One celestial event of particular note recorded in the Bible is quite intriguing. It takes place in Joshua 10:6-15 at Gibeon. The Israelites have marched through the night and ambushed the Amorites. While retreating from the Israelites even more Amorites soldiers are killed by a violent hailstorm. As if hailstones (a mid-summer hailstorm would have been a rarity in this region of Israel, but they do occur here) weren’t miraculous enough, verses 12-14 have captured the imagination of scholars and lay-people alike for centuries. Verse 11 records that Joshua makes an appeal to the Lord for assistance in the battle. Several theories have emerged concerning the verses that follow. Whether it is the Lord answering that request in vv. 12-14 or it is Joshua’s actual prayer is often overlooked in favor of explaining what takes place. Specifically, “Did the Lord actually manipulate the movement (or lack of movement) of the Sun and Moon?”
Scholars offer 6 ways to interpret these verses. 1) The Bible is recording some form of refraction (bending of light) from the Sun and Moon. 2) There was a “wobble” in the Earth’s axis of rotation. 3) There was a slowing of the Earth’s rotation so that it made only one rotation in 48 hours instead of 2. 4) The Earth physically stopped rotating for one day. This has been the traditional view of both Jewish and Christian scholars through the years. The Wisdom of Sirach, Josephus, Augustine, Jerome, Luther and Calvin all held this view. Through the years several “urban legends” of NASA scientists and noted mathematicians proving this theory have surfaced but none have ever been confirmed. 5) More recently, the phenomena of these verses has been attributed to a solar eclipse. In January 2017, a team of Israeli scientists published an article on their findings in which they calculated that the eclipse and Joshua’s battle took place on October 30, 1207 B. C. at precisely 4:28 pm!
Technically the accuracy of any of these explanations could be disputed for each one has its own set of geophysical “problems”. The sixth view is most in line with the text. But it will be considered disappointing for those who wish for something a bit more like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Verses 12-14 can also be interpreted as figurative. That is to say the all-night march felt as if the moon stood still and the day-long battle made it feel like the sun was standing still. The verses then are not Joshua’s prayer but God’s response to it. The Lord “expanded Joshua’s time” (as we might say) so that the battle would be won. The parallelism of these passages (a key trait of Hebrew poetry) is very evident in the Hebrew. This interpretation may steal some of the “thunder” of a spectacular celestial miracle, but it certainly does not dismiss the unusual timing of the hailstorm. And in the end it is the interpretation that best supports what seems to be most striking to the author- a man prayed and God listened (v. 14)!
The pursuit of understanding natural phenomena recorded in the Bible is not a bad one. But it can lead us astray from understanding why these events are recorded in Scripture in the first place. As in the case of Joshua 10 the hailstorm and celestial activity (if there was some) are merely supporting the fact that God listened to Joshua’s prayer and acted upon it. I had a professor at seminary who used to put it this way, “Miracles in the Old Testament are not events in nature which over-ride the physical laws God has established. Instead they are all about timing and intensity”.
David Howard Jr. in his commentary on Joshua has discussed each of the aforementioned postulations at length but in the end comes to this conclusion, “As we have noted, according to v. 14, there was never a day like this before or since, not because of some extraordinary astronomical phenomenon, but because the Lord listened to the voice of a man and fought for Israel. The author of Joshua has chosen to marvel at this fact, and not the supposed marvel of the Sun’s stopping”. Whether one holds to an actual astronomical event or a figurative description of Israel’s substantial victory over the Amorites because the Lord moved on their behalf, the gist of the passage remains the same: God hears the prayers of His people and He responds to them (1 Ki. 9:1-3; 2 Ki. 20:1-5; Ps. 4:1-3; 6:9; 65:1-2; 102:16-17: Prov. 15:8, 29; Lk. 18:1-8; Jn. 9:31; 16:23; Phil. 4:6-8; Js. 5:15-16)!
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 8/20/2017