By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of how the sun stood still during one of Joshua’s battles is well-known, although that battle it was and why the sun might have stood still are questions whose answers are less well-known, and, in the case of the ‘why’ question, may be ultimately unanswerable altogether.
Let’s take a closer look at what the Old Testament Book of Joshua tells us about this moment of solar immobility. We can find an account of the incident in chapter 10 of Joshua.
When Moses died, having led the Israelites out of Egypt (the so-called parting of the Red Sea) and into the wilderness (where, as we’ve previously discussed, they were sustained by the mysterious manna from heaven), Joshua became the leader of the people of Israel.
Joshua, son of Nun, was divinely appointed as Moses’ successor. When the battle takes place in which the sun stands still so he can win the day, he is in the midst of his campaigns against the various tribes and cities of Canaan. He has already laid waste to Jericho, destroying the city walls with trumpets. Now, it’s the turn of the other cities:
10:9 Joshua therefore came unto them suddenly, and went up from Gilgal all night.
‘Gilgal’ means ‘circle of stones’: Joshua had earlier ordered twelve stones to be taken from the nearby River Jordan and for them to be arranged in a stone circle, not unlike Stonehenge in England (only on a smaller scale, one assumes). The precise significance of these stone circles remains a mystery, but it’s likely that Stone Age cultures across the world erected stone circles for reasons pertaining to religion and astronomy.
It’s also worth mentioning that Joshua had parted the waters of the River Jordan so that he and the Israelites could cross it, in an echo of the parting of the Red Sea under Moses.
Now we come to the battle of the five armies (long before the battle of that name in Tolkien’s The Hobbit):
10:10 And the LORD discomfited them before Israel, and slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them along the way that goeth up to Bethhoron, and smote them to Azekah, and unto Makkedah.
10:11 And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.
This sounds like a description of a hailstorm, but with the hailstones promoted to ‘great stones’, suggesting huge rocks. And then another divine piece of assistance: the sun standing still. However, it isn’t just the sun that stands still. It’s the moon too:
10:12 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.
10:13 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 ‘book of Jasher’, by the way, was a book of songs that praised national heroes.)
10:14 And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the LORD fought for Israel.
The account of the sun standing still so that Joshua and his army could finish their fighting has been traced back to a solar eclipse which occurred on 30 October 1207 BCE. This would be the right sort of era for Joshua to have been alive and conquering Canaan (give or take a few decades), but it’s perhaps too neat an attempt to ‘euhemerise’ – that is, find a non-supernatural explanation for – what is intended to be a divine intervention.
Nevertheless, it’s tempting to speculate that this legend grew out of a real-life astronomical event, to return to Gilgal’s stone circle and the close link between astronomy and religion in ancient times. After all, it’s often overlooked that in the account of this story in the Book of Joshua, the moon stood still as well as the sun, and that potentially implies a solar eclipse, where the moon gets between the earth and the sun.
Both might be seen to pause and plunge the land into darkness, and this lack of strong sunlight, along with the confusion caused by the hailstones, would have potentially made it easier for Joshua to defeat his enemies.
Isaac Asimov observes in his (brilliant, though sadly out-of-print and hard-to-obtain) Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov that, two-and-a-half millennia after the time of Joshua, people used the account of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still as ‘proof’ against the Copernican theory that the earth, not the sun, moved.