Vernal Equinox and Tekufah
Question: Is the equinox (Tekufah) mentioned in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible)?
The claim has been made by proponents of the equinox calendar theory that the word equinox actually appears in the Tanach. They are referring to the word Tekufah or Tequfah which appears in the Hebrew Bible four times. Tekufah is in fact the post-Biblical word for “equinox”, however, it never has the meaning of “equinox” in the Tanach. In Biblical Hebrew, Tekufah retains its literal meaning of “circuit”, that is something which returns to the same point in time or space [from the root Nun.Quf.Pe. meaning “to go around”]. To claim that Tekufah means equinox in the Tanach, just because it had this meaning in later Hebrew, is an anchronism. This would be like saying that there were handguns in ancient Israel because the word EKDACH, the post-Biblical Hebrew word for handgun, appears in Isaiah 54:12. Let us consider another example of this anachronistic use of language: Before the invention of the electronic computer during World War II, the word “computer” referred to a man who sat at a desk calculating (computing) mathematical equations. Imagine if we found an 18th century document mentioning “computers” and proclaimed to the world that there were really electronic computers in the 18th century. This is exactly what the equinox-followers are doing with the word Tekufah. To better understand this, let us consider the four appearances of Tekufah in the Tanach.
Tekufah in Exodus 34:22
The first appearance of Tekufah is in the list of Pilgrimage-Feasts (Hagim) in Ex 34:22 which refers to the agricultural character of the Feast of Booths (Sukkot):
“And the Feast of Ingathering at the circuit of the year (Tekufat HaShannah).”
Being mislead by the Post-Biblical Hebrew meaning of Tekufah, some have interpreted “circuit of the year” anachronistically to refer to the Autumnal Equinox (it is doubtful whether the ancient Israelites even knew of the equinox and they certainly had no way of calculating when it would be). This anachronistic reading leads to the suggestion of fixing the beginning of the year so that Sukkot (The Feast of Ingathering) falls out at the time of the Autumnal Equinox. However, a closer investigation shows that “circuit of the year” has nothing to do with the equinox. The list of Pilgrimage-Feasts also appears in a parallel passage in Ex 23:16 which describes Sukkot as follows:
“And the Feast of Ingathering at the going out of the year (Tzet HaShannah), when you have gathered in your work from the field.”
Exodus 34 is actually an almost verbatim paraphrase of Exodus 23 and it is important to compare and contrast these two passages; the differences are often very enlightening. Comparing Ex 34:22 and Ex 23:16 it is clear that the “going out of the year” and the “circuit of the year” refer to the same time. The “going out/ circuit” of the year is described in Ex 23:16 as “when you have gathered in your work from the field”. This agricultural ingathering is also described in Dt 16:13:
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths for seven days, when you have gathered in from your threshing floors and from your wine presses.”
The Feast of Booths/ Ingathering is described as the “going out of the year” because it takes place at the end of the yearly agricultural cycle of planting, harvest, threshing, and ingathering. At the same time, Sukkot is described as taking place at the “circuit of the year” because once the agricultural cycle ends it then immediately recommences (making a circuit, returning to the same point in time) with the planting of the fields after the first rains (sometimes during or shortly after Sukkot itself).
Tekufah in Psalms 19:7
The term Tekufah (circuit) appears in Psalm 19 in reference to the sun, but here too it has nothing to do with the equinox. Psalm 19 describes the heavens and sun, which from their unique vantage point are witness to all things in creation, and thus (metaphorically) testify to the incomparable glory of God. Verses 5-7 describes the sun:
“(5)… He [YHWH] placed a tent among them [the heavens] for the sun. (6) Which is as a bridegroom going out of his chamber, and which rejoices as a strong man running a race. (7) From the end of the heavens is its [the sun’s] going out and its circuit (Tekufato) is to their [the heavens] ends, and none is hidden from its heat”
Verse 6 describes the sun as a bridegroom that bursts forth out of his chamber and as a hero that runs along a path. Verse 7 then describes the “going out” of the sun at one end of the heavens and the “circuit” (Tekufato) of the sun at the other end. Clearly what is being described is the daily path of the sun which rises at one end of the heaven (its going out) and sets at the other end (its return), “and none is hidden from its heat” during the course of the day. What has confused some readers is that the going out or exiting of the sun refers to sunrise, but this unusual terminology is used throughout the Tanach. For example, we read in Judges 5:31:
“Thus shall all the enemies of YHWH be destroyed; and all those whom he loves shall be as the going out of the sun (KeTzet HaShemesh) in its might”. (Jud 5,31)
Those loyal to YHWH shall shine forth with glory as the “going out of the sun”, that is sunrise. It may seem strange that sunrise is referred to as the “going out” of the sun. After all, in Exodus we saw that the going out of the year was the end of the year, whereas the going out of the sun is the beginning of the day. However, this is consistent with Biblical usage and in fact the common Biblical way of saying sunset is the coming in or entering of the sun. This is related to the ancient Israelite conception of the sun which at night was thought of as metaphorically dwelling in a celestial chamber (Ps 19:5). At dawn the sun goes out of this metaphorical chamber and the earth is lit while at night the sun comes into the metaphorical chamber and it is dark. This is also the thought behind the comparison of sunrise to a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber. Ps 19:7 refers to the going out of the sun (sunrise) at one end of heaven and its circuit (return to the same place, to its nightly chamber) at the other end, that is sunset (for a similar thought see Ecc 1:5). We see that here too Tekufah (circuit) has nothing to do with the equinox.
Tekufah in 2Chronicles 24:23
As seen above the “Tekufah (circuit) of the year” in Exodus referred to events in the autumn (the time of the ingathering). The same expression (circuit of the year) is also used to refer to events which take place in late spring as we see in 2Chr 24:23:
“And it was at the circuit (Tekufah) of the year that the army of Aram went up and they came to Judah and Jerusalem…”
In this instance the “Circuit (Tekufah) of the year” comes in place of the common expression “Return (Teshuvah) of the year” which appears several times in the Tanach as “the time when kings go out [to war]” as in:
“And it was at the return (Teshuvah) of the year, and Ben-Haddad counted Aram and went up to Afek to war with Israel.” (1Ki 20:26).
“And it was at the return (Teshuvah) of the year, at the time the kings go out [to war] and David sent Yoav… and they smote the Amonites and besieged Rabbah…” (2Sam 11:1)
The time that the kings went out to war was the late spring before the oppresive heat of summer and after the winter rains which made the mud roads in the Land of Israel impassable. We see here that Tekufah (circuit) of the year is used interchangeably with the more common Teshuvah (return) of the year. Whenever this annual set time for kings to go out to war comes around it is a “circuit of the year”, returning to the same point in time as last year.
Tekufah in 1Samuel 1:20
The term Tekufah (circuit) also appears in 1Sam 1:20 which says:
“And it was at the circuits (Tekufot) of the days, and Hannah conceived and bore a son…”
Here the “circuits” of the days refers to “the same time the following year” [or possibly to the completion of the term of pregnancy?]. It is worth noting that Tekufah is plural in 1Sam 1:20 as tekufot “circuitS”. If we apply the anachronistic meaning of Tekufah as equinox then we get the absurd translation: “And it was at the equinoxes of the days, and Hanah concieved and bore a son…” This emphasizes how important it is to understand Scripture in its historical and linguistic context.
None of the four appearances of Tekufah in the Hebrew Scripture have anything to do with the equinox. Instead, this term is used in Biblical Hebrew in its primary sense of a “circuit”, that is a return to the same point in space or time. Only in Post-Biblical Hebrew did Tekufah come to mean “equinox” and to read this meaning into the Tanach creates an anachronism.
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Last Updated: Apr 07, 2006