Did the Sun Really Stand Still?

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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.

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The Rapture: Taking it Literally?

The Christian belief in “The Rapture,” made famous by the Left Behind series and various doomsday predictions, comes from two Scriptures in the Bible which speak about the resurrection of the dead.  In neither place is it specifically called “the Rapture” although you can find the Latin word for “rapture” in there if you use the Latin Vulgate Bible.  In fact, the Latin is where we get the term, and the term simply applies to the event described in I Corinthians 15:51-52 and I Thessalonians 4:15-17.   And since saying “The Rapture” is easier than saying “The-Event-Described-In-1st-Corinthians-15-51-52-and-I-Thessalonians-4-15-17”  or T.E.D.I.1.C.1.15.52.A.I.T.4.15.17 for short…

Most of us just say “the Rapture.”

Anyway, the Rapture is basically a simple concept.  In both places, the Bible (Paul was the writer) is talking about what happens to believers in Jesus who are still alive when the resurrection happens.  Obviously, God’s not going to strike them all dead so He could raise them up at that moment.  Instead of that morbid method, the Bible says we will be “caught up” to Jesus in the air (I Thessalonians 4) and changed “in the blink of an eye” into immortality (I Corinthians 15).  Part of the reason Paul wrote about it in I Thessalonians was to give people hope.  It is a rather exciting thought to consider. And assuming you believe in God and Jesus in the first place, it makes sense.  I mean, if Jesus returned and raised the dead into eternity, it’s only natural to ask what would happen to those who are still alive at the time. The Rapture is the answer for that question.

But we still manage to have huge arguments over it.  Those debates are generally over whether to take it seriously in the first place, or if you believe in a resurrection, the argument is over when exactly the Rapture part of it happens.

THE “WHEN” ARGUMENTS

The “Left Behind” books and movies took a very common position on the WHEN part, Continue reading

Knowing Jesus Rose from the Dead

This claim is the center-piece of Christianity. As all four Biblical narratives about Jesus life and death attest, Jesus died from severe torture and crucifixion at the hands of the Romans and the blessings of the leadership in Israel. On a purely human level, Jesus’ teaching was obviously threatening the power and status of those in the theocratic leadership of Israel, and Rome was wary of anyone causing disruptions. It created a perfect storm which resulted in Jesus’ execution. On a spiritual level, Jesus life and death fulfilled over 108 distinct prophesies and became the culmination of the Old Testament religious covenant to the Israelites and the world. The New Testament Scriptures indicate that perfect storm was actually God-orchestrated, for the purpose of providing forgiveness and grace to the human race.

It’s powerful stuff, and the deeper you get into it, the more powerful it becomes. Jesus was the culmination of the Jewish sacrificial system for sins because He was the ultimate sacrifice, taking away sins once for all according to the book of Hebrews. (It’s why John the Baptist once announced Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” -Lambs were often used as sacrifices)

Taking away sins once for all, meant a person no longer had to feel separated from God by sin, and provided a way for anyone to approach God, without a priest to intercede. It’s one reason three of the four Gospel accounts record the curtain of the temple being torn in two by an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death. The curtain of the temple is what separated “the Most Holy Place” -where the presence of God was- from the outside world. The meaning being that humanity no longer had to be separated from God because of Christ.

And that only begins to scratch the surface how in Jesus, or through Jesus, so much of the Old Testament religious teaching is fulfilled, or reaches the highest order of magnitude. But none of it matters, if Jesus never got out of the grave. Continue reading

Age of the Earth, Can the Bible be serious?

The Bible actually never says how old the earth is, but people do infer the age by adding up the genealogy lists which give the ages of various persons in a family line. There are several places in Genesis where it lists who was the father of who, and how long they lived, so adding those up, people arrive at an age of about 6,000 years.

It has been argued that traditionally Jewish genealogies have sometimes left people out and skipped a few generations here and there when making a list.

If that happened with the lists in the Bible, then one would expect the age of the earth to actually be a bit more, but still nowhere near the 4 1/2 billion mark that the scientifically establishment usually says. (I heard a rumor they are fixing to increase it again, this time to 6 billion)

Many Bible believers, and even some (not all) Hebrew scholars have argued that the word we translated “day” in the Genesis story referred to a time period that was longer than 24 hours. (The word can mean a portion of a day, basically a full day, or an indefinite period of time depending on how it’s used.) Here, it’s used in a way that is most easily just translated “day,” as in… a regular ol’ day.

Other’s have argued there’s a gap of time in there BEFORE the seven days of creation even start. Historically, they’ve argued that this is the time the dinosaurs lived, but the Hebrew language in those verses doesn’t really allow any gap between verse 1 and 2 for the dinosaurs to live in. Some argue that the earth was covered by water for eons, in between Genesis 1:2 and 3, but you can’t fit land dinosaurs in there.

So the plain meaning of the Bible, taking a day to be basically a regular day, is that the earth is a little more than 6,000 years old. Since there was evidently no sun until day four, I think you have give a little room for God to say what is meant by “evening and morning” on those days. I think Augustine said those were “God-defined days, not solar-defined days” and I agree. Was it 24 hours, or 19 hours, or 456 hours…?? Continue reading

Noah’s Flood, Examining Some Questions, Part II

In his book, “A Biblical Case for an Old Earth,” David Snoke claims that the story of Noah in the Bible refers to a localized flood, and not a global one. I enjoyed his book, but I disagree with Snoke on this. So just for fun, I thought I’d answer some of his objections to a world-wide flood.

In part one I dealt with gathering the animals, fitting them into the ark, and feeding the carnivorous ones! Here, I will deal with whether or not 8 people can feed that many creatures every day, the ventilation of the ark, and animals with special needs. Let’s start with whether or not it’s even possible for 8 people to practice their animal husbandry skills with that many critters… Continue reading

How Does the Whole Miracle Thing Work?

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. -James 5:14-15 (NIV)

The mere suggestion that God may not work a miracle, or does not very often, would rock many people’s faith. “Pentecostals believe in religious experience the way electricians believe in electricity,” writes Earl Creps in his book Off-Road Disciplines -Spiritual Adventures with Missional Leaders, “without it, we have no reason to show up for work. The Spirit moves in profound and observable ways, and our heritage teaches that most everything else just takes care of itself.” A very open and honest admission by a guy who has taught in the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and I’m told pastors a church these days.

He follows that with something akin to a bombshell when he speaks about his experience pastoring a church: “Our congregation’s story failed to line up with what our movement’s culture taught us to expect. At one public rally, for example, the only ‘testimony’ from two years of renewal came from one person who thought he might have quit smoking.” (p.12)

As this account shows, miracles haven’t always happened when we expected them to. Let’s admit it. People have had their faith rocked. Why didn’t God always come through? Why do miracles seem random? Continue reading

When A Miracle Doesn’t Come

The evidence used for Christ or God most often by those who preached in the Bible was not the evidence of a miracle. Jesus used miracles. The early church performed miracles and Moses performed miracles. For most, however, it was the word of God and typically, the prophetic word that provided the evidence. Miracles by Moses, Jesus, & the early church leaders authenticated God’s word through them.

Why is this true?

    JESUS SPEAKING TO THE PEOPLE IN HIS HOME TOWN:
    “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” -Luke 4:24-27 [NIV]

First, Jesus was making a larger point to the Jews. He brought this up because in both of these examples from Israel’s history, God withheld blessing from his people and instead gave assistance to non-Jews. This was symbolic of what was happening in Jesus day. The Jews, God’s people, wouldn’t accept Jesus and so while God would bless the non-Jewish world through Christ, the Jews would be left out. In fact, their nation would cease to exist about 35 years after this in 70 AD when the Romans wiped them out.

But there’s another question.

Why is it true that God blessed two people, curing Naaman the Syrian of leprosy and providing food for a non-Jewish widow, while at the same time Jews were dying of leprosy and Jewish widows were starving to death?

Why doesn’t God give a miracle every time? Or more to the point… Why doesn’t THIS appear to be true all the time?

    THE BOOK OF JAMES, GIVING VARIOUS INSTRUCTIONS AT THE END
    13Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. -James 5:13-16 [NIV]

Without looking very deeply, this passage obviously seems to say that if the elders of the church anoint someone with oil and pray for them, they will get well. Period. They will be healed. Yet I know of times when this doesn’t seem to work. Someone prayed for by the elders, even anointed with oil according to the verses above, doesn’t always get better. Or least not for as long as we’d like. Why? Continue reading