There is a passage in the Bible that reads “Sun, stand still [Hebrew dôm] at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped [Hebrew 'amad], until the nation took vengeance on their enemies."
Now, a lot of the Bible is not to be taken literally. Though there may be evidence of great floods throughout history, it's unlikely the entirety of Earth's animal life went boating. But in 2017, one passage caught the attention of astronomers Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington. They believed, based on further translations of the text and astronomical knowledge, that the passage could be referring to a solar eclipse.
"The Hebrew word dôm means to be silent, dumb or still. The term 'amad is a broader word meaning to stop or stand. Modern English translations of this passage, such as the NRSV [New Revised Standard Version] quoted above, have all followed the King James Authorized Version (KJAV) of The Bible, translated in 1611, and assumed that the Hebrew text means that the Sun and Moon stopped moving," the team write in their paper, which was published in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics.
"However, a plausible alternative meaning is that the Sun and Moon stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining. In other words the text is referring to a solar eclipse, when the Sun stops shining."
It had already been shown that no full eclipses took place in this region during the potential time period for the battle. However, the team believed that it could be referring to a partial eclipse. A later passage in the book of Joshua states that “the Sun did not hurry to set for about a whole day”. The team believe that this could have been due to dips in the light as the eclipse came close to dusk.
"In the afternoon the light from the Sun on Canaan started decreasing from its normal level at about 15:30 until at about 16:50 it was approximately 10 times less intense than normal and dusk set in," the team wrote.
"However, by around 17:10 the level of illumination would have been somewhat restored before dusk fell again and then the Sun finally set at about 17:38. In pre-scientific cultures such an unexpected deviation from normal behaviour on the part of the Sun could only inspire awe and the perceived change in the ambient light level would naturally lend itself to description in terms of the normal order of things – namely, dusk. What the Israelites would have witnessed was a double dusk."
They note that in the leadup to the eclipse the Moon is in conjunction, meaning that the Moon was not bright in the sky. They speculate that the Israelites – who were well aware of this cycle – could have used the darkened skies as a way to mask their initial attack at Gibeon.
The astronomers looked for potential solar eclipses, using some information to help them narrow down the search for an eclipse. They knew the rough estimates of dates of rulers involved in the battle. Merneptah, for example, is dated as having lived from 1213–1203 BCE, or as late as 1204–1194 BCE. They were only able to find one eclipse that was visible from the potential battlefields in a span of almost 500 years.
"From our calculations we find that the only annular eclipse visible from Gibeon between 1500 and 1050 BC [...] was on 30 October 1207 BC, in the afternoon."
The study has implications beyond dating a biblical battle.
"We have dated it to 30 October 1207 BC, making it possibly the oldest datable solar eclipse recorded," the team wrote in their paper. "This enables us to refine the dates of certain Egyptian pharaohs, including Ramesses the Great. It also suggests that the expressions currently used for calculating changes in the Earth's rate of rotation can be reliably extended back 500 years, from 700 BC to 1200 BC."