Last night (or early morning depending upon where you live) many people stayed up to observe the rare occurrence of a total lunar eclipse (here are some pics in case you missed it). While for most of us these kinds of events are regarded as amusements or scientific curiosities, within the ancient world people thought about eclipses on a much deeper level.
The Babylonians believed that the gods communicated through astral events and since eclipses occurred fairly rarely, combined with the fact that the moon took on a reddish color during a total eclipse, the gods were thought to communicate something very significant at these points. Specifically, lunar eclipses were thought to portend death and/or defeat in battle. For more on this topic see Francesca Rochberg’s many works, she is the foremost scholar on Mesopotamian astronomy and divination; she discusses lunar eclipses in particular starting on page 71 in The Heavenly Writing which you can view in Google Books.
It is no surprise that biblical writers also regarded eclipses as signs that YHWH was working anew in the world. For instance, in Joel 2:28-32 the prophet says:
28 Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls (NRSV).
To be sure, this passage fuses together a lot of imagery and alludes to many religious concepts but what is interesting for our purposes is that there is a recognition that YHWH communicates through astral events. Specifically, the “great and terrible day of the Lord” is said to be marked by the “the sun turning into darkness and moon turning into blood”–obviously this refers to lunar and solar eclipses.
This verse was significant for early Christians as well and Luke reports a sermon given by the Apostle Peter on the first Pentecost. In Acts 2 Peter links the passage in Joel with the phenomena–such as “sons and daughters prophesying”–surrounding the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that others mistook for early morning drunkenness. Interestingly, Peter links the events of his day with the “great and terrible day of the Lord” in Joel. Furthermore, he includes the part of Joel that mentions “the moon turning into blood.” Now, we never have a record within the New Testament that a lunar eclipse happened in conjunction with Peter’s sermon so what are we to make of this?
I think that what Peter is doing is interpreting the lunar eclipse reference in Joel in a symbolic manner. That is, the “moon turning to blood” is apocalyptic language signifying the fact that YHWH is working afresh and overturning the normal order of things. In other words, I am interpreting this along the lines of N. T. Wright’s “earth shattering event” discussion in his treatment of apocalyptic literature (download the selection here: Wright “Apocalyptic” in NTPG). This link is quite appropriate once we inhabit a Second Temple mindset–there was an expectation that Messiah would come and set the world to rights. This involved vindicating the people of God which necessarily entailed destroying their enemies. Peter is saying that the work of the Spirit in his midst signals the beginning of this day.
Now, all this makes perfect sense when we read the apocalyptic language used by Joel and Peter within an ancient Near Eastern perspective. Mesopotamians viewed eclipses as signals that the gods were about to enact their judgment upon an individual or a nation. As we see, this thought is still linked with lunar eclipses even up to the New Testament period.