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Truths to tell
The skies have been there
The countryside of modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine is in many ways very similar to the way it appeared in antiquity, but it has also changed dramatically. Some of the changes to the landscape have been slow and not initiated by humans; the land on which the modern state of Kuwait sits, for example, is the result of thousands of years of alluvial deposits at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But many, perhaps most, of the dramatic changes to the landscape have been made by the land’s human occupants. The accumulated effects of agriculture, deforestation, extinction, urbanization, and industrialization have so altered the environment of the Middle East that it is in essence a different natural world than that occupied by its ancient inhabitants. In contrast (apart from the effects of light pollution, which can significantly obscure its features, especially in urban areas), the sky at which we glance or gaze appears essentially the same as it did in antiquity.
Yet in terms of our perception, even this sky has been altered; and transformations in celestial perspective can affect people and cultures just as dramatically as the physical changes that have occurred mundanely. The sky is no longer a divine realm. Instead, the heavens in their most proximate part have become our realm: The International Space Station orbits the earth and has been continuously manned for more than a decade now. Its human inhabitants share Earth’s orbit with hundreds of unmanned satellites that allow us to predict the weather as well as communicate with and spy on one another. We have also left thousands of pieces of garbage circling our world over the last half century. This refuse, stratified in various orbits, is a remnant of our material culture. The pieces that do not succumb to the decay of their orbits may someday provide the opportunity for a sort of astroarcheology, documenting the enterprise of modern civilization’s exploration, exploitation, and settlement of the heavens. In short, as we have de-deified the sky, it has become like any other place that humans have occupied. Similarly, the starry heavens’ slender variations no longer reveal the gods’ will to us, but they can reveal—with the right array of critical tools, both mental and instrumental—the secrets of the origins and fate of the cosmos.
Jeffrey L. Cooley is an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston College. This essay is drawn from his book Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East: The Reflexes of Celestial Science in Ancient Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Israelite Narrative (copyright © 2013 by Eisenbrauns, Inc.), by permission of Eisenbrauns.