Today, Monday, August 21, 2017, most people living in North America will be able to observe a total eclipse of the sun. Those people who live within the path of the totality will be able to observe something rare, an awe-inspiring sight, a total eclipse of the sun.
This total solar eclipse will darken the skies because the moon will completely cover the sun and the solar corona will be seen, providing only a small amount of sunlight to an observer located under the path of the totality. The path of the total eclipse will stretch from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Those who live outside of the path of the totality will see only a partial solar eclipse. A partial solar eclipse occurs when the moon covers only part of the sun’s disk.
According to information provided by NASA, the eclipse will begin in Madras, Oregon at 10:20 a.m. and will last 2 minutes and 2 seconds. The eclipse will end in Columbia, South Carolina at 2:43 p.m. and will last 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
The maximum duration of the totality for this eclipse will be 2 minutes and 40 seconds and will happen in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and will occur at 2:26 p.m. Here in Illinois, where I live, the totality will occur in Carbondale, Illinois at 1:21 p.m. and will last 2 minutes and 37 seconds.
A total eclipse of the sun is a rare occurrence. According to an article published in Space.com, a total eclipse of the sun in the USA occurred in 1979 and it was seen only in the northwest part of the USA. Another occurred in 1991, but it was seen only in Hawaii.
Total solar eclipses also occur in the land of the Bible, but it is also a rare phenomenon. F. R. Stephenson, in his article “Astronomical Verification and Dating of Old Testament Passages Referring to Solar Eclipses” (1975:107-120) said that from 1500 B.C. to 100 B.C., only eleven solar eclipses were total in or near Israel (in this post, all the information about solar eclipse in the Old Testament are taken from Stephenson’s article).
Stephenson is an astronomer who specializes in the study of solar eclipses in antiquity. As a student of solar eclipses, Stephenson said “there is surely no natural phenomenon which can compare with a total solar eclipse” (1975: 107).
Stephenson provides a list of total and nearly total solar eclipses visible in Jerusalem during the period 1500 to 100 B.C. These eleven eclipses occurred in (all dates are B.C.): 1157, 1131, 1041, 932, 831, 557, 402, 357, 336, 303, and 242. Of these, only the eclipses of 1131, 357, 336, and 303 had a 100% totality. This means that for more than 700 years there was no total solar eclipse in Israel.
The study of solar eclipses in the Old Testament is very difficult because there is no word in the Hebrew Bible for “eclipse” and when a solar eclipse occurs, there is no clear declaration in the Old Testament that an eclipse has occurred. Rather, ancient writers wrote about solar eclipses using non-technical words to describe what they had seen. In his study of solar eclipses in the Old Testament, Stephenson said: “It is the author’s thesis that any reference to an unusual darkening of the Sun, no matter how obscure, in early literature should be regarded as a possible allusion to a total eclipse” (1975: 108-109). If one accepts Stephenson’s view of possible solar eclipses in ancient literature, then there are several passages in the Old Testament which contain possible allusions to total solar eclipses. The following are some of the possible references to solar eclipses in the Old Testament.
“On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD; and he said in the sight of Israel, ‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.’ And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.”
Sawyer, in his article “Joshua 10:12-14 and the Solar Eclipse of 30 September 1131 BC” (1972:139-146) believes that the events described in Joshua 10:12-13 was a reference to the eclipse that occurred on September 30, 1131 B.C. at 12:35 p.m., an eclipse that lasted 4 minutes and 5 seconds. Although Sawyer could not totally eliminate the solar eclipse that occurred in 1157 B.C., he concluded that the eclipse in 1131 B.C. better fits the context of the book of Joshua.
Although Stephenson accepts Sawyer’s argument, he seems to be reluctant to totally accept Sawyer’s conclusions. He wrote: “It is not my intention to repeat the arguments given by Sawyer here. However, I wish to emphasize that whether we interpret the ‘stilling’ of the Sun as a cessation of its shining or as apparently standing fixed in the sky for a lengthy period, the most probable interpretation seems to be a total eclipse visible at Gibeon. The sudden disappearance of the last rays of the Sun seem to have an almost hypnotic effect on unsuspecting witnesses, making the very few minutes of totality like hours (and thus giving the impression of the Sun standing still in the sky for a corresponding length of time)” (1975:119).
This astronomical event has produced much debate among those who read and interpret this text. Scholars have differed on how to interpret Joshua’s words. I do not believe that a solar eclipse explains what happened in the days of Joshua. I have written three posts on the long day of Joshua which provide what I believe is the best interpretation of what happened on that day. You can read my views on Joshua 10:12-13 here.
“On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
Scholars disagree whether this text in Amos is a reference to a solar eclipse. Most scholars believe that Amos preached c. 750 B.C. However, there was no total eclipse of the sun in Israel between 831 and 557 B.C. Some scholars believe that Amos is referring to a solar eclipse that occurred June 15, 763 B.C. However, Stephenson says that this eclipse was only partial in Samaria (1975: 118). Stephenson believes that Amos possibly heard a report about the eclipse that occurred in Assyria in 763 B.C., where the totality occurred before noon (1975: 119).
“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.”
According to Stephenson, the text in Joel is the best reference in the Old Testament of a total eclipse of the sun and a total eclipse of the moon, which occurred at different times. Some scholars use this reference to the solar eclipse to date the book of Joel. Gaebelein, for instance, dates the book of Joel in the ninth century B.C. This date, according to Gaebelein, “is abundantly verified by different facts found in the book itself.” One of them is the solar eclipse that occurred on August 15, 831 B.C.
However, as I showed in my article on Joel (1987:125-130), the book of Joel was written in the post-exilic period. John Bright believes that Joel was probably composed in the Persian Period (1981:434). Stephenson associates the eclipse mentioned in Joel with the eclipse that occurred in 357 B.C. Stephenson said that astronomical evidence and Joel’s statement that the sun would be “turned into darkness” in Judah, suggests that Joel was a witness of the eclipse that occurred on February 29. 357 B.C.
Other References to Eclipses in the Old Testament
There are several other passages in the Old Testament that may be associated with eclipses of the sun. However, space and time do not allow me to offer an in-depth study of these passages. The following are passages that may refer to solar eclipses:
“Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them.”
Zechariah 14:6 (HCSB)
“On that day there will be no light; the sunlight and moonlight will diminish.”
“She who bore seven has languished; she has swooned away; her sun went down while it was yet day; she has been shamed and disgraced. And the rest of them I will give to the sword before their enemies, says the LORD.”
The awe that people had with an eclipse, when they could not understand or explain why the sun turned dark and the moon turned into blood, brought terror to their hearts and caused them to believe that God was about to bring judgment upon the land. It is this astronomical event that serves as the background for the message of impending judgment that we find in the prophetic books.
If you miss the eclipse this year, you can wait for the next one, which will occur in 2019, an eclipse that will be seen only in southern Argentina and Chile, The next eclipse in the USA will occur in 2024. As for me and my house, we will be in Carbondale to see this amazing event.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.
Mariottini, Claude F. “Joel 3:10 [H 4:10]: ‘Beat your plowshares into swords.’” Perspectives in Religious Studies 14 (1987): 125-130.
Sawyer, John F. A. “Joshua 10: 12-14 and the Solar Eclipse of 30 September 1131 BC.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 104 (1972): 139-146.
Stephenson, F. R. “The Date of the Book of Joel.” Vetus Testamentum 19 (1969): 224-229.
Stephenson, F. R. “Astronomical Verification and Dating of Old Testament Passages Referring to Solar Eclipses.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 107 (1975): 107-120.