One of the most difficult to explain passages in the Bible is the extraordinary account of when God made the sun stand still to extend the length of one day. Joshua prayed for this when the Israelite army was defending the Gibeonites, their allies, whose city was under attack. The text tells us that the sun stayed still for a full day – effectively making one day last for two days. Sceptics point out that this kind of miracle introduces too many problems to be believable. For the ancients, this event, though amazing, was easy enough to explain: God simply stopped the sun moving. Today, of course, we understand some of the consequences of that: either the earth had to stop spinning or the sun had to start moving. Of course, if God exists and created the universe, we can accept that he performs miracles and that he can implement either of these options. But the problem with both miracles is that they would pull apart the creation he so lovingly made.
The earth spins at 1,000 miles per hour. If it was to decelerate at the rate of a car doing an emergency stop, it would take 17 minutes to stop. If you were on a car’s roof during an emergency stop you’d soar off and, likewise, people on the surface of a decelerating earth would fly through the air, and buildings and trees would collapse. Even a much slower deceleration would destabilise earthquake zones, and the moon would drive unimaginable tsunamis around the globe. If, instead, the sun started moving round the earth, it would need to reach a speed of 25 million miles per hour to ‘stand still’ in the sky. To reach that speed – even if it accelerated at the same planet-tearing rate we’ve considered – would take 19 days. Stories of NASA finding a ‘missing day’ abound, but there is actually no data on which this could be based. When astronomical calculations ‘wind back the star clock’ they are based on present-day movements, so any missing day would be invisible because we have nothing to check our dates against. Exact dates in ancient Chinese and Babylonian records are themselves determined by these astronomical calculations, so they can’t be used to confirm them.
The man behind NASA’s urban myth has now been traced – see snopes.com/religion/lostday.asp – but the missing day itself remains…missing. Nevertheless, a literal interpretation of Joshua 10 is still possible without the earth or sun actually changing their movement. To investigate what happened, we have to put aside our preconceptions and take seriously the facts in the text itself. First, we must distinguish between scripture and non-scripture. Joshua 10:13 quotes from a source called the Book of Jashar – an ancient book which is now lost – saying that the sun stopped ‘in the middle of the heavens for a whole day’. For the original readers this quote helped to confirm it happened – like citing The Times.
However, quoting another source in scripture doesn’t make it part of God’s truth. If this was so, we would have to agree with the ancient poet who said that ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’ (quoted in Titus 1:12). The inhabitants of Crete may disagree. So when the Book of Jashar says the daylight extended by a whole day, this may be an exaggeration.
The second fact is that the sun didn’t stop moving because it wasn’t moving in the first place. When we read that ‘the sun stood still’, we can’t conclude this literally happened. It’s just a way of speaking about relative movement, like a modern astronomer saying, ‘I’ll meet you at sunrise’ without implying the sun literally moves in the sky. The only thing we can definitely conclude from this phrase is that the Israelites’ perception was that the sun had stopped moving – ie its light continued to come from the same place.
A third important detail is the extraordinary weather conditions that day. The text describes a storm with huge hailstones that killed most of the enemy soldiers (v11). Hailstones are formed in tall cumulonimbus clouds, often a mile high. These clouds must have been exceptionally tall to produce hailstones large enough to kill people. So what actually happened when Joshua asked God to keep the sun in the sky? We can only theorise. Before I do that, let me tell you about the evening my family and I set up camp beside Lake Isabella in California. When we arrived we should have known something was wrong – the car park was empty. At first, it seemed as though evening was falling early, with the sun descending behind abnormally tall clouds over the mountains. These clouds created an amazing sunset that lasted for several hours.
Even after the sun had long disappeared behind the mountains, the tops of the clouds reflected its light down to us in 100 shades of red. Later, we found out why. The clouds were formed by the heat rising from forest fires that were raging across the mountainsides and scaring all informed visitors away from the area. It was a disaster that created a beautiful and prolonged evening for us. So let’s come to my theory. We are told that when Joshua prayed, the sun was already going down over the heights of Gibeon and that the moon was visible (v12). This prompted him to pray for more time because he thought the day would end and the enemy would escape. It appeared as if evening had started early because the sun had reached the top of the hail clouds and was darkened to a red colour by them.
The clouds not only precipitated the start of evening – they also prolonged it beyond normal nightfall. Like our incredible evening at Lake Isabella, they continued to deflect the sunlight long after the sun had set below the hills, and even after it was below the horizon. That is how clouds prolong a sunset – and the taller the clouds, the longer the sunset lasts. We know the clouds must have been extremely tall to produce such huge hailstones, so the sunlight would have been deflected by the tops of them for several hours – and, because of that light, Joshua’s army could continue to fight even past the time of sunset.
The evening that day was longer than anyone had ever experienced, starting much earlier and ending much later than normal, due to those extraordinary clouds. The author of the Book of Jashar thought it extended by a full day, an understandable mistake. Measuring time without a watch and without knowing the position of the sun is very difficult, especially on a day filled with exciting events such as a military victory. Does this ‘natural’ explanation mean that God was not involved after all, and that there were no miracles that day? No! In fact, there was an amazing series of miracles.
First, a storm producing extraordinarily huge hailstones at exactly the right time and place, that fell only on the enemy. And, again at precisely the right time, the highest hail clouds the Israelites had ever seen kept sunlight shining on them long after the normal time of sunset, and enabled them to continue to defeat the enemy. Finally, there was the miracle of Joshua’s men being able to keep going even after marching throughout the previous night (v9) and fighting and running all day. Boxers today train for months in order to keep going for ten three-minute rounds; these men were still eager to chase their enemy throughout the lengthened evening after marching and fighting for 24 hours – a miracle of God-given strength. These miracles remind us about the amazing way in which God works. The God who can do anything could have killed all of Israel’s enemy with hailstones, or could have thrown them out into space. He didn’t need the help of the Israelites, and he doesn’t need our help to accomplish his purposes. But the Bible describes God using people whenever possible; he treats us like partners, not like servants. The great marvel is that God wants people to work with him. God will, if we allow him, use even us.