Joshua’s long day
Did it really happen—and how?
Posted on homepage: 16 February 2011 (GMT+10)
The key question in any discussion about the meaning of difficult Bible passages is: What did the author intend to convey? Joshua records in great detail the occupation of Canaan by Israel and the allotment of the land among the tribes, around 1400 BC, so the author is obviously writing a historical account of what happened. The occasion of the long day was during a battle between the combined armies of the five Amorite kings and the army of Israel, early in the campaign.1 With the help of God, the Israelites were winning the battle and needed more time on this day to complete the victory.
Joshua 10:11–13 reads: ‘And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Beth-horon, that the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died … Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and He said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher?2 So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.’
It appears to have been midday or after (Hebrew: sun in the midst of the sky).3 And the author is telling us that the sun did not proceed to set for a period of a completed day, which many commentators take to be approximately a 24-hour period, rather than just a daylight period.
Many cultures have legends that seem to be based on this event. For example, there is a Greek myth of Apollo’s son, Phaethon, who disrupted the sun’s course for a day. And since Joshua 10 is historical, cultures on the opposite side of the world should have legends of a long night. In fact, the New Zealand Maori people have a myth about how their hero Maui slowed the sun before it rose, while the Mexican Annals of Cuauhtitlan (the history of the empire of Culhuacan and Mexico) records a night that continued for an extended time.4
It should also be noted that the Amorites were sun and moon worshippers. For these ‘deities’ to have been forced to obey the God of Israel must have been a devasting experience for the Amorites, and this might well have been the reason why God performed this particular miracle at that time, i.e. near the beginning of the occupation of the land of Canaan by the Israelites.5
Geocentrism and the language of appearance
Joshua’s command to the sun to stand still does not support geocentrism, i.e. the idea that the sun moves around the Earth. The Bible uses the language of appearance and observation.6
Today people do exactly the same thing. For example, scientists who prepare weather reports for TV announce the times of ‘sunrise and sunset’. In fact, the mention of the moon also standing still seems to confirm both the divine authorship of the account and the fact that it is the Earth which moves. Since all Joshua needed was extra sunlight, and most ancients believed the sun moves, not the Earth, a human author of a fictitious account would only have needed to refer to the sun stopping. (See also Answering Bible skeptics Q&A.)
NASA and the missing day
A rumour surfaces from time to time that scientists ‘using computers’ at NASA to check planetary positions discovered that a day was ‘missing’ from history.
This story is an ‘urban myth’. The alleged research seems never to have been published—no wonder, because to make such a calculation one would need to know the planets’ positions before any missing day, as well as after. This is impossible.
Similar considerations apply to the book Joshua’s Long Day, written in 1890 by Charles Totten, purporting to prove that a day went missing, without reproducing his calculations. All such calculations can show only where the sun and moon should have been at any time in the past (based on where they are now, assuming the rates of movements have not changed), not where they actually were. (See also Astronomy and Astrophysics Q&A.)
What actually happened?
Suggested answers may be divided into three main categories:
Some form of refraction (bending) of the light from the sun and the moon. According to this view, God miraculously caused the sunlight and moonlight to continue in Canaan for ‘about a whole day’. Supporters of this view point out:7
- It was light that Joshua needed, not a slowing of the Earth.
- God promised Noah that ‘while the Earth remaineth … day and night shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22). This could be seen to mean that God promised that the Earth would not stop rotating on its axis until the end of human history. (However, it would not seem to preclude a temporary slowing down of the Earth’s rotation.)
- Some form of light refraction appears to have been what happened in the reign of Hezekiah when the shadow on Ahaz’s sundial retreated ten degrees (2 Kings 20:11)—an event that appears to have occurred only in the land of Palestine (2 Chronicles 32:31).
A wobble in the direction of the Earth’s axis of rotation.
This involves a precession8 of the axis of the Earth, wobbling slowly so as to trace an ‘s’-shaped or circular path in the sky. Such an event could have made it appear to an observer that the sun and the moon were standing still, but need not have involved any actual slowing of the rotation of the Earth.
One suggestion was that this was caused by the orbits of the Earth and Mars being close together on this date.1 One problem is that these authors postulate an ancient orbit for Mars different from its present one, and there is no proof that this ever happened. Other suggested causes have included impacts of asteroids on the Earth.
A slowing of the Earth’s rotation.
According to this view, God caused the rotation of the Earth to slow down so that it made one full revolution in about 48 hours rather than 24. Simultaneously God stopped the cataclysmic effects that would have naturally occurred, such as monstrous tidal waves. Some people have objected to this on the erroneous assumption that, if the Earth slowed down, people and loose objects would fly off into space. In fact, the apparent centrifugal force (tending to throw things off the Earth) is only about one-three-hundredth of the gravitational force. If the Earth stopped rotating (whether suddenly or not), this outward ‘force’ would cease and we would actually be held more firmly by gravity.
The Earth at the equator moves at about 1,600 km/h (1,000 mph). The velocity needed to escape from the Earth’s gravity is about 40,000 km/h (25,000 mph). If the Earth was spinning as fast as this, we would all fly off into space anyway, regardless of whether the Earth stopped suddenly or not!
What about the momentum of people and objects travelling at 1,600 km/h on the Earth? Answer: A car travelling at 100 km/h can be stopped comfortably for the occupants in a few seconds; something travelling at 1,600 km/h could stop comfortably for passengers in a few minutes.
This scenario need only imply that God slowed the rotation of the atmosphere, oceans, and Earth simultaneously to prevent any tidal-wave effect, and any heat build-up inside the Earth due to friction from still-rotating liquid layers of the Earth’s core. And after the long day was over, the whole process would need to start up again.
It is certainly not impossible for God to have done all this, despite representing a major interruption of the natural order of things with respect to the Earth set up by God in Genesis 1.
Christianity is a religion of the miraculous—from God’s creative acts of Genesis 1 to the wonderful events of Revelation 22. The Bible does not tell us how any of these happen, other than that God wills them to happen and they do. He may use (intensify) some existing natural law (as in Noah’s Flood), or all participation of nature may be excluded (as in the Resurrection). Often the miraculous effect lies in the providential timing of natural events (as in God’s partition of the Red Sea by a strong wind that blew all night—Exodus 14:21).
Miracles rest on testimony, not on scientific analyses. While it is interesting to speculate on how God might have performed any particular Biblical miracle, including Joshua’s long day, ultimately those claiming to be disciples of Jesus Christ (who authenticated the divine record of the Bible) must accept them, by faith.9 There is not one logical, scientific reason to claim that, given a God powerful enough to create a universe in six days, Joshua’s long day ‘could not have happened’. Those who balk at this account are almost invariably those who have already rejected 6-day creation through compromise with evolution’s fictitious long ages, and have thus rejected the authority of the Bible.
References and notes
- Donald Patten, Ronald Hatch, Lorenc Steinhauer, The Long Day of Joshua and Six Other Catastrophies, Baker Book House, Michigan, 1973 give the date as ‘circa October 25, 1404 BC’. Other commentators give a slightly different date, e.g. C.A.L. Totten, July 22, 1443 bc. Return to text.
- The book of Jasher (KJV) or Jashar (some modern translations) was an ancient collection of poems written to honour Israel’s leaders (cf. 2 Samuel 1:17–27). Joshua’s words to the sun (which appear to be quoted from this book) are in poetic form and are printed in this way in most modern Bible versions. This use of poetry here does not invalidate a literal interpretation of the event, any more than those Psalms which describe events in David’s life invalidate the literalness of the events they poetically portray. In any case, verse 13b reverts to Hebrew prose to describe what happened in answer to Joshua’s prayer. Return to text.
- It would have made no sense early on the morning of a battle, with a whole day ahead, for Joshua to have prayed for a lengthening of the daylight. Return to text.
- Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, Dell, New York, 1950, p. 61 note 3. See also other historical references to long days or nights in this book. Return to text.
- Instead of, for example, using hornets (Exodus 23:28), or confusing the enemy (2 Kings 7:6). Return to text.
- In this connection, Henry Morris writes, ‘All motion is relative motion, and the sun is no more “fixed” in space than the Earth is. … The scientifically correct way to specify motions, therefore, is to select an arbitrary point of assumed zero velocities and then to measure all velocities relative to that point. The proper point to use is the one which is most convenient to the observer for the purposes of his particular calculations. In the case of movements of the heavenly bodies, normally the most suitable point is the Earth ‘s surface at the latitude and longitude of the observer, and this therefore is the most “scientific” point to use. David [Psalm 19:6] and Joshua are more scientific than their critics in adopting such a convention for their narratives.’—Henry Morris with Henry Morris III, Many Infallible Proofs: Practical and Useful Evidences for the Christian Faith, Master Books, Arizona, 1996, p. 253. Return to text.
- For example, John C. Whitcomb, ‘Joshua’s Long Day’, Brethren Missionary Herald, July 27, 1963, pp. 364–65. Return to text.
- Precession: the motion of the axis of rotation of a spinning body about a line that makes an angle with it, so as to describe a cone. Return to text.
- ‘To say that “miracles cannot happen” is not a scientific assertion. It is a faith statement on exactly the same level as when a Christian says that “Jesus performed miracles” ’—Hugh Silvester, ‘Miracles’, Eerdmans Handbook to Christian Belief, Michigan, 1982, p. 90. Return to text.