Sunday, December 06, 2015

The day the moon stood still?

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS: Mark W. Chavalas: Were sun and moon stopped in their tracks? (
The sun and moon have been in the news lately. The Rev. John Hagee has claimed that recent blood moons (a popular phrase for a total lunar eclipse) have biblical significance of cataclysmic proportions concerning modern-day Israel. Notwithstanding Hagee’s so-called expertise in astronomy (and Bible, for that matter), a discussion of what the Bible actually says of the movement of heavenly bodies is in order.

According to Joshua 10, the Israelite leader, Joshua, made a “mad dash” to get to Gibeon to protect that town against a coalition of Amorite kings. Like any good military leader in antiquity, Joshua inquired of God about his chances in battle; God guaranteed victory, which was all Joshua needed know.

Dr. Chavales then summarizes the case that the passage refers not to the sun and moon miraculously standing still in the sky, but to a propitious arrangement of the sun and moon in the sky which gave an omen that the Israelites would win the battle. I haven't seen his source by one John Walton, but a similar case was also made by John S. Holladay, Jr., in his 1968 article "The Day(s) the Moon Stood Still" in the Journal of Biblical Literature 87, pp. 166-78, which underlines the point that the place of the moon is also important in the story, so it can't just be about the sun standing still. Holladay argues that Mesopotamian omen literature explains what the poem was originally about, and that the writer of the book of Joshua was quoting an already ancient poem (from the Book of Jashar) which he misunderstood in his prose account of the battle. I too find this argument basically persuasive.

For my part, I have no problem with the idea that ancient Israelites would seek an omen for such matters (cf., e.g., 1 Samuel 10:17-24). Be that as it may, one problem with the theory is that the rubric assigning the poetic quotation to the Book of Jashar is probably secondary. It is missing in the Septuagint. So the quotation was probably originally unattributed and a later scribe either knew or was misinformed or inferred that it came from the Book of Jashar, which is quoted elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Still, the poetic passage does seem to be a quotation of an earlier work which was the only source the prose author had and which he understood imperfectly.

I have written about the Book of Jashar (which perhaps was originally called "The Book of the Song") in my article "Quotations from Lost Books in the Hebrew Bible" in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1 (ed. Bauckham, Davila, and Panayotov; Eerdmans, 2013), pp. 673-98, which you should definitely buy. A summary handout is here. Other past posts relevant to the latter article are collected here.

Past posts on the recent Blood Moon Tetrad, and some of the nonsense written about it, are here and links.

Cross-file under "Lost Books."