Dan Popp
Did the sun stand still for Joshua - scientifically?
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By Dan Popp
February 27, 2017

Scoffers love to laugh at the Old Testament miracle of the "sun standing still." But the writer of this account may be more scientific than his critics.

Let's start with the science. This is not a trick question, but you must answer carefully: Does the earth revolve around the sun?

The scientific answer is, "There's not enough information to answer the question." We must know, "From what point of reference?" We can say that the earth revolves around the sun – if we're standing on the sun. But that point is chosen arbitrarily.

From the reference point of a space ship outside the solar system, both the earth and the sun revolve around their common center of gravity. This is one way astronomers discover planets outside our solar system: a wobbly star is believed to be moving under the gravitational influence of an exoplanet.

If we fly our space ship much farther away, we would answer that both the earth and the sun move together around the center of the galaxy. In a universe where everything is in motion, we can only describe the speed and direction of something in relation to some other moving object that we must arbitrarily think of as "fixed." You are stationary now – compared to your surroundings. You are moving at about a thousand miles and hour relative to the center of the earth!

Now let's look at what the Bible actually says:
    Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "O sun, stand still at Gibeon, and O moon in the valley of Aijalon." So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. (Joshua 10:12, 13, NAS95)
Did you notice that the writer was painstakingly specific about the reference point? From the point of view of an observer at Gibeon, in the valley of Aijalon, the sun stood still in the middle of the sky. From reference point X looking at field Y, motion was observed to cease.

In contrast to the Bible's precision, you may remember this exchange from the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind.
    Drummond: ...Now I recollect a story about Joshua – Joshua making the sun stand still. As an expert, do you tell me that that's as right as the Jonah business? That's a pretty neat trick.

    Brady: I do not question or scoff at the miracles of the Lord, as do ye of little faith.

    Drummond: Have you ever pondered what would actually happen to the earth if the sun stood still?

    Brady: You can testify to that if I get you on the stand.

    Drummond: If, as they say, the sun stood still, they must have had some kind of an idea that the sun moved around the earth. You think that's the way of things? Or don't you believe that the earth moves around the sun?

    Brady: I have faith in the Bible.

    Drummond: You don't have much faith in the solar system.

    Brady: The sun stopped.

    Drummond: Good! Now, if what you say actually happened – if Joshua stopped the sun in the sky – the earth stopped spinning on its axis, continents toppled over one another, mountains flew into space, and the earth, shriveled to a cinder, crashed into the sun. Now, how come they missed that little tidbit of news?
The lawyer Drummond repeatedly misstates what the Bible relates. Then he proceeds to make inferences based on the flawed science of his day. I hope the real Clarence Darrow wasn't quite this stupid!

If we instead take the facts as they're given, with the sun standing still relative to an observer on the ground at point X, then nothing can be inferred about a pre-Copernican view of the solar system.

And nothing can be inferred about how this miracle was done. First of all, a God who can stop and restart the spinning of the earth can certainly keep things from flying off the surface. Drummond switches assumptions in the middle of his harangue (God is God, then not God, then God again). Oops.

But what if YHWH simply allowed some people to experience time the way He does? The Creator of space/time doesn't live each moment consecutively, as we do. As Peter put it, "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day." (2 Peter 3:8b) God is present in, and conscious of, all moments of time simultaneously and always. If He were to pull back the curtain and allow us His perspective on the scene, then the sun – and the moon, too – could seem to have stopped. (It may help to think in science fiction terms and say that God "froze time.")

And there are other possible explanations. What is not allowed is to remove relevant details from the text, make invalid inferences, switch assumptions in mid-argument, then laugh as if you had made fools of those dumb, deluded, anti-science Christians.

Did you notice, by the way, the science error in the "Drummond" dialog about "continents toppl[ing] over one another?" When that movie was written, you see, the current science still insisted that continents don't move. 3,000 years earlier, Moses wrote that, at Creation, the waters were "gathered into one place" (see Genesis 1:9), implying that there was originally only one land mass on the earth. Continents do move.

Within my parents' lifetime, scientists have finally accepted that the universe had a definite beginning (derided by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle as the "Big Bang,") that elements can be dissolved, and that continents move. The ignorant shepherds who wrote their silly myths in the Bible knew all of those things thousands of years ago.

It's almost as if they had help.

© Dan Popp

 

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