In Joshua 10:12-14 we read:
“Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon; and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.’ As the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel.”
Did the sun literally stand still? For some this is simply what the text says and so that’s what it means. In the MacArthur Study Bible MacArthur puts it quite firmly. All of the alternative views to a literal one “fail to do justice to 10:12-14, and needlessly question God’s power as Creator. This is best accepted as an outright monumental miracle. Joshua, moved by the Lord’s will, commanded the sun to delay (Heb., ‘be still, silent, leave off’). The earth actually stopped revolving or, more likely, the sun moved in the same way to keep perfect pace with the battlefield.” (footnote to Joshua 10:12-14)
I have no doubt that God could do such a thing but is this interpretation really required? I want to suggest an interpretation offered by John Walton who suggests the text is better understood in the context of omens rather than physics. According to Walton the particular situation of the sun and moon on a particular day would indicate a bad omen. The kind of language employed by Joshua (‘stopping’, ‘waiting’) is common in Ancient Near Eastern literature and would be readily recognizable. He comments, “Joshua was asking for the sun and moon to be in the position that the diviners in the enemy camp would interpret as a bad omen for battle so that the Israelites will have the psychological advantage.” (The Bible Story Handbook, 125)
Elsewhere he writes
“All of this language is familiar from the celestial omens. It should be noted that the biblical text does not suggest that the astronomical phenomena were unique; instead, Joshua 10:14 says plainly that what was unique was the Lord accepting a battle strategy from a man (‘the Lord listened to a man’)’ Joshua’s knowledge of the Amorite’s dependence on omens may have led him to ask the Lord for one that he knew would deflate their morale–for the opposition to occur on an unprotitious day.” (Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, p. 263)
The ESV Study Bible recognizes this interpretation as a recent addition but says it, along with the other non-literal interpretations, does not “do justice to the claim that there has been no day like it before or since (v. 14)” (footnote to Joshua 10:12-14). But as Walton observes this may not be a commenting so much on the astrological phenomena as it is on the Lord’s listening to the voice of a man.
On this score I agree with Walton (this will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog). I don’t believe it needlessly questions the power of the Creator unless the interpretation somehow implied that God could not literally make the sun stand still but it obviously does not require that.
For a fuller treatment see Walton’s article “Joshua 10:12-15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts,” in Faith, Tradition, and History, ed. by A. R. Millard, J. K. Hoffmeier, and D. W. Baker
For a broader treatment see his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament from Baker Academic.