Did the Sun Really Stand Still?

sun2

Interpretative Issues Concerning the Long Day of Joshua 10

The account of the sun standing still, and all of the associated events recorded in chapter 10 of the Old Testament book of Joshua, have inspired a great deal of both derision and debate. Popular skepticism and many in academia reject the description of the miraculous, particularly in this account, due to the scientific difficulties involved.  Meanwhile, biblical scholars themselves have proposed several explanations, each with its own set of problems. The effort to explain the statements about the sun and moon standing still in the sky as Joshua and the Israelites pressed the battle against their enemies is where most interpretations diverge. The traditional viewpoint takes these statements at face value, while other viewpoints argue for alternative understandings of the text, or reject the truthfulness of the text altogether. One noted scholar admits, “None of the explanations is entirely satisfactory,”[1] while another concedes that, “Many plausible elements can be found in almost every solution.”[2] But where then is the average reader to turn, and what then can be believed, when it comes to this account? With such an unsettled state among even the scholars, how much confidence can be placed in any particular interpretation?  To begin to answer these questions, a refocusing on the details present in the Scripture itself, and a careful consideration of where those details lead, is necessary not only to limit unsupported speculation, but may also help in bringing to light a more unified view. With such a goal in mind, this brief examination will attempt to show that closer attention to the text itself will not only narrow the interpretive options, but also highlight that a real event took place, which was intended to bring refreshment and victory to a tired Israelite army.

Conforming Interpretative Views to the CONTEXT of Joshua

The book of Joshua reads as an ancient record of the conquests of the Israelites as they entered, fought, and eventually settled in Canaan. Geographical locations are spelled out in detail, along with the descriptions of battles and the strategies used. Nevertheless, many interpretative views substantially sever the connection of the text with a real event. One scholar suggests for instance, that the story of Israel and the Gibeonites was likely nothing more than a fable added to the book for political purposes. “The YHWH temple at Gibeon,” he writes, “was probably abolished in the course of Josiah’s religious reform. The Gibeonites’ strong opposition to the closing of their temple is reflected in the satirical polemic initiated by a [Deuteronomic] author against the Gibeonites and their elders.”[3] Thus, it is alleged that the story in Joshua was invented, “in reaction to the resistance of the Gibeonites”[4] to Josiah’s reforms. Such a viewpoint dismisses the idea that the sun or moon stopped in the sky as pure fiction. The alternative offered, however, is entirely speculative itself, and ignores the context of Joshua as a detailed, ancient record, claiming (without any actual proof) this part of Joshua was just thrown in for a political reason.

Others claim portions of the text are prose, comparing them to the poetic references of stars fighting for Israel mentioned in Deborah’s song (Judg. 5:20), or the sun and moon standing still in Habakkuk’s prayer (Hab. 3:11). Richard Hess notes the specific phrases about the sun and moon follow a chiastic structure.[5] David M. Howard, Jr. suggests, “The language is similar to the psalmist’s who urges the rivers to clap their hands and the mountains to sing for joy.”[6]

Indeed, the book of Jashar, mentioned by Joshua as a record of this event, is believed to refer to a book that preserved nationalistic songs.[7] It is plausible that phrases in Joshua were quoted from such a book and would indeed be poetic. Nevertheless, this does not preclude those statements from any historical accuracy. As mentioned above, the context of Joshua implies the account was making every effort to be factual. As one scholar notes, “Remarkably, every geographical aspect of this campaign—from the ascent of Beth-Horon to turning back to Debir—fits the geography of the regions in which the events transpired.”[8] He then asks the obvious, “Why would the Joshua conquest accounts offer such specific and verifiable geographical data were they not reflective of actual historical events?”[9]

Thus, the weaknesses of the preceding interpretations are that they impose solutions that are contrary to the context of the book of Joshua as a whole, which presents itself as a detailed record of events with real geographical places. The accuracy of the geographical detail alone, attests to this.

Conforming Interpretative Views to the TEXT of Joshua

In fact, there are interesting clues to be found in the text itself. For instance, Joshua prays, “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Aijalon” (Josh. 10:12b, HCSB).[10] Gibeon was east of the Valley of Aijalon implying Joshua was not asking for the sun to stand directly overhead, but for the sun to remain in the east, while the moon remained in the west. This is apparently contradicted by the next verse, which says, “So the sun stopped in the middle of the sky” (Josh 10:13), but the Hebrew word translated “middle” is far more often translated as “half.” The apparent contradiction is reconciled if Joshua was asking the sun to remain on its half of the sky while the moon remained on the other half. Furthermore, the fact Joshua asked the sun to stand still in the east implies it was still morning when Joshua spoke. This suggests Joshua was not asking for more daylight to finish a battle, but for a cooler day in which to fight it. The Israelites had, according to verse nine, just marched all night long.

Many interpretative views latch on to some of these details, but often fail to account for all. A scientist suggests Joshua’s long day could be explained by a meteor. He writes, “A night-time airburst comparable in energy to a nuclear bomb explosion many times greater than Hiroshima would be seen as the sun shining at night.”[11] Perhaps, but only for a few seconds. The event in Joshua 10 lasted for “almost a full day” (Josh. 10:13b). Benedictus de Spinoza believed Joshua’s long day could be explained by “the presence of hail in the air, together with the empirical knowledge that hail in the air causes additional light.”[12] It is entirely unconvincing, however, that anyone would mistake hail for the sun itself. Hail storms, meteors, and other suggestions such as solar eclipses simply do not last for an entire day as the text of the story describes.

Another view argues the description of the sun and moon, especially the statements that the sun or moon “stood still” or “stopped,” merely reflect the normal language of ancient omens regarding the movement of the sun and moon across the sky. John H. Walton argues that when the full moon occurred, “on the wrong day” it was, “believed to be an omen of all sorts of disaster, including military defeat and overthrow of cities.”[13]  While at least addressing a contextual matter from ancient times, this view has two primary difficulties. First, there simply is no mention in the text that the opposing armies viewed this as an omen, or any mention that omens were important enough to the Israelites that Joshua would ask for one. The book presents miracles as factual accounts, and thus it seems more likely that the same book that described the Israelite force crossing the Jordan after God divided the waters, would likewise be clear that merely an omen was in view if that was the case in Joshua 10. Instead the natural reading of the text, especially after the Jordan crossing and the miraculous victory at Jericho, is that something miraculous happened here with the sun and moon. Secondly, the appearance of the sun and moon in opposition at any point, is not something that would last for “about a whole day,” as the text describes unless the sun and moon indeed stopped their motion.

The text provides several other clues as well. For instance, verse 12 begins with a Hebrew word that is translated into English as “then.” This is not a sequential ordering, however. Howard writes the Hebrew specifically, “introduces important action that took place at the same time…That is, somehow the hailstorm of v. 11 and the phenomena of vv. 12-13 either were one and the same thing or (more probably) they happened at the same time.”[14] Even in English, the text prefaces Joshua’s prayer with: “On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD in the presence of Israel: Sun stand still over Gibeon…” (Josh. 10:12a). Accordingly, Joshua could have prayed this at any time during that day. A morning prayer is consistent with the position of the sun and moon mentioned earlier, and again indicates Joshua’s motive was more than simply having extra time.  Thus, the text itself strengthens some views, but weakens others.

Conforming Interpretative Views to the CIRCUMSTANCES of Joshua

Beyond the context of the book and the text, the circumstances surrounding scene in Joshua 10, also impact interpretative views. As has already been mentioned, the Israelite army had marched all night. It is reasonable that Joshua would not ask the sun to stop overhead where the heat of the day could weaken his army. D. Ralph Davis takes this further, noting that the Hebrew verbs translated “stand still” and “stopped” can be translated to say the sun and moon gave less light than normal. He writes, “Which activity of the sun and moon is Joshua prohibiting? Most assume it is their movement. But why could it not be their shining?”[15] This view gains strength from the circumstances of the story, although the historical circumstances regarding the interpretation of these words are less supportive.

Re-translating these words would mean some of the earliest interpretations of the Hebrew by Jews and Christians alike would have been wrong for thousands of years. The Wisdom of Sirach, written in the second century BC, references Joshua 10, saying “And didn’t one day become as two” (Sir. 46:4, WEBA). Writing in the first century AD, Josephus notes, “That the day was lengthened at this time, and was longer than ordinary, is expressed in the books laid up in the temple.”[16] That the Hebrew has been interpreted this way for thousands of years, strengthens the position that the movement of the sun is the correct understanding.

However, tradition is not the same as proof.  It must be admitted that the Hebrew word translated “stand still” also means “hold peace, quiet self, rest” and many other descriptive terms. The Hebrew word translated into English as “stopped,” is also flexible enough to include “standing behind” or “cease,” perhaps in the sense of shining less, or standing behind the clouds. Since the hailstorm is specifically connected to this event by the Hebrew text, it could be argued the storm had something to do with the sun shining less than usual, or the sky remaining darker than usual.  This particular natural phenomenon certainly could have lasted “about a whole day.”

The circumstances of Joshua 10 do indicate a more refreshing day was a reasonable motive, even if the sun was stationary or appeared to remain in the east, which is consistent with the text. The hailstorm would have certainly blocked any overhead sunlight, perhaps only allowing sunlight to the east, while raining deadly judgment upon Israel’s enemies. Although Howard rightly observes “the traditional interpretation cannot be ruled out merely because it involves a phenomenon of colossal magnitude,”[17] it is nevertheless true the traditional interpretation does not rule out that a cooler day was the whole point. It is also consistent with the text, albeit not with historical interpretation, that the cooler day was accomplished by lessening the intensity of the sun’s shining, a possibility in which the storm may have played a role, therefore not necessitating a stoppage of the actual motion of the sun and moon across the sky.

Conclusion

This analysis therefore proposes that the context of the book of Joshua argues in favor of a real event, and when all details are considered, many speculative interpretations of Joshua 10 can be reasonably rejected. The interpretation that the sun and moon stopped their motion in the sky is a natural and traditional reading of the text, which is consistent with the context of the book and the power of God. However, the text itself also allows for an interpretation that the sun was shining with less intensity throughout the day. It is even possible from the text that this was because of the clouds surrounding a hailstorm sent by God. Thus, the interpretative options are narrowed, leaving out some views, but the text continues to allow some flexibility.  Nevertheless, whether the sun and moon appeared to stop their motion, or whether the intensity of the sunlight was lessened, the circumstances including the position of the sun in the east, the condition of the army after a long march, and the presence of the intense storm, suggest the primary motive of Joshua’s request, or at least the ultimate result of it, was the refreshment of his army for the day’s battle and the subsequent destruction of Israel’s enemies by God.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Richard S. Hess, Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6 of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. Donald J. Wiseman (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), loc. 3069, Kindle.

[2] David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua, vol. 5 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and Kenneth A. Mathews (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 1998), loc. 6672, Kindle.

[3] Nadav Na’aman, “The Sanctuary of the Gibeonites Revisted,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 9 no. 2 (2009): 117, accessed December 8, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156921109X12520501747714.

[4] Ibid., 112.

[5] Hess, Joshua: Introduction and Commentary, loc. 3044, Kindle.

 [6] Howard, Joshua, loc. 6743, Kindle.

 [7] Hess, Joshua: Introduction and Commentary, loc. 3072, Kindle.

[8] John M. Monson, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2012), loc. 10718, Kindle.

[9] Ibid., loc. 10861.

[10] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible

[11] Euan G. Nisbet, “Joshua 10, the Gibeon strewn meteorite field in Namibia, and the Chelyabinsk fall,” The Expository Times 125, no. 11 (August 2014): 572. Accessed December 10, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0014524614529867.

[12] Steven Nadler, “Spinoza and Scripture: A Colloquium Introduction,” Journal of the History of Ideas 74, no. 4 (October 2013): 662. Accessed December 8, 2015, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/docview/1443782250?accountid=12085

[13] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), loc. 4755, Kindle.

[14] Howard, Joshua, loc. 6532, Kindle.

[15] Dale Ralph Davis, Commentaries on Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel (Escondido, CA: The Ephesians Four Group, 2015), loc. 1133, Kindle.

[16] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 5.1.17, trans. William Whiston, Josephus: The Complete Works (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 115.

[17] Howard, Joshua, loc. 6611, Kindle.

 

Bibliography

Davis, Dale Ralph. Commentaries on Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel. The Ephesians Four Group: Escondido, CA, 2015.

Hess, Richard S. Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 6 of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Edited by Donald J. Wiseman. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.

Howard Jr., David M. Joshua. Vol. 5 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen and Kenneth A. Mathews. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 1998.

Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews 5.1.17. Translated by William Whiston. Josephus: The Complete Works. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

Monson, John M. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. Edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Na’aman, Nadav. “The Sanctuary of the Gibeonites Revisted.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 9 no. 2 (2009): 117, accessed December 8, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/156921109X12520501747714.

Nadler, Steven. “Spinoza and Scripture: A Colloquium Introduction.” Journal of the History of Ideas. 74, no. 4 (October 2013): 662. Accessed December 8, 2015. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/docview/1443782250?accountid=12085

Nisbet, Euan G. “Joshua 10, the Gibeon strewn meteorite field in Namibia, and the Chelyabinsk fall.” The Expository Times 125, no. 11 (August 2014): 572. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0014524614529867.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

THIS is Christianity

Mottel Baleston
check out this video (it will pop up in a new window)
     For many people religion is more of a cultural thing to appreciate and keep around like one does a family heirloom. It looks good on the shelf in the living room, but you don’t really use it all that much in real life.  For others, it’s just …foreign. At least, that’s often the impression given by the comments and reactions to religious expression we see from the talking heads of media and/or Hollywood.
     I’m probably being generous. Hollywood hasn’t understood Christianity or the Bible since the twelve apostles were still available to hire as consultants.
     And some of you… it’s okay to admit it…. won’t even get through the five-minute video above. After all, the Pew Research Center just informed us that Christianity is shrinking in America while the numbers of people with no affiliation with any religion, including atheists, and agnostics are growing. That’s especially true for anyone more youthful than 36 years of age.  So hey, if that’s you, then perhaps you don’t really care that some guy named Mottel Baleston decided to become a Christian after growing up Jewish.

     I understand. And I’m not posting this video to win any of these arguments. I’m posting this because THIS is Christianity.

Continue reading

Big Questions and Deep Answers

There are plenty of big questions.  Those are easy to find.  Questions that rattle the foundation of a spiritual worldview, especially one as specific as the  Bible.  We rarely pursue the answers ourselves mind you.  Instead we go searching on the web, or let our pastor or favorite writer or an actor or a politician tell us what to believe.  And if they scoff, so do we.  It’s settled.

Ironic, since we are certainly educated enough to know that some answers take time, that there are usually at least two sides to the story, and that occasionally even politicians are wrong.  Come to think of it, we even live in a world where the scientific questions take years of study to fully comprehend.  Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy and the many offshoots and applications of each, take years of study.  And those are just to get the degrees that allow us to search for new answers -or debunk the old ones.  We understand the need for time in science, and the need for effort, but we often don’t apply the same patience or effort toward other, more spiritual topics.

In other words, sometimes, the answers really aren’t easy.  Sometimes they take time to figure out or grasp.  Sometimes that’s how it is supposed to be. Continue reading

Some Jews WERE expecting the Messiah to be Divine

Jesus As God

One of the common misconceptions about Jesus is that He never claimed to be God, and that the Jews never believed the Messiah would be “God”.  The reality is neither of those assumptions are true.

The part about Jesus claiming to be God is easy to demonstrate from the Scripture, since Jesus took the name of God for Himself, made Himself “equal with God” in the eyes of the Jews, accepted worship as only God was allowed, and forgave sins as only God could.  In the eyes of the people around Him, Jesus clearly made Himself out to be God, and they specifically tried to kill Him for it a few times.

However, I’ve always believed (because I heard a rabbi say this once) that the Jews never looked for the Messiah to be Divine.

Turns out that isn’t exactly accurate either. The Essenes were expecting it.  And here is a link I found describing it.  (Take note the reference to Melchizedek, corresponds to the teaching about Jesus in the New Testament book of Hebrews).

Here’s the link.  It’s a short read.  

Here’s a more detailed look with more evidence.

Sometimes I’m Glad Bad Things Happen to Good People

Can you buy God with money?  One guy tried.  And while we might scold him for it, truth is our modern day church often tries to buy God with good works, church attendance, giving in the offering plate, some sort of “commitment”, etc…  In both the case of the man in Acts 9, and in our more modern version, God really isn’t for sale.  In fact, sometimes instead of getting favors, prosperity, health, and an easy life in return for following God, we might get some “bad” things.  Thank goodness.

Sound crazy? Let me explain… Continue reading

Was Jesus Wrong?

In three of four Gospel books, Jesus is recorded as saying some who were standing there with him would not die before they saw Him coming in power and glory. And it’s obvious to me at least, that Jesus was absolutely, literally….. correct. Let me show you why. Continue reading