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Biblical Credibility and Joshua 10: What Does the Text Really Claim?

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October 15, 2013 Tags: Biblical Authority, Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by John Walton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Biblical Credibility and Joshua 10: What Does the Text Really Claim?

In Joshua 10:12-15, we read of a prayer made by Joshua in the heat of battle requesting that the sun and moon stop, stand still, and wait so that the Israelites could defeat the Amorites that day.

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Joshua 10:12-15 (NIV)

This account ranks as one of the most frequently invoked passages for how the credibility of the Bible fails in the world of science. For those who insist that we must take the text literally, the issue concerns the inerrancy of the Bible and the ability of God to do whatever he chooses. While those who take God seriously would not deny that God can do whatever he chooses to do, we recognize that we must also ask what it is that the text claims. As I have often pointed out, we must read the Bible as an ancient text, not as a modern one.

The interesting fact is that those who claim that they are reading the text literally are already defeating themselves. When asked to explain what actually happened, they readily explain that the earth stopped rotating. We need to note, however, that at that point they are not taking the text literally since they have posited the earth stopping rather than the sun. Their reply would be that we have to make adjustments for the geocentric views of the ancient world (it only seemed the sun was stopping when in reality the earth was stopping). In that adjustment, however, they are no longer taking the text literally. If we are going to adjust our interpretations to ancient thinking, we had better do a thorough job of it.

Another common element to the traditional interpretation of this passage is that Joshua’s prayer takes place as daylight is waning, and he feels that with just a few extra daylight hours, he can finish off the enemy. Unfortunately, this interpretation has failed to take into account the details given in the text. The passage explicitly notes that the sun is over Gibeon and the moon over the Valley of Aijalon. A quick look at any Bible atlas reveals that Gibeon is east, Aijalon is west, therefore, Joshua prays in the morning. Consequently, we begin to wonder why Joshua would even bother to request a longer period of daylight if it is still morning.

Now that we have recognized that no one takes the text literally, and that we have often failed to account for the details in the text regarding the time of day, we can begin anew to try to understand the text as an ancient text rather than as a modern one. As such, we must begin with the idea that the text operates in the world of omens, not the world of physics and astronomy. Then we must consider the possibility that the correct interpretation of this passage is that Joshua was praying for the Amorites to see a bad omen. Here is how the argument for that position goes.

If the sun is in the east and moon is in the west, we can conclude that not only is it morning, it is morning at the time of the full moon. On the first official day of the full moon, the orb of the sun is fully visible above the eastern horizon line and the orb of the moon is fully visible above the western horizon line for about four minutes. When we explore ancient celestial omen texts we find that this is one of the most important times of the month for receiving significant celestial omens.

In the ancient Near East the months were not standardized in length, but varied according to the phases of the moon. This lunar calendar was then periodically adjusted to the solar year so as to retain the relationship of months with the seasons. The beginning of a month was calculated by the first appearance of the new moon. The full moon came in the middle of the month and was identified by the fact that the moon set just minutes after the sun rose. The day of the month on which the full moon occurred served as an indicator of how many days the month would have. When the opposition of sun and moon—the full moon—occurred on the 14th day of the month, that meant the new crescent would be seen on the 30th day. Such a month was considered the “right” length, and all would be in harmony. It was then considered a full-length month made up of full-length days. Longer or shorter months were believed to contain longer or shorter days. So seeing the full moon on the morning of the 14th day was a good omen. As is evident from verse 13, on this day the sun and moon did not give the omen that the Amorites would have hoped for.

As a result of these beliefs, the horizon was observed very carefully in the middle section of the month, as people hoped for this opposition of sun and moon to come on the propitious day (14th). Opposition on the wrong day was believed to be an omen of all sorts of disaster, including military defeat and overthrow of cities. In this way the movements of the sun and the moon became monthly omens of good fortune or ill. In the ancient Near East great significance was attached to these omens and they were often used to determine whether battle should be engaged on a particular day or not. As noted above, the positions reported in Joshua for the sun and moon suggest that the time is near sunrise in the full moon phase. Since Joshua wants the Amorites to receive a negative omen, we can reason that it must not be the 14th day of the month. If what Joshua prays for takes place, the Amorites would feel that their battle was doomed.

The Mesopotamian celestial omens use verbs like “wait”, “stand,” and “stop” to record the relative movements and positions of the celestial bodies. When the moon and/or sun do not wait, the moon sinks over the horizon before the sun rises and no opposition occurs. When the moon and sun wait or stand, it indicates that the opposition does occur for the determination of the full moon day. The omens in the series known as Enuma Anu Enlil often speak of changing velocities of the moon in its course to effect or avoid opposition with the sun.

The major objections to this interpretation come from verse 13. Most standard translations are pretty close to the NIV: “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” Four Hebrew terms deserve some attention:

  1. Till. This translation gives the impression that the described situation was sustained until victory was achieved. In fact, however, the Hebrew preposition used here can be rendered “before” in precisely the sort of syntactic arrangement used in this verse. [1] A good example is found in Ezek. 33:22.
  2. Middle. By “middle” we should not assume that the text refers to midday. At midday the moon would not be visible in the west, neither would Joshua know he needed extended light at midday. A more likely treatment would be to see it as a reference to its half of the sky (i.e., the eastern half of the sky)
  3. Delayed. Here the text says that the sun did not hasten. The same phrasing is found in an omen text concerning Mars: “It will not stand in it [in its midst], it will not become stationary [wait] and not tarry [rest]; it went forth hurriedly. [2] Furthermore, some translations say that it did not hasten to set. The Hebrew verb is sometimes translated that way, but it is the basic verb “to go, enter” and could feasibly be used for any transition from one section to another.
  4. Full. This is the most difficult term to assess. A couple of options are worthy of consideration. In Akkadian omen texts a “full-length” month (30 days) is made up of “full-length” days. When the full moon is on the 14th, it will be a full-length month filled with full-length days. If the month is not going to be 30 days, as here, then they are not full-length days. It does not make sense to us, but it is how the texts talk. Alternatively, rather than translate “full-length,” we might consider the possibility of translating the Hebrew adjective tammim as “propitious.” In this case, the phrase would be translated “the sun did not hasten to its entry as on a propitious day.”

The verse would then read, “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, as a prelude to the nation avenging itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in its segment of the sky and did not hasten into its position as it would have on a full-length (propitious) day.”

Beyond these lexical discussions, some scholars object to this reading because all of the omen texts are Neo-Assyrian and therefore many centuries later than the time of Joshua. Furthermore, the interest in celestial divination is strongest in the seventh century and in the area of Assyria. We have little information concerning the use of omens from the Levant in the mid-second millennium. Nevertheless, recent study has shown that even the Neo-Assyrian sources have their roots in the second millennium, and the Levant is not totally lacking evidence (cf. Emar). [3]

The lexical issues remain vexing and problematic, but they can be addressed. Even if we acknowledge that we have not yet sorted out the lexical details, the presence of terms such as “stop,” “stand” and “wait” gain new possibilities in light of the language of celestial omens and the fact that the context is one that is just right for an ominological application (i.e., on the brink of battle). Certainly a reading of the text in light of omens is more likely for an ancient text than a reading in light of physics.

It should be noted that the text does not suggest the astronomical phenomena were unique; instead, verse 14 says plainly that what was unique was the Lord accepting a battle strategy from a man (“the Lord listened to a man”). A Mesopotamian lamentation (first millennium) shows this same type of terminology for divine judgment when it speaks of heavens rumbling, earth shaking, the sun laying at the horizon and the moon stopping in the sky, and evil storms sweeping through the land. Joshua’s knowledge of the Amorites’ dependence on omens may have led him to ask the Lord for one that he knew would deflate their morale—for the opposition to occur on an unpropitious day.

For further reading


  1. Waltke and O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 215 (par. 11.2.12b). [return to body text]
  2. H. Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings (SAA VIII; Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1992), 462:4-7 p. 260. [return to body text]
  3. J. Cooley, Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013). [return to body text]

 


John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.


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Enosh - #82919

October 15th 2013

Let it be said that though I am a young-age creationist I agree with Dr Walton that Joshua 10 does not report an astronomical miracle. There are a number of geographical, meteorological, and logistical features in the passage that make it highly likely extra hours under a hot Palestinian sun in the battle was the last thing the Israelites would have wanted. However, I think Dr Walton misrepresents the ‘astronomical miracle’ view, which he calls the ‘literal’ reading of Joshua 10. If we read Joshua 10:12–15 as a report of an astronomical miracle, then it is an observational report, not a dynamical report. The dynamics of planetary motion would not have been Joshua’s concern—he would have only been describing what he saw.

The problem I see is that Dr Walton has equivocated on the meaning of ‘literal’. When someone calls the ‘astronomical miracle’ reading of Joshua 10 the ‘literal’ reading, they mean that it is the easily discernible sense that the author intended to convey. However, Dr Walton uses ‘literal’ in both this sense and in the sense of ‘woodenly literal’ (i.e. an extreme concretization of the referents of the passage with no respect for idiom or genre) to describe the ‘astronomical miracle’ interpretation. However, this reading treats Joshua 10:12–15 as observational historical narrative. Therefore, when Dr Walton says that their account of how the miracle happened is not ‘literal’ because ‘that’s not what the text says’, then he is demanding them to read the text in a way alien to their own accounting of the genre. They think Joshua described what he saw, not the dynamics of planetary motion.

In fact, Dr Walton’s question of ‘what really happened’ is irrelevant for this so-called ‘literal’ reading. God can obviously perform such an astronomical miracle (and I’m sure Dr Walton would not disagree), and if Joshua reported it, then whatever needed to happen to produce what Joshua saw clearly did happen. How it happened is interesting to speculate about, but is irrelevant for establishing the plausibility of Joshua’s putative miracle report. As for ‘scientific credibility’, that is also irrelevant in the reporting of a miracle. It is not a question of ‘what science says’, but of what God did. That dead men don’t come back to life is a scientific fact, and yet Jesus is still risen (and he doesn’t die again, either—which is perhaps the bigger miracle). It’s no different if Joshua 10:12–15 reports an astronomical miracle.

Let me reiterate—I do not think the ‘astronomical miracle’ reading of Joshua 10 is correct. I agree with Dr Walton that there are a number of textual and contextual factors that argue against the ‘astronomical miracle’ reading. However, it seems to me that Dr Walton is in danger of letting ‘scientific credibility’ determine which exegetical options he will allow. If the ‘miracle report’ reading is wrong (and I think it is), then it is wrong on exegetical grounds alone—science has nothing to do with it. The Bible is no less credible if it is a miracle report.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #82921

October 15th 2013

It seems to me that Dr. Walton points to the danger of making a claim for or against a miracle based on an ancient text with unclear meaning.


Enosh - #82937

October 16th 2013

He does, and that is fine, but he doesn’t stop there. He also claims that the Bible’s scientific credibility is undermined by the astronomical miracle interpretation. It isn’t. If Joshua 10:12-15 reports a miracle, so be it. If it doesn’t, so be it. But the Bible is no more or less credible either way. While a close analysis of the passage with appropriate contextual information renders it unlikely, it’s not hard to see why someone might posit the astronomical miracle interpretation on a prima facie reading of Joshua 10. My material point: Dr Walton’s point should have just been about a case of poor biblical interpretation without including the note about undermining the Bible’s scientific credibility.The former does not entail the latter.


Ted Davis - #83011

October 19th 2013

Enosh,

I do not agree with your statement that Walton “claims that the Bible’s scientific credibility is undermined” by the miracle interpretation. This is what he says: “This account ranks as one of the most frequently invoked passages for how the credibility of the Bible fails in the world of science.”

That sentence is IMO unobjectionable. This passage is indeed “frequently invoked” in contexts that involve evaluating the credibility of the Bible vis-a-vis science. Walton is saying simply that this happens a lot, but that it shouldn’t happen, b/c the Bible is making no such claim—in this instance.

 


Enosh - #83035

October 19th 2013

It seems to me that the paragraph following this quote dealing with the implications of ‘literalism’ for ‘what really happened’ lends credence to my summation of what Dr Walton said. If he had not included that paragraph, I would agree with you.


Ted Davis - #83013

October 19th 2013

As a separate (historical rather than exegetical) point, Enoch, let me add that for a long time the Joshua passage has been seen as a clear instance of genuine miracle in the Bible. Creationists have hardly been alone in making that interpretive leap, but for decades creationists have been among the most vocal advocates of that view, including the bogus claim that modern astronomers have verified that a whole day was lost out of time (usually the whole day is made of separate parts from Joshua and the dial of Ahaz).

Harry Rimmer and Harold Hill are probably the names best known in this context, but they both drew on an Adventist professor of military science, Charles Totten. Robert C. Newman, an “old-earth” creationist trained in both astronomy and biblical studies, has a nice account of such nonsense at www.newmanlib.ibri.org/NewmanPpt/JoshuasLongDay.pdf or http://www.theforbiddenknowledge.com/hardtruth/joshuas_long_day_nasa_computers.htm. Tom McIver, a secular sociologist, has also written a good article on this, available only in print: McIver, Tom (1986) “Ancient Tales and Space-Age Myths of Creationist Evangelism,” Skeptical Inquirer vol. 10, no. 3, Spring, pp. 258-276.


Enosh - #83033

October 19th 2013

It would also do well to mention that while young-age creationists have indeed advocated the miracle interpretation of Joshua 10, they have also warned against Totten’s claim of ‘NASA’s missing day’: http://creation.com/joshuas-long-day.


Jon Garvey - #83081

October 21st 2013

I don’t think there’s a substantial amount to disagree on between Enosh and Ted.

John Walton’s approach is never (unlike some other scholars) to say, “Look, here’s evidence the the Bible cannot be relied upon because it has a silly old-fashioned worldview,” but rather, “Look, understand the Bible in its ancient context and its divine authority is stronger than ever.”

What he presents is support for the thesis of a very early and factually accurate account of what happened in Joshua’s time: indeed a contemporary astronomical observation, which in my view would be much less likely to be invented by some later first millennium scribe as a legend.

An ANE-orientated astronomer with decent software could maybe even provide a list of possible dates for the event. I have a friend who enjoys re-running unusual eclipses described in antiquity on his computer.


hanan-d - #82947

October 16th 2013

Let me bring up another interpretation from a rabbi I heard once. When Joseph tells his dream to his family, there is one part that says the sun and moon will bow down to him. This, obviously never manifists itself. But, if you go further, after Israel was taken out of Egypt, you see something happen. All the while as the Israelites are traveling in the desert and until they finally find rest in the land, they are carrying the bones of Joseph with them. Now, as they enter the land, who is the leader? Joshua. Joshua is from the tribe of Ephraim, that is, the tribe of Joseph. Joshua is the continuation of Joseph and the fullfilment of the prophecy of the sun and moon bowing to Joseph comes to light through Joshua, even as the bones of his father, Joseph are right there with him.

Take it or leave it, but I thought it quite nice. 


Eddie - #82970

October 17th 2013

I’ll take it!  I’ll take it!

Great story, Hanan.


Jerimiah17-9 - #83039

October 19th 2013

Chinese writing predates the Battle of Jericho by centuries. Yet neither oral nor written Chinese history mentions any 24hr. pause in day/night.
I must conclude that either:

1. The LORD caused mass amnesia among the Chinese.

2. The Earth stopped spinning in the Far East but not in the Near East. Wow!

3. The LORD simply caused mass hallucination on the plains of Jericho.

Since 1 & 2 leave the problems of unimaginable seismic, tectonic disruptions caused by a sudden change in the Earth’s angular momentum from an equatorial 1,000 MPH to 0 MPH and back, not to mention mass whiplash etc. at 30 degrees N, then I choose option 3. After all, think of the tremendous deception that The LORD used in placing all those fossils, all those apparently-billions-of-years-old rocks and all that apparently-billions-of-years-old distant starlight—or at least in allowing Satan to do that with no contradictory explanation.  And, also what about the reshaping of the Earth’s oblate-shperoid shape from removing its centrifugal force and then returning it? Yes, I am sure that at least Joshua had an hallucination, just as Jacob had dreams. 


Jon Garvey - #83080

October 21st 2013

Jerimiah

How come you missed a fourth option - the ANE-friendly and biblically-faithful suggestion of the OP? Dr Walton has, once more, done useful work which may well find more substantiation, especially if some more 2nd millennium records turn up.

Literalist-defence as an aside: your response to points 1-2 imply that God could control the spin of the earth, but not angular momentum or inertia. Had it been a miracle, it would have been of the kind Isaac Newton envisaged for any necessary correction to unstable planetary orbits - a comprehensive job on space-time.

The lack of international corroboration is a stronger point, assuming of course that we have received more thorough astronomical data from China and the Indies than we have the woefully incomplete documentation of other things. I would only want to assume that having consulted AFE scholars.

Are you sure your heart isn’t deceiving you about Joshua and hallucinations, though?


Jerimiah17-9 - #83086

October 21st 2013

Thank you for replying

In his most recent postings on jasonlisle.com Dr. Lisle argues “There are extra-biblical accounts of a long day (or a long-night in the case native Americans).” Don’t you think he would have been more specific, if there actually were written Chinese accounts. I say the burden of proof for such extraordinary, supernatural claims is on the claimants.

Moreover, my undergraduate degree major was Far East Asian Languages, and I have worked in Japan for 10 years and with Asians for many more. I am sure I would have heard about such an amazing phenomenon if it were in the AFE consciousness. Come on! The Sun and Moon standing still in the sky for a day?
That would not have become the most amazing world-wide observation in world history (next to Noah’s flood of course, but let’s not get into that)?

>Are you sure your heart isn’t deceiving you about Joshua and hallucinations, though?
My heart is ALWAYS deceiving me. I am looking out my window this very moment, watching the Sun circle the Earth. That is why I trust my brain/intellect more.
“Science is what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves”—Richard Feynman
I will spare you my corollary about religion

Here is a 5th option. Mythology/religions are naturally evolving human(oid) constructs.
“Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith” by J. Anderson Thomson is an excellent source for this idea.


pastorscott - #83113

October 22nd 2013

I agree with Dr. Walton’s assessment.  Even the idea of a casual observation, as was argued for by Enosh, is so much different for us post-Enlightenment types than it was for the Ancient Near Easterner.  We focus on the accuracy of what we saw, whereas I believe that the religious significance of what happened was more critical in the ANE.  (This has, indeed, been a lively discussion.) 


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