Saturday, January 8, 2011
Did God Really Stop The Sun For Joshua?
When I was a child attending Sunday School every Sunday we had the cutest little leaflets that contained simple Bible stories about great Bible characters. These were published by our denomination (Church of God, Cleveland, TN) and always featured a beautiful illustrative painting on the front. For many years my mom saved in her old cedar chest a stack of these, along with other personal effects from my childhood. Sadly, I believe these things are now lost to time.
Anyway, of these stories from my childhood I well remember the story of Joshua's Long Day. If your memory is a bit rusty you can refresh it by reading Joshua chapter 10, where the great biblical warrior was fighting an alliance of Amorite kings who had gathered to make war against the people of God under Joshua's charge. The battle was long, bloody, and very hard fought. And the punchline can be found in verses 12 and 13 (quoted from the King James version):
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? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.
The thing that brought this old story up in my mind is a conversation I had with Mom while I was off work for the holidays, week before last. She had brought up how the days were growing longer. Then we went on to discuss the Winter Solstice. I explained how that word came about, a combination of the Latin words sol, meaning sun, and sistere, which means to stand still. I told her what l know about the way ancient peoples thought about these things and then slipped up and referred to what I called the Legend of Joshua's Long Day. There was an awkward silence at that point because my mom believes in the literal truth and accuracy of all things written in the Bible.
But I am a man who if no longer is able to hold the Fundamentalist views of his youth, still takes the Bible seriously as a collection of writings about certain religious traditions. I still enjoy studying the Bible, enjoy it as literature. Some folks seem to think there are only two positions. One being that of the literalist who believes it is God's very word. The other being that of the raving, sneering skeptic. My position falls between those two poles. I believe it is possible to read the Bible with modern eyes, and learn a great deal about the development of man's thinking about God in the process. The history of tradition and customs must be borne in mind. As we read the Scriptures the question must constantly be asked: what would the original reader and hearer of these words have understood them to mean?
We can forgive the author of the story of Joshua for not knowing all that we know today about the heavens. However, it is harder to overlook supposedly educated preachers and Bible teachers of today who should know that it is the earth which moves relative to the sun, giving us night and day. That the earth's rotation, revolving at about 1,000 miles per hour would, if brought to a sudden halt would be the cause of catastrophes beyond description. I actually read a Baptist fundamentalist preacher, who, in defending the literal account of Joshua's Long Day, while acknowledging that the biblical author used the "language of appearance" in describing the stopping of the sun and moon, asked in all seriousness: how do we know it would cause tidal waves and other catastrophic phenomena if the earth were to be suddenly stopped? Yes, in case you are wondering, this man had a college education.
How much saner is the view expressed by Bible scholar Julius A. Brewer in his book The Literature of the Old Testament (page 5) where he explains the poetic influence in biblical literature:
The Book of the Upright contained also Joshua's famous prayer during the battle of Gibeon in which he begged that the day might be long enough for a complete rout of the enemies,
O Sun stand thou still over Gibeon, and Moon, over the vale of Aijalon!
And similarly the answer,
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, till the people were avenged on their foes.
This was expressed poetically by the author who lived some time after the conquest had been completed. But the narrator, who quoted it, interpreted it prosaically: a stupendous miracle was the result!
The Book of the Upright to which Brewer refers is one of the so-called Lost books of the Old Testament that biblical authors often quote, and the author of the book of Joshua referred to it in 10:13 as the Book of Jasher. Book of the Upright is a literal translation of the original Hebrew. The point being, what was originally understood as a poetic expression became a historical narrative in the book of Joshua.
Understood in this way, what was being expressed was that Joshua and his followers gave credit for this victory to their God. No sun and moon literally standing still in the heavens, but that time seemed to actually stand still as they fought their enemies. Remember, this was the days prior to mechanical clocks and the sundial was the measure of time. It was a long, hard fought battle, but God delivered their enemies into their hands.
I'm just suggesting that it is possible to read the Bible with common sense and still get the message being conveyed. People today still find God's hand in different events. I have questioned in this blog some of these interpretations, such as God sending earthquakes and falling rocks in order to make points. But the "eye of faith" will forever see things differently. I would point out, however, that the Amorites no doubt had a different interpretation about what happened in that famous battle. One reality: many interpretations.