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Don Stewart :: Did the Sun Actually Stand Still in Joshua's Long Day?

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Don Stewart
Whenever the subject arises concerning biblical events and their relationship to science, the story of Joshua and the sun standing still is usually brought up. It is one of the favorite texts of unbelievers to demonstrate the ignorance of the writers of Scripture.

Sun Stood Still

In the tenth chapter of the Book of Joshua the following account is recorded:

Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel: Sun, stand still over Gibeon; and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hastened to go down for about a whole day. And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded a voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel (Joshua 10:12-14).

We know that the sun does not move around the earth causing day and night but rather the earth revolves around the sun. Why did Joshua address the sun rather than the earth? Did he believe the sun actually moved?

Language Of Appearance

As we have already mentioned, Scripture speaks in the language of appearance, the language of observation. From our point of view here on earth the sun does rise in the morning and set at night. From that vantage point Joshua addresses the sun with his request. Marten Woodstra, Old Testament authority, writes:

The language that Joshua uses in addressing the sun and moon is the language of ordinary observation still used today in the scientific age. Probably Joshua and his contemporaries thought of the sun as moving around the earth, but his language should not be pressed to construct a "view of the universe" any more than should todays reference to the rising and setting of the sun (Marten Woodstra, The Book of Joshua, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 1981, p. 175).

Scientifically Accurate?

Some people feel that Joshua made a scientifically accurate request.

We might say, "How little Joshua knew." But he knew his God! He knew that God had promised to go before His people to fight their battles and give them victory (Joshua 10:8). And in this battle he saw victory in its grasp, but time was running out. If he didnt conquer the enemy before dark, they would regroup and attack Israel the next day.

Knowing his God, his Gods power, and his Gods promise, he called out to God for help, and in the presence of all Israel, he commanded the "sun to stand still." But the sun was already standing still, Joshua. It is the earth that moves, not the sun. Why didnt Joshua cry out, "Earth quit moving," or "Earth, slow down your spinning on your axis to prolong time."

Joshua had no idea that his command slowed down 6.6 sextrillion tons of spinning gravel and water to give Israel victory over her enemies. But Joshua did know something that God had revealed to him. Over 3,000 years ago he said something that would have met the approval of todays scientific establishment. His command in the Hebrew language was not "Sun, stand thou still," but "Sun, cease acting, or "Sun, stop working." It was then that the gravitational pull of the sun affected the earth. It was then the earth began to slow down and the day was lengthened (Robert Boyd, Boyds Bible Handbook, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1983 p. 124).

This argument is rather weak. It is not necessary to assume Joshua was scientifically sophisticated. It is more likely that God honored the spirit of his request than to assume Joshua had some scientific insight that was not shared by the people of his day.

Long Day Legends?

Some have argued that evidence for this long day is found in other cultures:
It is interesting to note that parallel accounts in the records of other nations show that the incident of "Joshuas Long Day" is not an isolated one. There is indisputable evidence from the modern science of ethnology that such an event occurred as Joshua records. In the ancient Chinese writings there is a legend of a long day. The Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico have a like record. There is a Babylonian and Persian legend of a day that was miraculously extended. Herodotus, an ancient historian, recounts that while in Egypt, priest showed him their temple records, and that he read of a day which was twice the natural length of any day that had ever been recorded (Robert Boyd, Boyds Bible Handbook, pp. 122,123).

This, however, does not seem to be the case.

The record of the long day has been much debated. Parallels have been found in Chinese, Egyptian and Mexican stories, but these will not coincide with the date or time of day (E.W. Maunder, JTVI, 1921, pp. 120-148); and an astronomical aberration would not have gone unrecorded in Babylon (John Lilley, The New Laymans Bible Commentary, G.C.D. Howley, F.F. Bruce, H.L. Ellison, eds., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1979, pp. 320,321).

Many Questions

There are many questions that this account brings up. How are we to understand the phrase, "the sun stood still?" What was the nature of Joshuas command? Did he want more sunlight or less sunlight? Did he need more time to win the battle or did he need relief from the heat of the sun? If the earth actually stopped rotating for 24 hours would not incredible catastrophe occur to everything upon the planet?

Background

Before we examine the various views, it is important to know something of the background of the event. Joshuas army had marched all night from Gilgal to Gibeon, a distance of twenty miles, to do battle with their enemies.

Joshua needed the battle time prolonged because five strong kings had brought out their armies to fight his army in the open country. Joshua had the enemy on the run and he did not want them to get back to their fortified cities. More time was needed for his troops to catch them. To prevent their return more daylight was needed. Hence, he asked God to lengthen the day.

Sun Stopped

The text does say that the sun stopped. The Hebrew uses two words daman and amad which have the idea "to stop."

The word translated stand still (Heb dom) means literally to be silent and frequently has the sense cease or leave off (cf. Ps. 35:15; La. 2:18). Similarly the word translated stayed (Heb amad), stood still in v. 13b, has the sense of cease (cf. 2 Ki. 4:6; Jon. 1:15) (Hugh J. Blair, "Joshua," The New Bible Commentary Revised, D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stibbs, D.J. Wiseman eds., Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, Third Edition, 1970, p. 244).

The fact that Joshua asked the sun to stop is not the issue. The question is, "In what sense did the sun stop?"

What Happened?

Joshua gave the command for the sun to "stand still." There have been a number of ways in which commentators have sought to understand what occurred:

1. The passage is poetical and not to be understood literally.

2. The sun "standing still" refers to an eclipse of the sun.

3. The earth actually stopped its rotation around the sun for almost twenty-four hours per Joshuas request.

4. The earths rotation was slowed down, not stopped. This lengthened the day by almost twenty-four hours.

5. The sun and moon appeared to be out of their regular place by a supernaturally given mirage.

6. The sun stopped shining during the latter half of the day.

7. Rather than the day being prolonged, God prolonged the previous night.

We will look at each of these explanations and examine their strengths and weaknesses.

1. Poetical

There are some Bible students who see this account as being a poetical description of the battle and not to be taken literally. Donald H. Madvig notes:

The final statement in this verse [13] clearly favors the notion that the sun stood still or that it slowed down its course across the sky. In either event the problem for geophysics are so great that some other solution has been eagerly sought by scholars both liberal and conservative (Donald H. Madvig, "Joshua," The Expositors Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, General editor, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, p. 303).

The Pulpit Commentary provides us with an example of interpreting the passage poetically:

The poetic form of this passage is clear to anyone who has the smallest acquaintance with the laws of Hebrew poetry . . . These words belong rather to the domain of poetry than history, and this language is that of hyperbole rather than the exact narration of facts (Pulpit Commentary, Volume 7, pp. 166,167).

Though couched in poetical language, it is clear from the text that some sign did occur in the heavens. The entire passage is written as a narrative of a miraculous event that actually happened. The question, therefore, is, "What is the nature of that event?"

2. Eclipse Of The Sun

Some feel the passage refers to an eclipse of the sun. One such person was the great Old Testament scholar, Robert Dick Wilson who translated Joshua 10:12b-14 as follows:
Be eclipsed, O sun, in Gibeon, and thou moon in the valley of Aijalon! And the sun was eclipsed and the moon turned back, while the nation was avenged on its enemies. It is not written in the Book of Jasher? And the sun stayed in the half of the heaven, and set not hastily as when a day is done. And there was never a day like that day before or since, in respect to Jehovahs hearing the voice of a man. (Robert Dick Wilson, "What Does The Sun Stood Still Mean? " Moody Monthly, October 1920).

According to this view, God granted Joshuas request for a favorable sign by causing an eclipse of the sun.

3. Earth Literally Stopped Rotating

Many have held that the earth actually stopped rotating for about twenty-four hours. From the peoples vantage point the sun would have appeared to have stopped. Though this would give Joshua the time to win the battle, it would also cause terrible catastrophes on the planet. Those who believe in the power of God realize that He could have prevented these catastrophes from occurring.

4. Slower Rotation Of Earth

Some read the text to mean that a retardation of the movement of the earth is what happened. Instead of taking twenty-four hours for one rotation, it took from thirty-six to forty-eight hours. This would have given Joshua and his armies sufficient daylight to win the battle over their enemies without causing the major disturbances that would have happened if the earth stopped rotating. Old Testament authority Gleason Archer writes:

It has been objected that if in fact the earth was stopped for a period of twenty-four hours, inconceivable catastrophe would have befallen the entire planet and everything on its surface. While those who believe in the omnipotence of God would hardly concede that Yahweh could not have prevented such catastrophe and held in abeyance the physical laws that might be brought to pass, it does not seem to be absolutely necessary (on the basis of the Hebrew text itself) to hold that the planet was suddenly halted in its rotation. Verse 13 states that the sun "did not hasten to go down for about a whole day" (NASB). The words "did not hasten" seem to point to a retardation of the movement so that the rotation required forty-eight hours rather than the usual twenty-four (Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982, p. 161).

Donald K. Campbell concurs:

The best explanation seems to be the view that in answer to Joshuas prayer God caused the rotation of the earth to slow down so that it made one full rotation in 48 hours rather than in 24. It seems apparent that this view is supported by both the poem in verses 12b-13a and the prose in verse 13b (Donald K. Campbell, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, John Walvoord and Roy Zuck. eds., Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1985, p. 351).

God caused the rotation of the earth to slow down. The earth, therefore, made one full rotation around the sun in a longer period of time. This fits with verse 13 which says, "The sun . . . delayed going down about a full day." Thus the sun was abnormally slow in getting to sunset, giving Joshua and his soldiers sufficient time to complete their victorious battle.

5. Miracle Of Refraction

There are some who see this as a miracle of refraction. This theory contends the earth continued to rotate at its normal speed while God supernaturally gave a mirage that made it appear that the sun and the moon were out of their regular place. Thus, God supernaturally provided more daylight so that Joshua could win the battle. This provides Joshua with the necessary light to fight the battle, yet to do so does not force us to accept any change in the rotation of the earth.

6. Stop Moving Or Stop Shining?

Another view is that the prayer of Joshua was not for the prolongation of the day, but rather that the sun would cease pouring down its heat on him and his troops. The prayer was actually for the cessation of light, not its prolongation. God answered by sending a hailstorm that allowed Joshuas weary troops to win the battle. Thus stand still means to keep from shining. E.W. Maunder explains:

From what was it then that Joshua wished the sun to cease: from its moving or from its shining? It is not possible that, engaged as he was in a desperate battle, he was even so much as thinking of the suns motion at all. But its shining, its scorching heat, must have been most seriously felt by him. At noon, in high summer, southern Palestine is one of the hottest countries in the world. It is impossible to suppose Joshua wished for the sun to be fixed overhead, where it must have been distressing his men who had already been seventeen hours on foot. A very arduous pursuit lay before them and the enemy must have been fresher than the Israelites. The suns heat therefore must have been a serious hindrance, and Joshua must have desired it to be tempered. And the Lord hearkened to his voice and gave him this and much more. A great hailstorm swept up from the west, bringing with it a sudden lowering of temperature, and no doubt hiding the sun (E.W. Maunder, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, W. Lotz, M.G. Kyle, C.E. Armerding, eds., Revised edition, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 448).

Thus, the miracle was not a prolonging of the light but rather a cessation of it. Joshuas prayer was not at the end of the day asking for prolonged sunlight, rather it was at high noon asking for relief from the sun. The sun stopped shining in that it became dark. It was the sun that stopped shining, not that the whole solar system was stopped.

7. Night Prolonged

There are those who say that it was not the day that was prolonged but actually the darkness from the previous night. Hugh J. Blair says:

It has usually been assumed that Joshua prayed for the day to be prolonged. But is it not possible that what Joshua needed even more, since, as is expressly stated in v.9, he came upon the camp of the enemy by night, was that the darkness continue and the night be prolonged for a surprise attack? That it was early morning when he made his request is evident from the position of the moon in the valley of Aijalon (to the west) and the position of the sun over Gibeon (to the east) (v.12). The answer came in a hailstorm which had the effect of prolonging the darkness. (Hugh J. Blair, New Bible Commentary, p. 244).
This view would be make it Joshuas long night rather than a long day.

Conclusion

We have seen that there are a variety of explanations to Joshuas long day without having to admit to scientific error. Although several of these views are possible, the theory that the sun actually slowed down its movement seems to be the best way of looking at the evidence. Leon Wood writes:

The traditional view must be maintained, however, for these alternate explanations do not do justice to the language of the text. Though it is true the verb dum (translated stand still in Joshuas call) means basically "be silent" and so could refer to being silent in other ways than retardation of movement, still the verb amadh is also used (twice in v. 13) and it definitely indicates a change in pattern of movement. Further, verse 13 closes with the expression "and hasted not to go down," where the word "hasted" (uz) again speaks of motion, and the phrase "to go down" (labho) is normally in reference to the sun setting. Still further, verse 14 states that this day was unique in history which suggests a major miracle occurred such as to the prolongation of a natural day. The extent of the prolongation can also be estimated. Since the hour was noon when Joshua voiced the call, and it was stated that the sun did not go down for "about a whole day" (keyom tamin), it is likely that the afternoon hours until sunset were prolonged twice their normal length. In other words, the total daylight hours of the day were one and one-half times normal (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israels History, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970, p. 181).

Wood explains how this would have effected the universe:

As to how this was effected, the closing words of vs. 13 "and hasted not to go down about a whole day," suggest that the relative positions of the sun and the earth did not hold still but merely slowed in their change. This means that the earth simply slowed, in its speed of rotation on its axis, approximately to half that of normal. This did not affect the speed of movement around the sun of the rest of the solar system, which complicating factors have been mentioned in criticism by those advocating other explanations (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israels History, p. 181, note 47).

Though this may be the best view, several of the others are certainly possible. Donald H. Madvig writes:

Reverence for Gods Word should encourage us to suspend judgment until more evidence is available. In the meantime no single explanation can be made a test of orthodoxy (Donald H. Madvig, "Joshua," The Expositors Bible Commentary, p. 304).

There have been stories circulating about reports of a "missing day" in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Hindu sources. There is also the story of a Yale astronomer who found that the earth was twenty-four hours out of schedule:

Another professor at Yale, Dr. Totten, suggested the astronomer read the Bible starting at the beginning and going as far as necessary, to see if the Bible could account for the missing time. When he came to the account of the long day of Joshua, the astronomer rechecked the figures and found that at the time of Joshua there were only twenty-three hours and twenty minutes lost. His skepticism justified, he decided that the Bible was not the Word of God because there was a mistake by forty minutes.

Professor Totten showed him that the Bible account does not say twenty-four hours, but rather about the space of a whole day. On reading farther the astronomer found that God, through the prophet Isaiah and in answer to Hezekiahs prayer, promised to add fifteen years to his life (II Kings 20:1-11; Isaiah 38:1-21). To confirm this promise, the shadow of the sundial was turned back ten degrees. Ten degrees on a sundial is forty minutes on the face of a clock. When he found his day of missing time accounted for in the Bible, the astronomer bowed his head in worship of its Author, saying, "Lord, I believe!" (Harry Rimmer, The Harmony of Science and Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936, p. 33).

It is unfortunate that these often-told stories lack any documentation. Bernard Ramm explains:

There are two other matters that have been urged as evidence for a lengthened day and this material the author has not been able to track down nor confirm to his own satisfaction as to their accuracy or validity. First, there are Egyptian, Chinese, and Hindu reports of a long day . . . Second, there is the claim . . . that it is common knowledge among astronomers that one full day is missing in our astronomical calculations and that Prof. Pickering of the Harvard Observatory traced it back to the time of Joshua. Maunder of Greenwich and Totten of Yale are then supposed to have taken it right back to the time of Joshua, practically to the year and day. Then Totten added to this the 10° of Ahaz dial to found out the full day. This I have not been able to verify to my own satisfaction (Bernard Ramm, A Christian View of Science and The Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955, p. 109).
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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