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The fiction

Websites and emails like the following have been circulating for some time, and have at times found their way into more scholarly journals. There are a huge number of retellings, but the story goes something like this:

Did you know that the space program is busy proving that what has been called “myth” in the Bible is true? A consultant with the space program relates the following development:

“I think one of the most amazing things that God has done for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Maryland. They were checking out where the positions of the sun, moon, and planets would be 100 years and 1,000 years from now. We have to know this so we won’t send up a satellite and have it bump into something later on in its orbit.

“We have to lay out the orbits in terms of the life of the satellite and where the planets will be so the whole thing will not bog down. They ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries, and it came to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong with either the information fed into it or with the results as compared to the standards.

“They called in the service department to check it out, and they said, ‘What’s wrong?’ Well, they found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time. They scratched their heads and tore their hair out. There was no answer.

“Finally a Christian man on the team said, ‘You know, one time I was in Sunday school, and they talked about the sun standing still.’ While they didn’t believe him, they didn’t have an answer either, so they said, ‘Show us.’ He got a Bible and went to the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for any one with ‘common sense’. There they found the LORD saying to Joshua, ‘Fear them not, I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall not a man of them stand before Thee.’ Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy! And if darkness fell, they would overpower them. So Joshua asked the LORD to make the sun stand still! That’s right: ‘The sun stood still and the moon stayed and lasted not to go down about a whole day!’ (Josh 10:12,13).

“The astronauts and scientists said, There is the missing day! They checked the computers going back into the time it was written and found it was close but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua’s day was 23 hours and 20 minutes, not a whole day. They read the Bible, and there it was about [i.e., approximately] a day. These little words in the Bible are important, but they were still in trouble because if you cannot account for 40 minutes, you’ll still be in trouble 1,000 years from now.

“Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits. As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible where it said the sun went backwards.

“The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but they got out the Book and read these words in 2 Kings 20:9-11 that told of the following story: Hezekiah, on his death bed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah who told him that he was not going to die. Hezekiah asked for a sign as proof. Isaiah said ‘Do you want the sun to go ahead 10 degrees?’ Hezekiah said, ‘It is nothing for the sun to go ahead 10 degrees, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees.’ Isaiah spoke to the LORD, and the LORD brought the shadow ten degrees backwards! Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes!

“Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in 2 Kings, make the missing day in the universe! Isn’t it amazing?”

The fact

This would be a great story if it were true and, if it were true, it would convince many people who do not believe the Bible. But this story is an absolute hoax. This event never happened. It is one of those great “urban legends” that even now is still disseminated through the internet.

In 1890, Charles Totten, an instructor in military science at Yale, wrote Joshua’s Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz. In his book he claimed that two professors, one at Harvard and another at Yale (himself), discovered a day missing in astronomical calculations. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of observations and/or calculations could come remotely close to ‘proving’ such a thing. This story about a missing day met with well-deserved skepticism at the time, and was presumably dismissed by all intelligent people. But the same story had a rebirth in 1936, when Harry Rimmer wrote a book titled The Harmony of Science and Scripture, in which he cited Totten’s book. Again, such a far-fetched story never gained any acceptance in scholarly circles. How could it?

A book by Harold Hill, How to Live Like a King’s Kid [Bridge Logos Publications, paperback, 1974], recycled the story yet again — presumably adding the NASA details, which would have been anachronistic in 1936, never mind 1890. The story then made the rounds of church bulletins and newsletters in the 1970s.

The whole story, in all its variations, has been thoroughly refuted many times, notably by an article in the widely-circulated magazine Christianity Today, entitled “Missing Day or Missing Data?” (September 11, 1970). For a while it seemed to have died a well-deserved death, but such is the nature of the internet that recycled and updated versions of the earlier, discredited story have been circulated again and again — always, it seems, finding a few who are ready to believe it without examination.

The event itself

When the five Amorite kings made an alliance to fight against the Gibeonites, the men ofGibeon asked Joshua to help them against their common enemy. In response to this request, Joshua and the whole army ofIsrael went from Gilgal to fight against the Amorites.

According to the Bible text, Joshua and the army marched all night from Gilgal and took the army of the Amorites by total surprise. In addition, God threw the enemy army into total confusion by casting against them huge stones out of the sky, so that many died. The text says that more people died from the hailstones than the soldiers of Israel killed with the sword.

It was at the height of the battle that Joshua cried out:

” ‘O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.’ So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on [or, ‘triumphed over’] its enemies… The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day” (Josh10:12,13).

The explanation

So what happened? The traditional interpretation is that there was a prolonging of the day so that Joshua and his army could have more light to fight against the enemy. Thus, God stopped the sun and the moon long enough to give Joshua and his army time to defeat the Amorites.

It is true that God could stop the sun and still maintain the solar system in place. But the laws of physics bring serious doubt upon the traditional interpretation of the text. The stopping in place of the sun and the moon would affect the whole solar system. In addition, there are other problems with this interpretation:

  • This view reflects a pre-modern view of the solar system, one in which the sun is assumed to      rotate around the earth.
  • The stopping of the sun in the same place in the sky probably would scorch the land where the light was shining and would freeze the land when there was only darkness.
  • If the sun would stop in the middle of the sky, there would still be day and night because day and night are determined by the rotation of the earth on its axis, not by the rotation of the sun.

[See the website www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/j/joshuaday. In fact, many scholars and researchers have debunked the “myth” of the missing day. Also see the “Urban Legends” page at www.snopes.com/religion/lostday.asp.]

Various possibilities exist for explaining the Bible text; they include the following.

Miraculously strengthened soldiers?

In his book Bible Studies, Harry Whittaker observes: “What marvel took place on that astonishing day? Did the mighty machinery of the solar system have a spanner [wrench] in its works specially so that the Israelites could win a big victory? And if things really happened literally according to what the words say, why did not everything and everybody take off jet-propelled? For it has to be remembered that in the latitude of Palestine the earth’s surface and everything on it is revolving round the earth’s axis at about 800 miles per hour. Then was another mighty miracle performed to keep people and buildings and trees and oceans all in their places when the earth’s rotation stopped? — and yet another when everything started up again? Here, surely, is a miracle which is a hindrance to faith rather than an aid to it… A little careful reading can save us from boggling at this ancient record. This is Holy Scripture and altogether dependable. If there are difficulties, then most likely they are difficulties manufactured by ourselves.”

A bit further along, Bro. Whittaker adds: “Notice those significant words: ‘Is it not written in the Book of Jasher?’ [Josh 10:13]. Exactly nothing is known about this Book of Jasher, except that David’s long and lovely lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan was also to be found written there (2Sam 1:18). It requires only a casual reading of that ‘Song of the Bow’ to see that the Book of Jasher was (evidently) a collection of ancient songs and poetry! No one with any literary sense at all takes poetry in a strictly literal sense. For example: ‘They were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions’ [2Sam 1:23]. Or again, ‘The mountains and hills shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands’ [Isa 55:12]. The Bible has many an example of this sort. Is it not likely, then, that this quote in Joshua 10 from the Book of Jasher is poetic language, not to be taken in a strictly literal sense?”

Finally, he concludes: “The only way in which lengthening of the day could be measured would be by the amount of useful work the men of Israel were able to put into it. Consider Josh 10:9,11,15,17,28, etc. Joshua’s army covered 50 miles in one day, fighting all the way, through mountainous terrain” (Bible Studies, pp. 72,73).

Bear in mind that, as they traveled, the Israelite warriors had no wristwatches or portable timepieces by which they might measure how much time had passed. How far they traveled, what they managed to achieve, and/or how far the sun traveled along its course would give them their only means of telling the time.

Later these seemingly tireless warriors may have thought back upon their exploits, and compared this time to their other battle experiences. It would have seemed to them, in retrospect, that something truly extraordinary had happened — that on this special “day”, it was as though the sun had paused in its relentless course while they carried out their divinely-decreed labor, and did the equivalent of two days of God’s work in one day!

This scenario leads to one very reasonable possibility: God, by His Spirit, strengthened the Israelite warriors so that they accomplished superhuman feats during the course of this one day.

Or miraculously provided light?

A second possibility is that God might have created a greater light, like His “Shekinah Glory” for example, that would “mimic” the sun even during the night, and allow the Israelites to prolong their activities.

There are well-attested and unarguable examples of this in the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. There, Yahweh’s “Shekinah [Dwelling, or Presence] Glory” became a pillar of fire that gave the people of Israel light during the night, that separated them from the armies of Egypt, and that led and protected them through the Red Sea and then in the wilderness (e.g., Exod 13:21,22; 14:19-24; Num 9:15-23; 14:14; Deut 1:33; Neh 9:12, 19; Psa 78:14; 105:39; etc).

This same Shekinah Glory may have been the means by which the sun-dial’s shadow moved backward, as mentioned in the days of Hezekiah (2Kgs 20; Isa 38). Remember: all that is required to create a shadow that moves opposite to that of the sun’s shadow is to interpose another sufficiently-strong light closer to the sun-dial.

Finally, the Shekinah Glory may also explain the peculiar movements of the “star of Bethlehem (Matt 2). Contrary to everything we know about regular stars, this star behaved quite strangely. It seems to have led the wise men, by appearing to travel from place to place (and not necessarily in a straight line), stopping and then starting again, being visible to some while invisible to others, and finally disappearing altogether. Such movements, obviously directed and guided by an Omnipotent Hand, are reminiscent of those of the pillar of fire and cloud in Moses’ day.


Either of these explanations (or both together), and perhaps others besides, might account for the sun “standing still”, or appearing to do so, in the days of Joshua. Either of these explanations (or both together) would still admit the Power of God at work to perform a miraculous deliverance.

These explanations also give God the glory, but — unlike the theory that the sun literally stood still for 24 hours — they do not put severe stress on the whole of the universe, the foundation laws by which physical bodies interact, or the intelligence of Bible-believers. Nor do they give undue cause for unbelievers to mock.

George Booker

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