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Blog / Readers Turn to the Bible to Understand the 2017 Solar Eclipse

Readers Turn to the Bible to Understand the 2017 Solar Eclipse

Solar eclipseOn Monday, August 21, the sun went dark for a few remarkable minutes—and people around the world looked to the Bible to find out what it might mean.

Given the rarity and spectacular nature of total solar eclipses, it’s no surprise that people throughout history have wondered if eclipses held theological significance—and so it seems quite appropriate that people turned to the Bible for an explanation, as they did two years ago during a much-discussed lunar eclipse.

In the days leading up to the August 21 eclipse, Bible Gateway searches for the term “eclipse” spiked by over 4000%, while searches for “moon” jumped up 3500% over the normal search volume. Searches for related terms like “sun” also saw a notable increase. Thousands also took our quiz about the sun and moon in the Bible.

On the day of the solar eclipse, the top four keyword searches on Bible Gateway were:

  1. sun
  2. eclipse
  3. love
  4. moon

Notice a theme? Three of those terms are definitely new to the list of top keyword searches! (To see what the top Bible search terms look like on a more typical day, see our in-depth review of popular keyword searches on Bible Gateway.)

What Does the Bible Say About the Eclipse?

Sun stands stillYou might be surprised to learn that, despite the vaguely “biblical” and apocalyptic aura that surrounds eclipses in popular culture, the Bible does not directly mention solar eclipses, nor are eclipses tied to any specific biblical prophecies or predictions; the term “eclipse” does not occur at all in most English Bibles.

The sun and moon, however, are mentioned many times throughout Scripture—sometimes in mundane contexts, but occasionally as part of a miraculous intervention by God. Perhaps the most memorable such moment of solar manipulation by God (apart from the sun’s creation as recounted in Genesis 1) can be found in Joshua 10, when God caused the sun to stand still in the sky to ensure Israel’s victory in an important battle.

I said above that the Bible doesn’t directly mention solar eclipses, and that’s true. But there are numerous references throughout the Bible to the sun “darkening,” often in a miraculous or apocalyptic context. These references don’t detail a scientific, cosmological means for this darkening, nor is it always clear if this darkening (which is often applied to other stars and the moon as well as the sun) is an actual cosmological event or if it’s a theological assertion. But it’s not unreasonable to wonder if some of these instances might be referring to an eclipse.

When the Bible describes the unexpected and miraculous darkening of the sun, it’s always packed with theological significance. Perhaps the most famous such darkening is described in Exodus 10 as the “plague of darkness” inflicted on the Egyptians to convince them to release their Israelite slaves:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.

As the story doesn’t specify how the darkness came about, Bible readers and scholars have advanced many different theories about the nature of this darkness: a massive sandstorm, an eclipse, etc. But as is always the case when God asserts his control over the sun, the Bible directs our attention not to the mechanism of the miracle, but to its theological message: that God is sovereign over all Creation. Not even the sun, worshipped as a god by many ancient nations, falls outside God’s control. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible explains what this darkened sun meant to the ancient Israelites and their Egyptian captors:

From the perspective of the Egyptians, the absence of sunlight had profound meaning. They believed that the regular circling of the sun-god in the sky meant his blessing on Egypt. Any interruption in that cycle spelled disaster. Thus, this text seems to be targeting the sun-god, probably the most venerated deity in Egypt.

Throughout Egyptian history, the sun was worshiped as a manifestation of various deities, such as Atum, Re, Amun and Amun-Re. Pharaoh was also associated with the sun. Despite this ambiguity, the narrative of Exodus is once again claiming utter powerlessness for the king and the gods of Egypt. Moreover, darkness frequently turns up in Biblical texts as a symbol of judgment (Isa 8:22; Joel 2:2; Zep 1:15). Here, the Egyptian life force has been extinguished. For them, at this juncture in the narrative, the favor (or, at least, efficacy) of their gods has vanished. The wrath of the Hebrew deity has reached its most intense stage yet. Creation has been undone. Chaos has returned.

Another famous occurence of a darkened sun can be found in Mark’s account of the crucifixion (“At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon”). Was this a heavily overcast sky? A miraculous eclipse? A reference to symbolic, spiritual darkness during Jesus’ final hours on the cross? The gospel writer simply doesn’t say, nor is this a focal point of his account.

A Bible search for “eclipse” won’t turn up much, but searching for terms like “sun” and “dark” together show many references to a darkening sun, often in a prophetic context. Some of these references evoke the possibility of an eclipse, but many are hard to explain in modern astronomical terms, suggesting that these are spiritual points being made, not scientific ones.

These are difficult and fascinating verses that richly reward close study; if you’ve not yet put Bible Gateway’s commentaries and other study tools to use yet, these verses are a great place to start digging beneath the surface!

Filed under Bible Study, Prophecy