So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies…
When people argue about the veracity of miracles in the Bible, the above verse is the one that most often centers the discussion. Dawkins and his smug minions will point to it as evidence that the biblical account is mythical. My grandparents (and indeed some of my friends) will use it as definitive proof of God’s power. When faced with conundrums of this magnitude I prefer to consult my father, since he’s the one with about a gazillion years of biblical training. Generally I don’t come away disappointed.
For those who I am in the process of losing (or perhaps have already lost), this verse is pulled from the canonical Book of Joshua, and describes a cosmological phenomenon which, traditionally interpreted, is one of the biggest miracles in the Bible. The Hebrews are in the process of fighting a battle against a Canaanite force when Joshua asks the Lord to make the sun and moon stand still in the sky. The Lord grants his request and Joshua’s forces carry the day during which “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (end of verse 13).
Obviously, a literal reading of this narrative creates some interesting problems for a modern understanding of the physical universe. For the Hebrews, who believed the “heavens” was essentially a dome on which the celestial bodies were fixed, freezing the sun and moon was a relatively simple process (albeit requiring divine assistance). For those more familiar with a heliocentric universe, lunar tides, and tectonic plates, the consequences of freezing the sun and moon are literally apocalyptic.
A couple of nights ago my father made a visit to my Bible study and attempted to answer the question of what’s actually being described in Joshua 10:13. He looked at us, paused for a couple of moments to collect his thoughts, and then narrated the following options in his best scholarly voice.
Here are, according to the professor I call my father, the most compelling arguments for what the narrative in Joshua actually implies, organized from most to least miraculously invasive.
1. An omnipotent, omniscient God is, in theory, able to stop the Earth’s rotation, orbit, and myriad other processes and restart them again without leaving any trace of intervention (or causing a global meltdown). While one can’t believe in a God without limits unless one acknowledges that such a miracle is technically possible, this explanation does seem to create more questions than it answers. No other culture in the ancient Near East reported a longer day in any century vaguely close to the date around which this is purported to have happened, and no Aztec or Mayan civilization reports an unusually long night (despite the fact that both were obsessed with cosmological phenomena). In addition, the text reports that Joshua asked that the sun stand still “over Gibeon” and the moon “over the Valley of Aijalon” (10:12) which means that Joshua was asking for this to happen in the morning and not in the early evening when we normally would expect him to ask for a longer day.
Now, there really isn’t any argument to say that God couldn’t have stopped the earth from spinning around the sun since an omniscient, omnipotent God trumps any rebuttal. But that question remains: why does a watchmaker create a beautiful intricate masterpiece that not only runs flawlessly but can also be understood from within the mechanism, and then suddenly, inexplicably, make it jump forward an hour? It not only confuses the heck out of those within the system, it seems to defeat the purpose of the watch in the first place.
2. A more likely interpretation—depending on how you define likely—of the passage would be that God created (for lack of a better word) a giant ‘flashlight’ above the 10 or 20 miles square on which the battle took place. This doesn’t require nearly as invasive a miracle (and explains the lack of anecdotal corroboration from other ancient sources). Of course, one has to wonder why exactly we care how ‘big’ or ‘small’ a miracle is when speaking of omniscience and omnipotence. Just because we consider carrying a five pound rock ten miles to be easier than carrying a fifty pound rock twenty miles doesn’t mean we should apply this perception to God. After all, that seventh day of rest is most likely a symbolic gesture, and the ‘flashlight’ theory still requires a significant divine manipulation of the watch.
3. Another explanation is that the Joshua account actually refers to an‘eclipse’ or some other natural phenomena that caused the sun to “cease”, which is a possible translation of the Hebrew word we read as “stood still” in most Bibles. While this is a compelling conclusion in that it’s the most palatable from a historical or secular perspective, it fits the actual narrative badly. Joshua’s request in verse 12 (“O Sun, stand still over Gibeon; And O Moon, over the Valley of Aijalon”) begs God to keep the sun and moon stationary and separate in the sky. As well, an eclipse does not make the sun “delay going down”, which seems to be the implication of the narrative.
4. The final (and in my father’s opinion the most compelling) explanation requires some esoteric knowledge about ancient Near Eastern astrology and superstition. It’s hard to know from a 2013 perspective what exactly Joshua was asking when he petitioned God to have the sun and moon stand still, and the original Hebrew is far less clear than might be assumed. Should we, as modern Christians even be debating whether God made the world stop turning? If he did, then why is the event only mentioned twice in the the Bible?
There is archaeological evidence suggesting that in several of the dominant surrounding cultures (particularly Mesopotamian), the appearance of the moon in its monthly cycle was considered to be an important omen for military success or failure. If the sun and moon appeared together on a certain day it was considered a good omen. If they appeared together a day earlier or later it was considered disastrous. By this line of reasoning (and through several nuances in the general ambiguity of the text itself) what Joshua could be asking for is not a general freeze upon the celestial bodies but instead a specific positional relationship. He is asking that God give the enemy a negative omen so that their will to fight might be broken.
According to my father, the number of Hebrews who took part in the exodus (allegedly about 2 million) and the population of the Canaanite cities have traditionally been vastly over-estimated. Most biblical scholars suggest that the reports in Numbers have been mistranslated into English and we should assume that there are between 5,000 to 20,000 Israelites altogether—and maybe less than that. Larger cities in Canaan like Jericho may have had 1500 people but smaller towns would likely have had closer to 100 to 200 people. Battles in this context were not the pitched, bloody affairs of the western Hoplite tradition (as depicted in movies like Troy), but instead heavily choreographed rituals between small groups of agriculturalists moonlighting as soldiers. The death of ten or fifteen men in a city of 100 would be considered a great hardship (assuming each was the head of a family unit which would need to be integrated into the household of a surviving male). The death of 20 might destroy the economy of a town and leave it almost defenseless to any future invader. In these circumstances, battle was rarely joined unless one side believed it could win while suffering extremely few casualties, a set of conditions that a Canaanite society would inevitably determine based upon a variety of omens including meteorological and astrological ones—like the position of the sun and moon.
Admittedly, this fourth explanation still doesn’t account for the implication that the sun was “delayed” by supernatural means, but my father, in his research, is finding it more and more difficult to believe that such action was the intended meaning of the text. Like many other examples, we as Christians have pigeon-holed ourselves into a certain interpretation based largely upon tradition and the Sunday School teachings of our childhood. After all, it’s ‘safer’ to believe God snapped his fingers and threw away all the foundational rules of the known universe than believing that he allowed the Canaanite forces to witness a negative omen in the position of the sun and moon.
This is not to say (of course) that God could not have stopped the Earth from turning, created a massive flashlight, or simply pounded the Canaanites into oblivion. He is God after all.
— Verses are taken from the NKJV.