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:
- 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.  A good example is found in Ezek. 33:22.
- 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)
- 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.  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.
- 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). 
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
- J. Cooley, Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns, 2013).
- J. Holladay, “Day(s) the Moon Stood Still,” JBL 87 (1968): 166-78.
- H. Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings (SAA VIII; Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1992).
- F. Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture(Cambridge, 2004).
- F. Rochberg, In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy (Brill, 2010).
- J. Walton, “Joshua 10:12-14 and Celestial Omens of the Ancient Near East,” in Faith, Tradition, History: Essays on Old Testament Historiography in its Near Eastern Context, ed. A. Millard, J. Hoffmeier, D. Baker (Eisenbrauns, 1994), 181-190.
- J. Walton, V. Matthews and M. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament(Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 225-26. (Some of the information in this entry was drawn directly from this book).
- Waltke and O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 215 (par. 11.2.12b). [return to body text]
- H. Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings (SAA VIII; Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1992), 462:4-7 p. 260. [return to body text]
- J. Cooley, Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013). [return to body text]