The Fallacy of Biblical Stories, Part 6: The Day the Sun Stood Still
Welcome to Part 6 of the fallacy of biblical stories series. This one will focus on a supposed celestial event described in the bible. Namely, the time God caused the sun to stop moving for almost a whole day, and all because one guy asked him too. I will admit, that seems like quite the favor to grant a mere mortal. But how plausible is it? Well, just like the other parts of the biblical fallacy series, I will look at the science behind the phenomenon and determine the veracity of the story or if there are other possible explanations.
According to the story, Joshua was leading the Israelites into battle against the 5 Emorite kings at Gibeon because they were laying siege against the Gibeonites, whom Joshua promised to protect. Realizing that a prolonged battle would go into the night, thereby allowing the 5 kings to retreat under the cover of darkness, Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still: On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon .” (Joshua 10:12, the Bible, NIV)
Talk about pulling out the big guns to win a battle. It seems it would have been easier for God to simply smite the 5 kings and their armies. After all, God always did seem to love a good smiting. But I digress. At any rate, the sun supposedly stopped, and Joshua was able to win the battle. Oh yeah, God also hurled “giant stones” (or hail) at the Emorites, killing many. Which probably helped too. See, I told you God loves a good smiting. So let’s bring out the BS meter and see how this story holds up against scrutiny.
1. Maybe it was midday : If you ever look up into the sky at noon, the sun is directly overhead. From that perspective, it may appear to be still and unmoving. However, that "illusion" is short lived, as it will become noticeable that the sun is continuing to move across the sky (not to mention vision damage from staring at the sun). So unless Joshua only needed about an extra hour or so to win his battle (before he noticed the sun is actually moving), the sun won't be still for him.
2. The Earth and moon stopped moving. Not the sun : So, as everyone (hopefully) knows, the sun is not moving relative to the earth. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun, and the moon revolves around the Earth. But the appearance of the sun "moving" in the sky is due to earth's rotation. That is why we have the day/night cycle. For the sun to appear to stand still, the Earth itself must stop rotating. The same is true of the moon’s revolution around the Earth if the moon was supposed to be still too. Surely an omnipotent deity could pull off such a feat. Maybe God is spinning the Earth on his finger like a planet sized basketball and he suddenly grabs the ball, bringing it to an immediate stop for Joshua. There's just one small problem with that scenario; the Earth rotates 1,037 mph at the equator. Then it comes to a sudden stop. The problem is not the stop itself, it's everything on the earth (including people) still travels 1,037 mph relative to the earth. Do I even need to explain what kind of calamity that would cause? So the premise of the Earth stopping, while it would explain the long day, is not possible as such an occurrence would probably render us extinct.
3. Perhaps it was during the Solstice: If the sun "stopped moving," then the daylight hours would naturally be longer, right? Well, there is a natural phenomenon that causes that exact event to occur every year (longer daylight hours, not immobilizing the sun): the summer & winter Solstices. During the solstice, the Earth's pole has its maximum tilt toward the sun (depending on the hemisphere). This causes the greatest amount of daylight to occur (the "longest" day of the year), even though the day is still 24 hours. However, extra daylight hours is what Jacob wanted and maybe he happened to pick the right day for a battle for extra light hours to occur. However, the bible says the sun did not set for almost a full day and the solstice doesn't add that many hours of daylight. But sunlight can occur for 24 hours (never completely dropping below the horizon) in the arctic/antarctic regions of the earth due to earth's axial tilt. However, the Middle East region is closer to the equator than it is to the poles. So that idea is out!
4. There was an eclipse : This might be the most logically plausible explanation. This is also where context becomes crucial. What is actually being described? According to some English translations, this might be taken to mean the sun and moon actually stopped their motion. Indeed, one would probably assume that is what is meant when it is said the sun and moon stopped moving. But if one goes by the Hebrew translation, it can be taken to mean they stopped shining. According to Professor Sir Colin Humphreys of the University of Cambridge (2017, para 4), “ In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated ‘stand still’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses .” In addition, the oldest recorded eclipse occurred in 1207 BC, which was around the time of Joshua. So the story in the Bible was probably describing an eclipse. An eclipse would give veracity to the biblical interpretation of the sun and moon not shining. But it does not support the interpretation that the sun and moon stopped their motion, much less resulted in more daylight hours or a longer day. Based on that, the story of Joshua and the sun stopping falls apart.
What this all seems to boil down to is an ancient guy making an observation of a natural event without understanding how the event occurs. Naturally, the bible picks this up as a “miracle” and essentially that “God did it.” As fellow NTer TiG pointed out in another discussion [emphasis mine], “ the Bible expresses the perspectives of ancient men trying to interpret their environment. If it were divine, we would not see 'sun stood still' but rather an enlightened description of an eclipse .” Fortunately, science can explain an eclipse. So divinity or magic is not required to explain the occurrence. As we can see with this particular story, as well as the other biblical stories presented in the biblical fallacy series, there are alternative and scientific explanations (or refutations) for the events presented. But continuing to stick to the belief that it was a divine event or a “miracle” (based on the bible) is just a confirmation bias as well as intellectually lazy! Confirmation bias = seeing only what one wishes to see and, in so doing, missing the truth (courtesy of TiG).
So what do you think? How does this story hold up? Comments, thoughts, and analyses are welcome. And remember, follow the evidence to where it leads, not to where you want it to go.