Problem: A great deal has been written on Joshua’s’ long day where the sun and moon stood still in the sky. What are we to make of this passage of Scripture? Was it meant to be understood literally, or figuratively? To answer that, let’s first take a look at it.
Solution: Joshua 10:12–13, “Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,
“O sun, stand still at Gibeon,
And O moon in the valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies.
Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.”
Right away, several important things stand out.
Is Joshua praying to the sun and moon? To do so would be to commit idolatry. But Joshua would not have committed idolatry, so we cannot conclude that he was offering a prayer to the Sun and Moon to stop their celestial movement.
The rendering of 12b and 13a is poetical. It is a poem. Different Bibles will offset the text to show its poetic form. Many Bibles do this: ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NRSV, etc.
The poem is a quote from the book of Jasher (v. 13b). The Book of Jashar is “a lost sourcebook of early Israelite poetry.” It was “an anthology, or collection of national songs, in honor of renowned and eminently pious heroes.”
Possibility 1 – Poetic citation not meant to be literal
Joshua was quoting poetry from the book of Jashar as a request to God for intervention in their battle, not that it was a command to literally stop the sun and moon’s motion.
“The passage, which is parenthetical, contains a poetical description of the victory which was miraculously gained by the help of God, and forms an extract from “the book of Jasher,” that is, “the upright”—an anthology, or collection of national songs, in honor of renowned and eminently pious heroes. The language of a poem is not to be literally interpreted; and therefore, when the sun and moon are personified, addressed as intelligent beings, and represented as standing still, the explanation is that 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 [Keil, Bush].”
“Sun, stand thou still. The poetic form of this passage is clear to every one who has the smallest acquaintance with the laws of Hebrew poetry. For the Book of Jasher, from which it is apparently a quotation (see Introduction, Sec. 2). Stand thou still. This is not the literal rendering of the original. In no other passage has the verb דָמַם this sense. The sense “stand still” here would seem to be an inference from ver. 14. The literal rendering is, “be dumb.” Hence in Exod. 15:16, and in Lam 2:10, it signifies to be dumb with amazement or terror. In 1 Sam. 14:9 it seems to mean, “stay your advance” (“tarry,” Authorised Version), and the word rendered “stand still” in the last part of the verse is עמד. See also Psa. 4:5 (Heb.), where it is rendered “be still,” i.e., “be silent;” and Job 30:27, and Lam. 2:18. The word must not therefore be pressed to mean that the sun’s course was completely arrested in the heavens. All that can be assumed is that it did not set until the people were avenged of their enemies. The passage is evidently part of a triumphal song, like that recorded in Judges 5, where in ver. 20 there is a very similar thought, which no one ever thinks of interpreting literally. Upon Gibeon. Beth-horon was north-west of Gibeon. The meaning of the phrase would perhaps be, “Sun, rest thou (i.e., cease not to shine) in (or upon) Gibeon.” In the valley of Ajalon. The valley of the deer, according to the Hebrew.
Possibility 2 – It wasn’t literal that the sun stopped, but that it didn’t go down till the battle was won
Playing off the previous point of poetic reference, it is possible that upon quoting a figurative reference about the sun not going down, that what was meant is that the sun did not go down until the battle was won. This would mean that the comment of Joshua 10:13b was meant to be figurative as well.
Possibility 3 – Solar Eclipse
Another explanation that has been offered is that of a solar eclipse. Instead of restating what others have said, I will provide a quote.
“Modern English translations of this passage, such as the NRSV quoted above, have all followed the King James Authorized Version (KJAV) of The Bible, translated in 1611, and assumed that the Hebrew text means that the Sun and Moon stopped moving. However, a plausible alternative meaning is that the Sun and Moon stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining. In other words the text is referring to a solar eclipse, when the Sun stops shining. As a solar eclipse can only occur when the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun, the Moon itself is not visible and so it is not reflecting sunlight to the Earth – like the Sun, it has “stopped shining” as well…From our calculations we find that the only annular eclipse visible from Gibeon between 1500 and 1050 BC (using the same generous limits to the possible dates of entry of Joshua into Canaan as did Sawyer ) was on 30 October 1207 BC, in the afternoon. “
Possibility 4 – The earth wobbled in its rotation
Another possibility is that the earth wobbled on its rotation which caused the sun to appear to stand still in the sky. This wobbling effect of the earth on its axis has occurred various times and in Earth’s rotation it is still occurring today. Various articles talk about this phenomenon that’s occurred in Earth’s history.
Though this is a possibility, we must not think that we have to find a natural explanation for the miraculous. Remember, God is certainly capable of performing the miraculous.
Possibility 5 – The sun appeared to stop, but only for Israel.
The sun actually did stop, but only for Israel. But, another possibility is that the miracle occurred only for Israel. After all, the battle was regarding Israel, not anyone else.
“That an astronomical event such as an eclipse may have occurred is possible, but it seems more likely that, since the quotation is from the book of Jashar, the occurrence was metaphorical in the original poetry, although the prose explanation in v. 13b interpreted it literally. The focus in the account is on God’s mighty deliverance of Israel in the battle. (v. 12a).”
Possibility 6 – The Sun actually stopped – or the earth stopped its rotation
The text comments outside of the poetic form that implies that the sun did not set for a whole day: “And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day,” (Joshua 10:13b). Is this possible? Absolutely! God is perfectly capable of performing a miracle in which the sun stops in the sky long enough for the battle to continue in victory to be obtained by the Israelites.
But if the prayer was a poetic quote and request for the intervention of God in the battle and that intervention did happen, then it would make sense to say that the sun stopped until the battle was one.
Are there records of a long day (or night) in other cultures?
It seems that there are legends of long days and long nights scattered throughout the world. Please consider the following.
“In the ancient Chinese writings there is a legend of a long day. The Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico have a like record. There is a Babylonian and Persian legend of a day that was miraculously extended. Herodotus, an ancient historian, recounts that while in Egypt, priest showed him their temple records, and that he read of a day which was twice the natural length of any day that had ever been recorded (Robert Boyd, Boyds Bible Handbook, pp. 122,123).”
“The Ojibways tell of a long night without any light.
The Wyandot Indians told missionary Paul Le Jeune of a long night.
The Dogrib Indians of the North-West tell of a day when the sun was caught at noon and it instantly became dark.
The Omahas say that once the sun was caught in a trap by a rabbit who checked his traps at the break of dawn, presumably before sunrise. 35 (This may be Hezekiah’s sign, instead.)
Finally, the Bungee Indians from the Lake Winnipeg area of Canada also tell of a long night.”
Undoubtedly God is capable of performing a miracle by causing the sun to appear to stop in the sky. This could be done by altering the Earth’s rotation, light refraction, solar eclipse, axis wobble, or by literally performing a miracle. We must realize that we do not always need to find a naturalist explanation. Sometimes a miracle is a miracle – such as the resurrection of Jesus. But, other times the context can suggest that such a poetic usage as in the Book of Jashar was meant to be figurative. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.
 Freedman, David Noel, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins, and Astrid B. Beck, eds. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
 Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M., ed. Joshua. The Pulpit Commentary. London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909.
 Oxford Academic, //academic.oup.com/astrogeo/article/58/5/5.39/4159289, underline added
 Mays, James Luther, ed. Harper’s Bible Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.