Like… I don’t think this changes anything about christianity or history or anything like that at all, but I still enjoyed thinking about it today.
Now before I start freaking out about this, I want to give credit where credit is due. You can find the paper that goes into depth on this topic here. It was authored by physicists Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington. Go read it.
The conclusion of the whole thing, for those of you who are too busy to read my awesome synopsis, is:
“A reinterpretation of a puzzling passage in the Old Testament book of Joshua suggests that a solar eclipse was being reported. Calculations show that this event could be the annular solar eclipse of 30 October 1207 BC. If accepted, this appears to be the oldest solar eclipse recorded. When combined with Egyptian records, this eclipse enables us to hone the most accurate dates available for the reign of the famous Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses the Great to be 1276–1210 BC ±1 year. This work further suggests that the expressions currently used for calculating ΔT, the accumulated clock error due to changes in the Earth’s rate of rotation, can be extended back 500 years from 700 BC to 1200 BC.” (Humphreys and Waddington, Pg. 5.42)
So ok. there’s this passage in the Bible, Joshua 10:12-13. And in it, it says:
12 On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:
“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
But that’s the NIV translation. Most other translations will say the same sort of thing. But apparently, when you go back to the original Hebrew, the word for “Stood Still” is damam: to be or grow dumb, silent or still. And that’s just cool in itself (I really like looking at how the different words interact with one another between languages) but it also communicates an additional layer of complexity. Sure, the translation could really be that the sun literally stood still, but it could also mean that the sun stopped doing what it normally does– shining. This is not totally groundbreaking news to the scientific or the theological world, but it is helpful to know moving forward.
Additionally, there is something called the Merneptah Stele, which was a tablet with writing found in 1896 in Thebes, Egypt. It describes some happenings in the Pharaoh king Merneptah’s rule between (the estimated years of) 1213 and 1203 BC. One of the lines in the writing refers to a victory over Israel (scholars believe), which is a fun piece of potential evidence (at least, that this particular Pharaoh was familiar with a people group called Israel who were located in what was then called Canaan.) It gives some support for the idea that the Israelites were in Canaan sometime between 1213 and 1203. And in Joshua 10, when the eclipse was documented, the Israelites were in Canaan.
Now Humphreys and Waddington are not the first scientists to try to find a solar eclipse to work with this timing. But the moon is pretty sneaky and it throws a curveball.
During some eclipses, the moon is closer to the earth than it is for others. This is just because of how the moon rotates around the earth. When the moon is closer to earth, we have what is called a total eclipse, where the moon blocks all but a tiny ring of indirect sunlight. But when the moon is further away, it isn’t large enough in the sky to block out the whole sun, so viewers would see this ring-of-fire effect, where the sun is still directly shining light at us around the moon. You’d still need protective glasses at that point. This is called an annular eclipse.
Up until the work of Humphreys and Waddington, scientists had only been looking at the dates of total eclipses. And there really aren’t any total eclipses that happen during the time that we would expect the Israelites to be around. So the connection was kind of ignored. But in the ancient world, there was no distinction between total and annular eclipses. (To me that makes sense, I mean, it’s clearly a struggle to find ancient writings about eclipses at all, let alone specific types of eclipses.) So Humphreys and Waddington looked to see if there was an annular eclipse around the time we’d expect the Israelites to be in Canaan, where it could be seen. And you’ll be totally surprised, because you’ve definitely read this far wondering whether there will be a solar eclipse that makes sense:
There was an annular eclipse that would have been visible in Canaan in the year 1207 BC.
*It’s a cool observation though*
Humphreys and Waddington then go into a discussion of how it could have been that, as in verse 13, “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” As the authors note:
“In pre-scientific cultures such an unexpected deviation from normal behaviour on the part of the Sun could only inspire awe and the perceived change in the ambient light level would naturally lend itself to description in terms of the normal order of things – namely, dusk. What the Israelites would have witnessed was a double dusk. To the awe-inspired Israelites of 1207 BC, the amazing spectacle in the sky would have appeared to be long and drawn-out; the reaction to such events tends to be exaggerated, particularly with regard to perceived duration… In attempting to describe this double dusk it is only natural that the Israelites would have done so in terms of their normal experience of the diurnal cycle. Although aware that on this occasion the time interval between the two dusks was less than the normal day, the book of Joshua records “about a whole day” (NRSV) for this period of time. In fact the Hebrew text here is “like a whole day”, the preposition like also means as, and so the phrase can mean “as on a whole day” (Millard, private communication). Thus the analogy being employed is one of following the diurnal rise and fall of the ground illumination.” (Humphreys and Waddington, Pg. 5.41)
So that’s the study. Essentially the idea is that in the book of Joshua, a solar eclipse is being described, and woah, what do we know, based on science and other timing, we have evidence to support it. (This has other implications for historians, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.)
Now the article did say that the idea would need to be “accepted”. And I’m not sure what part of the idea is up for debate. Due to the nature of archaeology and ancient history, there are a lot of places where we have little choice but to say “most scholars believe X” or “we can be reasonably confident that Y”. Humphreys and Waddington’s idea would also likely fall into that category. Personally, I’m convinced, but I haven’t researched all the other stuff that would make other scientists dissent. I might agree with the dissenters if I knew what they know.
But isn’t this so cool????
Around Easter and Christmas, and generally when discussing the historical nature of the bible, the pastor of my church growing up often brings up a couple of questions:
- If God wrote a book, what would you expect to find in that book?
- If you were making up this story, is this the way you’d make it up?
This whole article reminded me of both of those questions.
For one thing, if someone had made up the bible all those years ago, what are the chances that they would have described an astrophysical phenomenon that actually lined up with reality, unless that thing had really happened?
(Now, sure, I suppose you could say that perhaps some peasant farmer (who was actually JRR Tolkien but in 1207 BC instead) saw this eclipse and was like “that would make an excellent plot point for this historical fiction i’m writing about these weird religious people who cut off their foreskins”. And perhaps that’s what happened, sure. I’m not convinced of that, though, especially because I just deliberately made it up. If someone else had asked me, I would assume they made it up too, as there’s no evidence (that I know of) to suggest that some random dude (or dudette, #feminism) wrote about these military campaigns in a coherent and cohesive way that would mesh with other books of the bible and historical information that we now have about the ancient world. But I also haven’t studied these things as in-depth as I’d prefer to, so I can’t say for 100% sure that this is false.)
But seriously, why would someone make it up like this? Why have Joshua command an eclipse? Why not a tornado filled with bears? Or, to be more realistic, why not a weird sickness that causes all the opposing fighters to lose? Why not some sort of invincibility shield? Why stop at just messing with the light source? Is there anything to be gained from communicating “God made the sun stop acting like itself because Joshua asked, and they experienced a military victory when this happened, but God has never done that before and isn’t expected to do it again.”
If it really happened, if this was a real solar eclipse, we can consider two potential timelines: 1) that God knew Joshua was going to ask for this and primed up history somehow to make sure an eclipse would happen on that day or 2) God gave Joshua some prophetic insight into the eclipse’s coming. Both of these show God as supportive of the Israelite campaign. Both of them show God’s sovereignty and care and attention to detail with the human story. Personally I think the second is more likely, given God’s usual patterns.
A third option is that it wasn’t actually a solar eclipse, none of this happened at this time period, and God really did just hold the sun still (well, stopped the earth from spinning, as we do not live in a geocentric world). And to me, this is a viable option too. God is God. He can do what he wants. Why would I be surprised when a supernatural being behaves supernaturally, even with great power?
And for the other thing. If God wrote a book, what would we expect from it?
I mean… I’d expect a lot of things, but historical accuracy is definitely up there- especially if the whole point of the thing is to give a historical account of a group of people, and eventually one of those people, who did something miraculous. I’d expect that if there are going to be unbelievable things in that book which we are expected to trust in, there should also be some evidence supporting the book as a valid and reliable source.
It doesn’t carry great weight, theologically, whether the miracle took the form of God messing with solar activities or the form of God giving humans information they wouldn’t naturally have access to. If there’s an eclipse, God had something to do with its recording in the book of Joshua.
Hell, It doesn’t matter if it even was a solar eclipse or if the solar eclipse happened on an unrelated and unrecorded day. Who knows, this could all be a fluke of language.
I find myself happy, though, when thinking about it. It’s nice to be confronted with a scientific argument supporting the validity of the historical narrative of the bible. Of course, this is not nearly enough to support the whole argument for belief in the old testament, but to see even a small piece of evidence feels nice. I guess, since I’ve had so much fun with this one little argument, I should study more of the historical and archaeological bible evidence.