"It was a quarter past two when Moses parted the waters..."
February 3, 2009 12:32 AM   Subscribe

Are specific times of day ever mentioned in the Old Testament or in its apocryphal writings?

I know that somewhere in the New Testament it talks about Jesus doing something on the "9th hour of the 14th day of " etc.

But specifically in the Old Testament, are there any mentions of "noon" or "three hours past dawn" or anything like that? My google-fu is plumb tuckered out.

I'm also interested in any Biblical references to time that come from an astronomical perspective, like if the Old Testament references a particular arrangement of constellations overhead when something was happening.

The more specific you can be, the better! Thanks!
posted by np312 to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Deuteronomy 28:29

At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.

Genesis 43:16

When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, "Take these men to my house, slaughter an animal and prepare dinner; they are to eat with me at noon."
posted by zippy at 12:57 AM on February 3, 2009

I think that the old testament was a little before the concept of time got broken down into hours for all but the most obscure religious practices.
posted by 517 at 1:14 AM on February 3, 2009

The old testament is nothing if not a very long study of "obscure religious matters". The ridiculous inventories. The endless genealogies. And the shellfish! Oh, my the shellfish!

A couple more:

Exodus 12:2
And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt...

1 Kings 18:27
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them...

There are lots of these. But even though the Egyptians (at least) had a 24-hour clock (12 for day and 12 for night) in 1500 BC, I don't think you'll find any 3:30's. :)
posted by rokusan at 3:34 AM on February 3, 2009

I can't think of a more specific reference than what people have mentioned--noon, midnight, sunrise, sunset. But here are two more texts you might look at:

1 In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."

2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, 3 "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

4 Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: 5 "Go and tell Hezekiah, 'This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. 6 And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city.

7 " 'This is the LORD's sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised: 8 I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.' " So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.

Isaiah 38:1-8

This text has often been understood to indicate that the progression of the shadow down the steps of Ahaz served as a sort of simple sundial, and that rolling the shadow up ten steps demonstrates God's power to give more time. If he can add ten steps' worth of time to the day, he can add 15 years' to Hezekiah's life. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only indication in the OT that there was some way, even informally, of breaking down the day into smaller, measurable units. Presumably, one could say "I'll meet you back here when the shadow is on the sixth step." But this is speculative.

As far as noting constellations when something was happening--this is a little different, but if you look at Joshua 10, the famous account of the sun standing still, Joshua said:

"O sun, stand still over Gibeon,
O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon."

The sun and moon, of course, were thought to make a trek across their appointed path above a flat earth each day, so in theory, the could stop exactly above a certain point. This is a reference to that belief, and is a way of trying to indicate at what point in their journeys their movement stopped.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:43 AM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also, there were specific references to constellations occasionally. If you search an online Bible for "Pleiades" you'll see two references in Job and this one in Amos 5:8-9:

he who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns blackness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the LORD is his name-

he flashes destruction on the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin,

I don't know whether that indicates that that the constellations were used to mark time, but the references do come in close proximity to sunrise and sunset, so it's certainly a possibility.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:51 AM on February 3, 2009

I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the bible like Pater Aletheias, but I went a-searching. Most mentions of time of day seemed to use either "morning" or "evening", but I found a few references to noon, like zippy and rokusan above:

Nehemiah 8:3
And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.

Psalm 55:17
Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.

Jeremiah 20:16
And let that man be as the cities which the LORD overthrew, and repented not: and let him hear the cry in the morning, and the shouting at noontide;

There were also some references to more specific times, but they were based on occurrences rather than numbers:

Genesis 24:11
And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water.

Joshua 2:5
And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.

2 Chronicles 18:34
And the battle increased that day: howbeit the king of Israel stayed himself up in his chariot against the Syrians until the even: and about the time of the sun going down he died.

Daniel 9:21
Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation.

I came across this passage and wondered if it might be responsible:

Leviticus 19:26
Ye shall not eat any thing with the blood: neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe times.

but other translations tend to have "times" as "omens", "auguries", etc. so it's probably a red herring.

I'm sorry I couldn't find anything specific like you were asking for, but I hope these were of some use!
posted by daelin at 5:05 AM on February 3, 2009

1 Kings 18:29: "And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention." Two particular times are referenced here: noon, and "the time of the oblation," suggesting some specific point in the evening. But I've no idea what that is either.

In Nehamiah, the prophet Ezra read from the Book of the Law at the Water Gate "from early morning until midday."

Samson tore off the gates of Hebron at "midnight", which is also the time at which the Tenth Plague of Egypt occurred. But "midnight" probably refers to some point about halfway through the night, but does not appear to have been accurately determined. Which makes sense, because without artificial light sources apart from fire, which gets expensive, there wasn't all that much for decent people to do in the middle of the night.

David saw Bathsheeba for the first time "late one afternoon".

The word "noon" shows up more than twenty times in the translation I'm using, but more than half of them are from the Prophets or the Writings and used to suggest broad daylight rather than any specific point in time.

Both "morning" and "evening" show up over one hundred times, but that includes "and there was evening and there was morning, the nth day" in Genesis 1, which gives you the kind of specificity we're talking about here. Occasionally you'll find "early in the morning," but in general it seems to refer to "around sunrise or shortly thereafter." "Evening" is even less specific.

There are several astronomical references in the Old Testament, but if we filter out those which simply refer to the existence of sun, moon, and stars as a measure of God's glory, we aren't left with much. Specific constellations are mentioned occasionally, as indicated above, but infrequently, often in poetry, and they generally aren't connected with the measurement of time in any clear way. As the seasons in the Levant are basically limited to summer and winter, both relatively mild (it rarely freezes), there are no references to "spring" or "autumn" to speak of.

To be honest though, if you really want to get at this you're going to need to get yourself a Hebrew concordance, with which you can trace specific words throughout the Old Testament regardless of how they are rendered in English. But even then, I don't think you're going to find much to go on. Pre-industrial societies generally measured the day in terms of the movement of the sun, and "morning," i.e. "sunrise," "midday," and "evening," i.e. "sunset" were about as specific as people needed to be, there being no reliable way of dividing time into smaller, universally recognizable increments. Water clocks, sundials, hourglasses and the like have existed since early antiquity, but these were expensive, not portable, and not all that reliable, i.e. if you forget to flip the hourglass or fill the water clock you have to wait until tomorrow to be accurate again, and sundials are completely useless at night.
posted by valkyryn at 5:37 AM on February 3, 2009

Some more regarding the steps of Ahaz from one of my commentaries.

A sign, to be effective, must usually contradict the ordinary or expected course of events. In this instance, the sun’s shadow moves backwards, i.e., from east to west instead of the usual west to east, as the sun advances in the opposite direction. This was measured on the steps of Ahaz, which were built by Hezekiah’s father and on which, by design or accident, on an ordinary day a shadow marked the movement of the sun down the steps. On this day, the shadow would move back up ten steps. This was to be Hezekiah’s sign.
These did not necessarily represent hours, nor must this be understood to have been a sundial as the Targum’s אבן שעיא “stone of hours” and many interpreters suggest (cf. BDB, 752; L. Borchardt, Altägyptische Zeitmessung, Die geschichte der Zeitmessung und der Uhren, IB, ed. E. von Bassermann-Jordan [Berlin: DeGruyter, 1920]; R. W. Sloley, “Primitive Methods of Measuring Time,” JEA 17 [1931] 166–78; J. Iwry, BASOR 147 [1957] 27–33; Y. Yadin, “The Dial of Ahaz,” Eretz Israel 5 [1959] 91–96; P. Welten, “Sonnenuhr,” BLex 1616; and discussion by Wildberger, 1453). There is no word in ancient Hebrew for “hour.” Herodotus (ii, 109) attributes the discovery of the sundial and the division of the day into hours to the Babylonians. Palestinian archaeologists have found a sundial in Egyptian Gezer (Welton, BLex, 1616b–1617a). But Israel certainly had steps (מעלות, ἀναβάθμοι) which provided convenient measuring points for the sun’s shadow whether it was made by a pole or a protruding corner of the house.
John D. W. Watts, vol. 25, Word Biblical Commentary : Isaiah 34-66, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 52.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:44 AM on February 3, 2009

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