Did Joshua Really Make the Sun Stand Still?

In a famous episode in the book of Joshua, the title figure declares: “Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon in the Valley of Aijellon!”; in response, the text tells us, “the sun stood still and the moon halted.” These verses are usually taken to mean that God slowed the progress of the sun across the heavens to give the Israelites more time for their battle against the Amorites. The passage would be cited by, on the one hand, religious critics of Copernicus and Galileo as proof the sun revolves around the earth and by, on the other hand, rationalist critics of the Bible as proof of Scripture’s fallibility. Mark Chavalas argues that it means something else entirely (free registration required):

The phraseology in Joshua 10:12-13 sounds suspiciously like the vocabulary used in Mesopotamian celestial-omen texts. In fact, it is clear that the relative position of the sun and moon played a role in determining military movements [in ancient Mesopotamia]. Kings consulted omen priests who told them whether a particular solar/lunar juxtaposition was propitious for victory. . . .

Many of the technical phrases in these omens concern the “stopping” and “waiting” of the heavenly bodies. From the standpoint of the viewer on earth, [according to the astrologers], the sun and moon “stopped and waited” for each other (that is, they were seen together: a bad omen for the fifteenth day after a full moon). . . . [Such] celestial-omen observation was not just prevalent in Mesopotamia but [also] in northwest Syria at the sites of Ugarit, Mari, and Emar (all in regions with significant Amorite connections). . . .

[T]his context also helps answer an easily anticipated question: why would a follower of the God of Israel ask for an omen, a practice that was considered divination and regarded [by the Pentateuch] as a capital crime? The answer is that . . . Joshua was not asking for a celestial phenomenon for himself, or even for Israel, but probably for the enemy; he must have known what it meant for them to have the sun and moon aligned on the fifteenth day [after the full moon], presumably the day of battle. If they received a bad omen, it would have significantly lowered their [morale].

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More about: Astrology, Book of Joshua, Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays, Science and Religion

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays