My article on the long day of Joshua has generated a good amount of response from the readers. It seems that many people are interested in understanding what happened at the battle of Gibeon.
The comments of Ruvy in Jerusalem and Jan Pieter van de Giessen have prompted me to write this follow up essay to address some of the issues raised by their comments. If you are reading this essay before you read the first essay, “Rereading Joshua 10:12-13: The Long Day of Joshua,” I suggest that you read that essay first and then the comments by Ruvy and van de Giessen before you read what follows.
In this essay I will address the following issues raised by the two comments to my post. First, I will deal with Ruvy’s question about the equivalency of words in the Hebrew text with modern Hebrew. Second, I will deal with the issue of how to understand meteorological phenomena in the Scriptures by looking at three different texts. Finally, I will address the biblical text in question (Joshua 10:12-13) and give my views of what happened during the hailstorm.
First, the issue of modern Hebrew and the words of the biblical text. This issue can simply be addressed by emphasizing that the meaning of words change with time. Take for instance, the translation of the King James in English. The King James Version used the word “corn” to translate Hebrew words that literally mean “grain.” In 1611, when the King James Bible was published, “corn” meant grain in general. Today the word “corn” in English refers mostly to “maize,” a type of grain that was domesticated in Mesoamerica. I could produce many other examples to demonstrate how words change with time but this alone will suffice.
I do not know modern Hebrew, but in the example that Ruvy gave, the word amód dóm which he translated “at attention,” “stand still,” could also be translated “stand in silence,” or “stand quiet.” If I am wrong, I will gladly be corrected in my poor modern Hebrew skills.
In addition, in the example that Ruvy gave, the two words in Hebrew עמד and דום are two different words. However, both of them appear in the text of Joshua and they will be addressed below. Thus, it is my contention that modern Hebrew is not a good indicator of the meaning of biblical words that were used three thousand years ago.
The second issue that must be addressed is how to understand meteorological phenomena in the Scriptures. Many people take these events literally in order to defend the authenticity of the biblical text. However, in many cases, a literal interpretation of meteorological phenomena in the Scriptures would create many new problems that would again violate the laws of physics.
In his comment about the sun standing still, van de Giessen points to some of the problems that would be created if the earth would stop rotating on its axis or if the sun and the moon would stand still in the sky. The consequences of these events would be beyond comprehension. It is true that the God who created the laws of the universe could have created other laws or suspend the present laws of the universe in order to sustain the miracle of the sun standing still, but this is not how God works. God could have easily defeated the five Amorite kings (and he did) without changing the laws of physics.
One example of a meteorological phenomenon that cannot be understood literally is Judges 5:20:
מן־שָׁמַ֖יִם נִלְחָ֑מוּ הַכּֽוֹכָבִים֙ מִמְּסִלּוֹתָ֔ם נִלְחֲמ֖וּ עִם־סִיסְרָֽא׃
“From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (ESV).
This passage is the poetical description of the battle narrated in Judges 4. If this event is taken literally, it would mean that the stars fought as soldiers in the army of Israel. Or as the text was interpreted by one writer: “The angels of God came to the assistance of Israel.” But what happened?
The text of Judges 5:20 simply says that God fought on the side of Israel as does the text of Joshua 10:14: “For the LORD fought for Israel.” Judges 4 says that God gave Israel a great victory by using a storm that produced a great downfall of rain that caused the river Kishon to overflow and, as a result, the nine hundred chariots of iron in the army of the Canaanites got stuck in the mud causing Sisera to flee on foot to the tent of Jael. The miracle here was the storm that helped defeat the enemy.
Another phenomenon that cannot be taken literally is found in Joel 2:30-31 (H 3:3-4):
וְנָֽתַתִּי֙ מֽוֹפְתִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֖יִם וּבָאָ֑רֶץ דָּ֣ם וָאֵ֔שׁ וְתִֽימֲר֖וֹת עָשָֽׁן׃
הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ יֵהָפֵ֣ךְ לְחֹ֔שֶׁךְ וְהַיָּרֵ֖חַ לְדָ֑ם לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם יְהוָ֔ה הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃
“And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (ESV).
These words of the prophet Joel have been interpreted in different ways by scholars over the years. This cosmic manifestation, the darkening of the sun, has been associated with a solar eclipse and whatever atmospheric abnormality caused the moon to turn to blood has been explained as the fire that consumed the earth, and so on.
And yet, in the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the believers, Peter told the crowd: that what was prophesied by the prophet Joel was being fulfilled before their eyes: “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘… and I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day’” (Acts 2:16-20).
But there was no eclipse, no fire on earth, and no blood on the moon and with the exception of “a sound like a mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues as of fire,” there were no other events to fulfill literally Joel’s prophecy. This has caused one interpreter to say that the meteorological events prophesied by Joel have been postponed to the last days, to the Day of the Lord.
The third event to be discussed is the one described in the New Testament in Revelation 12:3-4:
“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth” (ESV).
No one takes literally that a third of the stars of heaven could fall on earth. The way most commentators understand these words is by allegorizing them. The stars of heaven represent leaders of government or leaders of the church who were taken down by the dragon, who represents some kind of tyrant or imperial ruler.
The argument above is to demonstrate that when it comes to meteorological events in Scriptures, most interpreters do not interpret these events literally, except for the event in Joshua 10:12-13. Some people believe that if one does not believe that God could perform such a miracle, one then does not believe in God. Take, for instance, this defense for the miracle:
What is one to make of the event? Primarily this: it was a miracle. Joshua prayed for divine assistance, and he received it. An omnipotent God could have helped in any way He chose. Before anyone can dismiss the Bible because it reports miracles as though they really happened, he must do two things. First, he must prove that there is no God Who has the ability to accomplish such tasks. Now, if there is a God Who is capable of speaking the entire Universe into existence (Psalm 33:9), then it must be admitted that He has the power to do with it whatever He wishes. Who is measly man to say that the God of the Universe does not have the power to stop the Earth, Moon, and Sun, and still maintain every other semblance of order? By definition, God is beyond the scope of such criticism. To read the whole apology, click here.
I commend those who desire to defend the integrity of the Bible, but the integrity of the Bible can be defended without postulating that the sun (and indeed the entire solar system) was suspended miraculously for a day.
I will continue this discussion tomorrow. Tomorrow I will deal with van de Giessen’s concern about the “hailstorm” and with Ruvy’s question about the two Hebrew words עמד and דום. In the mean time, I welcome your comments.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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The Long Day of Joshua Series