The long day of Joshua is one of the better known and probably the most controversial astronomical events in the Bible. Many Christians love to use this passage in order to demonstrate the power and the sovereignty of God over his creation. Atheists love to use this passage in order to discredit the Bible.
In this essay, I want to propose a different understanding of the long day of Joshua. Before I express my view of what happened, I want to discuss the fiction and the fact about the long day of Joshua, and explain the event and propose an explanation for what happened.
To view how this passage plays in popular imagination, take for example, the email I received recently from a well-meaning Christian who was making an attempt at demonstrating the reliability of the Bible and the power of God over his creation:
For all the scientists out there, and for all the students who have a hard time convincing these people regarding the truth of the Bible, here’s something that shows God’s awesome creation, and that He is still in control.
Did you know that the space program is busy proving that what has been called “myth” in the Bible is true? Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, Maryland, and a consultant in the space program, relates the following development.
I think one of the most amazing things that God has done for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Maryland. They were checking out where the positions of the sun, moon, and planets would be 100 years and 1,000 years from now. We have to know this so we won’t send up a satellite and have it bump into something later on in its orbits [sic].
We have to lay out the orbits in terms of the life of the satellite and where the planets will be so the whole thing will not bog down. They ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries, and it came to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong with either the information fed into it or with the results as compared to the standards.
They called in the service department to check it out, and they said, ‘What’s wrong?’ Well, they found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time. They scratched their heads and tore their hair out. There was no answer.
Finally a Christian man on the team said, ‘You know, one time I was in Sunday School, and they talked about the sun standing still.’ While they didn’t believe him, they didn’t have an answer either, so they said, ‘Show us,’ He got a Bible and went to the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for any one with ‘common sense.’ There they found the Lord saying to Joshua, ‘Fear them not, I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall not a man of them stand before Thee.’ Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy! And if darkness fell, they would overpower them. So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still! That’s right: ‘The sun stood still and the moon stayed and lasted not to go down about a whole day!’ (Joshua 10:12-13).
The astronauts and scientists said, There is the missing day! They checked the computers going back into the time it was written and found it was close but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua’s day was 23 hours and 20 minutes, not a whole day. They read the Bible, and there it was about [approximately] a day. These little words in the Bible are important, but they were still in trouble because if you cannot account for 40 minutes, you’ll still be in trouble 1000 years from now.
Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits. As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible where it said the sun went BACKWARDS.
The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but they got out the Book and read these words in 2 Kings 20:9-11 that told of the following story: Hezekiah, on his death bed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah who told him that he was not going to die. Hezekiah asked for a sign as proof. Isaiah said ‘Do you want the sun to go ahead 10 degrees?’ Hezekiah said, ‘It is nothing for the sun to go ahead 10 degrees, but let the shadow return backward 10 degrees.’ Isaiah spoke to the Lord, and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees BACKWARD! Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes!
Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in Second Kings make the missing day in the universe! Isn’t it amazing?
This would be a great story if it were true and, if it were true, it would convince many people who do not believe the Bible and do not believe that God is sovereign over his creation. But this story is a hoax. This event never happened and it is one of those great urban legends that is being circulated through the Internet.
This story about a missing day in the universe originated in 1936, when Harry Rimmer wrote a book titled The Harmony of Science and Scripture. In his book Rimmer cited another book, one published in 1890 in which the author declared that two professors, one at Harvard and another at Yale, discovered a day missing in astronomical calculations.
In the 1960s, if memory serves me correctly, Christianity Today published the same story, which later was retracted as a hoax, that NASA was calculating days and times for the first journey to the moon when a scientist at NASA discovered a missing day in the universe. The story was as false then as it is today. Legends are hard to kill.
The story of Joshua 10 can be summarized as follows: When the five Amorite kings made an alliance to fight against the Gibeonites, the men of Gibeon asked Joshua to help them against their common enemy. In response to this request, Joshua and the whole army of Israel went from Gilgal to fight against the Amorites.
According to the biblical text, Joshua and the army marched all night from Gilgal and took the army of the Amorites by total surprise. In addition, God threw the enemy army into total confusion by casting against them huge stones out of the sky and many died. The text says that more people died from the hailstones than the people of Israel killed with the sword.
It was at the height of the battle that Joshua cried out: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies” (Joshua 10:12-13).
So, what happened? The traditional interpretation is that there was a prolongation of the day so that Joshua and his army could have more light to fight against the enemy. Thus, God stopped the sun and the moon long enough to give Joshua and his army time to defeat the Amorites.
It is true that God could stop the sun and still maintain the solar system in place. But the laws of physics bring serious doubts to the traditional interpretation of the text. The stopping in place of the sun and the moon would affect the whole solar system. In addition, there are other problems with this interpretation.
1. This view reflects a pre-Copernican view of the solar system, one in which the sun rotates around the earth.
2. The stopping of the sun in the same place in the sky probably would scorch the land where the light was shining and would freeze the land when there was only darkness.
3. If the sun would stop in the middle of the sky, there would still be day and night because day and night are determined by the rotation of the earth on its axis, not by the rotation of the sun.
Other views, such as the view that what happened was the refraction of the sun, that the sun and the moon appeared to be out of their regular places in the sky and the view that Joshua was only asking for release from the heat of the day, are without merit since these views do not explain the biblical text.
So, if these views do not explain the long day of Joshua, how should we understand what happened? The following explanation, I believe, is a better understanding of Joshua’s request. I also believe that it explains the text without doing damage to the events related by the biblical writer.
In Hebrew, the word translated “stand still” literally means “be silent.” In this context, Joshua was commanding the sun “to be silent,” that is, to keep from shining. Since the sun was rising in the east, his command to the sun was that it refrains from shining.
When Joshua came to fight against the Amorites, he came at night and caught them by surprise. Joshua was aided by the darkness caused by a huge storm that produced hail so big that it killed many people. In fact, the biblical text says that more people died from the hailstones than the people of Israel killed with the sword.
Since the hailstorm did not affect the army of Israel, Joshua needed the storm to last so that the hail could continue decimating the army of the Amorites. Consequently, Joshua’s prayer was for more darkness (the continuation of the storm) and not for more light. The reason Joshua’s army did not kill many soldiers was because the storm prevailed most of that day.
The view that Joshua prayed for more darkness is in agreement with the biblical text because the sun stood still (was silent, did not shine) for a whole day. This view also allows for a better understanding of the text without forcing upon it an interpretation that would require the reversal of the laws of physics.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
The Long Day of Joshua Series