Did Joshua Really Make the Sun Stand Still?1
How big is your God? Is he big enough to create the universe and uphold it by the word of his power and providentially govern its direction and bring about the consummation of all things in precisely the way that he planned? Or do you worship and love and serve a tiny god, a pygmy god, a diminutive deity, a wee little god who easily fits in your back pocket or in a box of your own making, a so-called god who is unsure of himself and can’t guarantee that anything he desires to accomplish will ever ultimately be brought to pass?
Of one thing I’m certain: Joshua believed in a big God! In spite of his failure in dealing with the Gibeonites described in Joshua 9, he knew that his God was big enough to work all things together for good. He had confidence that God was big enough to defeat the enemies of Israel and to grant them their inheritance in the promised land. He knew that his God was powerful enough to pull off any miracle necessary to the fulfillment of his purposes.
You may recall from Joshua 9 that Israel entered into a covenant of peace with the Gibeonites. Although the Gibeonites tricked Joshua and the other leaders, the agreement that Joshua forged with them to protect them and not destroy them was in place. When the surrounding Canaanite kings heard of this covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites, they interpreted it as the beginning of a dangerous and threatening trend that had to be addressed. Their solution was to unite their military forces and launch an all-out assault against Gibeon. Perhaps we should pause at this point and actually read what happens.
“As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. So Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, ‘Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.’ Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it.
And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, ‘Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us.’ So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valor. And the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.’ So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. And the LORD threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the LORD threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.
At that time Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,
‘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.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded the voice of a man, for the LORD fought for Israel. So Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal” (Joshua 10:1-15).
Look again at the appeal from the men of Gibeon as they turned to Joshua for help. We read in v. 6 – “And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, ‘Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us.” It would have been so easy, even understandable, for Joshua to ignore their cry for help. I suspect he was greatly tempted to turn a deaf ear to their appeal. After all, the Gibeonites had made a fool of Joshua and all the leaders of Israel. They had embarrassed him in front of the people. His credibility as a leader had suffered damage. A less honorable man, a more prideful man, might have rejoiced in the plight of the Gibeonites and let them take their lumps!
But Joshua had given his word. Joshua had made an oath to the Gibeonites (see 9:15). He was keenly aware of his moral obligation to the Gibeonites. After all, they were now the servants of Israel and it was only right that he provide them with protection now that they are threatened.
We are told in chapter ten that Joshua and his armies made an arduous, up-hill journey of some 25 miles. It was a 3,500-foot climb along steep and difficult terrain. According to v. 8, God promises Joshua that victory is coming. “Don’t be afraid, Joshua. I have given them into your hands.” Observe how divine reassurance of victory does not stifle but stimulates human ingenuity and activity. God’s promise does not lead Joshua to sit and passively watch the victory occur. Rather he is energized to pursue it all the more vigorously with every ounce of strength (v. 9). God’s sovereignty should never undermine our efforts but rather energize them with renewed confidence.
We read in v. 10 that “the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel.” Clearly God not only can but does in fact control and influence the minds of men. God put fear and panic in their hearts in order to facilitate Israel’s military victory over them.
V. 11 is stunning! No hailstorm you’ve ever witnessed could possibly compare with the destructive intensity of the one God threw against the Canaanite kings that day. This was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill hailstorm. This was more than a natural phenomenon that turned out in Israel’s favor. This was a miracle of monumental proportions.
Several things are worthy of note, each of which sheds additional light on the magnitude of the miracle. (1) The Lord is singled out as responsible for it: “the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them” (v. 11a). (2) Only the enemies of Israel suffered from the hail. This was obviously a hailstorm that was restricted to the area where the Canaanite kings and their armies were located. (3) The hail was huge, large enough to kill more of the enemy than fell under the sword of Israeli soldiers (v. 11b). (4) A hailstorm during mid-summer would have been a rarity in this part of the world. Scholars have pointed out that there are only five to eight days of hail per year in the coastal plain, mostly in midwinter. And even then, the hail is not typically of such deadly force.
Of course, what happens next is one of the most famous stories in all of Scripture. A number of evangelical scholars believe this is all figurative language. They point to the poetic structure of the passage and argue that there wasn’t a literal or physical alteration of the light of sun and moon, nor any change in the rotation of the earth. Rather, this was figurative language found often in the OT that portrays or accentuates the totality of God’s victory over the Canaanites and the awesome appearance that God made that day in fighting on his people’s behalf. Thus the words directed to the sun and moon describe in poetic terms Israel’s victory in battle but say nothing about any miraculous repositioning or change of movement of the sun and moon themselves.
Those who take this view don’t deny that God can perform great miracles. They simply see here an example of what we also find in Habakkuk 3:11 where the sun and the moon are personified and described as if they were people, standing still in the heavens, in awe and amazement at the power of God (see also Psalm 96:12, 98:8, and Isaiah 55:12).
A second, and perhaps the most popular, option is that God miraculously extended the light of day in order to give Joshua and Israel more time to bring the defeat of the Canaanites to consummation. In other words, the battle had raged long throughout the day and Joshua didn’t want the onset of nighttime to give his enemies a chance to regroup and recover. So, he prayed that the sun would not set in the west but would “stop” and its light enable Israel to finish off the Canaanites.
It’s important to remember that the author of the book of Joshua is not arguing in any shape or form that the sun literally moves or rotates around the earth. Biblical authors simply did in their day what we do in ours: they employed what is called phenomenological language. This means that they described events as they appeared to the naked eye and not necessarily as they actually are. We do this all the time. Tonight on TV your local weatherman will say something like, “The sun set at 8:13 this evening and the sunrise will occur at 6:42 tomorrow morning.” We all know that the sun neither sets nor rises, but it certainly appears to do so.
Thus, for Joshua to say that the sun “stood still” and the moon “stopped” is not an error. We would be compelled to acknowledge an error only if the Bible explicitly taught that things appeared one way when in fact they did not, or if the Bible explicitly taught that things were one way when in actual fact they were altogether other. But when the Bible says that an event appears in a particular way, that is to say, it seems to the naked eye and from the vantage point of human observation to be a particular way, when in fact it actually is another way, is not an error.
If this second view is correct, how did God do it?
Many contend that God miraculously stopped or slowed down the rotation of the earth. For those who think this to be impossible, I would simply remind you of what Paul says in Colossians 1:16-17 of our Lord Jesus Christ. There he declares:
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
The God who called into existence out of nothing every particle of physical matter and who continually upholds and sustains it in being, would have no problem pulling off a miracle of this magnitude. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all embraced this view. Having said that, I’m not entirely persuaded that’s what happened. Here are two reasons why.
First, it seems unlikely that God would have performed a global miracle involving the entire earth merely to extend the light for a brief period of time in the area of Gibeon.
Second, this isn’t the only occurrence of a miracle of this sort. In 2 Kings 20:1-11 Hezekiah falls sick and is told he will die. He prays to the Lord to extend his life who says, “Yes, I’ll give you an additional 15 years.” Hezekiah asks for a sign that God will truly heal him. The prophet says, “O.K., the shadow will go backwards ten steps.” He’s referring to something like a sundial, which consisted of a series of steps across which the shadow cast by the sun would move. The sign was that the shadow would reverse itself ten steps, the equivalent of about 5 hours. The point being that the sun appeared to move eastward instead of westward across the sky. If this was a global miracle it means that God not only stopped the rotation of the earth but actually reversed it! But we are told in 2 Chronicles 32:24-31 that ambassadors from Babylon traveled to Palestine to gain information about “the sign that had been done in the land” (emphasis mine).
The third and possibly most likely explanation of what happened isn’t that Joshua prayed that sunlight be extended at the end of the day but that darkness be extended at the beginning of the day, that is to say, early in the morning hours. Several things are worth noting.
We begin by noting that the Hebrew verb translated “stand still” in v. 12 literally means “to be dumb” or “to be silent” and “still.” This could easily refer to the sun and moon ceasing to shine their light rather than to any cessation of apparent movement. The same is true again in v. 13 where the word translated “stopped” could mean that the radiance or light from sun and moon ceased to shine.
Furthermore, according to v. 9 Joshua and his armies had been marching “all night,” which implies he attacked while it was still dark. Thus the battle may have occurred in the late hours of the a.m. or just before dawn and what Joshua prays for is that God would somehow block the light of the rising sun as well as that of the moon in order to prolong the darkness and thus aid the surprise attack Joshua was about to launch.
Look again at v. 12. “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” Aijalon was about 10 miles west of Gibeon. This suggests that the sun was to the east over Gibeon and the moon to the west over Aijalon, which would require that the time be early morning. If this is true, it argues against the idea that what happened was a prolonging of sunlight at the end of the day and argues for the idea that it was a prolonging of darkness at the beginning of the day.
Finally, what about v. 13b where it says that the sun “did not hurry to set for about a whole day”? Scholars point out that this could as easily be rendered, “as on an ordinary day.” Thus, if the sun was not visible because God somehow miraculously blocked its light this text would simply be describing the situation in terms of how it appeared to those on earth. Since the sun was blacked out one could not see it run its course across the sky “as they typically watched it on any ordinary day.”
I’m inclined to think this is the best explanation. But if this all refers to God somehow preventing the sun to normally shine as it does at the beginning of each day, how did he do it? Some argue that God did this by means of a cloud cover resulting from the hailstorm or perhaps by a solar eclipse. But it’s hard to see an eclipse here in that the sun and moon are described in opposition to each other, not in conjunction. Another major problem with the solar eclipse interpretation is that astronomers know precisely when solar eclipses occurred in central Palestine between 1500 and 1000 b.c. and none of the dates fits the time when we know Joshua lived. Perhaps this miracle was like the one in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. We read about the ninth plague in Exodus 10:21-23,
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived (Exodus 10:21-23).
Although nothing up until this time in biblical history could compare with it, there was yet another event that occurred later on that has to be regarded as equivalent. I’m referring, of course, to how God responded to the prayer of Elijah. Listen to how James describes what happened in 1 Kings 17-18,
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:17-18).
The argument has been made by cessationists that biblical miracles were clustered or concentrated in only three major periods of history: the days of Moses and Joshua, the time of Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Christ and the apostles. The point of this argument is that Elijah and Elisha, for example, were special, extraordinary, unique individuals who cannot serve as models for us when we pray.
But James says precisely the opposite! The point of vv. 17-18 is to counter the argument that Elijah was somehow unique or that because of the period in which he lived he could pray with miraculous success, but we cannot. James wants us to know that Elijah was just like you and me. He was a human being with weaknesses, fears, doubts, failures, no less than we. In other words, James is saying: "Don't let anyone tell you Elijah was in a class by himself. He wasn't. He's just like you. You are just like him. Therefore, pray like he did!"
Don't forget the context: James appeals to the example of Elijah to encourage us when we pray for the sick! The point is that we should pray for miraculous healing with the same faith and expectation with which Elijah prayed for the end of a three-year drought.
Yes, it was remarkable what God did in heeding the prayers of Joshua to bring about this incredible miracle in nature. Yes, it was remarkable what God did in heeding the prayers of Elijah to cause the rain to stop and yet again, three years later, to cause the rain to fall.
And even more remarkable is that James is telling us that Elijah wasn’t any different from you and me. Therefore, pray for one another that you may be healed!
Of course, there really isn’t anything all that remarkable in any of these stories if you believe in a big God. If you know God to be great and big and immeasurable and majestic, these are but the fringes of his power, the mere droplets in an ocean of divine omnipotence.