When the sun stood still upon Gibeon

‘Joshua stopped the sun’ 3,224 years ago today, scientists say

Researchers claim epic Biblical story is earliest account of annular eclipse that occurred on October 30, 1207 BCE; also helps pinpoint reigns of Pharaohs Ramesses and Merneptah

Joshuah Ordering the Sun to Stand Still (1743-1744), Joseph Marie Vien in Musée Fabre, Montpellier. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Joshuah Ordering the Sun to Stand Still (1743-1744), Joseph Marie Vien in Musée Fabre, Montpellier. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Cambridge researchers announced Monday that they have pinpointed the date of the biblical account of Joshua stopping the sun — which they claim is the day of the oldest eclipse ever recorded — to October 30, 1207 BCE, exactly 3,224 years ago.

In a paper published in the “Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy & Geophysics,” researchers explained that they were consequently also able to refine the dates of the reigns of two Egyptian pharaohs of that era, Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah.

The paper reinforces research published earlier this year by Israeli scientists, which also interpreted the biblical story as referring to an eclipse on the same date.

The researchers rejected earlier Chinese and Ugaritic records of eclipses as unreliable, concluding that the Bible contains the only record of a solar eclipse prior to 1000 BCE.

Solar annular eclipse in Jinan, Republic of China, January 15, 2010. (CC BY-SA A013231, Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 10 of the Book of Joshua relates that soon after Joshua and the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they waged battle against five armies which laid siege to the Gibeonites. Joshua had promised to protect the Gibeonites, so he led an army and defeated the five kings. Joshua prayed that God help the Israelites in their battle by stopping the sun:

“Then Joshua spoke to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still [dom] upon Gibeon; and you, Moon, in the valley of Ayalon.’” (Joshua 10:12).

“If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place — the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means,” said paper co-author Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy.

“Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving,” Humphreys explained. “But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining.”

Humphreys said that if the biblical account means that the light from the sun appeared to stop shining, it may refer to an eclipse.

“This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated ‘stand still’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses,” he said.

The researchers note that they were not the first to interpret the words as referring to an astronomical event — Robert Wilson suggested it in 1918. However, until recently, it was impossible to confirm the exact date of the eclipse, due to the “laborious nature of the calculations required.”

More recently, researchers were unable to find any eclipse occurring during the time that the Israelites were in Canaan. However, they only considered total eclipses, where the moon passes between the sun and the earth, blocking the sunlight completely.

Merneptah Stele, circa 1208 BCE, known as the Israel stela, was discovered in 1896 and is now found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (CC-BY-SA, via Wikipedia)

Their new research found, however, that an annular eclipse, “in which the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but is too far away to cover the disc completely, leading to the characteristic ‘ring of fire’ appearance,” occurred on October 30, 1207 BCE.

The researchers note that the ancient world did not distinguish linguistically between total and annular eclipses.

“The researchers developed a new eclipse code, which takes into account variations in the Earth’s rotation over time,” Cambridge University said in its statement. “From their calculations, they determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC was on 30 October 1207 BC, in the afternoon.”

“Independent evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC can be found in the Merneptah Stele,” the Cambridge University statement said.

The paper then goes on to apply this event to precisely date the reigns of two ancient Egyptian pharaohs.

“Solar eclipses are often used as a fixed point to date events in the ancient world,” said Humphreys.

The Merneptah Stele, a “large inscribed granite block now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo,” was carved in the fifth year of the reign of Merneptah and describes his defeat of the Israelites in Canaan two or three years earlier.

Using the precise dating of the eclipse and the stele, the researchers were able to pinpoint the reigns of Merneptah and his father Ramesses the Great.

“Using these new calculations, the reign of Merneptah began in 1210 or 1209 BCE. As it is known from Egyptian texts how long he and his father reigned for, it would mean that Ramesses the Great reigned from 1276-1210 BCE, with a precision of plus or minus one year, the most accurate dates available.”

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