One day last week, a strange pack of 3D-like glasses showed up on our kitchen counter, and I remembered that on Monday, I will be in the direct path of a total solar eclipse. Where I live in Columbia, South Carolina, a city billing itself as “The Total Solar Eclipse Capital of the East Coast,” people will experience 2 minutes and 36 seconds of total solar joy.
Total solar eclipses are normal astronomical events that occur with surprising regularity. It is possible that Thales of Miletus was able to predict a solar eclipse in the 6th century BC; and modern astronomers can calculate their occurrences for millions of years in either direction, past or future. A total solar eclipse is visible from somewhere on earth almost every 18 months. Yet, most people may only come close enough to the thin trajectory to see this kind of eclipse once in a lifetime. The last total solar eclipse in the continental United States was in 1979; the last transcontinental total solar eclipse was 99 years ago in 1918.
Yet, eclipses remind us that what is rare for most humans is simply a regular astronomical event to God. To people, the occurrence of an eclipse is like a thousand years, but to God, its occurrence is like a day. Are they signs from God?
If so, it isn’t their irregularity that makes them special. Perhaps, it’s that God is working through the normal, natural cycle of our universe—ever-present, though not always noticed.
Total solar eclipses create spectacle whenever they occur. Though totally natural, they feel weird. Animals act strange, switching to a nighttime routine as the totality occurs, and eclipse chasers travel the world to see total solar eclipses whenever and wherever possible.
Communities all across the US, including churches in the path of totality, planned all kinds of special events. Where I live, some churches, such as Seacoast Church Columbia, encouraged folks to come out to an “eclipse party.” Other churches, such as First Baptist Church Columbia, gave out free eclipse glasses if you went to Sunday school.
Total solar eclipses create gloomy reactions in some people. Throughout history, people have understandably viewed them as a sign that something is wrong. For example, Plutarch records that during the Peloponnesian war, a solar eclipse struck fear in the Athenian Navy that was only dispelled by Pericles explaining how eclipses work. And in the Talmud, rabbis were known to discuss what types of eclipses were bad signs for what types of people. Even today, people are tempted to read an eclipse as a sign from God of bad things to come. Or, at least, newspapers are, to create clicks.
For Christians, our ideas about eclipses originate with our assumptions about astronomical events in biblical texts. We read how the sun became dark for Joshua, how the sky darkened during Jesus’ crucifixion, about the darkened sun on the day of the Lord in Joel, or about the sun turning black as sackcloth in Revelation. Some people look to regular astronomical events like total solar eclipses to help us understand those texts. In January, Israeli scientists pinpoint the date of a solar eclipse that could have occurred during the Joshua’s battle at Gilgal.
But, the events described in Joshua, Joel, and Revelation are not regular natural occurrences, they are special supernatural events. In Joshua, “the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” If a solar eclipse occurred that day, it would have lasted only minutes. God, in the rarest of occasions, interrupts time and space to make his point.
As Dale C. Allison, Jr., Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, explains, when Origen was debating the Christian antagonist Celsus, one way he defended the miracles of Jesus was to point to a record of an eclipse in the work of a pagan writer that potentially coincided with the three hours of darkness during the crucifixion. But apparently later in Origen’s life, he wrote a commentary on Matthew where he covers the issue in more detail. Here, Origen realizes that a simple eclipse cannot do justice to the biblical story.
Fans of eclipses may be disappointed to know that there are no clear-cut examples of eclipses recorded in the Bible. However, there is one clear use of eclipse in a book that was likely known to Jesus, Paul, James, and most of the first Christians. It occurs in the wisdom of Ben Sira, which many people today call Ecclesiasticus. In his book, popular among the Hebrew people in Jesus’ day, Ben Sira reaches a point where he calls on the people of God to repent of their sins. People are nothing compared to God; we don’t have the power to even change the course of our lives. “What is brighter than the sun? Yet it can be eclipsed,” he wrote. We humans like to revel in our splendor, but we are so naturally eclipsed by our brokenness.
With all the hype over the Great American Solar Eclipse, one might think that this regular, natural phenomenon has something important to say to us. It does, but it’s not a sign from God; rather, it’s a reminder from his creation that while we revel in our human splendor, it is no comparison to the greatness of God. We may chase after signs—or eclipses—but really what we should be chasing after is a humility before the goodness of our Creator.
Tomorrow my family and I will go out and see the eclipse—with appropriate safety glasses—not because I believe it is a sign from God but because I know it is more than that. It is a regular natural astronomical occurrence that lets me know I am but a small part of God’s grand creation. And I hope others come to know that, too.
Douglas Estes is an assistant professor of New Testament and practical theology and director of the DMin program at South University—Columbia. He is the author and editor of numerous books on biblical scholarship and the church, including Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 2017). He is the editor of the journal Didaktikos and a fellow at the Center for Pastor Theologians.