Elder Ballard started out his recent Conference talk "This Is My Work and My Glory" with this description and commentary on the wonder of the night sky:
A few weeks ago, on a cold, dark winter’s night, my wife, Barbara, and I looked in awe up at the sky. The millions of stars seemed exceptionally bright and beautiful. I then turned to the Pearl of Great Price and read again with wonder what the Lord God said to Moses: “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33).
In our day the Hubble deep-space telescope has confirmed the magnitude of what Moses saw. Hubble scientists say the Milky Way galaxy, of which our earth and sun are just a tiny part, is estimated to be only one of over 200 billion similar galaxies. For me it is difficult to comprehend, impossible to fathom, so large and so vast are God’s creations.
I'm always pleased when a General Authority brings some science into their remarks. Elder Ballard's comments invite a bit of reflection on how our understanding of the Universe as God's creation has changed over the years and how the scriptures have described the Universe.
The Universe as Galaxies
We have only been aware of galaxies for about a century. The space telescope Elder Ballard referred to is named for Edwin Hubble, an astronomer who in 1925 published a paper presenting solid evidence that our own Milky Way galaxy was not, in fact, the extent of the observable Universe. From Hubble's Wikipedia page: "His observations, made in 1922–1923, proved conclusively that these nebulae were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, entire galaxies outside our own." Yes, and as noted by Elder Ballard, it turns out there are close to 200 billion of them. In other words, since the time when the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants were published, our understanding of the size of the Universe has increased by a factor of 200 billion.
With that in mind, let's look at a few scriptural passages. At D&C 1:33, which Elder Ballard quoted, God tells Moses, "Worlds without number have I created." A few verses later is this encouraging passage, D&C 1:36-38:
36 Be merciful unto thy servant, O God, and tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens, and then thy servant will be content.
37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
D&C 88:45-47 provides this rather poetic passage:
45 The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.
46 Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?
47 Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
The Universe as Sun and Stars
Heliocentrism, of course, dates from Copernicus in the 16th century. While not known by biblical authors, it was of course well understood by the first readers of the Book of Mormon in our day. In case there are any readers who are heliocentrism deniers and need a scriptural witness, here is a passage in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 12:13-15) that confirms it:
13 Yea, and if he say unto the earth — Move — it is moved.
14 Yea, if he say unto the earth — Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours — it is done;
15 And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.
Then there is Abraham 3. It discusses stars, in particular one Kolob:
2 And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;
3 And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.
For interesting discussion of the various modern LDS interpretations of Kolob, see the T&S post "Kolob" and the BCC post "Kolob as Sirius," both from 2006. Abraham 3 goes on to discuss the Sun ("This is Shinehah, which is the sun"), the Moon ("Olea, which is the moon"), and other stars ("Kokaubeam, which signifies stars, or all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven"), apparently different from stars in verse 3 referred to as "the governing ones."
The Universe as a Vaulted Dome Over the Earth
The term "firmament" in Abraham 3:13 ties that description of stars back to Genesis 1 and its Earth-centered three-tiered model of the Universe. "Firmament" is the term used in KJV Genesis 1 to describe the vaulted dome above the earth into which the Sun ("the greater light to rule the day"), the moon ("the lesser light to rule the night"), and the stars were placed or embedded. The NIV uses the term "expanse"; the NRSV used the term "dome"; and the Lexham English Bible uses the term "vaulted dome," all translating the Hebrew term raqia. This raqia or firmament divides the waters above from the waters below (v. 6) and is called "heaven" or "sky" (v. 8, again depending on the translation). Interestingly, Abraham 4 uses the term "expanse" rather than "firmament" in its creation account.
So that's a short review of our models of Universe, from the 20th- and 21st-century model of 200 billion galaxies, to the 16th- to 19th-century model of the Sun surrounded by lots and lots of stars, back to the ancient biblical model of Earth, Heaven above (the vaulted dome), and Sheol below. Let's wind things up with one last scriptural quotation: KJV Genesis 1:14-18, the fourth day.
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:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.