Was there a day when the earth stopped spinning and the sun stood still? That seems to be what a certain passage in Joshua is saying, but is that really what is being described? Or does it mean something else?
The passage in question is from Joshua 10.12-13. In the ESV translation it reads as follows:
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 (dmm/dwm) at Gibeon,
and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still (dmm/dwm), and the moon stopped (ʿmd),
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped (ʿmd) in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. - Joshua 10.12-13
Before we get into discussing some views on this passage it is necessary to break down some of the grammar of this passage and establish the context. This will give us a better understanding of the merits and shortcomings of the views that will be discussed later.
Previously in Joshua 9.1-27 the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites and established a treaty with them. This treaty established the Gibeonites as servants of Israel and established Israel as the protector of the Gibeonites. Then in Joshua 10.1-5 an alliance of 5 kings forms and marches to attack Gibeon because of this treaty. In response the Gibeonites send a message to their new protector Israel to come and aid them. Joshua responds by marching his army overnight from Gilgal to Gibeon (about 30km or about 18 miles) and takes the attacking armies by surprise. In the ensuing battle the text describes the LORD as doing most of the work. He threw the attacking armies into a panic which allowed Israel to “strike them with a great blow.” Then He threw down large stones on them as they retreated killing more of the enemy with the hailstones than Israel killed with the sword (Joshua 10.10-11).
After these events are when the verses we are examining here begin. Verse 12 begins with אָ֣ז (ʾāz). Usually ʾāz functions temporally, that is, it indicates a simultaneous event or action, or the next event or action in a narrative or discourse. However, it can also mark a logical turn in a narrative or sequence of events. Sometimes it can be difficult to neatly separate out these two functions since the actions of individuals in a narrative are usually influenced by the previous events of the narrative. I agree with most English translations that here ʾāz is primarily functioning temporally, but I think there is also at least a slight logical nuance present that is difficult (or impossible) to bring out in an English translation. Most English translations translate something like, “Then,” or “At that time,” or “On the day,” or something along those lines, but “therefore” is also possible as a translation depending on how you view the rest of the passage.
The significance of these two options is that it determines when Joshua said these words (“Sun stand still…”). If ʾāz is understood as functioning primarily temporally then Joshua could have said them at any time from when he started marching his men from Gilgal to when the sun set (biblical days are evening -> morning, see Gen 1.5, 8, 13, etc). If ʾāz is understood to be primarily logical then it basically forces us to interpret Joshua’s words as coming after and related to the preceding battle in some fashion.
There is slight uncertainty regarding who actually spoke the words “O sun stand still…” The common understanding is that it is Joshua who said them, but the Hebrew does allow for the possibility that it is God who is addressing the sun and moon. While I think this matter is important, I also think it is a little beyond the scope of this article due to the range of issues, implications, and consequences that need to be discussed in relation to it. That being said, I do not think the identity of the speaker is of high importance for what we are discussing here.
The next matter to be discussed are the verbs דמם (dmm/dwm) and עמד (ʿmd). According to their usage in biblical texts both of these verbs mean “to stand” or “to stand still/silently”. It is possible that dmm/dwm could also mean “to stand in awe” or “to stand dumbstruck,” but ʿmd does not appear to carry such a nuance. However, it is used in 1Sam 14.9 to refer to not participating in a battle, so it is possible that it could also carry the meaning “to stand” in the sense of doing nothing. Here it is used in parallel with dmm/dwm so perhaps here also we can derive a meaning of standing silently/in awe/dumbstruck. When applied to celestial bodies like the sun and moon these verbs could also refer to these bodies not shining their usual light, like in a solar eclipse. I’ve noted where these verbs are used above.
A recent journal article (Vainstub, Daniel, Hezi Yizhaq, and Uzi Avner. 2020. “The Miracle of the Sun and Moon in Joshua 10 as a Solar Eclipse.” Vetus Testamentum 70: 722-751.) has argued that the Hebrew roots dmm/dwm and ʿmd are cognate to the Akkadian roots da ʾāmu (dmm/dwm) and emēdu (ʿmd) in astronomical literature. In this view da ʾāmu refers to “darkness that occurs simultaneously with a phenomenon of illumination, which makes it ideal for describing an eclipse. Since it is cognate to the Hebrew root dmm/dwm and celestial bodies are involved (an astronomical context) then it is appropriate to understand these Hebrew roots as having the same meaning in that context as their Akkadian cognate. The case of ʿmd and emēdu is similar: since they are cognates and this is an astronomical context then ʿmd should have the same meaning as its Akkadian cognate. That astronomical meaning is that two celestial bodies (e.g. sun and moon) have converged on each other and made contact from the perspective of the observer. More on this view below.
In any case, the first verb is דּ֔וֹם (dôm) and it is an imperative form of dmm/dwm. As an imperative it could be giving an actual command or it could be expressing an assurance or promise. Joshua does not have the power to make the sun “stand still,” so if it is indeed a true command then it is really a request to the LORD to make the sun “stand still,” a request which is honored. If it is a promise then it would seem to be functioning as an assurance for the rest of the army that they will be victorious or of the LORD’s presence with them during the battle. In this scenario then Joshua would be communicating something that he had already heard from the LORD to the rest of the people, possibly Joshua 10.8. Whether a command or promise, in the end the events described transpire (v.13).
The final grammatical issue to be discussed is how the final clause of v.13 should be understood. The first part of this clause, “The sun stopped in the midst of heaven” is a general description of what happened. The second part of this clause describes, I think, how this event happened. In Hebrew this part of the clause reads: וְלֹא־אָ֥ץ לָב֖וֹא כְּי֥וֹם תָּמִֽים (wəlōʾ-ʾāṣ lābôʾ kəyôm tāmîm). The first part is straightforward: (the sun) did not hasten to go (down, i.e. set). The problem is the second part: כְּי֥וֹם תָּמִֽים (kəyôm tāmîm). The preposition כְּ is used to show a correspondence between things or to compare things. Here the intended comparison or correspondence is between the day these events occurred and a י֥וֹם תָּמִֽים (yôm tāmîm). The adjective תָּמִֽים (tāmîm) has the basic sense of “being unscathed/perfect/without blemish.” So, a yôm tāmîm then would be a day without any defects, which in this context would mean, I think, the celestial bodies, like the sun, functioned as normal. So, the comparison between the events of this day and a yôm tāmîm seems intended to indicate that things did not function perfectly; something happened that was not “correct.” Many English translations however seem to understand this clause to be more or less implying that there were twice the number of normal hours of daylight, that is, the reason why the sun set in a non-perfect manner was because it stood still in the sky resulting in extended daylight. However, I think the intended comparison here is the manner in which the sun set on this day compared to how it normally sets. That is, “did not hasten” does not refer to speed, but to the actual mechanism that causes the sun to set (see Ecc 1.5 where the verb שָׁאַף is understood to mean to pant because of a pursuit of something, i.e. hurrying or hastening after it). It is saying that the sun set in a “flawed” or atypical manner on this day. This fits better, I think, with the text specifically singling out how the sun set and saying that compared to a “perfect” day the sun set in a “flawed” manner on this day. The sense of this part of the verse then is, in my opinion, “…and it (the sun) did not set in the manner in which it typically sets.”
Now, with the grammar out of the way we can take a look at some common views and their merit/shortcomings. Not every view that could be classified as “common” is listed here.
Extended daylight view
In this view God stopped (or slowed down) the Earth from spinning and also prevented the ensuing catastrophic destruction from occurring as well. Then once Israel’s enemies were defeated the Earth started spinning again.
From a strict Christian Orthodoxy point of view there is nothing wrong with this view; it is well within God’s power to work such a miraculous event. The main problem with this is that it puts you into an unnecessarily hostile stance against the laws of physics. The earth spins at about 1,000mph. If it stopped everything else on it (people, water, etc) would still continue moving at 1,000mph. The destruction would be catastrophic. You are basically forced to stack miracle on top of miracle to make this view work. Now, you could argue along these lines that these lines are hyperbole injected into the narrative for some special effect/purpose, which ancient people could get away with since they did not have our modern understanding of the workings of planetary motion. While I think there are instances of hyperbole in the Bible I do not think this is one of them. Punting to hyperbole here just serves to avoid dealing with a seemingly difficult text.
In this view vv.12b-13 recapitulate what has already happened in poetic form. In this view the moon refers to Joshua having enough time to march his army from Gilgal to Gibeon under the cover of darkness. The sun refers to having defeated the enemy alliance in a day’s time. It is more or less then a very short victory song after the battle. However, in order for this view to work I think ʾāz has to be viewed as functioning as a logical connector. If these verses are indeed a recapitulation/victory song then they would have had to be said after the battle, not during or before as the temporal use of ʾāz would suggest. Translation wise then the verses would read something like “As a result of this victory Joshua spoke to the LORD…”
The largest problem, I think, for this view is that the final clause of v.13 (“The sun stopped in the midst of heaven…”) seems to be drawing attention to the actual movement of the sun. Whatever the sun did on that day was not ordinary and the author seems to want us to take notice of that fact.
Petition against foreign deities
In this view the sun and moon refer to foreign deities, not celestial bodies. Joshua’s petition then is for those deities to be dumbstruck and in awe and of no help. In favor of this view is that God Himself does most of the fighting in this battle and kills more of the enemy than the Israelites. This lends support to understanding the context as a battle between deities. This view would also support understanding the verbs dmm/dwm and ʿmd as they are normally used throughout the Old Testament. Additionally, if God is the one addressing the sun and moon then this view gains yet more strength.
Against this the objection has been raised that the positioning of the sun and moon matter because there are specific locations attached to where they are to “stand still.” Furthermore, this view has the same problem, I think as the Recapitulation view in that the text seems to be drawing our attention to the actual movement of the sun through the sky.
Annular (ring of fire) eclipse
This is the view presented by Vainstub, et al. See the journal article cited above for a more detailed explanation of their view. In this view Joshua is describing an annular eclipse that occurred on the same day as the battle. As mentioned above this view requires the verbs dmm/dwm and ʿmd to be functioning as astronomical terms and mean the same as their Akkadian cognates. At a base level this requires the context of the saying to be astronomical and while this context cannot be ruled out it also cannot be confirmed. It is true however that ancient people interpreted eclipses as significant signs, and if one occurred during a significant event it is likely to have been recorded.
Fortunately for us we can calculate when eclipses occurred in the past. Or more accurately we can leverage NASA’s Solar Eclipse Explorer to find them. If we look through the data for the periods accepted for the Israelites conquest of Canaan (late 15th or late 13th century BC) we can find that an eclipse did occur on Oct 30th 1207 (the year is 1206 in the NASA data, but apparently its data also counts 0 as a year, so we need to add 1 year) which would place it in the late 13th century BC, one of the accepted time frames for the Israelite conquest. This eclipse also occurred around 4:30p Jerusalem time, which likely would have afforded an opportunity to observe the eclipse and the mechanism behind it: the moon covering the sun.
So which view is right?
The annular eclipse view has a lot to commend it and if the linguistic supporting arguments of Vainstub, et al. are correct then this view is by far the strongest. However, this view is relatively new having just been published in 2020, so it will need to be evaluated further I think before it gains widespread acceptance. Their view also has implications not only for dating the conquest of Canaan, but also for the Exodus out of Egypt. These effects will also need to be evaluated.
After this I would rank what can be called the figurative views: recapitulation or petition against foreign deities. Of these two I would choose foreign deities over recapitulation because there is more going on with the conquest than just God giving Israel a place to live and settle. There is also, I think, a spiritual dimension where the gods the Canaanites worship are actually demons and by going in and conquering the land and removing this worship they are breaking the power of these demons and defeating them. While there are objections and shortcomings with these views they are not unanswerable or insurmountable.
There is also the possibility of a combination of some of the above views. For example, an annular eclipse did occur and for the Israelites it functioned both as reminder of God’s promise to drive out the Canaanites (and their gods) and as a reminder of what happened on that specific day. If an eclipse did occur then it likely held significance for the Israelites. Figuring out what the significance is would then be the next task.
The only view I don’t like at all is the extended daylight view because it puts you in such a hostile stance against the laws of physics and planetary motion. Perhaps in the future we will learn that there is someway that daylight can be extended without stopping the rotation of the earth, but right now the only way we know that this could happen is by stopping (or slowing) the rotation of the earth. So, until that discovery happens this option is off the table for me.
So, there you have it. If you came across this article looking for some clarity on this passage I hope you found it. I know it’s a lot sift through, but hopefully there is value in it.