‘What Time Was It?’
‘WHAT time is it?’ How often have you asked that question? In our fast-paced modern age, we are always conscious of time. Most of our daily activities—getting up in the morning, going to work, having our meals, meeting friends, and so on—are tightly governed by time. And we rely on an array of items—clocks, watches, alarms, radios—to tell us what time it is.
What about in Bible times when people did not have timepieces like ours? How did they count time? Does the Bible record give any indication of this? Knowing the time of day when a certain Bible event took place may give you fresh insight into the Word of God and add enjoyment to your Bible study.
God-Given Time Indicators
In early days the time of an event was usually marked by observing the sun or the moon, “the two great luminaries” that the Creator had placed in the heavens “to make a division between the day and the night.” (Genesis 1:14-16) For example, it was “when the dawn ascended” that the two angels urged Lot and his family to flee the doomed city of Sodom. (Genesis 19:15, 16) And it was “about evening time” that Abraham’s faithful servant arrived at the well where he met Rebekah.—Genesis 24:11, 15.
On occasion, more precise designations of time are given. For instance, Abimelech, Judge Gideon’s violent son, was advised to make a dash against the city of Shechem “in the morning . . . as soon as the sun shines forth.” (Judges 9:33) Evidently there was a tactical reason behind this. The glare of the rising sun behind Abimelech’s forces must have made it very difficult for the defenders of Shechem to discern the attacking armies in “the shadows of the mountains.”—Judges 9:36-41.
Idiomatic Time Expressions
The Hebrews used expressions that are both colorful and interesting to denote time. Not only do they convey to us a feeling of the local environment and customs but they also reveal something about the circumstances of the action.
For example, Genesis 3:8 tells us that it was “about the breezy part of the day” when Jehovah spoke to Adam and Eve on the day they sinned. This is understood to be close to sundown when cool breezes would come up, bringing relief from the heat of the day. Usually, as the day draws to its end, it is time to relax and rest. Yet, Jehovah did not let a serious judicial matter linger on to the next day when there was still time to take care of it.
On the other hand, Genesis 18:1, 2 shows that Jehovah’s angels came to the tent of Abraham at Mamre “about the heat of the day.” Picture the midday sun blazing overhead in the Judean hills. The heat could be oppressive. It was the customary time to have a meal and to rest. (See Genesis 43:16, 25; 2 Samuel 4:5.) Accordingly, Abraham was “sitting at the entrance of the tent,” where there might be a little movement of air, perhaps taking a respite after his meal. We can appreciate all the more this elderly man’s hospitality when we read that he “began running to meet” the visitors and then went “hurrying to the tent” to tell Sarah to prepare the bread, after which he “ran to the herd” and “went hurrying to get it ready.” All of this in the heat of the day!—Genesis 18:2-8.
Night Hours of the Hebrews
The Hebrews evidently divided the night into three periods, called “watches.” Each one covered one third of the time between sundown and sunrise, or about four hours, depending on the season. (Psalm 63:6) It was “at the start of the middle night watch,” which ran from about ten at night to about two in the morning, that Gideon made his attack on the Midianite camp. An attack at this time clearly took the guards by complete surprise. Surely, the cautious Gideon could not have chosen a more strategic time for his attack!—Judges 7:19.
At the time of the Exodus, Jehovah made “the sea go back by a strong east wind all night long,” allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land. By the time the Egyptians caught up with them, it was already “the morning watch,” and Jehovah went throwing the camp of the Egyptians into confusion, finally destroying them by bringing the water “back to its normal condition at the approaching of morning.” (Exodus 14:21-27) So it took almost a whole night for the sea to be divided and the Israelites to cross through it.
In the First Century
By the first century, the Jews had adopted the count of 12 hours to the day. This is why in one of his illustrations, Jesus said: “There are twelve hours of daylight, are there not?” (John 11:9) These were counted from sunrise to sunset, or roughly from six in the morning to six in the evening. Thus, “the third hour” would be about nine in the morning. It was at this time on the day of Pentecost that holy spirit was poured out. When the people accused the disciples of being “full of sweet wine,” Peter quickly laid that accusation to rest. Surely no one would be drunk at that early hour!—Acts 2:13, 15.
Similarly, Jesus’ statement “my food is for me to do the will of him that sent me” takes on added meaning when we consider the time element involved. “The hour was about the sixth,” according to John 4:6, or about noontime. After trekking through the hilly country of Samaria all morning, Jesus and the disciples would be hungry and thirsty. That was why the disciples urged him to eat when they returned with food. Little did they know the strength and nourishment that Jesus received from doing Jehovah’s work. Jesus’ statement was no doubt more than a figure of speech. He literally was sustained by doing God’s work even though it must have been hours since he had eaten.—John 4:31-34.
As sunrise and sunset varied according to the time of year, usually only the approximate time of an event was given. Thus, we usually read of events taking place at the third, sixth, or ninth hour—often meaning approximately at those times. (Matthew 20:3, 5; 27:45, 46; Mark 15:25, 33, 34; Luke 23:44; John 19:14; Acts 10:3, 9, 30) However, when the time element was essential to the narrative, more specific statements of time were given. For example, to the man who was anxious to know if his son really got better by the power of Jesus, the slaves answered: “Yesterday at the seventh hour [about one o’clock in the afternoon] the fever left him.”—John 4:49-54.
By the time of Roman domination, the Jews seem to have adopted the Greek and Roman division of the night into four watches instead of the three that they used formerly. At Mark 13:35, Jesus evidently referred to the four divisions. The “late in the day” watch ran from sunset until about nine in the evening. The second watch, the “midnight” watch, began at about nine o’clock and ended at midnight. The “cockcrowing” covered from midnight until about three o’clock. And the final watch, “early in the morning,” expired at dawn, or about six o’clock.
The “cockcrowing” watch is of particular interest because of Jesus’ words to Peter at Mark 14:30: “Before a cock crows twice, even you will disown me three times.” While some commentators maintain that the “twice” refers to specific points of time—midnight and dawn, respectively—A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, edited by James Hastings, indicates that “as a matter of fact cocks crow during the night, in the East as elsewhere, at irregular times from midnight onward.” Apparently, Jesus was not referring to the specific time when Peter would deny him. Rather, he was giving a sign to mark his words to Peter, which were accurately fulfilled that very night.—Mark 14:72.
It was “in the fourth watch period of the night”—between three and six in the morning—that Jesus, walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee, came to his disciples, who were in a boat “many hundreds of yards away from land.” It is, perhaps, easy to understand why the disciples “were troubled, saying: ‘It is an apparition!’ And they cried out in their fear.” (Matthew 14:23-26) On the other hand, this shows that Jesus must have spent considerable time praying by himself in the mountain. Since this was soon after John the Baptizer had been beheaded by Herod Antipas and just before the Passover, which marked the start of the last year of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus surely had much to meditate on in his personal prayer to the Father.
Along with the four watches, a 12-hour count of the nighttime was also in use. In order to escort Paul safely to Caesarea, military commander Claudius Lysias told his officers to get ready a band of 470 soldiers “at the third hour of the night.” (Acts 23:23, 24) Thus Paul was taken safely under cover of night away from Jerusalem.
Know the Time of Day
Reading and meditating on accounts of what happened among God’s ancient people is a source of pleasure and spiritual strength. If you can include the time factor in your consideration, it will certainly increase the joy of your Bible study. Why so? Because in this way you can be well informed as to the Word of God. Publications like Insight on the Scriptures and the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures With References are invaluable aids in this respect (both published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.). They will help you to find the answer when you ask yourself: ‘What time was it?’