By Tanish Pradhan
A paper published by astrophysicist Graeme Waddington and Professor Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University, in the Journal of Astronomy and Geophysics, claims to have dated the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded from an old Bible story. If their findings are accurate, we may be able to determine the actual timeline of certain Egyptian pharaohs.
Lost in translation?
A passage from the Book of Joshua of the Old Testament, where Joshua prayed as he led the people of Israel into Canaan, read:
“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 they’re enemies.”
Professor Humphreys said that if these words describe an actual observation, then it must have been a reference to a major astronomical event. The real issue is to figure out what they meant. Modern English translations of the King James Version of the Bible interpret the verse to mean that the Sun and the Moon literally stopped moving. However, translations of the original Hebrew text could have also meant that they stopped doing what they usually do.
If this is true, then the verse means that the Sun stopped shining. What makes this hypothesis believable is that the Hebrew word for ‘standstill’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used to describe eclipses in ancient astronomical texts.
Annular versus total eclipse
Dating this eclipse was previously strenuous due to the immense amount of calculations required. A large carved block from the fifth year of Pharoah Merneptah’s reign speaks of his campaign in Canaan against the Israelites. The Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian text, is also independent evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC.
When researchers had tried to compare these texts to date the eclipse from the Book of Joshua, they had failed. However, new findings suggest that this was because they only looked for a total eclipse and the event referenced in the book might be an annular eclipse.
An annular eclipse is when the moon comes in between the sun and the earth but is too far away from the earth to cover the sun entirely, giving it a ring of fire like appearance. Early researchers might have been confused by this fact since annular and total eclipse was referred to by the same word in the ancient world.
Facts and misconceptions
When researchers tried to look for an annular eclipse which might have happened during that period, they got a match for an annular eclipse on 30th October 1207 BCE. This was seen across Canada, Portugal, Spain, West Africa and the Near East. This information could help accurately date important events of the Old Testament and help fix the timeline of events surrounding Egypt and the reign of King Ramesses and his son King Merneptah.
A common misconception today is that this was the first recorded eclipse in history, but that is far from the truth. Petroglyphs off a monument in Ireland describe an eclipse event in 3340 BCE. Drunk Chinese astronomers, Ho and Hi, witnessed an eclipse in 2137 BCE, which they famously failed to predict. A clay tablet from Syria also describes an eclipse that occurred in 1223 BCE.
Astronomy: Dating events of historical significance
Putting an accurate date to events of unsurmountable historical significance is a testimony to the importance of Astronomy as a relevant field of study today. Astronomy was a field of widespread relevance in the past due to its applications in calculating distance, location and time. Today, modern technology has made it seem quite irrelevant. However, this development reinforces its significance. Techniques such as these could be used to read between the lines and acquire greater insight into words set down by people long gone.
While the Canaan eclipse may not be the oldest recorded, its importance is indisputable—the tales of old, told by the stars.
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