Ahaz Sundial


“So Isaiah the prophet cried to the Lord, and He brought the shadow the ten steps backward by which it had gone down on the sundial of Ahaz.” (2 Kings 20:11 AMP)

The ancient world used various mechanisms to determine the best time for planting and harvesting and for predicting the recurring floods. Yet these methods were also used to confirm the time for celebrating the worship of pagan deities. This may have been the reason for the creation of the “sundial”:
•    Sundials existed at the time of Ahaz. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary states Ahaz “reigned sixteen years 735 BC - 715 BC.” (“AHAZ” The New Unger's Bible Dictionary)
•    The IVP Bible Background Commentary states “If it does represent a mechanism for telling time, it would be the only mention of such a device in the Old Testament … Sundials are known in the Old Testament world from Babylon and Egypt, with archaeological samples going back to the fifteenth century B.C.” (2 Kings 20:11 IVP Bible Background Commentary)
•    Adam Clarke's Commentary states, “Sundials must have been of great antiquity, though the earliest we hear of is that of Ahaz; but this certainly was not the first of its kind, though it is the first on record. Ahaz began his reign about four hundred years before Alexander, and about twelve years after the foundation of Rome.” (2 Kings 20:20 Adam Clarke's Commentary)
(“Dial” McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia)

Note: The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “gnomon” as “a pillar, rod, or other object which serves to indicate the time of day by casting its shadow upon a marked surface; especially the pin or triangular plate used for this purpose in an ordinary sun-dial.” (“gnomon” Oxford English Dictionary)
•    Adam Clarke's Commentary states, “Aristarchus of Samos, who lived before Archimedes, invented a plain horizontal disc, with a gnomon, to distinguish the hours, and had its rim raised all around, to prevent the shadow from extending too far.” (2 Kings 20:20 Adam Clarke's Commentary)
•    The Biblical Illustrator states, “This sundial may have been a great column, and when the shadow of that column reached one point it was nine o'clock a.m., and when it reached another point it was three o'clock p.m., and all the hours and half-hours were so measured.” (2 Kings 20:11 Biblical Illustrator)
•    The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary states, “No doubt a gnomon, a sun-dial which Ahaz may have received from Babylonia, where sun-dials were discovered … The word ma‘alowt steps in the literal sense, is transferred to the scala, which the shadow had to traverse both up and down upon the disk of the sun-dial, and is used both to denote the separate degrees of this scala, and also for the sum-total of these scala, i.e., for the sun-dial itself, without there being any necessity to assume that it was an obelisk-like pillar erected upon an elevated place with steps running round it, or a long portable scale of twice ten steps with a gnomon.” (2 Kings 20:1-11 Keil and Delitzsch Commentary)

The purpose of the sundial was part of the worship of Baal, for everything that Ahaz did was to promote the worship of the pagan gods: “He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel; he also made molten images for the Baals. Moreover, he burned incense in the valley of Ben-hinnom and burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the sons of Israel. He sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, on the hills and under every green tree.” (2 Chronicles 28:2-4 NASU) The primary focus for the worship of Baal was to honor the sun god. Easton’s Bible Dictionary states, “The sun-god, under the general title of Baal, or ‘lord,’ was the chief object of worship of the Canaanites.” (‘Baal” Easton's Bible Dictionary) It seems reasonable to think that the purpose of the SUNdial was to worship Baal.

There are various viewpoints as to whether this was a sundial or a stairway. The word means “a step, stairs, an ascent.” (ma‘alah OT:4609 Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon) but has been translated as
•    “sundial” (NKJV, AMP, NLT)
•    “dial” (KJV)
•    “step” (ESV)
•    “stairway” (NASU, NIV)
Barnes’ Commentary states, “It is not, perhaps, altogether certain whether the ‘dial of Ahaz’ was really a dial with a gnomon in the center, and ‘degrees’ marked round it, or a construction for marking time by means of ‘steps.’” (2 Kings 20:9 Barnes' Notes)
Yet it may be that the “sundial of Ahaz” was BOTH a stairway AND a dial
•    Barnes’ Commentary states, “The instrument here was probably an instrument consisting of a set of steps, or stairs, with an obelisk at the top, the shadow of which descended or ascended the steps according as the sun rose higher in the heavens or declined.” (2 Kings 20:9 Barnes' Notes)
•    The Bible Background Commentary states, “The structure may have been simply steps leading to a roof or higher structure where shadows were cast at a certain time of the day. The text here does not mention that the structure was used to tell time.” (2 Kings 20:11 IVP Bible Background Commentary)
•    The Pulpit Commentary states, “There are abundant reasons for believing that the early dials consisted of a gnomon set up on the top of a flight of steps, and that time was measured by the number of steps on which the shadow of the gnomon fell.” (2 Kings 20:9 The Pulpit Commentary)
•    The Biblical Illustrator states, “It may have been a flight of stairs such as may now be found in Hindustan and other old countries, and when the shadow reached one step it was ten o'clock a.m., or another step it was four o'clock p.m., and likewise other hours may have been indicated.” (2 Kings 20:11 Biblical Illustrator)

•    Adam Clarke's Commentary states, “The parallel place, Isaiah 38:8, rendering the Hebrew words betsurath 'eben sheaiya, ‘by the shadow of the stone of hours,’ from which I was led to conclude that some kind of gnomonic figure, or sundial, was intended; and that the hours or divisions of time were shown by a shadow, projected on stone steps, gradually ascending to a certain height … This dial consists of eleven steps placed parallel to the horizon, with a perpendicular gnomon fixed in the upper or middle step, which step is placed exactly north and south, and forms the meridian or sixth-hour line. All the operations of this dial are determined by the point of the shadow projected from the gnomon on the steps of the dial.” (2 Kings 20:20 Adam Clarke's Commentary)