Blogging the Bible 53 – Joshua 7-11 – The Sun stood still – the world doesn’t

NASA – photograph of Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

These five chapters cover one of the parts of the Bible to which I find it hardest to use the traditional Church of England response,

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Even where I can accept as God’s Word passages like this, which show God ordering what we would today cal ‘ethnic cleansing’ if not genocide, even where I can see that there were extreme circumstances that would make this necessary in that particular, tightly-defined situation, (to do with giving a homeland and a distinctive people from which the Messiah could one day arise to bring salvation to the whole world), even then I find it hard to say ‘Thanks be to God’ and mean it.

The God I know, who I see in Old and New Testaments and above all through Jesus, does not match with the God who commands the complete destruction of whole cities and of their populations for no apparent offence other than that they are in the land promised to Israel. While they may not be the LORD’s chosen nation, the people of Jericho, Ai, Makkedah, Libnah, Gezer, Eglon and the other cities destroyed were still his children, and not expendable.

Did the Sun stand still?

I found some help from an unexpected passage in Joshua 10:12-14. At Gibeon, as Israel fights the Amorites, Joshua prays that the sun and moon will stand still – and the day is duly prolonged for the battle to be completed, with Israel victorious.

It’s a passage that’s often cited as having been used as the clinching argument against the Copernican view of the solar system – as having been quoted to ‘prove’ that the sun moves around the earth, otherwise it could not have stood still. It’s hard to know quite how much it was indeed cited that way – the descriptions of medieval attacks on ‘science’ often owe more to the prejudice of the Victorians than to records from the time – but it’s clear from the text that the sun was seen to revolve around the earth.

That in no way casts doubt on the intelligence of our ancestors. After all, it’s pretty obvious that the sun moves, and the earth doesn’t. It wouldn’t be until Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo brought together exact measurements, theory and observation to show that it was more mathematically elegant to see the earth orbiting the sun that there would be any reason to imagine the opposite.

Day by day we still talk of ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’, not ‘earthspin’. But we know even more than Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo about the way the universe fits together (and we’re finding out that it’s more fascinating and mysterious than they could ever have dreamed, but that’s another story). We know that Joshua 10:12-14 cannot be literally, universally and objectively true as a description of what happened that day. It’s not a matter of doubting God’s ability to prolong a day. It’s more a matter of recognising that the description of what happened makes perfect sense, but only from a particular point of view – that of earthbound life in the time before Copernicus.

That’s not a problem – for that was the only point of view available to the writer of Joshua, and to everyone on the battlefield that day. It’s a subjective point of view, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong – just that it has to be interpreted with its point of view in mind.

Does the world stand still?

I’ve laboured that point a bit because (at least from the point of view of a tired blogger who’s been turning this over in his mind all day) I see an interesting parallel which is helping me. Embedded in the story of the destruction of the cities and people of Canaan is this small detail told subjectively.

I’m not going to build a grand theory of biblical interpretation on it, but for today at least it feels valid to draw a parallel. If God’s action in prolonging the day can be recorded from one particular point of view, which we ‘know’ not to be ‘accurate’ (from our own, equally subjective, point of view) might the same not apply to God’s commands to Joshua? That is, might those commands be the true Word of God, but only as seen from the point of view of Joshua and his people in that time and day? As people in need of a homeland and in pursuit of a promise, as a nation needing to establish itself as a distinctive culture, the gift of the Promised Land carried with it the command to remove all that had been before in the Land.

And that was indeed the Word of God – as it could be heard and understood on that day, to those people in that situation. The people of Ai might have heard something different from the same God, but our story and heritage follows the line that comes through Abraham, Moses, Joshua and David, through Isaiah, Amos, John – to and through Jesus. To accept their hearing of God’s commands, even when those commands are not the ones that we ourselves would have heard God speak, is an act of faith, and not always a comfortable one.

We can indeed thank God for his word even when we don’t agree with it. But perhaps we need to defend the actions of Joshua, commanded by God, no more than we defend the answered prayer for the Sun to stand still.

The Sun indeed stood still – from the point of view of the battlefield. But the world has not stood still since, and as with astronomy we have been given a wider vision of God and perhaps through Jesus we have been given something closer to an ‘objective’ understanding of his will and Word.

Not ‘objective’ – that will never happen. But a bit closer to objectivity, perhaps.

So perhaps I can say a bit more easily tonight than I could this morning,

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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