Biblical Record of Eclipse 3,200 Years Ago May Rewrite Pharaonic Era in Ancient Egypt

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Pharoah Ramses II (R) and Amun, the God of Light, standing out from the background thanks to dawn light rays landing right on them. The statues are in sitting position, and are flanked by other sitting figures, that we do not clearly see. The pharaonic image seems to be harrred. There are hieroglyphics on the wall behind them.
Pharoah Ramses II (R) and Amun, the God of Light Credit: Goran Tomasevic, Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

"Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.  And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed." Joshua 10: 12-13

The Bible is replete with stories of miracles, and now at least one has been reinterpreted to exclude the deity. Joshua may have asked the Lord to make the sun and moon stand still, but scientists have reconsidered previous objections, and now think the Book of Joshua describes a solar eclipse on October 30, 1207 B.C.E., over 3,220 years ago.

The Gibeon eclipse isn't the oldest such reference in ancient writing – that apparently would be an eclipse of around 4,150 years ago that peeved the emperor in China, but it's one of the oldest.

>>  Is the Bible a true story? A special Haaretz report <<

Ramses II (right) and prisonersCredit: A. Dagli Orti, Getty Images

The reinterpretation of event as eclipse rather than miracle (or coincidental with a miracle), plus clues from ancient Egyptian texts, have led historians to redate certain Egyptian dynasties, notably that of Ramesses II (aka the Great) and his son Merneptah, Sir Colin Humphreys of the University of Cambridge and W. Graeme Waddington report in Astronomy & Geophysics.

"That the eclipse occurred at exactly the time of the important battle that Joshua was fighting is either an amazing miracle of timing or else it was lucky chance (for Joshua!)," Dr. Humphreys wrote to Haaretz. "When one has a sequence of miracles, as there are in the Hebrew bible, which are either miracles of timing or lucky chance, it becomes inconceivable to me that they are all lucky chance! So I firmly believe that this was a miracle, an amazing miracle of timing."

Did a frog eat the sun?

To begin with the theory of eclipse, the authors suggest that rather than the sun and moon stopping in their celestial tracks, including based on the original Hebrew word, "a plausible alternative meaning is that the Sun and Moon stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining." This interpretation actually goes back at least a century, the authors themselves point out, to an article in the Princeton Theological Review of 1918.

King Ramses II (on the right, with conical hat) with Geb, god of earth, carved onto the walls of temples in El-Qantara.Credit: Egypt's Ministry of Culture, Reuters

"This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated 'stand still' [dom] has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses," Humphreys stated.

The Merneptah Stele, which states: "Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more." Not quite.Credit: Webscribe, Wikimedia Commons

Still, the eclipse theory not only didn't gain traction, it was discredited, in part because scientists couldn't reconcile the dates of total solar eclipses to the postulated timing of the Joshua story. But if one relates to annular solar eclipses, that changes things.

During a total eclipse, the moon is relatively near the Earth and basically blots out the whole sun. During an annular "ring of fire" eclipse, the moon is relatively farther, does not completely cover the sun, and a ring of light remains screamingly obvious.

It apparently took many millennia for our forefathers to distinguish between total and annular eclipses, not to mention to stop assuming a dragon or frog or some other beast had swallowed the light god.

Was there an annular solar eclipse in the right time frame for Joshua? There was, calculate the writers: on October 30, 1207 B.C.E., which is within the possible dates of Joshua's incursion into Canaan.

Having established that there was an annular eclipse on that day, we get to redating the pharaonic regimes of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah, to within a year.

When Merneptah woz here

King Solomon-era palace found in biblical Gezer, dating to about 3,200 years ago: Pharaoh Merneptah boasted that he had seized the city.Credit: Sam Wolff

While much of the Bible remains in dispute, third-party evidence of an ancient Israelite presence in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 B.C.E. comes from the Merneptah Stele.  That inscription dates to the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses the Great (aka Ramses).

Merenptah makes an offering to the god Ptah Credit: Chipdawes
The part of the Merenptah Stele showing the inscription saying "foreign nation Ysyreal" (line 27).

The stele describes Merneptah defeating the People of Israel in Canaan, ergo, the Israelites were definitely in Canaan by Merneptah's fifth year. The question is when that fifth year was.

Mainstream Egyptologists date Ramesses II's reign to around 1279–1213 B.C.E., and Merneptah's to 1213–1203 B.C.E. Others have suggested their reigns were decades later, and a whole new set of theories for ancient Egypt, called the “New Chronology,” puts Merneptah's fifth year at 867 B.C.E.

The new information indicates that the mainstreamers were closest all along: Merneptah's reign apparently began in 1210 or 1209 B.C.E. And Ramesses the Great, one of the most powerful pharaohs of the lot, ruled the roost from 1276 to 1210 B.C.E., plus-minus a year. His remains are on display at the Cairo Museum.

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