Making the Sun Stand Still

As I said a few days ago, I’m going to start using this space for my “Biblicist’s Holiday” posts, reporting on things that strike me as interesting while I’m reading through the Bible from beginning to end.

Everyone knows that “Joshua made the sun stand still.” But the actual story is a bit more complicated than that. Here is the background (in the NJPS translation):

Josh. 10:5
  The five Amorite kings — the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, with all their armies — joined forces and marched on Gibeon, and encamped against it and attacked it. 6 The people of Gibeon thereupon sent this message to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not fail your servants; come up quickly and aid us and deliver us, for all the Amorite kings of the hill country have gathered against us.” 7 So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his whole fighting force, all the trained warriors.

The reason Joshua is involved in the attack on Gibeon is that the Gibeonites have fooled Joshua into agreeing to make peace with them (see Joshua 9). It would be interesting to know the relationship between the two stories. In any case, here is how the battle went:

Josh. 10:8
  The LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for I will deliver them into your hands; not one of them shall withstand you.” 9 Joshua took them by surprise, marching all night from Gilgal. 10 The LORD threw them into a panic before Israel: [Joshua] inflicted a crushing defeat on them at Gibeon, pursued them in the direction of the Beth-horon ascent, and harried them all the way to Azekah and Makkedah. 11 While they were fleeing before Israel down the descent from Beth-horon, the LORD hurled huge stones on them from the sky, all the way to Azekah, and they perished; more perished from the hailstones than were killed by the Israelite weapons.

The battle is over. The LORD panicked the enemy forces and then pelted them with enormous hailstones as they fled. Joshua essentially had nothing to do but chase them. That’s when we read:

Josh. 10:12
  On that occasion, when the LORD routed the Amorites before the Israelites, Joshua addressed the LORD; he said in the presence of the Israelites:
 
“Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon,
O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!”
13
  And the sun stood still
And the moon halted,
While a nation wreaked judgment on its foes

 — as is written in the Book of Jashar. Thus the sun halted in midheaven, and did not press on to set, for a whole day; 14 for the LORD fought for Israel. Neither before nor since has there ever been such a day, when the LORD acted on words spoken by a man. 15 Then Joshua together with all Israel returned to the camp at Gilgal.
Josh. 10:16
  Meanwhile, those five kings fled and hid in a cave at Makkedah.

(You’ll have to keep reading that chapter to find out what happens to them.)

The words “Joshua addressed the LORD” are actually the first words of v. 12, and in Hebrew they read this way:

אז ידבר יהושע לי-ה [az yedabber yehoshua ladonai]

עז + the imperfect (used, as it anciently was, for the past tense) is the same way that the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) begins. That is how you introduce a long poem about victory in ancient Hebrew. But here, unlike the Moses example, just the first line or two of the poem is given, quoted from “The Book of Jashar.” (Was the Song of Moses — and perhaps the Song of Deborah, Judges 5 — found in that book as well?)

Exodus 15 fits nicely — if not perfectly — into its context. Here in Joshua 10, though, we haven’t been told anything about the sun standing still, and the editorial note after the poem is quoted doesn’t really tell us about that either. Is it possible that the sun stood still in a completely different episode, which we no longer have, and that this miracle was so famous it had to be stuck somewhere into the story of Joshua? There’s no reason Joshua would have needed the sun to stand still in this episode, especially since the Lord was doing all the heavy lifting.

And puzzle #2: How can the text possibly claim (v. 14) that “Neither before nor since has there ever been such a day, when the LORD acted on words spoken by a man”?

I’ll just add, for the serendipity files, that on the same day I read this text I also read Chapter Five, “The Hero Who Stopped the Sun,” in Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s new book From Gods to God (click on the link for the arm-length subtitle and more about this book). They ask two further questions of extreme interest: (1) Was it God or Joshua who stopped the sun? (2) What’s the moon doing in this miracle?

I’m reviewing the book for H-Judaic and will post a link to my review (and link to it from here) when it appears. Till then, stay tuned for more of what’s on my mind while I take my “Biblicist’s Holiday” tour through the Bible.

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One Response to “Making the Sun Stand Still”

  1. From Gods to God | The Bible Guy Says:

    […] promised in my earlier post on Joshua 10, the story of the sun standing still, I’m now posting my review of Zakovitch & […]

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