of 2:31).
  Just as the fire bearing down in Divine Judgment on the city created a “day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:2), so will the siege bring blood, fire, columns of smoke, the darkening of the sun, and the reddening of the moon.  And they did.

The occurrence of blood moons should draw our attention to the beauty of HaShem’s creation, not inspire us with fear of a message unsent.  If we want to know about His judgment, we need only look to his Torah.  Are we following His Law, keeping His statutes and rulings and observing his feasts and Shabats? If we are to the best of our ability then we have nothing to fear.

The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

-Devarim 30:9-10

Neither the moon, nor sun, nor clouds, nor stars can tell us that, even if it is self-evident.

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