August 2017: An Eclipse of Biblical Proportions

Solar eclipses and Biblical events

In the summer of 2017, those in North America were treated to an eclipse of Biblical proportions. A total solar eclipse (when the moon completely blocks the sun, casting the earth in temporary darkness) was visible across the United States on August 21, 2017 (see map for visibility). When solar eclipses work their eerie wonders, shadows will behave strangely. Pin-hole openings in tree leaf cover will project tiny eclipses on the ground. Some people will see shadow waves—bands of shade moving across the ground.

Viewers in the path of the August 2017 eclipse experienced about 2 minutes of total darkness. At the spot marked GD—Greatest Duration—the eclipse lasted 2 minutes and 40.2 seconds. The spot marked GE—Greatest Eclipse—indicates the location where the moon’s shadow passed closest to the earth’s center.

aug-21-2017-eclipse

Image: Eclipse map/figure/table/predictions courtesy of Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, from eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov.

Might eclipses, together with the timing of Biblical events, have been interpreted as divine messages and signs?
 


 
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.
 


 
King Hezekiah has gone down in history as one of Judah’s good kings, a reformer. At one point, he became deathly ill. The story of his illness and cure is told in 2 Kings 20:1–11 and Isaiah 38:1–7, and a brief mention of the event is found at 2 Chronicles 32:24. 2 Kings tells of a “boil,” which may suggest a type of cancer. Surely, Hezekiah’s physicians used all their knowledge and skill to save the king. Baths, dressings, dietary changes, internal medications—nothing was successful against the boil.

The Biblical account relates that Isaiah the prophet was sent to Hezekiah to inform him that he would die from his illness. Hezekiah prayed for healing, and Isaiah had not left the palace when he was sent back to the king with a different message: The Lord would heal him and give him another 15 years of life. A sign was to confirm the healing. The shadow could move forward or backward on an outdoor stairway. Hezekiah chose for the shadow to move backward (2 Kings 20:10).

On March 5 in 702 B.C.E., the 16th year before Hezekiah’s death, a prominent solar eclipse appeared over the Middle East (see NASA’s Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses). Its path crossed the Arabian Peninsula, and the obscuration of the sun over Israel was more than 60 percent.

If a stairway had been engulfed in darkness and then restored to daylight, the shadow would have appeared to retreat. A shadow wave, produced by an eclipse, may also have given the appearance of a shadow retreating. If you were in the path of the eclipse on August 21, 2017, you too might have seen this rare Biblical sign.

august-21-2017-eclipse

Eclipse totality on August 21, 2017, in Franklin, NC by Flickr user saiberiac/CC BY 2.0.

It would be another hundred years before the Greeks would accomplish the first actual prediction of an eclipse.
 


 
Based on Strata: “Rare Eclipse Coming This August,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2017.
 


 
Frederick Baltz is on the faculty of the Institute of Lutheran Theology.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth and a Lunar Eclipse

A Comet Gives Birth to an Empire by Sarah K. Yeomans

King Hezekiah in the Bible: Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light

Ancient Latrine: A Peek into King Hezekiah’s Reforms in the Bible?

Hezekiah’s Tunnel Reexamined
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 11, 2017.
 


 

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  • John says

    You totally miss the meaning of this eclipse. It is part of two eclipses which will cross America and make an X at New Madrid fault zone. The second eclipse happens 4/8/2024. After this date, the New Madrid zone will experience a cataclysmic series of earthquakes which will change the US forever.

  • David says

    Very skeptical of the :”shadow ” scenario. A 60 percent eclipse would not give that effect.

  • Randy says

    All Israelie children are 1 when they are born.

  • Bill says

    This article is wrong. The eclipse in Israel on this date, as the author said, was partial – so no “shadows” were made, and no darkness fell on the land of Israel. Also, “shadow bands” (the author called them “shadow waves”) are NOT formed in a partial eclipse! (Shadow bands are only observed in the fleeting moments before and after totality Indeed, with a 60% partial eclipse, unless you knew it was happening, it could take place completely unnoticed.

    • Priscilla says

      Thank you very much, Bill! Now I know 702 BCE is correct!
      By the way, “And Isaiah the prophet called to the Lord and he brought the shadow back ten steps by which it had gone down ‘on the steps of Ahaz’.” The shadow was shown “on” the steps of Ahaz because there was sunlight during the partial solar eclipse, right?

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