Reflections on Joshua and “the Sun Stood Still”

Bible interpretation is often far more complicated and nuanced than many people assume.

John Martin, “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gibeon,” c. 1822
John Martin, “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gibeon,” c. 1822
Joshua 10:12-14 (RSV) Then spoke Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Ai’jalon.” [13] And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. [14] There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD hearkened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.

This miracle could simply consist of God changing the perception of the people there (an LSD trip, for example, does the same thing purely naturally); not literally making the sun do weird “unscientific” things. 

First of all, we must understand that the Bible uses pre-scientific phenomenological language. We actually still do the same today, when we say “the sun came up” or “the sun went down at 6:36.” That’s not literal language, because we know that it is the earth’s rotation that makes it appear that way.

Joshua’s miracle was indeed a miracle, but it could still have been of a psychological nature, as opposed to exclusively an astronomical one. Or it could be something like, as the Protestant Jamieson Fausset, & Brown Bible Commentary put it: “the light of the sun and moon was supernaturally prolonged by the same laws of refraction and reflection that ordinarily cause the sun to appear above the horizon, when it is in reality below it.” 

Atheists and other biblical skeptics frequently interpret the Bible hyper-literally, but they are often wrong, because they assume primitive ignorance, when in fact, ancient Hebrews possessed a high degree of sophistication that is often beyond the atheist’s willingness (not intellectual capacity) to understand.

Suffice it to say in summary that several of the theories attempting to explain this passage do not entail stopping the earth’s rotation or movement around the sun, etc., and posit far less “cosmologically dramatic” events. This is common in biblical interpretation: reasonable folks can have honest disagreements. 

Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm wrote a classic work, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1954). It’s a masterpiece of a non-fundamentalist, “thinking man’s” evangelical Protestant perspective on science (much or most of which a Catholic could readily agree with). He devotes 5 1/2 pages to “the long day of Joshua” and prominently mentions the above “refraction / mirage” interpretation:

Another alternative we may adopt, if we wish to maintain that the need of Joshua was for more daylight, is to assert that the sun and moon kept on their way, but through a miracle of refraction or through a supernaturally given mirage the sun and moon appeared to be out of their regular places. Such an interpretation allows for the solar system to keep on its way, yet provides Joshua with the needed light, and maintains the supernatural character of the record. . . . 

He offers a second plausible interpretation as well (the one he himself favors):

Maunder has argued that the request of Joshua was not for more time but for release from the heat of the day. . . . He attempts to prove that Joshua did not ask the sun to stand still but to be silent, i.e., keep from shining. What Joshua’s men needed was refreshment from a burning sun. Maunder claims that the sun was overhead at noontime heat and that the moon was on the horizon. In answer to Joshua’s petition God sends a hailstorm which has the double effect of refreshing his own soldiers and harming the enemy. Under such refreshment the soldiers of Joshua did a day’s march in half a day and so reasoned that the day had been prolonged. ... Maunder undergirds his argument with various astronomical, geographical, exegetical, and historical data ... (pp. 159-160)

Ramm suggests that a poetic interpretation is also possible, even for the orthodox Christian not given to “allegorizing away” biblical texts:

It is argued that the people of those days wove astronomy into their speech far more than we do as exhibited by (i) the reference in Judges 5:20 when Deborah and Barak sing that the stars fought against Sisera, and (ii) the presence of astronomical pictures in prophetic passages as for example in Joel 2:10, 30-31. The cry of Joshua was then a cry for help and strength. ... it seemed to them that the day had actually been lengthened. (p. 156)

He thus concludes that there are three possible and plausible non-literal but still miraculous explanations that do not entail the sun literally stopping (and/or the earth to stop rotating), or any disbelief in the divine inspiration of the text:

Either the language was poetic and the miracle was the physical invigoration of Joshua’s soldiers; or it was a supernatural refraction of the rays of the sun and moon, thus giving the soldiers more time (by refraction or mirage); or it was a supernaturally induced thunderstorm giving the soldiers relief from the burning heat. (p. 161)

The fundamental mistake in interpretation concerning this incident, then, is to assume that the only possible interpretation of the text must be hyper-literal (i.e., God stopped the rotation of the earth). This often comes from those whose own childhood backgrounds were fundamentalist (which is only one tiny, fringe portion of Christianity as a whole). Such critics don’t realize that Christians have long held other possible views of the text (the Ramm book I cited was written in 1954, and cited passages as far back as 1920).

Thus, it is not at all the case that even this extraordinary Bible passage absolutely requires an interpretation that is completely and indisputably at odds with modern astronomy. There are at least three “miraculous” interpretations that do not entail such a thing at all. 

Bible interpretation is often far more complicated and nuanced than many people assume.