Seidensticker Folly #39: “The Sun Stood Still” (Joshua)

Seidensticker Folly #39: “The Sun Stood Still” (Joshua) April 16, 2020

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker, who was “raised Presbyterian”, runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17“Christians’ arguments are easy to refute . . . I’ve heard the good stuff, and it’s not very good.” He added in the combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” 

Such confusion would indeed be predictable, seeing that Bob himself admitted (2-13-16): “My study of the Bible has been haphazard, and I jump around based on whatever I’m researching at the moment.” I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes if I am able, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply. It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. But don’t hold your breath.

Bob (for the record) virtually begged and pleaded with me to dialogue with him in May 2018, via email. But by 10-3-18, following massive, childish name-calling attacks against me,  encouraged by Bob on his blog (just prior to his banning me from it), his opinion was as follows: “Dave Armstrong . . . made it clear that a thoughtful intellectual conversation wasn’t his goal. . . . [I] have no interest in what he’s writing about.”

And on 10-25-18, utterly oblivious to the ludicrous irony of his making the statement, Bob wrote in a combox on his blog: “The problem, it seems to me, is when someone gets these clues, like you, but ignores them. I suppose the act of ignoring could be deliberate or just out of apathy, but someone who’s not a little bit driven to investigate cognitive dissonance will just stay a Christian, fat ‘n sassy and ignorant.” Again, Bob mocks some Christian in his combox on 10-27-18“You can’t explain it to us, you can’t defend it, you can’t even defend it to yourself. Defend your position or shut up about it. It’s clear you have nothing.” And again on the same day“If you can’t answer the question, man up and say so.” And on 10-26-18: “you refuse to defend it, after being asked over and over again.” And againYou’re the one playing games, equivocating, and being unable to answer the challenges.”

Bob’s cowardly hypocrisy knows no bounds. Again, on 6-30-19, he was chiding someone who (very much like he himself) was (to hear him tell it) not backing up his position: “Spoken like a true weasel trying to run away from a previous argument. You know, you could just say, ‘Let me retract my previous statement of X’ or something like that.” Yeah, Bob could!  He still hasn’t yet uttered one peep in reply to — now — 36 of my critiques of his atrocious reasoning. As of 7-9-19, this is how Bob absurdly rationalizes his non-response: “He’s written several blog posts titled, in effect, ‘In Which Bob Seidensticker Was Mean to Me.’ Normally, I’d enjoy a semi-thoughtful debate, but I’m sure they weren’t.”

Bible-Basher Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or search “Seidensticker Folly #” in my sidebar search (near the top).

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Bob’s article, “More Pointless Parables” (5-9-14; orig. 4-30-12) goes after the miracle of the sun standing still during a battle with Joshua:

Joshua 10:12-14 (RSV) Then spoke Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Ai’jalon.” [13] And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. [14] There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD hearkened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.

Even if God had stopped the sun 3000 years ago, there is no way to deduce that from information available to astronomers today, . . . And let’s not even speculate at what “stopping the sun” (that is, stopping the rotation of the earth) would’ve done. . . . 

I know what you’re thinking: why waste time on this ridiculous tale? It’s because there are people who believe it.

As usual, imagining that the Bible’s miracle stories really happened takes us to nowhere that can be scientifically justified.

Bob has mocked this story elsewhere, too:

Two more examples are when God played games with the sun, stopping its motion for hours so Joshua could continue killing Amorites (Joshua 10:13) . . . It’s one thing for God to move things across the sky over a flat earth, but it gets complicated in a heliocentric solar system when “stopping the sun” would require stopping the earth’s rotation.

Could God have used magic to stop the earth’s rotation so that its inhabitants didn’t notice the deceleration and subsequent acceleration (and report it in the biblical accounts)? Could he have maintained the earth’s protective magnetic field that would’ve been lost if the molten iron core stopped rotating? Sure, but the much simpler explanation is that the human authors of the Bible wrongly thought that the earth was at the center of the universe, just like in neighboring societies. (2-12-20; orig. 11-30-15)

I have already offered a reply to this objection in one of my refutations of the notorious atheist Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins tackles the miracle of the sun at Fatima, Portugal in 1917:

[T]he earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. (p. 92)

The miracle could simply consist of God changing the perception of the people there (an LSD trip, for example, does the same thing purely naturally); not literally making the sun do weird “unscientific” things. The same possible scenario would also apply to the famous miracle of the Bible, where Joshua “made the sun stand still” (Josh 10:12-13). First of all, the  Bible uses pre-scientific phenomenological language. We actually still do the same today, when we say “the sun came up” or “the sun went down at 6:36.” That’s not literal language, because we know that it is the earth’s rotation that makes it appear that way.

Joshua’s miracle was a indeed miracle, but it could still have been of a psychological nature, as opposed to an astronomical one. Or it could be something like, as one Protestant commentary put it: ” 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.” Atheists seem to always want to interpret the Bible (and in this case, a Marian-related apparition) hyper-literally, but they are often wrong, because they assume primitive ignorance, when in fact, there is a high degree of sophistication that is beyond the atheist’s willingness (not intellectual capacity) to even attempt to understand. (5-25-18)

I also made a reply on this topic in another of my (now, 39) refutations of Seidensticker:

This is an exceedingly involved discussion, with equally devout Christian commentators holding to several different theories, and this article is already lengthy enough, so I will defer to an extremely in-depth treatment: Glenn Miller’s article, “What about ‘The Fivefold Challenge’?” Readers — after following the link — need to do a word search to get to the relevant section: “Miracle Two: The stopping of the sun by Joshua.” Glenn is delightfully thorough and comprehensive in his reasoning, as always. It’s a feast for Bible students, and perhaps at least some challenge and food for thought for skeptics like Bob.

Suffice it to say in summary that several of the theories do not entail stopping the earth’s rotation or  movement around the sun, etc., and posit far less “cosmologically dramatic” events. This is common in biblical interpretation: reasonable folks can have honest disagreements. But what Christians have in common is an approach to the Bible of high respect, rather than the goal to mock and ridicule, distort and dismiss it: as seen over and over in Bob’s endless anti-Christian, anti-biblical rhetoric and sophistry.

Christian apologist Glenn Miller in the aforementioned treatise, describes the view held by “most long-day advocates”:

A distortion of light. In this scenario, the sun and earth moved perfectly normally, but the light from the sun was subjected to abnormal reflective/refractive forces, so that daylight (diffused) continued for a longer period of time than normal. . . . [It] has an advantage of being a standard “manner of operation” of God; He routinely uses light and optical effects (cf. the cloud in Exodus 14.19-20).

Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm wrote a classic work, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michgan: Eerdmans, 1954). It’s a masterpiece of a non-fundamentalist, “thinking man’s” evangelical Protestant perspective on science (much or most of which a Catholic could readily agree with). He devotes 5 1/2 pages to “the long day of Joshua” and prominently mentions the above “refraction / mirage” interpretation:

Another alternative we may adopt, if we wish to maintain that the need of Joshua was for more daylight, is to assert that the sun and moon kept on their way, but through a miracle of refraction or through a supernaturally given mirage the sun and moon appeared to be out of their regular places. Such an interpretation allows for the solar system to keep on its way, yet provides Joshua with the needed light, and maintains the supernatural character of the record. . . . In a most fascinating article Butler reviews for us the various types of mirages, gives some examples, and the scientific explanations. His own interpretation is that it was a supernaturally given mirage.

[It was] a special and rare mirage in the Earth’s atmosphere which is similar to one or more of the natural mirages, but is of a magnitude, altitude, and character that would be the result of a divine miracle only, and therefore produced for some important purpose. [J. Lowell Butler, “Mirages are Light Benders,” JASA, 3: 1-18, December, 1951] (p. 158)

He offers a second plausible interpretation as well (the one he himself favors):

Maunder has argued that the request of Joshua was not for more time but for release from the heat of the day. He has set forth his theory in considerable detail in ISBE, “The Battle of Beth-Horon” (I: 446-449), and in JTVT, “Joshua’s Long Day” (53: 120-148, 1921; reprinted JASA, 3: 1-20, Dec., 1951). He attempts to prove that Joshua did not ask the sun to stand still but to be silent, i.e. keep from shining. What Joshua’s men needed was refreshment from a burning sun. Maunder claims that the sun was overhead at noontime heat and that the moon was on the horizon. In answer to Joshua’s petition God sends a hailstorm which has the double effect of refreshing his own soldiers and harming the enemy. Under such refreshment the soldiers of Joshua did a day’s march in half a day and so reasoned that the day had been prolonged. The march of thirty miles to Makkedah was one day’s march and, having covered it in half a day, they reasoned they had been on the road a whole day. Maunder undergirds his argument with various astronomical, geographical, exegetical, and historical data, the details of which will be found in the articles cited.

A. L. Shute in a remarkable article agrees with this interpretation of Maunder. He believes the miracle was not a prolongation of light, but a cessation of light for the refreshment of the soldiers. But he differs in what the expression “ hasted not to go down for a whole day” means. Maunder took it to mean that the soldiers were so refreshed they did a day’s march in half a day and so they figured the day had been lengthened. But Shute argues from the etymology of the words of the text that the expression means that the sun did not come out from the clouds till very late in the afternoon. It was cloudy all afternoon and then, just before setting, the sun burst forth again and shone upon the battlefield. (pp. 159-160)

[Footnote: Robert Dick Wilson accepts the view of Maunder apparently with no knowledge of Maunder’s view. Wilson shows that the words used in the Joshua account are technical astronomical words in their Babylonian counterparts. The root DM in Babylonian astronomy meant “to darken/’ and “in the midst” meant “in the half of.” The prayer of Joshua was a prayer for darkness, not for the prolongation of the day. He concludes: “I confess to a feeling of relief, as far as I myself am concerned, that I shall no longer feel myself forced by a strict exegesis to believe that the Scriptures teach that there actually occurred a miracle that involves so tremendous a reversal of all the laws of gravitation.” “What Docs ‘The Sun Stood Still’ Mean?” Moody Monthly, 21:67, October, 1920. (p. 161)]

Ramm suggests that a poetic interpretation is also possible, even for the traditional, orthodox Christian, not given to “allegorizing away” biblical texts:

Cooke writes:

It is better to recognize frankly that the verses are poetry and must be understood as poetry. A literal interpretation cannot avoid forcing an unnatural sense on the language.

It is argued that the people of those days wove astronomy into their speech far more than we do as exhibited by (i) the reference in Judges 5:20 when Deborah and Barak sing that the stars fought against Sisera, and (ii) the presence of astronomical pictures in prophetic passages as for example in Joel 2:10, 30-31. The cry of Joshua was then a cry for help and strength. His cry was answered with renewed vigour in his soldiers who then fought so valiantly and were so refreshed that they did a day’s work in half a day, and it seemed to them that the day had actually been lengthened. (p. 156)

He thus explains in summary that there are three possible and plausible non-literal but still miraculous explanations that do not entail the sun literally stopping (and/or the earth to stop rotating), or any disbelief in the divine inspiration of the text:

There are then, in summary, three live possibilities as to the interpretation of Joshua’s long day. Either the language was poetic and the miracle was the physical invigoration of Joshua’s soldiers; or it was a supernatural refraction of the rays of the sun and moon, thus giving the soldiers more time (by refraction or mirage); or it was a supernaturally induced thunderstorm giving the soldiers relief from the burning heat. The details may be found in the literature cited. All we need assert is that evangelicalism is not embarrassed for want of a rationale of the long day of Joshua, and even though the author sides with Maunder he would not feel embarrassed if any of the other interpretations was proved to be correct. (p. 161)

Bob’s fundamental mistake, then, is to assume (as atheist polemicists — humorously — almost always do), that the only possible interpretation of the text must be hyper-literal (i.e., God stopped the rotation of the earth). This is often because their own childhood backgrounds were fundamentalist (which is only one tiny, fringe portion of Christianity as a whole). He doesn’t realize that Christians have long held other possible views of the text (the Ramm book I cited was written in 1954, and cited passages at least as far back as 1920).

Thus, it is not the case that this Bible passage absolutely requires a view that is completely and indisputably at odds with modern astronomy. There are at least three “miraculous” interpretations that do not entail such a thing at all. If Bob would trouble himself even a little and take the time to do a survey of Christian exegesis (of this passage and all the other countless ones he savages), then he would know this, and wouldn’t come off looking like an uninformed bigoted simpleton, for the umpteenth time. His polemic is only effective against fundamentalist Christianity, which isn’t saying much. But his purpose is not to accurately portray Christianity (before offering, say, actually an intellectually honest critique); only to mock and deride it.

It’s as if a person made an argument that he claimed applied to every person in Europe (741 million), but in fact was only applicable to those who lived in Germany (83 million, or 11% of the whole). Ever heard of the “broad brush”? No one would be impressed by such a failed, supposedly “sweeping” argument. Likewise, no non-fundamentalist Christian should be given the slightest pause by these arguments from Bob, which have no relevance to the beliefs of the vast majority of Christians who are not fundamentalist / hostile to modern science types; who love and respect the findings of science as much as any atheist does.

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Photo credit: Joshua Stopping the Sun by Pauwels Casteels (c. 1649-1677) [public domain / source page]

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