Did the Sun Stand Still for Joshua at Gibeon?
Joshua 10 narrates an astounding story. Joshua and the Israelite forces fought against five southern Canaanite kingdoms and defeated them. Then Joshua sang a song praising God for causing the sun to stand still over the city of Gibeon and extending the daylight hours, giving the Israelites sufficient time to gain victory against all their enemies. Baruch Spinoza, in his A Theologico-Political Treatise, mocked the biblical author for being ignorant of the fact that the earth circles the sun, not the reverse. However, many explanations of the passage exist; some read it as literal and miraculous, others follow the rule put forth by Maimonides in his Treatise on Resurrection and his Guide of the Perplexed that if an occurrence can be explained in a natural fashion, it should be explained as such.
1. How should we understand Joshua’s song?
2. Was Joshua recounting a miracle?
3. What are some opinions on the subject?
Rashi: Understanding the Story Literally
Rashi, as usual, accepted the biblical tale at face value, stating that there was a miracle. In fact, he adds that Jacob foresaw the event and hinted to his sons in a prophecy that it would occur. In Genesis 48:19, Jacob predicted that Ephraim, Joseph’s son, would be great. This, states Rashi, happened when all the nations heard that God caused the sun to stand still for Joshua, one of Ephraim’s descendants.
Radak: The Literal Story and an Elaboration
Radak was also convinced that a miracle took place and that it was predicted in the Torah. However, he felt that the event was foretold in Exodus 34:10, where God said that He would perform a wonderful deed for the Israelites in the future that would astound all nations. Radak elaborates with astounding non-natural details, stating that it was necessary to prolong the day by thirty-six hours because the battle began on Friday and Joshua did not want to fight on the Sabbath. This elaboration on the biblical tale is also found in the Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer.
Gersonides: Questioning Whether a Miracle Occurred
Gersonides was convinced that there was no miracle. If the sun had miraculously stood still, Joshua would have performed a greater miracle than Moses. Moses, Gersonides contends, never performed a miracle where nature was changed. This supposed fact of a sun standing still, he states, contradicts Deuteronomy 34:10–12, where the Bible clearly testifies that no one performed greater miracles than Moses.
Gersonides recognizes that some rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 25a, answer the problem of Deuteronomy 34 by maintaining that the sun also stood still for Moses and even for Nakdimon. However, he dismisses this talmudic notion as a myth. If Moses caused the sun to stand still, it would have been recorded in the Bible. Surely Scripture would not have been mute about such an unusual miracle. Mentioning the event would have exalted Moses.
Therefore, Gersonides suggests that Joshua was speaking figuratively; he was actually saying that it was a wonder that he and his army were able to defeat the forces of five nations during such a short period, in a single day, while the sun was still shining.
The Sun Standing Still for Moses and Nakdimon
But the Talmud, as stated, was convinced that the sun actually, preternaturally, stood still. The Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 25a, quotes Deuteronomy 2:25 as proof that the sun stood still for Moses. The Talmud offers three different ways of deriving its proof from 2:25. The first two identify the same words used for both Moses and Joshua – each solution focuses on different words, but both use words that have no reference to miracles or the sun. The two argue that since the Torah uses the same words for both individuals it “must” be implying that Moses and Joshua performed an identical miracle at some time. What was the miracle? The two leaders stopped the sun.
The third solution, somewhat more reasonably, notes that Deuteronomy 2:25 relates that the nations “‘shall hear a report of thee and shall tremble and be in anguish because of thee.’ When did they ‘tremble and were in anguish’ of Moses? When the sun stood still for him.”
Avodah Zarah refers to Ta’anit 19b and 20a for the story of how the sun stood still for Nakdimon. Actually, as we will read, Ta’anit does not substantiate its claim.
The Talmud’s Version of the Nakdimon Story Supports Gersonides
The Talmud states that Nakdimon, a philanthropic Jew, borrowed a quantity of water from a Roman official, shortly before 70 C.E., to quench the thirst of Judeans who were thirsty because of a drought. He promised to repay the same quantity of water, or, if he was unable to give the water, a large amount of gold. A time was set for the payment. The Roman was convinced that the drought would continue and that he had made a good deal.
Rain had still not fallen when the payment day arrived. Nakdimon prayed and rain fell. Nakdimon rushed to the Roman and argued that the water that filled the Roman’s pool had been delivered as stipulated. The Roman disagreed. “Look up,” he said, “it is dark. The day has passed. The water was delivered too late. Pay me the gold!”
Nakdimon left the room and prayed again. The rain clouds dispersed and the sun shone, showing that it was still day, and Nakdimon returned, pointed to the sky, and did not have to pay.
Thus, contrary to those who point to this story to prove that God performed a miracle for Nakdimon, the Talmud is stating that everything that occurred was natural. God did not cause the sun to stand still for Nakdimon. All that happened was that the clouds dispersed.
Maimonides’ View: Similar to Gersonides’
In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:35, Maimonides states that he understands Joshua to be singing that the day appeared to the people as the longest day of the year.
There are three ways to interpret Joshua 10. When Spinoza read the biblical words and took them at face value, he mocked the biblical writer for his ignorance: the writer did not know that the sun does not circle the earth. It would not stand still; the earth would do so, and if it did so all the people would die.
It is questionable whether the Bible meant that the sun actually stood still. Some Bible commentators relied on a talmudic opinion, and understood it as such. But others, such as Maimonides and Gersonides, using their reason, saw the facts differently: it only appeared to the Israelites as if the sun stood still because they achieved victory so quickly.
It should be obvious from the passages themselves that no miracle occurred. The book of Joshua tells the story in two parts. The first part is the narrative. The second is Joshua’s song in which he thanks God for the victory. Notably, there is no mention or even hint in the narrative that the sun miraculously stood still. When Joshua makes this statement in his song of poetic praise, the statement could, indeed should, be understood as hyperbolic poetry. Joshua is saying that the victory was acquired so speedily, in a single day, a day that appeared to be extended as the longest summer day; it was as if the sun stood still for the Israelites.
 This chapter is from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.