A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the earth. On August 21st, 2017, a total eclipse will be visible in parts of North America. The path of the eclipse will span from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina casting a shadow on the Earth’s surface, estimated at 62 miles wide as it moves across the path at approximately 2,485 miles per hour. Scientists say that the total eclipse will be visible for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, in each location along the path, as it passes across the United States. This eclipse is indeed a rare event. According to an article in the Washington Post, this is “the first time the path of totality will eclipse only over the contiguous United States,” further adding that it will not occur again until 2045. Is this to be taken as a sign of impending doom, somehow signaling the progression of darkness from west to east in America? No, but there will no doubt be plenty of pseudo-prophets and doomsday teachers that suggest precisely this.
Since biblical times, people have looked to the heavens for signs, especially when such signs involve the “two great lights” (Genesis 1:16). The earliest reference to our heavenly luminary bodies is in fact associated with “signs.”
“God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.” And it was so.”
(Genesis 1:14–15 JPS)
When these lights fail to shine, or give their light as the ancient writers sometimes put it, there is an association with a fearful message to the inhabitants of earth.
“Before them earth trembles, Heaven shakes, Sun and moon are darkened, and stars withdraw their brightness.”
(Joel 2:10 JPS)
“Sun and moon are darkened, and stars withdraw their brightness.”
(Joel 4:15 JPS)
“Before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes, I will set portents in the sky and on earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke; The sun shall turn into darkness and the moon into blood.”
(Joel 3:3–4 JPS)
“And in that day —declares my Lord GOD— I will make the sun set at noon, I will darken the earth on a sunny day.”
(Amos 8:9 JPS)
“The stars and constellations of heaven Shall not give off their light; The sun shall be dark when it rises, And the moon shall diffuse no glow.”
(Isaiah 13:10 JPS)
The passages listed above may not refer to the phenomena we now call a solar eclipse, but are included to make the point that within biblical literature, darkness in the heavens is unexpected and this unusual event is often used to convey heaven’s displeasure. According to the Book of Exodus, one of the plagues involved darkness for 3 days (Exodus 10:21-23), and according to the Christian gospels, the crucifixion narrative contains a darkness over the entire land which lasted 3 hours (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, and Luke 23:44-45), but neither of these can be associated with a solar eclipse.
A recent article in BAR however, written by Frederick Baltz, suggests that the Bible has one possible account of an eclipse that was interpreted as a divine sign. In, “An Eclipse of Biblical Proportions,” Baltz, proposes that an eclipse that occurred on March 5th, 702 BCE, may have produced a moving shadow on a staircase as described in the Hebrew Bible (II Kings 20:1-11; Isaiah 38:1-7; II Chronicles 32:24).
In biblical literature, the sun’s failure to give its light, even when associated with heaven’s displeasure is a temporary sign and never indicates a ceasing of the normal function of the heavenly bodies. According to Genesis, day and night will not cease (8:22). One need not know how to interpret the appearance of the sky to interpret the signs of the times anyway. Perhaps, rather than staring into the heavens and worrying about the 3 second absence of light, we should focus our energies on being a light to those around us.
Darkness will be followed by the light of day. If you find yourself in a dark place, you can rest assured that the sun will not always fail to give its light. So, put on your special glasses and enjoy the rare sight without fear that the moon’s shadow is heralding impending doom for the United States. Wait for the shadow to pass, and the darkness to retreat, for as the Beatles put it, here comes the sun!