When spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:12-14 KJV)
During the conquest of Canaan, God’s people were soundly defeated at Ai because of the sin of one man, Achan. Like Adam before him, Achan had disobeyed God’s clear command, and though he thought his sin was private, it had covenant consequences, visiting wrath on all of Israel. When Joshua learned of this sin and fell to his face in prayer (Joshua 7:6-9), God told him not to pray but instead to deal with the sin that had damaged the Israelites’ relationship to Him (Joshua 7:10). But after Achan’s sin was judged, God’s blessing returned, and the Israelites continued their conquest. It was during a confrontation with the Amorites that God answered one of the most amazing petitions recorded in Scripture. There is no doubt that Joshua’s prayer was answered, yet both his prayer and the declaration that “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” have been interpreted as mere poetry. Consider this statement from Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown:
The language of a poem is not to be literally interpreted; and therefore, when the sun and moon are personified, addressed as intelligent beings, and represented as standing still, the explanation is that the light of the sun and moon was supernaturally prolonged by the same laws of refraction and reflection that ordinarily cause the sun to appear above the horizon, when it is in reality below it.
However, the first problem with relegating Joshua’s prayer and God’s response to mere poetry is that there was no need to exaggerate God’s might in the battle of Gibeon. God demonstrated His power through the natural order in several ways, including the use of deadly hailstones to rout the enemy. The second problem is that Joshua’s prayer for God to extend the day was uttered in the hearing of all the Israelite army during the heat of the battle, a setting which would lend itself more readily to literal rather than figurative, poetic petitions. As Matthew Henry observes, “If the event had not answered the demand, nothing could have been a greater slur upon [Joshua]; the Israelites would have concluded he was certainly going mad.” Furthermore, the statement that “there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded the voice of a man” seems to indicate that Joshua’s prayer was answered literally.
Even among those who take the declaration literally, there is still some dispute as to exactly what happened that day. The difficulty in dissecting the miracle lies in the wording of the verse, which seems to explain the passage of a day in terms of the sun’s motion, rather than the earth’s motion; but the earth, not the sun would have to stand still if the day were to be lengthened. However, this difficulty can be answered by noting that even today we speak of the sun’s rising or setting, even though we know that the sun does not move in relationship to the earth. Yet explaining the miracle in terms of the earth’s standing still introduces other problems, in that the sudden halt of the earth’s motion would be catastrophic. The conclusion must be that any problems created by the earth’s standing still, if that is what happened, would certainly be overcome by God, who is sovereign over all His creation.
Rather than try to posit a physical explanation for how God answered this prayer, Matthew Henry addresses the purpose for God’s choosing this particular means to defeat the Amorites. He states that God’s showing sovereignty over the motion of the heavenly bodies was intended not only to aid the Israelites in the battle, but also to accomplish the same purpose as the plagues of Egypt, that is,
to convince and confound those idolaters [the Canaanites] that worshipped the sun and moon and gave divine honours to them, by demonstrating that they were subject to the command of the God of Israel, and that, as high as they were, he was above them; and thus he would fortify his people against temptations to this idolatry, which he foresaw they would be addicted to.
Regardless of exactly how God answered Joshua’s prayer, His purpose of confounding His enemies, protecting His people, blessing His faithful servant Joshua, and bringing honor to His own Name was so evident to the world that it was recorded in secular literature of the time (the book of Jasher).
A Prayer for the Nations
Almighty God, who art the Father of all men upon the earth, most heartily we pray that thou wilt keep thy children from cruelties of war, and lead the nations in the way of peace. Teach us to put away all bitterness and misunderstanding, both in church and state; that we, with all the brethren of the Son of Man, may draw together as one comity of peoples, and dwell evermore in the fellowship of that Prince of Peace, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.
(From The Pastor’s Prayerbook by Robert Rodenberry. New York: Oxford, 1960)