Science Ch.13 - Joshua’s Long Day

The lengthened day was accompanied by another miracle: hailstones that killed the enemy. Meteorologists know a phenomenon that links these two events and helps us to understand how one miracle gave rise to both of these wonders.

One of the strangest passages in the Bible is the extraordinary account, in Joshua 10, of when God made the sun stand still to extend the length of one day. Joshua prayed for this when the Israelite army was defending the Gibeonites, their allies, whose city was under attack. The text tells us that the sun stayed still for a full day – effectively making one day last for forty-eight hours. Skeptics point out that this kind of miracle introduces too many problems to be believable.

       For the ancients, this event was unusual, though it was easy enough to explain: God simply stopped the sun moving. Today we understand some of the mechanisms involved: either the earth had to stop spinning or the sun had to start moving. Of course, if God created the universe and if we accept that he performs miracles, then he could implement either of these options. But the problem with both is that they would pull apart the creation he so lovingly made.

       While standing still on the earth’s surface, we are actually spinning at one thousand miles per hour; if the spin were to decelerate at the rate of a car doing an emergency stop, it would take seventeen minutes for the planet to come to a halt. If you were on a car’s roof during an emergency stop you’d fly off and land in the road. Likewise, people on the surface of a decelerating earth would fly through the air while buildings and trees collapsed. Even if the deceleration were much slower, it would destabilize earthquake zones, and the moon would drive unimaginable tsunamis around the globe. If, instead, the sun started moving around the earth, it would need to reach a speed of twenty-five million miles an hour to “stand still” in the sky. To reach that speed – even if it accelerated at the same planet-tearing rate we’ve considered – would take nineteen days.

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Missing-day myth

Stories of NASA finding a “missing day” are easy to find on the internet. The most common one says that an engineer visiting NASA overheard some astronomers who were confused by the fact that when they wound back the star maps, there appeared to be a whole day missing from the calculations. The problem with this story is that there is no kind of data that could ever discover a missing day. When astronomical calculations “wind back the star clock” they are based on present-day movements, so any missing day would be invisible because we have nothing to check our dates against. Exact dates in ancient Chinese and Babylonian records are themselves determined by these astronomical calculations, so they can’t be used to confirm them. The man behind NASA’s urban myth has now been traced – he was a heating engineer sent to look at the boiler – but the missing day itself remains … missing.1

       Nevertheless, a literal interpretation of Joshua 10 is still possible without the earth or sun actually changing its movement. To investigate what happened, we have to put aside our preconceived interpretations and take seriously the facts that are present in the text itself.

       The first question is whether the sun itself stopped moving relative to the earth or whether people stopped seeing any movement. Of course, we already know that the sun itself didn’t stop moving, because it wasn’t moving in the first place. This isn’t really an issue, because we still refer to relative movements – even a modern astronomer might say, “I’ll meet you at sunrise,” without implying the sun literally rises in the sky. We can conclude from this phrase that the Israelites’ perception of the sun was that it had stopped moving – that is, its light was continuing to come from the same place – but can we conclude that the sun itself had stopped its relative movement? The question we need to answer is how everyone perceived the sun to have stopped.

       This perception can’t be dismissed as a matter of their imagination or wishful thinking, because it had incredibly practical consequences. The Israelite army had traveled a long way to come and help their allies. The Gibeonites were being attacked by armies from surrounding cities for siding with the Israelites. The Israelites were winning the battle and their enemies were on the run when the light started failing. If the sun had set, their enemies could have gotten away and hidden in the dark countryside. Then, when the Israelites had gone home (as they’d have to eventually), the opposing armies would have come back to finish the job. So, for their allies to have any hope of sleeping safely, the Israelites had to catch up with these men before they melted away in the encroaching darkness. Joshua, in desperation, prayed a seemingly impossible prayer – that the daylight would be extended until they had caught up with the fleeing enemy (see Josh 10:10-14).

Deadly hailstones

The second question concerns the role of the extraordinary weather conditions that are recorded in the text: a storm with huge hailstones that killed most of the enemy soldiers (Josh 10:11). Deadly hailstones still occur today. The golf-ball-sized hail that occasionally occurs in the US can be fatal. (I won’t forget having to hide under a bridge once to escape such hail.) However, much larger hailstones have fallen occasionally. In Bangladesh, hailstones the size of grapefruit killed 92 people in 1986, and 246 people died in India in 1888; as recently as 2009 there were 14 fatalities during a storm in China.2 Hailstones grow in tall cumulonimbus clouds, which can be miles high. Taller clouds produce larger hailstones, so these clouds must have been exceptionally tall to produce hailstones large enough to kill people.3

       Can we work out what actually happened when Joshua asked God to keep the sun in the sky? We can only theorize. But before I do that, let me tell you about the evening my family and I set up camp beside Lake Isabella in California. When we arrived, we should have known something was wrong – the parking lot and lakeside were empty. At first, it seemed as though evening was falling early, because the sun descended behind abnormally tall clouds over the western hillsides. These clouds created an amazing sunset that lasted for several hours. Even after the sun had long disappeared behind the hills, the tops of the clouds reflected its light down to us in a hundred shades of red. The sun had already disappeared over the horizon, so it was technically nighttime, and yet it still seemed like early evening. The light was being transmitted from the tall clouds as if they were a giant prism high enough to see the sun that had disappeared around the globe, and also to see us. On hills we could see what was creating this extraordinary cloud: a huge forest fire that was raging uncontrollably across the countryside. It was this fire that had kept all the better-informed visitors away from the area. The blaze was so great that it was creating its own weather system, so in addition to the smoke and soot that it threw up, the heat produced a cloud that was perhaps a mile high in front of the setting sun. It was a disaster that created a beautiful and prolonged afternoon and evening for us.

Joshua’s prayer

So let’s come to my theory. We are told in Joshua 10:12 that when Joshua prayed, the sun was “over Gibeon” (in the west), so it was already starting to descend, and that “the moon stopped” (v. 13), so it was already visible, as it often is on afternoons just before full moon. This prompted him to pray for more time because he thought the day would end before they had caught up with the enemy. The enemy were running from both the Israelites and also the hailstones because, we read, “more of them died from the hail than were killed by the swords of the Israelites” (v. 11).

       The Israelites had come to Gibeon from Gilgal in the east, and the enemy ran toward Beth Horon in the west. The tall storm clouds must have been in the west because they were pelting the enemy with hail, though not the Israelites. This means that the sun was disappearing behind these western clouds. It would have made it seem like evening had come early, and Joshua would have started worrying about losing the light.

       However, these clouds not only precipitated an early start to the evening – they also prolonged it beyond normal nightfall. Like my family’s incredible evening at Lake Isabella, the clouds would continue to deflect the sunlight to light up the land, even after the sun had set below the horizon. The taller the clouds, the longer the sunlight is deflected, and we know the clouds must have been extremely tall to produce such huge hailstones. Normal storm clouds can be a mile high, but clouds that produce such extreme hailstones can be ten miles high.4

       The evening on that day was therefore longer than anyone had ever experienced, starting much earlier and ending later than normal, due to those extraordinary clouds. But how long was it? Measuring time without a watch and without seeing the position of the sun (which had disappeared behind the cloud) is very difficult, especially on a day filled with exciting events such as a military victory. The sun disappeared from view long before sunset because the extraordinarily tall clouds were to the west – so Joshua’s men had no indication of time for much of the day. They knew that it was still daytime, because light was coming through the cloud and they could still see clearly, but it must have seemed like an unending evening that extended even beyond the normal sunset. However tall the cloud was, it could not add an extra day of daylight – but it could have felt like it.

Book of Jasher

Some may complain that if the Bible says there was an extra full day, then the light must have extended by the full twenty-four hours. I’m sympathetic to this kind of thinking, so I regard it significant that the extra day wasn’t recorded by a biblical author: it is a quote from a nonbiblical source called the Book of Jasher (“Jashar,” NIV). Some interpreters think that the words “as it is written in the book of Jasher” refer to the two verses before this phrase rather than the sentence that follows it; however, the exact same phrase occurs at 2 Samuel 1:18, where it clearly refers to the words that follow it. This ancient book – which is now lost – claimed that the sun stopped “in the middle of the heavens for a whole day” (Josh 10:13, my translation). This is difficult to square with the prayer of Joshua, “Sun, stand still over Gibeon” (v. 12). As a midday sun isn’t over anything in particular (except oneself), this prayer implies the sun was already significantly descended, so that it could be said to be “over” the city in the west. This contradicts the Book of Jasher, which says it was “in the middle” of the sky.

       By the way, the so-called books of Jasher found on various internet sites and sold to the unwary are modern forgeries by Flaccus Albinus in 1751 and J. H. Parry in 1840; even the Hebrew Sepher ha-Jasher (“Book of the Upright”) dates back only to the fifteenth century.5 These have taken the name “Jasher” from the Bible to make their works seem important. The original ancient work is totally lost, unfortunately.

       For the original readers, a quote from this ancient source helped to confirm that the extraordinary event had really happened – it was equivalent to citing a credible independent witness. However, quoting an outside source within Scripture does not give it the status of Scripture. If this were so, we would have to agree with the ancient poet who said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons” (quoted in Titus 1:12). The inhabitants of Crete might disagree! And we’d have to agree with the person quoted by Paul who said, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1 – which Paul disputes in vv. 3-5). So when the Book of Jasher says that daylight was extended by a whole day, this may be an exaggeration or a mistake, but it nevertheless confirms that something amazing happened – daylight lasted much longer that day.

Series of miracles

Does this “natural” explanation mean that God was not involved after all and that there were no miracles that day? The text itself relates an amazing series of miracles. First, a storm produced extraordinarily huge hailstones at exactly the right time and place, so that they fell on the enemy but not on the Israelites. Then these hail clouds – the highest that the Israelites had ever seen – deflected the sunlight to keep it shining on them even after the normal time of sunset and enabled them to continue seeing until they had defeated the enemy. Finally, there was the miracle of Joshua’s men, who had marched all night to reach Gibeon (Josh 10:9) and then spent all day fighting and running. Boxers today train for months in order to keep going for ten three-minute rounds; these men were still eager to chase their enemy throughout the lengthened evening after marching all night and fighting all day – a miracle of God-given strength.

       It may seem as though the wonder is removed from a Bible story if we try to explain it. However, the facts about the hailstorm that give rise to this interpretation are within the text itself. And it is the text itself that notes the detail that “a whole day” is from an external document rather than being part of the narrator’s report. These details in the text allow for two interpretations: they agree with the interpretation that the sun appeared to stop setting for half a day (while hidden behind the storm clouds) and even for some time after sunset, and they also agree with the interpretation that the sun appeared to stop setting for a whole twenty-four hours (while the earth stopped spinning).

       When we add facts that we know from scientific studies of nature, we can decide between these different interpretations. First, we can rule out what some interpreters regard as the literal meaning of the text: the sun definitely did not stop moving – because the sun doesn’t ever move around the earth. So we have to decide between the two other possible interpretations: that the day was twenty-four hours longer (as the Book of Jasher says) or that it was much longer than expected. We know that human perceptions of time are extremely variable, so without a clock, it is extremely difficult to judge how much time has lapsed. And we know that stopping the earth spinning would have had huge consequences that are not mentioned in Joshua. It is therefore most likely that the extended day was caused by the storm clouds rather than stopping the earth spinning.


• The sun did not stop (it doesn’t move), and stopping the earth has huge consequences.
• The tall hail clouds in the west would make evening appear to come soon and keep deflecting sunlight even after sunset.
• The phrase “a whole day” is quoted from the non-Bible book of Jasher.
• Proposal: When the sun disappeared, Joshua prayed for more light, and it extended past sunset, but no one could measure how long.

1^ See “NASA Discovers a ‘Lost Day’ in Time?,” Snopes (
2^ See Dylan Thuras, “Hail No: An Account of the World’s Biggest, Deadliest Hailstorms,” Atlas Obscura, September 26, 2010 (
3^ See Wikipedia, “Hail” (
4^ See Matthew Cappucci, “Supercell: It’s the King of Thunderstorms,” Science News for Students (
5^ See Wikipedia, “Book of Jasher (Pseudo-Jasher)” (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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