In the book of Joshua, God was really intent on helping Josh (as I like to imagine his friends called him) defeat the five kings of the Amorites (who were probably a bunch of gay liberals). So rather than just offer his usual brand of silent esoteric support for wars waged in his name, God actually helped out, pelting the enemy with large hailstones (Joshua 10:11), and stopping the rotation of the earth at Josh’s request, just so he could finish the battle.
On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar.
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
Proof of a miracle?
Back in the 1980s, I’d heard an evangelist tell an audience that NASA had actually discovered Josh’s missing day. According to the story, NASA had been performing some calculations for satellites and inadvertently discovered a day missing from earth’s history. If this is true, it could be evidence of a spectacular miracle, and the existence of God.
Is it possible to detect a missing day?
Long story short, no.
The only way that the computer would know that a day was missing would be if it had the actual astronomical data from millennia past to compare to. Obviously we have no such data. So even if we it were true that there is a missing day in history as the Bible claims, there would be no way to verify this using computer simulations. We don’t, and will never, have the data needed to confirm that specific claim.
~John P. Millis, Ph.D
So where did the NASA story come from?
The original version of the story goes back to the late 1800s, and it was popularized in Harry Rimmer’s book The Harmony of Science and Scripture in 1936, in which he claimed that British astronomer Sir Edwin Ball had somehow calculated a missing day in earth’s history.
This story reemerged in the 1960s when Harold Hill, who worked as a plant engineer at NASA, began claiming the story as his own, but revised it so that it was NASA that’d made the discovery. Harold Hill’s version was then passed around and preached from the pulpits for another 30 years, until it began showing up in email inboxes.
In 1997, NASA finally squelched this urban legend, denying that such an event ever took place, and denying that Hill would’ve had access to any of their computers. They also explained that such a calculation would be impossible.
To their credit, many popular Christian websites now try to dispel this hundred-year-old legend, though most agree that the Biblical legend itself is still true.
If it can’t be proven, is it theoretically possible?
According to NASA, it’s physically impossible. But if you believe in a God of miracles… well… anything goes; so let’s move on.
Corroborating eyewitness accounts?
If this miracle left no physical evidence, is their any other evidence? Many Christians say yes, in the form of ancient eyewitnesses.
…there appears to be solid evidence from the Bible and from folklore around the world that there was one day which, depending upon geographical location, presented the inhabitants of the earth with an unusually long span of daylight or night… Agnostic or atheistic scholars choose not to deal with the ancient witnesses.
Well… if it’s true that agnostics and atheists choose not to deal with these ancient witnesses, it is probably because so many things can potentially go wrong when trying to prove an extraordinary claim by way of myths, legends, and folklore.
First, teasing out the fact from the fiction can be a subjective process.
Second, we’re dealing with a 3,500 year-old event. It’s hard enough to get accurate eyewitness accounts of events that happened yesterday.
Third, as one might suspect, the sun is an extremely popular topic in myths, legends, and lore, and so it’s not uncommon to find parallels. For example, both the ancient Lithuanians1 and Aztecs2 have legends about a time when the sun did not emerge for many months/years. And there are Polynesian1 and New Zealand3 legends that say the sun used to move much faster across the sky than it does today. There are also many stories about catching the sun1 and tethering it to the ground (no doubt inspired by the sun’s rays). But just because these parallels exist, doesn’t prove any of them happened.
Fourth, the large number of sun myths makes it possible to “pick the winners” that corroborate the Biblical account (i.e. confirmation bias). For example, a believer might choose to ignore the Lithuanian myth of a very long night because it should’ve been a long day.
Fifth, dating these stories can be difficult.
Sixth, it’s possible to reinterpret these legends so they match up with the Biblical details. For example, it doesn’t seem to matter if the sun stops for ten days or ten years; as long as it stops, it is said to corroborate the Biblical event.
And finally, these legends are sometimes difficult to track down to their original source. These legends often come to us only by word of mouth, or the original sources are missing, or (in some cases) the stories are outright fabrications.
Confirming the legends
Skeptical as I was, I did investigate a few of these alleged parallels.
I found numerous Christian books and websites citing the same collection of legends, which I then traced back to… get this… Harry Rimmer (the same man who started the rumor of the missing day). Harry writes:
In the ancient Chinese writings there is a legend of a long day. The Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico have a like record, and there is a Babylonian and a Persian legend of a day that was miraculously extended. Another section of China contributes an account of the day that was miraculously prolonged, in the reign of Emperor Yeo. Herodotus recounts that the priests of Egypt showed him their temple records, and that there he read a strange account of a day that was twice the natural length.
~ The Harmony of Science and Scripture, pp. 269-270.
Harry Rimmer’s work has since been discredited and criticized by both scientists and believers. As early as 1955, Christians like Bernard Ramm were already finding problems with some of these legends. He writes in A Christian View of Science and The Scripture that he was unable to “track down nor confirm” the validity of “Egyptian, Chinese, and Hindu reports of a long day.”
We’ve already learned about the Aztec legend of the long night (that actually lasted for several years), let’s look at a couple of others.
Rimmer cites the story of Emperor Yao. This story first appeared in 1733 in a book by J. Hübner (Kurtze Fragen aus der Politischen Historia) and has been cited by Christians ever since.
Chinese history speaks of Yao, their king, declaring that in his reign the sun stood so long above the horizon that it was feared the world would have been set on fire.
Nelson, David, 1793-1844, The Cause and Cure of Infidelity, pp. 26
There are several problems with this account. First, the sun was on the horizon for ten days, not two. Second, Emperor Yao lived approximately 800 years before Joshua. And third, this legend is mysteriously absent from all the manuscripts we have today.
Rimmer also mentions Herodotus, a Greek historian in the fifth century B.C. who wrote about a trip to Egypt. I read Herodotus’s account, and was unable to find any mention of a day that lasted twice as long. The closest thing I found was a claim by the Egyptian priests that the sun would occasionally change where it rose or set, but this does not represent a long day:
In this time [the past three hundred generations of men] they [the priests] said that the sun had moved four times from his accustomed place of rising, and where he now sets he had thence twice had his rising, and in the place from whence he now rises he had twice had his setting…
If this was what Rimmer was referring to, it’s been deceptively reinterpreted. If this isn’t what he was referring to, then why didn’t Rimmer include this solar miracle as well as the other?
Moving on, I found other Christians citing the fact that five North American Indian tribes all have tales of a long night. This isn’t actually five independent accounts of a long night, but one legend shared by five tribes (with different variations).
According to these legends, someone catches the sun (often a young boy) and tethers it to the ground, causing the sky to remain dark. A small rodent (either a mouse, a beaver, a mole, or a rabbit) manages to free it by chewing or cutting through the tether, getting burned in the process. These stories all emphasize the importance of these animals and how they got their physical traits.
I’d feel pretty uncomfortable building my faith upon a story that also features a heroic beaver. I mean, if this is what qualifies as good evidence for the sun standing still, then I’m pretty sure I’d also have to accept all the other anecdotal evidence offered for things like aliens, Bigfoot, and chemtrails.
I could go on, but I don’t think this kind of evidence is going to convince anyone who isn’t already a believer.
Did the sun stop, or the earth?
I should also mention that there is a lot of debate over why the Bible says that the “sun stood still” instead of “the earth stopped turning.” Didn’t God know better?
I’m willing to accept that God could’ve been speaking to us in terms we’d understand (e.g. we still call it a sunrise and sunset, even though we know better), so I won’t make a big fuss over it. But some Christians are less forgiving, and follow their literal views to jaw-dropping conclusions:
God wrote in verse 13 that the “sun stood still and the moon stayed.” God either meant what he wrote, or he did not. There is no excuse for God because he is the God of truth; therefore all things he says and does must reflect that fact. So God cannot utter an untruth and we must conclude that the Bible teaches, in Joshua 10:13 and else where, that the universe rotates around the earth once per day, carrying the sun, moon and stars with it, regardless of what introductory astronomy texts may say.
Seriously? The earth is stationary? And the entire universe revolves around us? Whoa.
Other Christians prefer to just dismiss the story as poetry, but this also means dismissing the miracle.
When I began researching this question, it was in hopes of finding some legitimate evidence that could confirm a miracle. The quality of this evidence quickly dwindled, and it’s time to move on.
While we can’t prove nor disprove this event, we can show that inventing sun myths is a popular human pastime. The only thing that sets this myth apart is that it appears in the Bible, but is that enough? Unless God is willing to perform an encore, we have no reason to believe it’s anything more than an ancient legend, not unlike those made up by Rimmer and Hill.