Sunday, June 25, 2017


No less than three accounts are provided by biblical authors regarding the unusual sign that God gave Hezekiah to assure him that his life would be extended. Isaiah had first announced to the king that his life was near its end, but when Hezekiah pleaded for a reprieve, Isaiah returned and told him that God had heard his prayer and would add another 15 years to his life. As a sign confirming this prediction, Yahweh invited Hezekiah to decide whether the shadow on the time-marker would move forward or backward, and Hezekiah chose backward. The details of the story are recounted both by Isaiah and the compiler of the Kings record (Isa. 38:1-8; 2 Kgs. 20:1-11), while the account in the Chroniclers’ History is very abbreviated (2 Chr. 32:24). That the accounts in Isaiah and 2 Kings are for the most part verbatim in the Hebrew text has convinced most scholars that one account is dependent on the other (Isaiah is likely the earlier one).

There are, however, some lingering questions about the incident. First, there is the nature of the time-instrument itself. The Masoretic Text of both Isaiah and 2 Kings describes it as a marker with “steps”, which suggests that the instrument was some sort of device that cast shadows on a wall as the sun moved through its daily course. The great Isaiah scroll recovered from the first cave at Qumran, however (1QIsaa), describes it as “the upper dial of Ahaz”. This description presumes that the instrument was inherited by Hezekiah and might very well have been of Assyrian origin due to Ahaz’ fascination with Assyrian devices (cf. 2 Kg. 16:10-18). Either way, Hezekiah’s remark that he wanted the shadow to move backward, since it was too simple to have the shadow move forward, seems a bit strange. From a modern point of view, whether the shadow moved forward or backward seems sufficiently miraculous by all definitions!

So how did the shadow move? We can immediately dismiss the legendary story that scientists at the Goodard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, using a sophisticated computer program, discovered a missing 40 minutes in the astronomical record. The scientists at Goddard have repeatedly disclaimed this story outright, but nonetheless, it has been floating around for decades in one form or another. A version of it was first published as far back as 1936 by Harry Rimmer, who in turn cited an otherwise unknown 1890s source. It was picked up by a gullible Harold Hill and repeated in a new and improved version in his 1974 book, How to Live Like a King’s Kid. Now, with the advent of the internet, it is still making the rounds, albeit in an updated fashion (see the debunking at A much more plausible explanation is that the moving shadow was related to a total solar eclipse (a total solar eclipse is when the moon completely blocks the sun, creating a short period of darkness). We know, for instance, that just such an eclipse occurred in 702 BC, the 16th year before Hezekiah would eventually die (you can find it online at NASA’s Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses), and unlike the story by Harold Hill, this one is not bogus.

Solar eclipses can create strange visual phenomena. If a “steps” device in Hezekiah’s court was shrouded in darkness for a short period and then restored to daylight, the shadow might very well have seemed to go backward. A solar eclipse seems a more likely explanation than some disruption of the planet’s daily revolution. Such total solar eclipses are rare (the last one in America extending coast-to-coast was in 1918, but Hawaii had one in 1991 and some of the western states saw one in 1979). Indeed, should you be interested, you’ll be able to see another on August 21, 2017, and it will be from coast to coast, its path of totality extending from Lincoln City, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, passing through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Darkness will last longest at Carbondale, Illinois (a few seconds beyond 2.5 minutes).

At the end of the day (to use a rather loaded metaphor in the present context), I suppose the real question concerns the legitimacy of biblical prophecy more than celestial disruption. The moving shadow was a predicted sign to Hezekiah, and Isaiah was to be regarded as a true prophet. If you can believe in a God who knows the future, then it was not hard for him to inform Hezekiah that the steps of the shadow would move backward. Was this the result of a total solar eclipse? There is no way to know for certain, of course, but in my mind this is a satisfactory explanation.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Why Should Pentecostals Become Orthodox Christians

I love these observations from The Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick, pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

I am . . . interested in how Pentecostals may come to find a home in Orthodoxy. In some ways, Pentecostals and Holiness believers may approach the Orthodox Church quite differently from mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals. Those more in touch with their Holiness roots will not find in Orthodoxy the moralism of their founders, but may nevertheless appreciate our ascetical emphasis on purity. Those who especially focus on healing from God may connect with our theology of salvation as a healing process. The highly interactive character of Pentecostal services may make the back-and-forth rhythms of liturgy more accessible. Some may be attracted by our sense that everyone has a "personal Pentecost" when he is chrismated, that that first Pentecost never truly ended. And Pentecostals who thrill at the stories of famous faith healers and fiery preachers will no doubt have their heads set spinning at the stories of the lives of the saints.

On a deeper level, I believe that one of the things that Pentecostals share with the Orthodox is a lack of fear of materiality when it comes to the spiritual life--something that distinguishes them from most Evangelicals and other Protestants, who tend to shun this as idolatry. The Orthodox believe that holiness can reside in physical things, including our own bodies, and so do Pentecostals. We may not engage in "grave soaking," [a practice among some Charismatic Christians in which a person will lie or kneel on a departed saint's grave in order to obtain his or her "mantle" as the prophet Elisha received from Elijah] but we certainly do like to visit the graves of saints and ask for their prayers. And we do have the sense that physical touch can be an important part of our connection with the saints. Our dedication to physical beauty and love for the mystical experience of worship with all five senses may be for a Pentecostal seeker a fulfillment of all his long hopes.

The appeal of Pentecostalism in all its forms is that it speaks directly to the real pain and suffering of people, to their need for healing and contact with God. While I do not believe that its methods and peculiar beliefs are the best way to do this (and in some cases are counterproductive), even the acknowledgement of this need in people is powerful and compelling. Orthodoxy, when truly lived, also sees the pain of mankind and offers true consolation and hope for resurrection.

While the Orthodox do not seek for God with the pursuit of ecstasy and the constant expectation of miracles, we do believe that He touches us directly in the holy sacraments. And I believe that it is this experience of the very touch of God that may appeal most to Pentecostals and bring them home into Orthodoxy.