08.21.17 | Stories | by Joe Carter
Today (Monday, August 21, 2017), everyone in North America will be able to see—at least partially—the event being dubbed the “Great American Eclipse.” This is the first total eclipse viewable in the contiguous U.S. since 1979 (the next one won’t be until April 8, 2024).
Here are 9 things you should know about eclipses and their religious significance:
1. A solar eclipse is a celestial event in which the moon passes between the sun and Earth and blocks all or part of the sun. The effect can last up to about three hours, from beginning to end, though for this eclipse, the longest period when the moon completely blocks the sun from any given location along the path will be about two minutes and 40 seconds. (To see this eclipse for the maximum amount of time, you’ll need to be in a spot about six miles southeast of Carbondale, Illinois.)
2. The term eclipse is derived from the Latin eclipsis which itself is derived from Greek ekleipsis meaning “an abandonment,” literally “a failing, forsaking,” from ekleipein “to forsake a usual place, fail to appear, be eclipsed.” During a solar eclipse the sun isn’t actually “abandoning” or “forsaking” us; what causes the darkness is that we are in the shadow of the moon.
3. Contrary to a popular myth, the earth is not the only planet that has total solar eclipses. However, the earth is the only planet in our solar system from which such an event could be seen from a planet’s surface. Neither Mercury nor Venus has moons, so they have no eclipses at all. Mars has two moons but they are too small to block out the sun. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all have moons that are large enough but these planets are made of gas so you couldn’t stand on their surface to see the total eclipse. That leaves the Earth as the best planet in our solar system to see a total eclipse.
4. Many ancient cultures attributed solar eclipses to either the moon or the sun being eaten by animals or demons. In Chinese folklore an eclipse is caused by a black dog or dragon eating the sun, while in Vietnam a giant frog does the solar devouring. The Chocktaw tribe of North America attributed the phenomena to a black squirrel biting the sun, while Hindu mythology claims the sun is eaten by the demon Rahu. In almost every culture that holds this “sun-eating” belief, the solution is to make a loud noise—a method that has proven to be 100 percent effective in getting the sun to return.
5. In several religious cultures (including Christianity), an eclipse is related to an impending apocalypse—either literally or symbolically. In Norse mythology two giant wolfs, Skoll and Fenrir, chased the sun and moon and if they swallowed the celestial entities it would lead to Ragnorok (the apocalypse). In Mayan cultures, a solar eclipse that lasted more than a day was a sign of the end of the world, a time when the spirits of the dead will come to life and eat those on earth.
6. Based on an interpretation of Genesis 1:14, Rabbinic Judaism considers celestial events to be signs from God: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs…’” An eclipse (a luminary being stricken) is a prime example of such a sign. As the Talmud states:
When the luminaries are stricken, it is an ill omen for the world. To what can we compare this? To a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and set a lantern to illuminate the hall. But then he became angry with them and said to his servant: “Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.”
Jewish scholars knew eclipses were predictable events, yet still considered them related to human actions. As Yehuda Shurpin explains, “An eclipse is not caused by sin. Rather, it is an indication of a trying time, a time when there is a natural predisposition for sin, and for strict judgment of that sin.”
7. Throughout history, Christians have claimed specific solar eclipses as prophetic signs (the latest eclipse is no exception). These claims are based on several verses in the Bible that are often associated with eclipses and divine judgment: Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7, Joel 2:10, Joel 2:31, Joel 3:15, Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, Revelation 6:12, and Revelation 8:12
8. Rather than a sign of impending doom, most Christians consider the religious significance of eclipses to be that they reveal the majesty of our Creator (Psalm 19:1). As astronomer Hugh Ross says, “I don’t think it’s an accident that God put us human beings here on Earth where we can actually see total solar eclipses. I think God wants us to make these discoveries. I would argue that God on purpose made the universe beautiful, and one of the beauties is a solar eclipse.”