An annular eclipse.
At that time Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, 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 the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. – Joshua 10:12-13 (ESV)
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently announced a discovery in the Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy & Geophysics, which they propose gives an answer to the mysterious Old Testament miracle of Joshua where he commands the sun and moon to stand still during the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan (Joshua chapter 10). In the process they believe they have demonstrated this to be the first solar eclipse ever on record.
According to their research, this event took place in 1207 BC. If confirmed, not only would this discovery date the biblical conquest of Canaan, they believe it could calibrate Egypt’s timeline and “date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.” Additionally, they claim that “if accepted, this would conclusively rule out the New Chronology” of David Rohl and others. But, is this really true? When looking at this issue more closely, it becomes apparent that many of these claims go far beyond the reach of this evidence. So strap on your thinking caps and let’s examine the information.
The Book of Joshua describes an astronomical event of biblical proportions, described at the top of this article. This happened during the first year of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua, 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. The passage includes the idea of the sun and moon standing still and stopping. Professor Sir Colin Humphreys, head of research at the university’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, along with his colleague, astrophysicist Graeme Waddington, believe that the text could be referring to actual events, which they conclude to be a solar eclipse. The pair have a keen interest in linking scientific knowledge to the events of the Bible. “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 Professor Sir Colin Humphreys in a news release issued by his university.
“Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving,” said Humphreys. “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. In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. 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.”
Joshua commanding the sun to stand still upon Gibeon by Joshua Martin ( 1816 – Public Domain)
Humphreys and Waddington concluded that Joshua may have in fact recorded the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded. To show that the 1207 BC date is the oldest, they looked at the earliest recorded solar eclipses that have previously been suggested to show that there have been no reliable references to solar eclipses being observed before 1000 BC. The other proposed texts simply do not seem to refer to eclipses at all.
Some earlier historians had also suggested that this Joshua passage refers to a solar eclipse, but they failed to arrive at a specific date because of the laborious calculations that would have been required. Later, others gave up on the idea of associating this event with a solar eclipse because they were only looking at total eclipses, and the computer models for past eclipses showed that there were none in Canaan in the period surrounding the Exodus.
A total solar eclipse is where the moon passes between the Earth and the sun and completely covers the disc of the sun. This was the type of eclipse witnessed across a swath of America in August of 2017. For those on either side of the thin band of totality, only a portion of the sun was obstructed. The experience in these areas would be similar to a partial eclipse, when the moon is not centered over the sun, so only covers a portion of it. For those in the path of totality, once the sun is completely covered, its corona (atmosphere) becomes visible as glowing light radiating from around the rim of the moon.
Unlike previous attempts to date the first solar eclipse, the model of the Oxford scholars analyzes not only total eclipses but annular eclipses as well. An annular eclipse is when the moon is centered over the sun, but the moon does not completely cover the sun. This is because the moon’s orbit around Earth is elliptical, not circular. Therefore, in areas of the orbit where it is closer to Earth, it is able to completely cover the sun. But in those parts of its orbit that are farthest from Earth, it is too distant to completely cover the sun. During annular eclipses, there is a ring of direct sunlight that blazes around the edge of the moon. There is evidence that in the ancient world, the same word was used for total and annular eclipses. By looking at the broad span of time between 1550 and 1050 BC, they found that an annular eclipse had passed right through Canaan in the area of Gibeon at one, and only one, time – in 1207 BC.
Map of ancient Canaan showing the route taken by the Israelites, starting at Gilgal, according to Joshua chapter 10. (From Collin Humphrey’s article courtesy of Colin Bell at Tyndale House, Cambridge.)
To reach their conclusion of a precise date, the researchers came up with a new eclipse code, which is essentially a computer code designed “to calculate the dates of past and future eclipses” by taking into account the variations in our planet’s rotation over time. Their data matched information from NASA for past eclipses. From their calculations, they determined this annular eclipse was visible in Canaan on the afternoon of October 30th, 1207 BC.
Together, Humphreys and Waddington compared the biblical passage of Joshua to the Merneptah Stele, which is a monument erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, who is the favored pharaoh of the Exodus by most mainstream scholars. This allowed them to come up with precise dates for both Ramesses II and his son Merneptah. The lengths of the reigns of these two pharaohs are known from various inscriptions, but the exact dates are a bit flexible, even when using conventional chronology. However, the results of their study are claimed to determine the dates for these pharaohs that are accurate to within one year.
The top half of the Merneptah Stele, followed by the highlighted section mentioning Israel. (copyright Patterns of Evidence, LLC)
The Merneptah Stele says it was inscribed in the 5th year of Merneptah’s reign, and it mentions a defeat of a people called “Israel” in the lands north of Egypt. According to the Bible, the Israelites first entered Canaan during the conquest under Joshua. By surmising that the confrontation mentioned on the stele happened in year 2, 3 or 4 of Merneptah, and with Joshua’s eclipse occurring in 1207 BC, they arrived at dates for Merneptah’s reign as between 1210 BC and 1200 BC ( ±1 year) and the dates for Ramesses II being 1276–1210 BC (±1 year). These dates are 3 years later than the current standard view of Egyptian chronology.
The implications of this idea are more drastic for the possibility of shifting Egypt’s timeline significantly, as proposed by David Rohl, John Bimson and others. “If accepted, this would conclusively rule out the ‘New Chronology’ of Rohl (1995) and others for ancient Egyptian Pharaohs” Humphrey writes.
This is a major claim. Humphreys and Waddington are brilliant scientists, but that does not mean that their conclusions in this instance are sound. The event described in the Bible may actually have been an eclipse, but then again, it may not have been. To use a possible connection between the 1207 BC eclipse and Joshua’s event as the basis to date the Bible and Egyptian history seems tenuous at best.
More importantly, there is a massive part of argument from these researchers that remains unstated. The unstated premise here is that the confrontation between Merneptah and Israel should be associated with the time of the eclipse. However, there is absolutely no reason given for this association. Even if one assumes (for the sake of argument) that the 1207 BC eclipse is the miracle of Joshua, that would still say nothing as to how that might relate to Merneptah or to the time of his reported confrontation with Israel. Yet this unstated premise is the key to their argument.
The Bible has the Israelites in Canaan from the beginning of the Conquest through the destruction of the Temple in about 586 BC, so this gives a span of many centuries for a potential conflict between Egypt and Israel. Why choose the first year of that span as the date when Merneptah’s reference on the stele must have occurred?
The only reason to associate Merneptah’s stele with Israel’s conquest of Canaan appears to be the tradition that the Exodus happened during the reign of Ramesses II. This would mean the conclusions of this research paper act as a grand circular argument, assuming that the conquest happened in the time of Merneptah, and then using a possible Joshua eclipse date of 1207 BC to claim that this proves that Merneptah reigned at the time of the conquest in 1207 BC.
Besides the faulty logic of this reasoning, there are other reasons to question the conclusions of the paper. For one, if it is granted that Joshua may have been describing an eclipse, why would an annular eclipse be the only candidate to fit the description and not a partial eclipse?
Even when tiny parts of the sun are exposed, the sun’s blinding disk is too brilliant to look at with the naked eye. This is even true when 99% of the sun is covered. During the annular eclipse of 1207 BC a maximum of only 86% of the solar disc’s area was covered by the moon. It is only when the sun is covered by haze or a thin cloud – or filtered by the atmosphere near sunrise/sunset that anything but a total eclipse can be directly observed with the human eye. Since the account in Joshua speaks of a hailstorm of huge magnitude during the battle, cloud cover of varying thickness could have been experienced. It would be at these times that an eclipse (whether annular or partial) could have been directly observed if a veil of clouds dimmed the sun. The phenomena could also be seen as the sun sunk low in the atmosphere. The point is that a partial eclipse would have been experienced in much the same way as an annular eclipse. In both cases the moon and sun would be seen as standing still together and not shining as they normally do. They could also both be interpreted as an evil omen by Israel’s enemies.
The article by Humphreys and Waddington prompted rabbinic scholar Eli Gurevich to contact David Rohl with this idea of a partial eclipse fitting the requirements just as much as an annular eclipse. He referenced the NASA eclipse tables, which show partial eclipses typically crossing Canaan several times in every decade. Remarkably, a total eclipse passes just north of Canaan on July 14, 1406 BC (one year needs to be added to the NASA numbers to arrive at the correct BC date). This would line up perfectly with a common early date proposed for the Exodus of 1446 BC, with the Conquest starting in 1406 BC.
The solar eclipse of 1406 BC with the blue band showing the zone of totality (courtesy of the NASA website)
Another interesting possibility has to do with the is the reference of the sun standing still at Gibeon and the moon at Aijalon. Since Canaan experienced the last part of the eclipse, the sun’s disk would be more exposed on the right or east side of the pair, and the dark moon would take up most of the left or east side. This would correspond to Gibeon being to the east, and Aijalon being to the west (see map above).
Solomon began to build the temple for the Lord in the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, in the second month, in the month of Ziv. – 1 Kings 6:1 (ESV)
An additional reason to question the designation of the eclipse of 1207 BC as the only candidate to date the conquest, are the 20 factors from archaeology and the Bible that demonstrate that Ramesses II just does not fit with as the pharaoh of the Exodus. Some of these are highlighted in the documentary film and more are found in the book, both with the title Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus. Some examples from the Bible include the fact that 1 Kings 6:1 has the Exodus occurring in the 480th year before Solomon began work on the Temple, which would put it in the 1400s BC not the 1200s. Many try to dismiss this verse as merely being symbolic for a shorter period, but a statement by one of Israel’s judges named Jephthah supports a straightforward interpretation of the 1 Kings 6:1 chronology. It has the Israelites already in the land for about 300 years, long before the time that Israelite kings began to reign.
“While Israel lived 300 years in Heshbon and its villages, in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, why didn’t you take them back at that time?” – Judges 11:26 (ESV)
In fact there are other indications in the Bible that show the Judges period lasted many centuries (not the 150 years given to it by the Ramesses Exodus Theory), which necessarily pushes the Exodus centuries before a 1200s BC date. For example, the book of 1 Chronicles (6:31-47) gives the family tree of one of the singers in King David’s court after the ark was brought to Jerusalem in his 7th year. It gives 18 generations from that time back to Ebiasaph the son of Korah who went out in the Exodus. Since David’s 8th year was at least as far back as 1002 BC (some systems have him even earlier), that would require an average time between generations of about 13.6 years with a mid 1200s BC Exodus. Not very likely. For a mid 1400s BC Exodus, the average time between these 18 generations becomes a much more normative 24.7 years.
Additionally, The Bible has Moses being born around the time of the building of the city Rameses (Exodus chapter 1), which is the main basis of the Ramesses Exodus Theory. But the conquest happens 120 years later, after Moses’ death. For a 1207 BC Conquest that would mean the city of Ramesses was being built around 1327 BC, 27 years before Ramesses was born in Humphreys’ system. The Bible says in two places says that the pharaoh who sought Moses’ life (40 years after Moses’ birth) died before the Exodus (when Moses was 80). Therefore the builder of the store city of Rameses could not possibly also be the pharaoh of the Exodus.
Now in Midian the Lord told Moses, “Return to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” – Exodus 4:19 (ESV)
Then there is the archaeological evidence that shows no sign of massive numbers of Semites in Goshen during his reign, no sign of a collapse of Egypt as would be expected at the time of Exodus, and no pattern matching the Conquest of Canaan after his reign. That is why mainstream scholars have become so skeptical of the Exodus account.
These are just a few of the evidences that show that Ramesses was not the pharaoh of the Exodus and that Merneptah was not the pharaoh at the time of the conquest. When does the conquest account speak of a confrontation with Egypt anyway? For the Humphreys model to be factual, Egypt would have to have defeated Israel at a time when the Bible has the Israelites conquering city after city on their way to controlling most of Canaan. Nothing in this scenario adds up.
It is possible that the Book of Joshua was describing a solar eclipse, but even if one were to favor that view, there is no reason to confine this phenomena to a annular eclipse or to a 1207 BC date. Other eclipses occurring in Canaan in the 1400s BC fit the requirements just as well and match the Bible’s own timeline much better. Furthermore, the evidence of an eclipse in Canaan in 1207 BC (whether or not it is related to the Israelites’ Conquest) gives no reason to connect that event to the reign of Merneptah who in no other way (except by tradition) is connected to the Exodus or Conquest time period.
A close examination of the evidence and the arguments reveals that there is no reason to think that these findings have anything to do with Egypt’s dates or the debate between the New Chronology and the standard view of Egyptian Chronology. Keep Thinking!