Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Dial of Ahaz.

It is well known that everything is miraculous in the history of the Jews; the miracle performed in favor of King Hezekiah on the dial of Ahaz is one of the greatest that ever took place: it is evident that the whole earth must have been deranged, the course of the stars changed forever, and the periods of the eclipses of the sun and moon so altered as to confuse all the ephemerides. This was the second time the prodigy happened. Joshua had stopped the sun at noon on Gibeon, and the moon on Ascalon, in order to get time to kill a troop of Amorites already crushed by a shower of stones from heaven.

The sun, instead of stopping for King Hezekiah, went back, which is nearly the same thing, only differently described.

In the first place Isaiah said to Hezekiah, who was sick, “Thus saith the Lord, set thine house in order; for thou shalt die and not live.”

Hezekiah wept and God was softened; He signified to him, through Isaiah, that he should still live fifteen years, and that in three days he should go to the temple; then Isaiah brought a plaster of figs and put it on the king’s ulcers, and he was cured — “et curatus est.”

Hezekiah demanded a sign to convince him that he should be cured. Isaiah said to him, “Shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?” And Hezekiah answered, “It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees; let the shadow return backward ten degrees.” And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord, and He brought the shadow ten degrees backwards from the point to which it had gone down on the dial of Ahaz.

We should like to know what this dial of Ahaz was; whether it was the work of a dialmaker named Ahaz, or whether it was a present made to a king of that name, it is an object of curiosity. There have been many disputes on this dial; the learned have proved that the Jews never knew either clocks or dials before their captivity in Babylon — the only time, say they, in which they learned anything of the Chaldæans, or the greater part of the nation began to read or write. It is even known that in their language they had no words to express clock, dial, geometry, or astronomy; and in the Book of Kings the dial of Ahaz is called the hour of the stone.

But the grand question is to know how King Hezekiah, the possessor of this clock, or dial of the sun — this hour of stone — could tell that it was easy to advance the sun ten degrees. It is certainly as difficult to make it advance against its ordinary motion as to make it go backward.

The proposition of the prophet appears as astonishing as the discourse of the king: Shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees? That would have been well said in some town of Lapland, where the longest day of the year is twenty hours; but at Jerusalem, where the longest day of the year is about fourteen hours and a half, it was absurd. The king and the prophet deceived each other grossly. We do not deny the miracle, we firmly believe it; we only remark that Hezekiah and Isaiah knew not what they said. Whatever the hour, it was a thing equally impossible to make the shadow of the dial advance or recede ten hours. If it were two hours after noon, the prophet could, no doubt, have very well made the shadow of the dial go back to four o’clock in the morning; but in this case he could not have advanced it ten hours, since then it would have been midnight, and at that time it is not usual to have a shadow of the sun in perfection.

It is difficult to discover when this strange history was written, but perhaps it was towards the time in which the Jews only confusedly knew that there were clocks and sun-dials. In that case it is true that they got but a very imperfect knowledge of these sciences until they went to Babylon. There is a still greater difficulty of which the commentators have not thought; which is that the Jews did not count by hours as we do.

The same miracle happened in Greece, the day that Atreus served up the children of Thyestes for their father’s supper.

The same miracle was still more sensibly performed at the time of Jupiter’s intrigue with Alcmena. It required a night double the natural length to form Hercules. These adventures are common in antiquity, but very rare in our days, in which all things have degenerated.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25