This article was first published in the December 2003 ABR E-Newsletter.
A story has been circulating on the Internet that calculations done on NASA computers produced evidence for Joshua's long day. This is not a new story. We published evidence in Bible and Spade (Spring-Summer 1975: 82-86) showing that the account has no basis in fact. It is worth repeating the information we published in 1975, plus adding some new research that sheds light on the perplexing passage in Joshua 10:12-15.
Harold Hill and NASA
The tale concerning NASA computers and Joshua's long day originated with Harold Hill, an industrialist from Baltimore who gave lectures on science and the Bible. It was first published in October 1969 in Evening World, a newspaper in Spencer IN. From there it was picked up by numerous Christian publications. In 1974 Hill published the account in his book Living Like a King's Kid. The book is still being sold today, thus keeping the legend alive.
The incident, as recounted in Hill's book, goes like this (pp. 66-69):
The space scientists were checking the position of the sun, moon, and planets out in space, calculating where they would be 100 and 1,000 years from now. In addition, they were looking into the trajectories of known asteroids and meteors so we wouldn't send astronauts and satellites up only to have them bump into something. Satellite orbits have to be laid out in terms of where the heavenly bodies will be so that the whole thing won't become a head-on traffic collision.
Well, as they ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries, it came to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red flag, which meant that there was something wrong either with the information fed into the computer or with the results as compared to the standards. They called in the service department to check it out.
"Nothing's wrong with the computer," the technicians said. "It's operating perfectly. What makes you think something's wrong?"
"Well, the computer shows there's a day missing somewhere in elapsed time," the operators said. They rechecked their data and scratched their Educated Idiot Boxes. There was no answer, no logical explanation. They were at a baffled standstill.
Then one religious fellow on the team said, "You know, one time when I was in Sunday school, they talked about the day the sun stood still." He about got laughed out of the room, because nobody believed him, but they didn't have anything else to try, so they invited him to show them what he was talking about. He got a Bible and turned to the Book of Joshua where Joshua was called to battle against all the Kings of the Amorites, kind of a formidable array of enemies. In the account, they found a pretty ridiculous statement for anyone who has an ounce of common sense. They found the Lord saying to Joshua, "Fear them not, for I have delivered them into thine hand. There shall not a man of them stand before thee." The Bible went on to say that the Lord slew Joshua's enemies with a great slaughter, and they began to flee before Israel. And the Lord cast down great stones from heaven, and more of the enemy died from the hailstones than were slain by Joshua's troops. But there were some of the enemy left, and Joshua prayed for the sun and moon to stand still until the Israelites had finished avenging themselves upon their enemies.
"And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."
"There," the Christian space man said. "There's your missing day. Go ahead and check it out."
Well, they checked the computers, went all the way back to the time when Joshua defeated the kings, and found the explanation was close, but not close enough. The elapsed time in Joshua's day was only 23 hours and 20 minutes, not a whole day. There was still a discrepancy of 40 minutes to be accounted for.
Consulting the Bible record again, they found that it did not say that the sun had stood still for a whole day, but for "about (approximately) a whole day."
So they were still in trouble. Forty minutes become extremely significant when they are multiplied many times over in orbits. Then the religious fellow remembered somewhere else in the Bible where it said the sun went backward. Naturally, the other space men told him he was out of his mind, but once again, they had no real choice in the matter, so they went back to the Bible and read in 2 Kings, the 20th chapter, how Hezekiah on his deathbed was visited by the prophet Isaiah, who told him that he was not going to die, but that God would heal him so he would be well enough to go to the temple in three days. Furthermore, God promised to give him 15 more years of life on earth. That was such good news that Hezekiah couldn't believe it! He asked for a sign as proof that God's word was true.
"Do you want the sun to go ahead ten degrees?" Isaiah asked him.
"No," Hezekiah said. "It's too easy for the sun to, go ahead ten degrees. It does that all the time. It goes ahead every day. But how about letting the shadow return backward ten degrees? That'll be a new thing, and then I can believe."
And so Isaiah spoke to the Lord, and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees backward. Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes!
Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes accounted for in Joshua's day, plus 40 minutes accounted for in Hezekiah's day--there was the whole 24 hours, the missing day that the space scientists had to make allowance for in the logbook.
It is an intriguing tale, but is it true? We contacted NASA to see if they could substantiate the account. In May 1970 we received the following form letter from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt MD 20771:
We know nothing of Mr. Harold Hill and in no way can corroborate the "lost day" reference in the article.
The effects of epoch events such as leap year, Babylonian calendar sequential perturbations, etc., are considered in the development of long-term-running computer programs. We are limited somewhat in that many of our calculations terminate with Babylonian calendar events (4,000 years ago), but this has never given programmers any unexpected difficulties.
Although we make use of planetary positions as necessary in the determination of spacecraft orbits on our computers, I have not found that any "astronauts and space scientists at Greenbelt" were involved in the "lost day" story attributed to Mr. Hill.
Thank you for your interest.
- Edward Mason, Chief
- Office of Public Affairs
"I Lost the Evidence"
In addition, we wrote to Mr. Hill in May 1970. He replied with a form letter that said:
Since this incident took place about two years ago I have misplaced the source information and so am unable to give you names and places but will send it to you when I locate it. In the meantime I can only tell you that had I not considered the source to be completely reliable I would not have made use of it in the first place.
Of course, Mr. Hill never sent the "source information." He died in 1987. In his book, Hill admitted that he had no documentation for the story: "And my inability to furnish documentation of the 'Missing Day' incident in no way detracts from its authenticity" (71). But without documentation how can the incident have authenticity? Apparently no one else in the world but Harold Hill knows about the events described in his account!
For 22 years Hill was president of the Curtis Engine and Equipment Company in Baltimore. The company has the following disclaimer posted on its website:
Curtis Engine & Equipment, Inc., does not substantiate or continue Harold's personal research. Unfortunately, we have no information concerning the "Missing Day" nor do we have any connections at NASA who would be able to corroborate Harold's claims.
Joshua, Omens and the Amorites
A much more plausible explanation for the so-called "missing day" has been offered by John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Traditionally, Joshua's request for the sun to stand still (Jos 10:12) has been understood as a request to God for additional daylight so that Israel would have more time to annihilate the Amorites. Walton points out, however, that at the time the request was made the sun was over Gibeon and the moon was over Aijalon to the west (Jos 10:12). With the moon in the west, the sun must have been in the east, making it morning. Since it was morning, there would have been no need for extended daylight (1994: 182).
To understand what Joshua was asking for (actually commanding, cf. Jos 10:12), Walton appeals to the celestial omen texts from Mesopotamia. The first day of the full moon, which took place in the middle of the month, was defined as occurring when the sun and moon were both fully visible for a few minutes on opposite horizons in the morning. If the first day of the new moon fell on the 14th day of the month, this was considered a good omen. Conversely, if the first day of the new moon fell on either the 13th or 15th day of the month, that was considered a bad omen.
The terminology of Joshua 10:12-13, of the sun and moon "standing" or "waiting," is the same as used in Mesopotamian celestial omen texts. This, plus the fact that Joshua focuses on both the sun and moon, prompts Walton to interpret the passage in light of the omen texts. Great significance was attached to such omens in the ancient Near East and undoubtedly the Amorites would have wanted to fight the Israelites on the first day of the new moon on the 14th day of the month.
Walton suggests that the Israelites confronted the Amorites on the 15th day of the month. If the sun and moon were both visible on the morning horizons on the 14th day of the month (a good omen) then on the 15th day the sun would be above the horizon when the moon was just on the horizon. Joshua was, in effect, requesting a bad omen for the Amorites--not because Joshua believed in omens, but for the psychological affect it would have on the Amorites. He commanded the sun to "stand" or "wait," so that it would be visible on the horizon at the same time the moon reached the horizon, thus resulting in a bad omen in the eyes of the Amorites.
The statement at the end of verse 13 is what has prompted the interpretation of an extended day: The NIV, for example, translates the passage: "The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day." Walton, however, translates the passage as, "The sun stood in the midst of the sky and did not hurry to go as on a day of full length" (1994:187). He explains that "the midst of the sky" does not necessarily mean that the sun was high in the sky at midday. The sky was viewed as having various segments, one major segment being below the horizon, others being above the horizon, and so on. The Hebrew wording can mean that the sun was positioned in the eastern half of the sky. When the full moon comes on the 14th, and the month has the proper number of days, then each of the days of the month is a "full-length" day, according to ancient Near Eastern thought. That constitutes a good omen. This was not the case with the events of Joshua 10; the sun and moon did not act as they would on a "full-length" day.
Walton has provided a good example of how we can combine knowledge of ancient near eastern terminology, ancient near eastern beliefs and the Hebrew language, to reach a clearer understanding of a difficult Biblical passage.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Hill, Harold 1974 How to Live Like a King's Kid. Plainfield NJ: Logos.
Walton, John H. 1994 Joshua 10:12-15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts. Pp.181-90 in Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, eds. Alan R. Millard, James K. Hoffmeier and David W. Baker. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
Wood Bryant G. 2004 Joshua's "Long Day" and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts. Bible and Spade 17/1: 28-31.