David Johnstone

Joshua’s long day

December 22, 2011

Joshua 10:12–14 has long been understood to be referring to a day significantly longer than normal. Here, I’m going to explain an interpretation that doesn’t involve any any miraculous physics. Here’s the passage in question:

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.

As far as miracles in the Bible go, Joshua’s long day is one of the biggest. Since the sun and moon moving across the sky are caused by the earth’s rotation, stopping them in the sky requires the earth to stop rotating, and if you’ve ever been in a decelerating car, you’d know you can’t stop an object without affecting things sitting inside that object. In the earth’s case, there are some massive bodies of water that wouldn’t be very happy if you suddenly stopped the basins they normally stay in. Bearing in mind that, at the equator, the surface of the earth is moving at about a thousand miles an hour, it’s not hard to see such an event causing waves that would destroy the world. And this is to say nothing of the forces on the tectonic plates (expect massive amounts of geological activity), winds stronger than any hurricane all over the world, and the same force applied to you and everything around you. That said, God is powerful enough to stop all these things from happening, but that’s why this event would be a very big miracle.

However, there are reasons to believe that such an event is not what is being described here. Rather, according to John Walton’s essay “Joshua 10:12–15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts”, Joshua is asking the Lord to make both the sun and the moon visible on opposite horizons on a day that wasn’t the 14th day of the month, which the Amorites would interpret as a bad omen. Let me explain.

Let’s start with omens. People in the ancient Near East depended on omens for they were a way the gods communicated with man. Omens could be sought for, with popular methods including extispicy, where the entrails of an animal were examined (palm reading is a similar but less bloody practice that still occurs today), and casting lots. Passive omens, such as celestial, atmospheric, terrestrial (features of cities, behaviour of kings and animals, appearance of fire etc.) and physiognomic (birth of deformed animals) phenomena were also understood to be a way the gods communicated with man. Enuma Anu Enlil is a collection of 7000 omens describing phenomena concerning the sun, moon, stars and weather and what they mean.

Many celestial omens related to the lunar calendar that was used in the ancient Near East. Each month began when the new moon first appeared. Therefore, the full moon appeared in the middle of the month, and this was evidenced by the moon setting minutes after the sun rose in the morning, so the sun and moon would both be visible on opposite horizons. It was a good omen if this occurred on the 14th day of the month, for the month would then be the “right” length. Conversely, this happening on the 15th day was a bad omen:

When the moon and sun are seen with each other on the 15th day a powerful enemy will raise his weapons against the land. The enemy will destroy the gate of my city.

What evidence is there in the text that this is referring to an omen? Firstly, the positions of the sun over Gibeon, to the east, and moon over Aijalon, to the west, indicate that this is referring to the morning. Traditionally, it has been thought that later in the day, when it was clear the Israelites were winning, Joshua wanted more time to rout the Amorites, but this doesn’t fit. Secondly, the way the sun and moon are described to “stand still” or “wait” fits with language used in omen texts. For example:

When the moon and sun do not wait, but disappear, there will be raging of lions and wolves. It was seen with the sun on the 15th.

Thirdly, the uniqueness of the day is mentioned in the text, but what made it special was that “the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel”. There is no indication that the sun and moon waiting was an unusual phenomenon.

Walton provides an alternate translation that fits his understanding of the passage:

“O sun, wait over Gibeon and moon over the valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun waited and the moon stood, before the nation took vengeance on its enemies.
Is it not written in the book of Jashar,
“The sun stood in the midst of the sky and did not hurry to set as on a day of full length?”

What was the point of the omen? Israelite religion forbid most omens, and there isn’t any indication they had catalogues for the interpretation of omens like many of their neighbours, so they probably weren’t looking for a good omen for themselves. They would, however, have understood that their enemies relied on omens, so it is entirely likely that Joshua was asking for a bad omen for the Amorites, which, at the very least, would deflate their morale.

So, assuming this interpretation is correct, Joshua’s “long day” was no longer than any other day, and the sun and moon waiting in the sky indicate it being full moon. This is a nice demonstration of the usefulness of modern biblical scholarship in clarifying difficult texts. Maybe, some day, the rumours that NASA found the missing long day will disappear.

John Walton’s essay “Joshua 10:12–15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts” is part of “Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context”. Most of the essay can be read on Google Books. John Walton’s “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible” contains a summary.

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