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There are several things I'd like to know about this passage:

And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the LORD on the third day?” And Isaiah said, “This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?” And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps.” And Isaiah the prophet called to the LORD, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz.—2nd Kings 20:8-11 (ESV)

  1. What is causing the shadow?
  2. How did the shadow move back ten steps?
  3. Why was it easier to go backward than forward?
  4. Why did Hezekiah need a sign in the first place?

The commentators assert that some type of sundial was implied, but I don't see where that idea comes from in the text. It looks like an educated guess.

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NASA interprets the passage:

...tells of an "accidental" sundial, in which the number of steps covered by the Sun's shadow on a staircase was used to measure the passage of time. In that story, the shadow miraculously retreated ten steps on the staircase built by King Ahaz.

The word translated "steps" also is translated as "degrees" (likely anachronistically) and is translated "dial" in the last verse (AV) as the "dial of Ahaz". If it were not an object such as as stairs or a sundial, then Ahaz possessed 'degrees' which would imply he had his own unit of measure for astrological movement perhaps, but not likely.

Using NASA's framework:

  1. The building that the stairs led to is the most probable source of the shadow, but a nearby statue would fare just as well.

  2. Speculation involves, that the earth rotated backwards, or pivoted on a different axis. Why we would look for a naturalistic mechanism when the text says God did it is beyond me. Both of these speculations carry massive geological upheavals if they occurred naturalistically. God would have had to miraculously cover these effects since there is no record of these massive upheavals. A better speculation is that time is not continuous, but quantized. Existence can change between one quantum state and another without having to pass through supposed intermediate states. If every moment is a newly created quantized state in the mind of God, then in the blink of a thought He can do as He wills.

  3. It was easier to go forward than backward. It happens every day when I fall asleep for a moment. He moved it backward.

  4. God was speaking to him through Isaiah. Isaiah offered the sign to prove that God was speaking through him. When someone comes claiming to speak for God, it would be fair to ask, "How do I know what you say is from Him?"

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    I agree that we don't need a naturalistic mechanism to explain it. It probably causes more problems than it solves as you indicated. Thanks for the well-grounded answer. +1 – Jon Ericson May 24 '12 at 23:23
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    I did a triple-take before I realized you were really quoting NASA. Good quote, tho. I agree with @JonEricson and you that a naturalistic explanation of a supernatural phenomenon is absurd. I'm puzzled why you went ahead and offered a speculation about it after that. +1 for helpful material. – Kazark May 25 '12 at 0:14
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    I don't see any problem with looking for a natural mechanism to explain a divine act. Many of the Bible's phenomenon can be described by natural phenomenon: the plagues of Egypt, the great flood, even Genesis. The question could be rephrased "by which existing natural mechanism did the divine being cause the shadow to move back" just as the divine being used natural mechanisms to cause the plagues of Egypt. – dotancohen Jun 18 '12 at 15:21
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    FWIW, there are probably many simpler ways to make the shadow go back than causing the earth to spin in the other direction (something that would probably have brought the building down and most likely end all life on earth.) A shadow is simply a light phenomenon. Block out the sun with a dark cloud and provide another light source in a different position, for example, or some sort of rain cloud causing a localized refraction effect, bending the shadow. – Fraser Orr Jan 3 '13 at 18:39
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    I agree that God can do things perfectly without any worry for side-effects - we can appreciate the massive physical challenges and problems associated with rotating the earth the wrong way etc, but these aren't physical challenges for the one who created physics. But... for what it's worth, the simplest solution would really be for God to just take the king back in time an hour or two. – Steve Taylor Apr 1 '16 at 8:18
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  1. I don't know what is causing the shadow. I don't think it matters too much. For this answer I will assume that the steps are literal, and the shadow is a building or some other structure. This seems like a reasonable assumption.

  2. With reference to the suggestions in the answer by Bob Jones: I think the 'Earth changed the direction of rotation for bit' answer is problematic (there would be a great deal of disruption doing this). Also 'Hezekiah went forward/back in time' answer isn't very appealing. That's not really making the shadow go backwards, is it. Some of the other speculative suggestions in that answer's comments seem equally far fetched/fanciful.

    To move a shadow you must move either the light source, or the object blocking the light source (or both). We are using the Earth as the frame of reference here, so I'll say that the sun is moving (even though it's really the Earth spinning). Normally, as the day progresses, the sun moves, and the shadow on the steps would move. This is 'forwards'. Wait long enough, and the shadow will move forward 10 steps (easy).

    Now, to make the shadow go backwards (hard) involves either changing the position of the light source, or the object that is making the shadow.

    I can think of 2 simpler possible ways of making the shadow go backwards:

    • The object making the shadow has the part of the top fall off, and this makes the shadow go back 10 steps. This, to me, is the simplest solution.

    • There was a meteor that briefly outshone the sun and caused another, stronger shadow that went back ten steps from where the sun's shadow was. See Chelyabinsk meteor videos for a recent example of a meteor brighter than the sun. You can even see the rapidly changing shadows in some videos. This doesn't change the sun's shadow, but adds another, brighter, light source. Depending on the direction of the meteor, it could look like the shadow is going back ten steps.

    Both of these, I think, would require one of Hezekiah's servants to be watching the steps for the sign predicted by Isaiah. Which I think is not an unreasonable assumption, given that Hezekiah was expecting this to happen, and he was likely too sick to get off his bed.

  3. It's actually the other way around. It is easier for the shadow to go forwards (caused by the natural motion of the sun in the sky) than backwards.

  4. Speculation: There were likely a number of false prophets around at this time (e.g. Isaiah 44:25). Perhaps in asking for a sign Hezekiah was trying to ensure the truthfulness of the prophecy (and prophet).

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The mechanism for turning the shadow back on the sundial or whatever they were looking at to determine the time is well explained by the documentation from many historical sources that was done by the scientist Immannuel Velikovsky. It is all well-documented at: http://www.jesus-resurrection.info/immanuel-velikovsky.html

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange Ray, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Feb 1 '17 at 10:38
  • We typically discourage link-only answers here, though this is an unorthodox question which isn't really asking about the meaning of the text, so I suppose answers may not involve the source passage at all. – Steve Taylor Feb 1 '17 at 10:40
  • I read the link. It seems to me that it is mostly poorly informed, speculative nonsense. I certainly wouldn't describe it as "well-documented". – cdjc Jan 23 '18 at 19:32

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