“It’s Been a Long Day’s Night”: Joshua Commands the Sun and Moon

The so-called “long day” recorded in Joshua 10:12-14 has generated much discussion among Bible scholars. Before Copernicus’ heliocentric solar system gained acceptance, interpreters argued that the sun’s and moon’s orbits were halted. Martin Luther, for example, reportedly denounced Copernicus and declared, “I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”1 But with the advent of modern astronomy and science, serious objections have been raised against this interpretation. Students of Scripture have been forced to re-examine this miracle and have sought to re-interpret it in a way consistent with the biblical text, the theology of Scripture, and the findings of modern science. What follows is a survey and assessment of the primary interpretive approaches to Joshua’s long day.

No Spin Zone

After Copernicus’ views gained acceptance, scholars interpreted Joshua’s language as phenomenalogical. The biblical writers described heavenly phenomena as it appeared to them, much like we still speak today of the “rising” and “setting” of the sun. Thus, the miracle actually involved a cessation or retardation of the earth’s rotation.2 Some advocates of this position have alleged scientific evidence for an altered axis rotation of the earth.3 and for a missing solar day.4 However, the sudden stoppage or gradual decrease in the earth’s rotation would cause cataclysmic damage upon the earth, as well as significant disturbances in the solar system. Certainly God’s omnipotence could have overruled or suspended physical laws, but some question whether the text demands “a miracle of such gigantic proportions.”5

Poetic Prayer

The Bible often employs the language of cataclysmic celestial phenomena in order to describe God’s intervention on behalf of his people (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Hab 3:11; Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25; Acts 2:20; Rev 6:12). Heavenly bodies are elsewhere employed figuratively as Israel’s allies in battle (Judges 5:20). In light of this, some argue that Joshua was simply praying for God’s help in battle through the use of highly figurative language.6 A variation of this view, points out that in the ancient Near East the simultaneous appearance of the sun and moon in the sky was viewed as a good omen. Hence, Joshua is praying for a visible sign or omen of victory.7 It is unlikely, however, that Joshua would have followed an ancient superstition which viewed the sun and moon as deities. Moreover, the language of verse 13— “so the sun stood still, and the moon stopped”—does not appear as poetic hyperbole, but as narrative commentary. Acknowledging this problem, Longacre accuses the author of Joshua of misreading a poetic expression from the Book of Jasher and interpreting it as phenomenal miracle.8 Finally, it should be noted that the use of celestial phenomena in poetic literature to describe divine intervention does not preclude all literal occurrence of such phenomena, but may in fact be based upon previous phenomenal miracles.

Time Flies

Keil and Delitzsch have suggested that God miraculously enabled the Israelites to accomplish two-day’s work in the space of one day. They point out that “When we are not in circumstances to measure the length of the day by the clock, it is very easy to mistake its actual length, especially in the midst of the pressure of business or work.”9 Thus, the day merely seemed long. But this position fails to account for the language of Joshua’s prayer (v. 12) and the inspired interpretation of God’s answer (v. 13).

Light Bender

A few authors understand the miracle as optical and allude to the phenomenon of light refraction. George Bush argues that “the light of the sun and moon was supernaturally prolonged by the operation of the same laws of refraction and reflection that ordinarily cause the sun to appear above the horizon when he is in reality below it.”10 But the duration of the miracle (v. 13) would call for an incredible bending of light! Furthermore, this view, like the former, is not based upon the language of the text.

Solar Eclipse

Comparing the biblical terminology with that used in Babylonian astronomical texts, Robert D. Wilson has argued that Joshua’s prayer should be translated, “Be eclipsed, O sun, in Gibeon, and thou moon in the valley of Aijalon!”11 Thus, the miracle entailed a solar eclipse that darkened the sky and terrified the enemy. The linguistic parallels between the Hebrew and Babylonian texts lend validity to this view. But the absence of any scientific confirmation of a total solar eclipse at the time of this battle casts some doubt on this interpretation.

Massive Hail Storm

It is possible that Joshua’s prayer in verses 12–14 is an explanation for the massive, man-killing hailstorm in verses 10–11.12 The Hebrew words translated “stood still” (דמם) and “stopped” (דום) may refer to the cessation of brightness, rather than the cessation of movement (cf. Hab 3:11). The language of verse 13 may be phenomenal and simply mean that the sun was not seen to traverse the sky as usual. Having traveled through the night in order to catch the enemy by surprise (v. 9), Joshua called for an extension of darkness rather than light. As John Rea observes, “God answered above all that Joshua could ask or think by sending not only the desired shade to refresh His army but also a devastating hailstorm to crush and delay His enemies.”13 And as Maunders insightfully notes, the real miracle “was that Joshua had spoken, not in prayer or supplication, but in command, as if all Nature was at his disposal; and the Lord had hearkened and had, as it were, obeyed a human voice: an anticipation of the time when a greater Joshua should command even the winds and the sea, and they should obey Him (Mt 8:23-27).”14

Conclusion

Of all the interpretations, the hailstorm view seems to do justice to the text without requiring the chain of cosmic and terrestrial miracles demanded by the altering of the earth’s rotation. If this is the correct interpretation, we should rename the miracle, as Kaiser suggests, “Joshua’s long night.”15 Nevertheless, the language of the text could well describe a stoppage of the earth’s rotation. The Christian’s belief in an omnipotent God, real miracles, and the limitations of present scientific knowledge, should caution him against the need to find a rational explanation for every miracle recorded in Scripture.16 God may have altered the rotation of the earth since “miracles of gigantic proportions” present no problem for omnipotence (Gen 18:14; Jer 32:17, 27; Matt 19:26; Mark 9:23).17

Notes

1 Luther, Table Talk, 358-59; cf. Calvin, Genesis, 61.

2 Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (1983), 161.

3 Patten, The Long Day of Joshua and Six Other Catastrophes (1973), 172-98.

4 Rimmer, The Harmony of Science and Scripture (1936), 281-83; Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (1907), p. 54.

5 Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954), 108.

6 Fay, The Book of Joshua in A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, ed. Peter Lange (1872), 97.

7 Boling, Joshua in The Anchor Bible (1982), 284; Howard, Joshua (1998), 247.

8 “Joshua,” in The Abingdon Bible Commentary (1929), 351.

9 Joshua, Judges, Ruth (reprint, 1986), 110.

10 Bush, Notes on Joshua (reprint, 1976), 119.

11 Wilson, “Understanding ‘The Sun Stood Still,’” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation (1972), 61-65.

12 In Hebrew narrative, one account may follow another not as a separate event but as an further explanation of the same event described earlier in the narrative. For example, the Eden narrative in Genesis 2:4–25 is not a “second creation account” but rather an explanation of the creation of man given in Genesis 1:26–30. Similarly, The Tower of Babel account (Genesis 11:1–9) serves to expand upon the exploits of Nimrod in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10:6–12).

13 “Joshua,” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (1963), 218.

14 Maunders, “The Battle of Beth-Horon,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1939), 1:448.

15 More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (1992), 123-26.

16 Wiersbe, Be Strong (1993), 116; Woudstra, The Book of Joshua (1981), 176

17 For further research, the reader may consult the following works: Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (1983); Robert Boling, Joshua in The Anchor Bible (1982), 282-85; Hugh Blair, “Joshua,” in The New Bible Commentary (1967), 231; George Bush, Notes on Joshua (reprint, 1976), 117-21; John Calvin, Genesis (reprint, 1972), 1:57-66; Ralph Davis, No Falling Words (1988), 84-86; F. R. Fay, The Book of Joshua in A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, ed. Peter Lange (1872), 96-98; David Howard, Joshua, vol. 5 of NAC (1998), 241-47; Walter Kaiser Jr., More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (1992), 123-26; C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth (reprint, 1986), 106-12; Lindsay Longacre, “Joshua,” in The Abingdon Bible Commentary (1929), 351; Martin Luther, Table Talk, vol. 54 of Luther’s Works (1967), 358-59; E. W. Maunder, “The Battle of Beth-Horon,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1939), 1:446-49; Donald Patten et. al, The Long Day of Joshua and Six Other Catastrophes (1973), 172-198; Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954), 107-10; John Rea, “Joshua,” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (1963), 218; Harry Rimmer, The Harmony of Science and Scripture (1936), 251-83; Rendle Short, Modern Discovery and the Bible (1947), 116-18; R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (1907), 52-55; Robert D. Wilson, “Understanding ‘The Sun Stood Still,’” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation (1972), 61-65; Warren Wiersbe, Be Strong (1993), 114-16; Marten Woudstra, The Book of Joshua (1981), 173-76.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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Mark_Smith's picture

We must be careful to think that science needs to be appeased by a miracle. By definition, a miracle is supernatural. Natural processes are not being obeyed in the normal sense. So, looking for how the day was made longer is pointless. Science cannot help you. Normal human reason cannot help you. Creationists run into the same problem. The creation was be definition a miracle. Attempting to make every day scientific processes fit into that mold is pointless. It will cause you to make errors in either your science or in your theology.

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