The reaction of the Canaanite peoples in general to the early victories of Israel, those over Jericho and Ai, had been briefly described in the opening verses of chapter 9. As Chapter 10 opens we have described the reaction of a specific group of Canaanite cities, those located nearest the Israelite invasion force.
His target was not the Israelite army, encamped at Gilgal, but Gibeon, the capital of the four-city confederation that had just made peace with the Israelites. Gibeon was located a few miles northwest of Jerusalem, so Adoni-zedek and the four kings of cities to Jerusalem’s southwest understandably considered an Israelite ally in their immediate environs to constitute a deadly threat. This is, by the way, the first time in the Bible that the name “Jerusalem” appears. The city itself was mentioned before, as early as Genesis indeed, but under the name “Salem.” Still, at this point, no one knew the importance this city would eventually acquire centuries later under King David.
In any case, Adoni-zedek could read a map. The location of Gibeon and its allies, together with Jericho and Ai, meant that Joshua had nearly cut Canaan in half, separating the north from the south, leaving him free to destroy the Canaanite states piecemeal. [Davis, 86]
The term “Amorite,” as we noted before, can refer in general to all the inhabitants of Canaan or to a particular people among them, viz. the inhabitants of the central mountain region of Palestine. [Howard, 235]
As we noted last time, one stipulation of the covenant that Joshua had made with the Gibeonites was apparently that each would come to the aid of the other if either were threatened.
Yahweh had given Joshua this assurance before he entered the Promised Land (1:5). But as you and I know all too well, we need the Lord to repeat his promises to us and that is what he does. When he encourages his people the Lord does not typically unveil some new truth they had not known before. He reaffirms the promises he had already given, promises that take on special power and significance because of the circumstances we find ourselves in. [Davis, 87]
As is everywhere the case in the Bible, the assurance of victory by the power of God does not stifle ingenuity or effort, but stimulates it. The fact that Yahweh promised Joshua victory in battle did not prevent Joshua from using all his wiles as a general. His army made a forced night march so that Israel could fall on the Amorites in a surprise early morning attack. [Davis, 87]
There is no question that Yahweh is the subject of the verb translated “threw them into a panic.” But the English versions differ as to whether it is Yahweh or Israel who is the subject of the next three verbs: “struck,” “pursued,” and “struck.” Most of the commentators I read think both the grammar and the context favor Yahweh being the subject of all four verbs. That is, the emphasis in v. 10 falls on Yahweh himself winning the battle against the Amorite kings. Throughout the Bible the Lord is described not only as the tender shepherd of his people and their savior, but their king who defends them in battle and the warrior who defeats their enemies.
The geographical notices in v. 10 suggest that the Amorites were chased some twenty miles, suffering losses all along the path of their retreat.
The Lord put the finishing touches on the rout with a ferocious hailstorm that caught the fleeing Amorite army in the open. The following verses describe what happened at the same time as the events described in vv. 6-11, not something that happened later.
There are a number of books referred to in the Old Testament that have not survived: not books of the Bible but books that are mentioned in the Bible. The Book of Jashar is one of these. It is mentioned again in 2 Samuel 1:18. The reference to it here is either meant to confirm the account that has been given or as the source of the lines that follow. There is a great deal of debate about what, exactly, was written in the Book of Jashar. Was it a book of poems and hymns or, perhaps, poems together with a prose narrative? The latter, perhaps, would explain the odd statement in v. 15, a statement repeated verbatim in v. 43 and obviously out of place chronologically. Joshua did not break off the engagement, return the army to Gilgal, then return to complete the battle. But if our v. 15 were part of the quotation from the Book of Jashar that would explain its place here.
I might have brought up this subject when we considered Israel’s crossing the Jordan River on dry land. That was a miracle. We might have considered it when we dealt with the sudden tumbling of the walls of Jericho. That was a miracle. But I decided to consider the subject of miracles here, in Joshua 10, for several reasons.
First, this is the last of the miracles in Joshua. As you may know, but as many people do not, miracles are not pervasive in the biblical history. Now, before we go any further, it is essential that we define our terms. In the Bible a miracle is a supernatural intervention of the power of the God that is objective and self-authenticating. By that I mean, while we may use the term to describe any wonderful providence, the sudden conversion of a sinner, any surprising provision the Lord makes for us, or any striking answer to our prayers, that is not what the Bible means by “miracle,” or “sign,” or “wonder.” A miracle is an event as accessible to the unbeliever as to the believer. It is not an event subject to interpretation. Take the miracles of the Lord Jesus, for example. The people and especially the religious leadership who refused to believe in Jesus knew very well that he had healed the sick, given sight to the blind, and raised the dead. They never denied or could deny that these astonishing events had occurred. They attributed his power to the devil instead of to God but they never denied the power itself. We have already read that the Canaanites knew what had happened in Egypt: the plagues, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Sea, and so on. These were events in history the report of which had spread over the entire world of the eastern Mediterranean. That is a biblical miracle: objective and self-authenticating. As Jesus said more than once, miracles won’t by themselves produce faith, such is the hardness of the human heart. But neither can the supernatural character of the event be denied, nor is it denied.
That, by the way, is the first and greatest problem with the claim that miracles are occurring in the world today, whether made by a charlatan TV preacher or by earnest and sincere Christian believers who believe that the Bible teaches them to expect that God’s miraculous power will be on display in the world in our day. The miracles that are supposed to be occurring do not have this objective and self-authenticating character as the Biblical miracles did. What the believer calls a miracle, the unbeliever calls a coincidence or, worse, a sham. I have long said to you that you needn’t worry about missing out on miracles. If that kind of divine power is unleashed again in the world, you will know it because everyone will know it. You will read about it on the front page of the New York Times. The editors may attribute the power to aliens or the Devil instead of to God, but that supernatural events have occurred they will not be able to deny and will not deny! But the so-called miracles alleged to be occurring today don’t convince even much of the church, still less the unbelieving world that supernatural power has actually been unleashed in the world.
And, as I said, miracles of this kind occur sparingly in biblical history, almost exclusively in three short periods of time: first, the exodus, the wilderness, and the early conquest of Canaan, ending here in Joshua 10; second, the ministry of Elijah and Elisha; and third the ministry of Jesus and the first years of the ministry of his apostles. There are a few exceptions: for example, there are a few miracles in the Book of Daniel. We are told that John the Baptist never worked a miracle and it seems clear that by the end of the apostolic era, even considerably earlier when Paul wrote his letters to Timothy and Titus, miracles were no longer a feature of the life of the early church. There is no really satisfactory evidence that miracles have ever occurred since. Well, this miracle here in Joshua 10 is the final miracle of that first period. You will notice by the way, that each of those three periods of history in which miracles occurred was a turning point in the history of revelation, of the disclosure of God’s will to mankind. In the first period the miracles accredited the ministry of Moses who gave us the law of God the first five books of the Bible, the foundation of everything that would follow. In the second period the miracles accredited the ministries of Elijah and Elisha at the headwaters of the prophetic movement in Israel, the succession of God’s prophets who would supply most of the rest of the Old Testament. And, of course, Jesus and his apostles were to give us the New Testament. Peter actually says in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 that miracles served to accredit men sent from God, to verify their authority. They did more than that, of course; they were as well powerful signs of the salvation that Jesus came to bring; they were pictures of a still greater healing and a still more wonderful resurrection.
But in the Bible miracles are always associated with a person who has been given authority, a prophet or an apostle. Joshua was, as the book has already taken pains to demonstrate, a second Moses. He would be the last for many centuries to come.
Nevertheless, it is a simple fact of biblical revelation that miracles were rare and never intended to be the ordinary experience of believers. They were as we are to live by faith and not by sight. Most believers in biblical times never witnessed a miracle, just as you and I have never witnessed a miracle. And, as I said, after this miracle in Joshua 10 the Israelites would not see such a thing for centuries to come. Prophets might still be privately visited by God and he might bless his people in extraordinary ways, but no miracles in the biblical sense or definition of the term.
The second reason I chose to consider the question of miracles here is because of an interesting problem with miracles is highlighted here. By “problem” I do not mean whether or not we can believe that the narratives of miracles in the Bible are true. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,
“The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” [God in the Dock, 29]
That is, once you accept the biblical doctrine of creation, the biblical doctrine of God, and of his providence or rule over the world, the difficulty of believing in the miraculous melts away. These are the works of the one who made this world and by whose love and power it is being saved from sin and death. These are not the effect of an alien power, some strange and other worldly power; this is the work of the one who made the world, loves the world and who is in the world. [Lewis, Miracles, 132]This is all the more the case when one appreciates how chaste the biblical accounts of the miraculous are — nothing like the mythological accounts of miracles –, how unashamed the Bible is in its acknowledgement of how stunning these events really were to everyone, and how comparatively rare biblical miracles actually were.
No; by referring to a problem with the miraculous I mean that believing readers of the Bible, equally determined to defend the miraculous element, do not always agree as to what the Bible actually says happened. We encounter such disagreement, for example, in regard to the first of the ten plagues in Egypt. Did the waters of the River Nile actually turn into hemoglobin or does the word “blood” used there refer to the red color of the river resulting from the silt carried down from the Ethiopian highlands? We encounter it also in regard to the flood. You may think again about this because of the new Hollywood blockbuster with Russell Crowe as Noah. Was the deluge worldwide or confined to a single region of the world? Believers have been disagreeing about that and arguing about what the Bible actually says for a very long time. And we encounter a similar question here.
Now, that there is a typical biblical miracle recorded in this history is beyond doubt and no faithful reader of God’s Word doubts it. It is reported in v. 11. A mid-summer hailstorm would have been a rarity. Most hail falls in that part of the world in the winter. And, of course, rarely is hail so large that it kills, though hail has fallen in the size of softballs, even grapefruit, and certainly has killed people, even some in the United States. But in other parts of the world single hailstorms have killed hundreds of people at once. In 1986 92 people were killed in Bangladesh by hailstones the size of grapefruit that each weighed a kilogram. A hailstorm in India in 1888 killed two-hundred-thirty people.
This miracle, therefore, is quite like the miracles that we find in this period of biblical miracles, from the first nine plagues, to the Lord using a wind to part the waters of the Sea, or a landslide to dam up the Jordan River. The miraculous element in the plagues, all of which but the tenth involve phenomena that were a feature of life in the Nile delta — the water turning red, the frogs, the flies, and so on — was the timing and the intensity of the events. So too the landslide at Adam that dried up the Jordan River bed so that Israel could cross into the Promised Land. Here too it was the timing and the intensity of the storm that was its miraculous element as well as its precise location. A natural event was turned into a supernatural one by its timing and its intensity, severe enough to kill and falling only on Israel’s enemies, not on the pursuing army.
Now, don’t mistake me. Not all miracles are like this. The Lord’s healing miracles were certainly not. No one recovered from leprosy in those days. When the Lord healed the leper that was an utterly unprecedented display of divine power. He made use of no natural phenomenon. So with the raising of the dead. That was sheer and unprecedented divine power doing what otherwise cannot be done and what otherwise will never happen. Everyone understood that at the time.
But, as I say, the miracle of the hailstorm here in Joshua 10 is very like the other miracles of this period. In fact, we could look at some of the wilderness miracles, the locust and the quail and so on, and find them much the same in this respect: natural forces were employed and it was the timing and the intensity of the event that made it a miracle.
Now I say all of that because the other miracle often supposed to be here is not like that at all. In fact, if indeed God added a day, if he somehow stopped the earth in its rotation and kept the sun in the sky for some extra hours, as many have supposed, this miracle is the most astonishing miracle of all, utterly unprecedented in the Bible.
Some of you, I’m sure, will have heard the story that I heard when I was a boy, and that excited me and many others. The story has circulated in a variety of forms, always a bad sign. Anyway, the basic claim is that astronomers, in their calculations of the positions of planetary bodies, have discovered a missing day. In one such account it was a Professor Pickering of the Harvard Observatory that traced the missing day back to Joshua (which accounts for most of the missing time; the rest is accounted for by the backward movement of the shadow on the steps in Isaiah’s day). In another account a similar discovery of the missing day was made by high speed computers at a government astronomical laboratory. It is a story that is still being repeated, the details changing in its various renditions, but it has never been verified. People who have attempted to track down its source have always failed to confirm any of the claims. It is the sort of story we nowadays refer to as an “internet legend.” [Cf. B. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, 158-159; Howard, 242]
My friends, be wary of stories like these; stories that seem too good to be true. They bring discredit on the Bible and on those of us who believe the Bible. They confirm the skeptics claim that Christian believers are rubes, easily duped, whose views are akin to those who believe that the earth is flat. The Bible does not deserve this discredit. Its account of the miraculous is sober and credible.
And that leads me to alert you to something else. You may find this more difficult to accept after having read Joshua 10 in a certain way all your life, but hear me out. The fact is, there are a good number of biblical scholars, men who hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, who have no difficulty believing the history of the miraculous as it is reported in Holy Scripture, who, nevertheless, do not believe that on that day the sun stood still in the sky. Robert Dick Wilson, the stalwart Presbyterian and professor of Princeton Seminary in the early 20th century, was a founding member of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. Wilson devoted his life to the defense of the reliability of the Hebrew Bible. He was famous the world over for his prodigious scholarship. Along the way he learned some 45 languages, many of them the ancient languages of the biblical world. He was particularly a defender of the miraculous events reported in the Old Testament. He said once in one of his classes:
“…after studying God’s Word for over fifty years I have come to the conclusion that no man on earth knows enough to claim that there is a single inaccuracy in the original Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” [Cited in D. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929, 212]
I say all of that to assure you of the man’s loyalty to the Word of God. But, in an article published in 1918 in The Princeton Theological Review, Professor Wilson, whose scholarship was acknowledged by friends and foes alike, argued that Joshua 10:12-14 did not in fact describe a divinely ordered suspension of the laws of gravity. It is an article replete with highly technical discussion of the meaning of Hebrew words, of the meaning of similar terms in cognate languages, none of which I am competent to evaluate, but in Professor Wilson’s view, the day was not lengthened.
If you consult the commentaries, as I have, you will discover that there are, in fact, a variety of interpretations of these three verses, vv. 12-14. I’m not going to bury you in the details, most of which concern arcane questions of the meaning of Hebrew words, the proper translation of some of these phrases, and the nature of Hebrew literary art. But let me give you a summary.
- There is, of course, the traditional view that the sun stood still; the earth stopped rotating or in some other way the Almighty held the daylight for longer than its normal duration. The creator of heaven and earth, the one who fixed the heavenly bodies in their places, could certainly have done that. It would have been, without question, the most colossal nature miracle that ever occurred.
- Another view is that the sunlight lingered, perhaps through some atmospheric refraction.
- Another view is that there was not more sunlight but less, that the sunlight was blocked by a solar eclipse. However, we now know from astronomical calculations that there was no solar eclipse at any time during the years believing scholarship assigns to Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land.
- Another view is that the passage is figurative. They argue that we should take the poetry in vv. 12-13 as we understand a similar expression of the divine power at work to defeat Israel’s enemies in Habakkuk 3:10-11.
“The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury…”
Nobody thinks that is a literal description of things that happen. It is a poetic reflex on the great power of God unleashed on behalf of his people and against their enemies.
On this view we have in vv. 12 and 13 a description of the battle in cosmic terms, something that is actually quite common in the Old Testament. We would have here something like what we have in Judges 5:20 where Israel’s victory in battle over another Canaanite army is described in this way:
“From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.”
Those who take this view characteristically also set the last sentence of v. 13 in italicized type as poetry:
“The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.”
From “Sun stand still…” in v. 12 to the end of v. 13, then, the only prose is the statement: “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?”
Such figurative language, of which there is a great deal in the Bible and in contexts exactly like this, was never meant to describe actual astronomical phenomena. In such a view verses 12-14 are a poetic version of the account of the same battle we are given in straightforward prose in vv. 6-11. [The above in Howard, 241-248]
One important detail that weighs with me is that, as virtually everyone agrees, the references to Gibeon and Aijalon in v. 12, indicate that the sun is in the east and the moon has still not set in the west. In other words, if a specific time of day when Joshua prayed his prayer is being indicated, it is early morning, not evening. This would make much less likely a request from Joshua to extend daylight so that the battle might be prolonged. Most of those who believe that the miracle here was to stop the sun in the sky assume that Joshua’s request that the Lord do so came in the late afternoon or evening as he saw the daylight disappearing and his chance of total victory slipping away. But the actual statement of v. 12, if taken literally, has Joshua making the request in the morning, at the beginning of the battle, not in the evening near its end.
Another point worth noting is that the extraordinary character of the day is said in v. 14 not to be the extra length of the day but that the Lord heeded Joshua’s prayer and fought for Israel.
In my view this is really the most likely way to read vv. 12-14, as a poetic reflection on the battle literally described in vv. 6-11. You have that same order of a prose account and then a poetic refection in other places in the OT. For example, the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 is a repetition in poetry of the history of Israel’s crossing the Sea of Reeds in the previous chapter.
So there is a great miracle in Joshua 10: the miracle of the hailstorm perfectly timed to fall on the Amorites as they retreated, perfectly situated to hammer the enemy but leave Israel untouched, and sufficiently intense to destroy the remnants of the Canaanite army. Yahweh fought for his people, he sent their enemies into panic, he struck them, he confused them, and defeated them. As then, so now, as we pray to him and depend upon him, as we trust ourselves to his power, we too may have victory in the battles of our lives. We should do as Joshua did and trust his promise and depend upon his power! The entire cosmos is on our side, because it is his!