The Battle of Beth-Horon

When Sun And Hail Fought For Joshua

Dr. A. Lincoln Shute, Louisville, KY


A VERY ancient triumph song relates that stars and river fought for Deborah and Barak:

“From heaven fought the stars,
From their courses they fought against Sisera.
The river Kishon swept them away,
That ancient river, the river Kishon” (Judges 5:20, 21).

Just a snatch of an earlier song of victory tells how sun and moon shared in one of the great crucial battles of the world:

“Sun, be thou silent upon Gibeon;
And, thou, Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.
And the sun was silent
And the moon stayed,
Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies” (Joshua 10:12, 13).

And history records that even the hail on this occasion was more effective than the sword in the destruction of the enemy.

A Decisive Battle—A Great General

A more or less hazy notion of Joshua’s famous command to the sun measures the extent of the average person’s knowledge of the battle of Beth-horon, one of the great and decisive battles of history, on the outcome of which depended very largely the future of the first of the three great forces of world civilization—the Hebrew, the Greek and the Roman. This battle opened the way to the invading Israelites right through the heart of the enemy’s country from river to sea, made possible the swift conquest of the South and the North, and brought under Joshua’s control nearly all of the territory that afterwards was to form the Kingdom of Judah, that was to prove the center of the chief religious force of history, the Kingdom out of which the Christ Himself was to come. Concerning such a conflict, and the period of conquest of which it was such an important part, F. E. Spencer would seem to be well within the truth when he says, “It was a war for freedom, for the fulfilment of a destiny, for the blessing of mankind, to make room for the progressive and the true ... to find a place for principles.” Such was, indeed, one of the great battles of history, and one of the first in the line of the great generals of the world was the commander of the victorious army.

Nebi Samwil

The visitor to Jerusalem is quickly attracted by a most prominent eminence five miles to the north-west, looking down from an elevation of five hundred feet above the city and two thousand nine hundred thirty-five feet above the level of the sea. This is ancient Mizpah, now known as Nebi Samwil, the “Prophet Samuel,” having on its summit a Mohammedan mosque, within which is shown what is claimed to be the tomb of that most noted judge and founder of the schools of the prophets. No more probable place could be named for the location of Samuel’s tomb; for here it was that he summoned the tribes for conferences and for worship, a place much associated with his eventful life.

No other place commands such an extensive view of this part of Palestine. Standing on the platform at the top of the mosque minaret, one sees Gibeon four hundred feet below and one mile to the north, the scene of the beginning of the battle we are studying. Beyond lies Ramallah, a little to the right the ancient Beeroth (one of Gibeon’s cities), and a little farther on Bethel. Turning to the north-east, the eye rests upon or passes over Ramah, Geba, Michmash, Ai, Rock Rimmon, and Ephraim on the very distant horizon. To the east (slightly, but increasingly, to the south) lie Beit Hanina, Gibeah of Saul, Anathoth (home of Jeremiah), and the blue mountains of Moab beyond the Jordan. To the south-east Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives greet the vision, always with increasing delight, and a little to the south of south-east are Frank Mountain (burial place of Herod the Great) and Bethlehem, while just beyond and below where we stand is the Jewish Nebi Samwil. To the west, an hour and a half distant, is beautiful El Kubeibeh (claiming, as against Amwas, to be the true site of Emmaus, to which Jesus walked with two disciples on the day of his resurrection), and, beyond, the central mountain range drops down to the Shephelah and then to the sea-coast plain, with Ramleh and Joppa in the dim distance to the northwest.

On the very top of Nebi Samwil is a fine well. Olives, figs and plenty of weeds grow in the fields surrounding the mosque. Wadis cut their way between hills and mountains in every direction. Here, as throughout Palestine, the terraces for farming and fruit-growing purposes are not kept in such a fine state of preservation as they are in the Himalaya Mountains of India. The latter, doubtless, more perfectly represent conditions as they were in Palestine during the ancient Israelitish occupation. The only disturbance of my quiet meditation and observation from the top of the minaret was the buzzing of an air plane over Joshua’s ancient battle field, and by my side at high noon the muezzin call to prayer.

It was from Nebi Samwil that the Crusaders got their first view of the Holy City; and it was on Nebi Samwil that the British forces took their stand on their way to to Mount Scopus and Jerusalem during the late war. Aside from its command of the surrounding situation, the theory in the choice of this location probably was that the Moslem Turks would have too much respect for one of their own mosques and the tomb of the prophet Samuel seriously to disturb the British camp. But the Turks, more concerned to drive the English back than to preserve their sacred places, not only largely destroyed the village, but also did serious damage to the mosque by their shell fire and greatly injured the tomb itself. The Arabs are still at work on the repairs.

Sun And Moon Seen As On The Day Of Battle

Just as I was ready to descend the minaret, my mind reverted to Joshua’s famous command to sun and moon. It was high noon, Thursday, the tenth of September. The sun was practically in the zenith. Quickly my eye turned to the west, and there over the Valley of Aijalon was the moon in plain view. The identical astronomical situation, as described by the astronomer Maunder of the Greenwich Observatory, was being repeated before my eyes as it was on that July day of battle more than three thousand three hundred years ago. The following day, at noon just before we entered the Valley of Aijalon, I looked again, but this time in vain. If I had been a day earlier or later, I would have failed to see this astronomical situation as it was on the day of Joshua’s command, when “the sun was silent upon Gibeon and the moon in the Valley of Aijalon.”

Scene Of The Battle—A Strategic Center

Knowing that Gibeon (modern El Jib), the point of attack in this battle, lay a mile to the north across a narrow plain at the foot of Nebi Samwil, we mounted our donkeys (the most stubbornly lazy of their whole tribe) and made for the vantage point of this height, from which to take a general survey of the scene of Joshua’s approach, the battle, and the flight of the armies of the five allied kings. Observation soon made perfectly clear the direction and pass by which Joshua must have led his army to that early morning attack; and so we mounted our donkeys and started down the eastern slope of Nebi Samwil toward Belt Hanina and the spot on the road from Jerusalem to Nablus (ancient Shechem) where a long stone and earthern bridge takes the road over the pass just to the north of Tel el-Ful (ancient Gibeah of Saul), which pass leads from the east to Beit Hanina and Gibeon.

Gibeon is between five and a half and six miles northwest from Jerusalem, at an elevation of two thousand five hundred thirty-five feet above sea level, one hundred feet higher than Jerusalem, and four hundred feet lower than Nebi Samwil. It is surrounded on all sides by a rich upland plain, from which there rises a double oblong or oval shaped hill, extending from north to south, and separated into two knolls by a slight depression about the center, with the city on the northern knoll. The hill is composed of horizontal layers of limestone rock, making broad platforms with abrupt descents from each to the one below. On these rock platforms the farmers have their threshing floors of the same style as in the days of Joshua. There is a sharp descent on every side except the north-west. Like the points of a great star fish, plains or passes extend from Gibeon to the west, north-west, north-east, east and south-east, while Nebi Samwil makes a mighty barrier to the south a mile away. In all directions except one, these points are properly termed passes. But the one to the west towards El Kubeibeh, reaching right up to Biddu, is not a mere pass, but, rather, a broad and beautiful plain of rich farm land. On the southeastern side is that universal necessity for every city, a water supply. Here is a fountain, from which water flows to a lower artificial reservoir. Excavations of the archeologist have discovered an underground channel connecting the city with this fountain, a vitally necessary expedient in case of siege. The greatest of such tunnels yet excavated, is at Gezer, where it was dug probably at least as early as 2,000 B. C, “a remarkable piece of engineering for an early people.” It has been closed since the time when Joshua captured the city some time after the battle of Beth-horon. A similar tunnel at Rabbath-ammon (modern Amman), connecting with a roofed-over cistern outside the city wall, is peculiarly interesting.

Gibeon was the strategic center of a most strategic pass across the heart of Palestine from west to east. It was the chief city of the Hivites, controlling three other cities, Kiriath-jearim, Chephirah and Beeroth, so that, when its people made a covenant of peace with Israel, all the other peoples of the land “feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai (which Joshua had destroyed utterly), and all the men thereof were mighty” (Joshua 10:2). Ai was a city of twelve thousand inhabitants, but Gibeon was greater. Judging from present appearances, it was greater than Gibeah, the home and first capital of Saul, the first king of Israel. Gibeon held a very important place in Jewish history for a period of fourteen centuries. “By the pool of Gibeon” the opposing generals, Abner and Joab, held their council on the day when “the battle was very sore” between Israel and Judah during the early reign of David (2 Sam. 2:12–17). David “smote the Philistines from Gibeon to Gezer,” probably over the very same route followed by the retreating allies fleeing before Joshua in the battle of Beth-horon (2 Sam. 5:25). Joab, David’s commander-in-chief, slew Amasa “at the great stone which is in Gibeon” (2 Sam. 20:8–10). Shishak, of Egypt, took Aijalon, Beth-horon, Gibeon and Jerusalem, about 928 B. C., only four years after the death of Solomon. Every one of these places was directly connected with the battle we are studying. Here was the seat of an ancient sanctuary, “the great high place” (1 Kings 3:4). Here also for a time stood the Tabernacle, with the brazen altar (2 Chron. 1:3). To Gibeon the youthful Solomon came, after he was made king, for sacrifice and worship, when Jehovah appeared to him in a dream with that wonderful promise of wisdom, riches and honor (1 Kings 3:4–15). Here the Roman general, Cestius Gallus, encamped when marching in 66 A. D. from Antipatris against Jerusalem. But four years later Titus avoided the fatal gorges from the Valley of Aijalon by the way of Beth-horon, in which the army of Cestius Gallus (arousing the concern and wrath of Nero) had suffered such hardship and slaughter, as the allies had suffered at the hands of Joshua, and came south by the way of Gophna to Gibeah of Saul on his way to the final destruction of Jerusalem.

West of the center of the mountain passes on this strategic road, just at the beginning of the descent from the central mountain range into the Valley of Aijalon, stood Upper Beth-horon (modern Beit Ur el-Foka) at an elevation of two thousand twenty-two feet, about six miles north-west of Gibeon. From this point also there is a fine view. Beautiful El Kubeibeh, always in evidence, stands out against the sky over the mountain tops a little to the east of south, about four miles away by air line. There are two great passes to the east, and a long sweep of mountains to north and south, while to the west are the Shephelah, Gezer and the Mediterranean, with Lydda and Joppa to the north-west and the Plain of Sharon stretching on towards Carmel.

Nearly two miles to the west of Upper Beth-horon and about eight hundred feet below, is Lower Beth-horon (modern Beit Ur et-Tahta), with an elevation of one thousand two hundred ten feet. To the north-west olive orchards extend as far as the eye can see, but to the southwest the landscape is more bare. El Kubeibeh still overlooks all around. From a hill between Upper and Lower Beth-horon the traveller distinguishes Bab el-Wad (the Gate of the Valley), seven miles by air line to the west of south, where the modern road from Jerusalem to Jaffa emerges from the mountains into the plain. To the west and south-west a broad valley, covered with fields of dura for miles, makes a gradual descent till, beyond Beit Sira, it opens out into the broad Valley of Aijalon. These valleys are important in our study of the battle of Beth-horon, for they are in the line of Joshua’s pursuit of the retreating allies.

Between Upper and Lower Beth-horon there is an old Roman road, broad and fairly well cleared, a good automobile road to-day. By the side of this road there lay an old stone pillar, eighteen feet long and twenty inches in diameter. Past Beit Sira another old Roman road once connected Joppa and Jerusalem. At Beit Nuba, still farther south, the road bears off to the west of south, leaving Yalo (ancient Aijalon) on the left to the east, nestling in the edge of the mountains and guarding the valley to the north-west, west and south-west.

This road by the way of the Valley of Aijalon and the Beth-horons was of great importance during the Maccabean wars. At “the going up of Beth-horon” Seron of Syria met Judas Maccabeus and was driven back to the plain (L. Mace. 3:13–24). Ptolemy, Nicanor and Gorgias encamped at Emmaus (modern Amwas), on the edge of the plain and Valley of Aijalon; whereupon Judas and his men left their camp at Nebi Samwil, came in to the south of the enemy, and drove the Syrians to Gezer and beyond (1 Mace. 3:38–4:15). When Nicanor was encamped in Beth-horon and Judas was in Adasa (Khirbet Adaseh, one mile east of Gibeon on the road from Jerusalem to Beth-horon), Judas drove the Syrians from Adasa to Gezer, “a day’s journey”—not so far as Joshua drove the allies over this same road in a day (1 Mace. 7:39–45). At Elasa, between the two Beth-horons, Judas fell in battle, and was buried at Modin, the home of his family (1 Mace. 9:1–22). Jericho, Bethel, Beth-horon and Emmaus (Amwas) were included among the towns fortified by Bacchides—right across the heart of Palestine from east to west, over the very line followed by Joshua on that eventful day, except that, for military purposes, Joshua diverted his course to the south, instead of passing along the regular road in the vicinity of Bethel and Beeroth.

Again the strategic character of this road was emphasized during the Crusades. The First Crusaders in two days marched from Ramleh (on the plain near Lydda) by the way of Beth-horon to Jerusalem. And the Third Crusade heard the whole of this same section ring with the exploits of Richard Lionheart.

The foregoing record is quite sufficient to show that Joshua was fighting that day at a most strategic center for his conquest of the Promised Land. And if it was strategic for him to win, it was equally so for his allied enemies to hold. And this explains why the treaty of peace between the Gibeonites with their associated cities and Joshua struck terror to the hearts of the surrounding peoples, and why the allied kings deemed it important to crush Gibeon at once. It seemed vitally serious for them, and it was a gracious providence for Joshua, to have friends of Israel holding the center of this strategic position. From Gilgal and Jericho in the Jordan valley the road proceeded by the way of Michmas, Ai (already destroyed by Joshua), Beeroth, Gibeon and the Beth-horons to the Shephelah, the Valley of Aijalon, Lydda and the Mediterranean coast. Here was the main line of communication between the coast and Jerusalem—to an invading force from the maritime plain this road was the key to Jerusalem. In the days of Philistine control, they held this road from their five central coast cities to Mich-mas. Tramping over the hill to the east of Upper Beth-horon, studying the line of flight and pursuit, I picked up a four-inch shell, a relic of the great war, and a forcible reminder of these words from George Adam Smith’s “Historical Geography of the Holy Land” (p. 210):”Throughout history we see hosts swarming up this avenue, or swept down it in flight.”

Joshua’s Strategy

Doubtless Josephus is right in saying that the allied kings encamped by the fountain on the east side of Gibeon. They would do this for two good reasons: first, that they might secure a good water supply for themselves, and, secondly, that they might, if possible, cut off the supply from the city within the walls. This also made it easier for Joshua to cut off their retreat to the west, a more direct way of escape to the homes of the three living on the coast plain. Thus threatened by powerful enemies, the Gibeonites dispatched a messenger to Joshua, appealing for help at once. Joshua not only appreciated their danger, but also the opportunity which the new situation, gave him to strike a vital blow in his conquest of Canaan. He would not begin at the south or at either end of the land, and thus allow all his enemies to combine against him. He would strike at the center, by a night march occupy the heights, deliver a crushing blow at Gibeon and Beth-horon in the very center of the connecting line across the whole land, and thus be in a position to strike alternately south and north, which he did in quick succession. Thus “Joshua executed the favorite maneuver of the greatest captains by sea and land down to the days of Napoleon and Nelson.” By two decisive battles, Beth-horon in the center and Merom in the far north, Joshua broke the southern and northern coalitions against him and opened the way to the mastery of the whole land.

The point of strategy that, doubtless, determined Joshua’s direction of approach was the necessity of preventing the enemy’s escape. The regular road would have brought him upon the enemy at Gibeon from the north by the way of Ai. But this would have left the way of retreat wide open to the stronghold at Jerusalem only six miles away, and, once within those walls, the five armies would have been safe from Joshua’s pursuit and the better prepared to meet him at a future day. Instead, therefore, of approaching Gibeon by the way of the north-east pass, Joshua, undoubtedly, led his army between Ramah and Gibeah of Saul (Tel el-Ful), crossing the main road out of Jerusalem to the north where the long stone and earth bridge is now located across that pass, came in through the south-east pass, and thus kept his army between the enemy and Jerusalem all the time.

The Night March And Plan Of Attack

With the purpose of a sudden surprise attack, Joshua and his men “went up from Gilgal all the night,” probably by the Wadi el-Kelt and Wadi Farah, passed close to Tel el-Ful on the north, entered the Wadi Hanina, and turned sharply to the north into Wadi el-Jib. This is a narrow gorge with very perpendicular walls, especially on the Gibeon side, affording an army on the walls almost a fatal advantage against a foe down in the gorge. If, therefore, Joshua had not succeeded in surprising the enemy by getting through this pass before his presence was discovered, a pass only a few minutes walk from the enemy’s camp, they could have cut his army to pieces in that narrow pass. But, not being detected by the allies in that early morning hour, in a very brief time Joshua’s forces had rounded the sharp turn of the gorge to the west, from which in a very short distance the pass opens out widely into the plain right on the camp of the enemy, and for the first time Joshua’s men came in sight of the completely surprised Amorites. Quickly crowding in from the east and the south upon the foe, thus surprised in their camp at an early morning hour, Joshua completely blocked their retreat towards Jerusalem, while the walls of the city of Gibeon made impossible their escape to the west over the wide plain towards El Kubeibeh and the home of three of their kings on the sea-coast plain. The struggle was short, sharp and decisive, and before noon the allied armies were in full retreat before the victorious Joshua in the only direction still open to them, namely, the pass to the north-west, “by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon.”

Flight Of The Allies—Mountain Passes

Fleeing from Gibeon, they would reach Upper Beth-horon through the pass approaching from the south of east. If the Romans under the command of Cestius Gallus in 66 A. D. followed these passes, as described by Jo-sephus, instead of coming over the ridge, doubtless those fleeing from before Joshua over the same course would do the same, especially since their flight occurred more than a thousand years before the Romans built their roads in these parts. The description by Josephus (“Wars of the Jews,” Book II, Chap. 19) of the hardships and sufferings of the army of Cestius Gallus in these very same gorges, is a very vivid portrayal of what must have been the similar experiences of the Amorites more than fourteen centuries before. “They were penned up in their descent through narrow passages. The footmen knew not how to defend themselves, so the danger pressed the horsemen still more, for they were so pelted, that they could not march along the road in their ranks, and the ascents were so high that the cavalry were not able to march against the enemy; the precipices also and valleys, into which they frequently fell and tumbled down, were such on each side of them, that there was neither place for their flight, nor any contrivance could be thought of for their defence. Indeed these things were come to such a pass, that the Jews had almost taken Cestius’s entire army prisoners, had not the night come on, when the Romans fled to Beth-horon.” And thus it was on the day of Joshua’s victory on this same spot.

The pass to the south of Upper Beth-horon presents a somewhat shorter route for the allies to their home cities, but they probably did not take it, because they would have had a considerable climb from the pass east of the city in order to reach the one to the south, and doubtless Joshua’s men would have made such a climb most difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, they naturally followed the course of least resistance from the pass east of Upper Beth-horon right on into “Hail Pass” to the north of the city, where, as we judge from the Biblical record, the terrible storm and great hail stones began to claim more victims than the swords of Joshua’s soldiers. For nearly two miles they ran and stumbled and fell down eight hundred feet from Upper to Lower Beth-horon. Just before passing Lower Beth-horon, they turned to the left (south) and swept through the wider valley just below Lower Beth-horon to the east, now filled with many olive trees. Just after passing Lower Beth-horon, this valley turns westward along the south side of the hill on which the city stands, and a little farther on it turns southward again towards the Valley of Aijalon. Here, out of the mountain passes, they poured into this broad valley, and continued their disorderly retreat southward under the pelting hail till they reached the vicinity of Azekah (modern Zakareyeh), having run just about thirty miles since the beginning of their retreat at Gibeon some time before noon. Here, apparently, the hail-storm ceased (Josh. 10:11), the clouds broke, and, late in the afternoon, past the heat of that July day, the sun appeared once more, that in its light the destruction of the enemy might be made complete to Makkedah and a little distance beyond. This is on the assumption that the location of Makkedah on the west coast at el Mughar is a mistaken guess, but that Eusebius is more nearly correct (if he means northeast of Beit Jibrin, instead of east) in placing it between Azekah and Jarmuth, or thereabouts, as the Biblical account would seem plainly to indicate. From ancient times there has been a regular highway from near Aijalon to Azekah and Eleutheropolis (Beit Jibrin). Coming south on this road, Jarmuth (modern Khirbet el-Yärmuk) looms up prominently to the south-east on the top of a hill one thousand four hundred sixty-five feet above sea level, the royal city of one of these five defeated kings, while Azekah is on the right of the road just before the crossing of the Wadi es-Sunt.

Joshua’s Victory Decisive And Complete

Thus these allied armies were mostly captured and destroyed before they could reach Jarmuth, the nearest royal city of these three kings from the coast, the immediate objective, probably, of their head-long flight, and the next best place of defence, possibly, to Jerusalem, so far as the royal cities of the five kings were concerned. A remnant escape into their fortified cities, but Joshua’s victory is decisive and complete. The five kings, including the kings of Hebron and Jerusalem, are dragged from their hiding place in the cave of Makkedah to meet their doom, their armies are destroyed, and tomorrow and the days immediately following their cities and kingdoms will be in the hands of the triumphant general, Joshua. A whirlwind campaign completes the conquest of the major part of the South from Gibeon to Kadesh-barnea, from which latter point Moses had sent Joshua and the eleven other spies into Canaan more than forty years before. Every city of the allied kings, except Jerusalem, is now in the power of Joshua, and he is in such control of that whole section as to prevent any material interference with his plans from that direction for some time to come, while he executes a similar success in the North, breaking up the second great coalition against Israel.

Joshua’s Famous Command To The Sun

Apparently near noon when the heat was intense, and after the flight of the allies had begun towards “the ascent of Beth-horon” to the north-west, with the sun back of Joshua over Gibeon and the danger imminent that the enemy would escape from his weary soldiers, there occurred an incident which has attracted the interest of every reader and which is known by multitudes who know but little more about this battle: namely, Joshua’s famous command to the sun to allow him the most favorable opportunity (not time) to complete the destruction of the enemy. As it is translated in the regular text of our versions, it reads:

“Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon,
And thou, Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed,
Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies” (Joshua 10:12, 13).

Concerning this incident it is important to bear in mind certain considerations: First, the God who made the world is not so limited that it would be difficult for Him so to control His own machine that He could lengthen a day if He wished to. This would be more simple for Him than a similar control by man of a locomotive or an aeroplane. God is not subordinate to, nor limited by, natural laws—He makes the laws. Secondly, the record of this incident and the wording of the report are quoted from a book, the beginning of which dates from a time earlier than the writing of the book of Joshua. This is the book of Jashar, a book which has not come down to us, which is quoted only twice in Scripture, and which seems to have been a collection of songs and ballads added from time to time through the centuries concerning the heroes of Israel. The quotation from Jashar evidently includes verses 12 to 15 inclusive, because the narrative makes it clear that Joshua went right on with the conquest of the other cities and the South before returning to Gilgal. This incident made such a profound impression at the time that it awakened the poetical inspiration of some eye-witness of the occurrence, a snatch from whose poetical celebration of the occasion, together with his prose statement of the historical setting of the incident, was incorporated by the author of the book of Joshua when he was writing up the history of the conquest of Canaan. Thirdly, the exclamation of Joshua is reported in poetical form, and is therefore to be interpreted in harmony with poetical license.

Various interpretations of this passage have been suggested. One reminds us of the fact that the sun by refraction often appears in the arctic regions above the horizon for days, though it has not risen in all that time, and suggests that, in a similar manner in this case, by a process of refraction daylight was protracted long enough to allow Joshua time to accomplish his desire in the pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Another explanation is that the poetic passage simply means that Joshua appealed to God that darkness might not come till he had completed the overthrow of those Amorites.

In addition to the foregoing, the reader should not overlook the interpretation of Professor E. W. Maunder, for forty years superintendent of the Solar Department of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, who holds this report to be an astronomically accurate statement (see International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Art. “Beth-horon, The Battle of”).

First of all, Professor Maunder believes that the margin of the Revised Version gives the proper rendering of the original Hebrew:

“Sun, be thou silent upon Gibeon,
     And, thou, Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.
And the sun was silent,
     And the moon stayed,
Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies.”

This rendering is a more liberal and original translation of the Hebrew word dōm, from dämam, which means to be silent. In Lev. 10:3 the same word is translated, “Aaron held his peace”; and in Lam. 3:28 it is rendered, “keep silence.” A kindred root is dum, to be silent, “in which is to be observed,” says Gesenius’ Hebrew Lexicon, “the obscure sound which is peculiar to the mouth when closed.” Concerning dämam Gesenius adds, “Its proper meaning, therefore, is to be dumb, which is applied both to silence and quietness, and also to the stupefaction of one who is lost in wonder and astonishment.” It is the same as the Anglo-Saxon and English word, dumb. The only way for the sun and moon to be dumb or silent is to cease to shine, not for the earth to cease rotating upon its axis.

The expression, “in the midst of heaven,” Professor Maunder says, means that the sun is near the zenith at Gibeon, where (or near which) Joshua must have been when he called for the sun to be silent or to cease to shine upon Gibeon. At the same time Joshua saw the moon near the horizon in the direction of the Valley of Aijalon to the west of Gibeon. “Given that the sun was ‘in the midst of heaven’, above Gibeon, there was only a very restricted arc of the horizon in which the moon could appear as associated with some terrestrial object; and from Gibeon the Valley of Aijalon does lie within that narrow arc. It follows, therefore, that, unless the position assigned to the moon had been obtained from actual observation at the moment, it would in all probability have been an impossible one” (this bears upon the question of the authorship of the passage, astronomical science furnishing very definite proof that it came from an eyewitness). In that intensely hot country in July, Joshua could not have desired to have the sun fixed in the zenith where its heat was already distressing his men, who had been marching or fighting for seventeen hours. What he wanted was such relief for his men that they could continue the chase with renewed vigor. His prayer was more than answered; for, not only was the sun immediately hidden by clouds, but also the temperature was still further lowered by the breaking of a terrific thunder and hail-storm over the enemy ahead of him, and by the time they had reached the descent from Upper Beth-horon the hailstones were destroying the enemy faster than his soldiers themselves could. Thus the speed of the retreating armies was slackened and the soldiers were confused in the steep, rough and rocky passes, while Joshua’s men were refreshed, quickened their pace and thus were enabled to work greater havoc among the foe. The unique feature is that Joshua did not speak in the form of prayer, but of command, as if all the forces of Nature were at his disposal, and Jehovah hearkened, and, as it were, obeyed a human voice.

Habbakuk evidently refers to the same incident and gives us a prophetic confirmation of the previous interpretation in the following passage:

“The sun and moon stood still in their habitation,
At the light of Thine arrows as they went,
At the shining of Thy glittering spear.
Thou didst march through the land in indignation;
Thou didst thresh the nations in anger” (Hab. 3:11, 12).

Professor Maunder would translate the first line as follows:

“The sun and moon ceased (to shine) in their habitation.” This is perfectly correct, but an unnecessary variation from the Revised Version in this case. The Hebrew word, ämad, here translated “stood still,” is the same word that is translated in Joshua 10:13, “the moon stayed,” “the sun stayed,” and is different from the word used in the phrase, “the sun stood still,” in the same verse. The latter word, translated “stood still,” is the word dämam, which means “to be silent.” The former word, translated in Habbakuk “stood still,” is ämad, which more frequently has the meaning “stood still,” but which also means “to cease” or “to stay.” It is the same word used in Jonah 1:15, “the sea ceased from its raging”; in 2 Kings 4:6, “the oil stayed,” where it evidently means “ceased”; and 2 Kings 13:18, “he smote thrice and stayed,” where it is just as evident that the meaning is “ceased.” The context in Habbakuk agrees perfectly with the meaning, “ceased (to shine).” “At the light of Thine arrows,” means the lightning. But lightning comes when there are clouds which make the sun to cease shining. The “Student’s Hebrew Lexicon,” by Professor Davies and Mitchell, translates the first line from Habbakuk, “Sun, moon, stands homeward; i. -e., stays at home, not coming forth to shine.” And Tregelles in Gesenius’s “Hebrew Lexicon” translates it, “hide themselves, do not shine.” So, whether the translation is, “stood still in their habitation,” or “stood homeward, i.e., stayed at home, not coming forth to shine,” or “hid themselves, do not shine,” or “ceased to shine,” the meaning is all the same. Thus Habbakuk gives prophetic confirmation to the interpretation that what Joshua meant by his command, and what actually happened, is that both sun and moon became invisible at Joshua’s order for considerable time on that day, the like of which there was none “before it or after it.”

“At the light of Thine arrows as they went,
At the shining of Thy glittering spear.”

are figurative expressions referring to the lightning, making the passage mean that, while the terrible hail-storm was on, with arrows and spears of lightning flashing through the sky, the sun and moon were not visible— they stayed at home in their tent or chamber (Ps. 19:5, 6) and did not shine.

Professor Maunder gives the moon’s latitude and altitude, and fixes the day as July twenty-first, with a possible shifting of two days earlier or later, which agrees perfectly with the chronology of Joshua’s campaigns. Professor Maunder concludes: “The astronomical conditions introduced by the mention of the moon are much more stringent than might have been expected. They supply, therefore, proof of a high order that the astronomical details, both of the poem and prose chronicle, were derived from actual observation at the time and have been preserved to us unaltered.”

Thus far (with certain additions by the present writer) the Professor’s astronomical exposition of this passage, which has caused so many people much confusion of thought, seems clear and convincing. One difficulty, however, occurs to every reader, and Professor Maunder does not overlook it, though his explanation may not appear to all of us as convincing as the foregoing part of his exposition. The statement, “the sun hasted not to go down about a whole day,” finds its explanation, he thinks, in the tenth verse. The Israelites had no watches or other means of keeping time, except by the distance they had travelled. From Gibeon to Makkedah, by the route they marched, is about thirty miles, a full day’s march for an army. “It is possible that, at the end of the campaign, the Israelites on their return found the march from Makkedah to Gibeon heavy work for an entire day. Measured by the only means available to them, that afternoon seemed to be double the ordinary length. The sun had ‘hasted not to go down about a whole day.’ ”

This explanation, of course, is very far from satisfactory. But is no other explanation possible? Let us see. If a reasonable explanation can be found of the phrase, “hasted not to go down about a whole day,” then the whole passage will be clear and consistent. Is it not perfectly self-evident that the natural meaning must be that the sun hasted not to resume doing that which, at Joshua’s command, it had ceased to do? If he had commanded the sun to cease its apparent movement towards its western setting, i. e., in effect that the earth should cease rotation upon its axis, then the sun hasted not to resume that movement towards the place of setting. But if Joshua desired relief from noonday heat and accordingly ordered the sun to cease shining, “to be silent,” and the sun “was silent,” i.e., ceased shining, being covered by the storm cloud, then the significance of this phrase must be that the sun hasted not to come out from under that cloud and to resume its regular course of shining. The sun apparently had entered into its tent or chamber (Ps. 19:5, 6) and did not haste to go out to shine again till near the end of the day, when, as they came to Azekah, the storm ceased, the clouds cleared away, and the sun once more burst forth when darkness otherwise would have been coming on very rapidly, and thus they were given more time and a bright evening sunlight, when it was most needed, in which to complete the work of destroying the foe. It may be objected to this interpretation, that in this case we should expect yätsä, to go out (to rise, when used of the sun), rather than , to go in (to set or go down, when used of the sun). This objection does not seem to hold when we remember that the historian does not wish to speak of the sun’s rising (it had risen for that day many hours before), but rather of the fact that the clouds did not haste to clear away and thus permit the sun to “go,” to resume its shining and the pouring of its heat down upon the heads of Joshua’s soldiers, weary from their all-night march and all-morning hard fighting against five armies of the enemy allied against them. Furthermore, as we are reminded by the Hebrew Lexicons, “go” is the more ancient and original meaning of , rather than “go out” or “go down.” The fact that the foregoing translation and interpretation make all references to this incident in Joshua and Habbakuk perfectly harmonious and reasonable, leaving bo as the only doubtful or difficult element in the explanation, goes far to indicate that this word probably has some sense that harmonizes with all the rest, if we only knew all the facts and all of its various shades of meaning in that far away time. Another consideration also may be worthy of notice. It hardly can be considered probable that Joshua would have commanded the sun to refrain from ending the day too abruptly, till it had made sufficient progress down the western sky to make him think seriously of the day closing upon his operations too soon. Such a thought would not be natural during the morning hours or before noon, the time when we know he must have given this order. But if the sun had been in the western sky, the moon could not have been visible over Aijalon. This incident must have been not later than noon, the very time when his thought in that country at that time of the year would have been for relief for his weary soldiers from the mid-day heat rather than for the prolonging of the day not yet half over.

This explanation does not eliminate the supernatural or miraculous from this incident, but it does make the miracle more in accord with the facts of the case and is a perfectly accurate reproduction or translation of what the Hebrew says. Joshua’s real need, and that of his soldiers, is fully met and much more. Not only do they receive immediate relief from the heat of the sun, but the elements join in a fearful destruction of the enemy more effectively than the military operations directed by Joshua, while Joshua and his army receive all the benefits of the storm and none of its hindrances—miracle enough for all the necessities of the situation.

Whatever may be the judgment of any particular individual on the validity of any part of the foregoing explanations, in any case this should be clear, that the possibilities of explanation of this passage are so numerous and reasonable, that we may be certain, if we only knew all the facts of that wonderful day and the meaning which these phrases which perplex us had to them, the difficulties all would quickly vanish. We should beware, lest in our eagerness to solve the intricacies of interpretation of this peculiar poetical strain, we lose sight of the main historical and spiritual import of the battle, and of the fact of the Divine cooperation in a crucial hour.

We may fittingly conclude our study of this decisive battle, so vitally related to the triumph and development of the Hebrew people in that day, and therefore to the Kingdom of God in all days, and the influence of religion on world civilization, by this quotation from F. E. Spencer (Old Testament History, p. 73): “There is one thing that is much worthy of notice in this whole story. Though the men were finely led with able generalship, and though their achievements of speed, of endurance, of chivalry were honorable in any soldiery, nothing is said about it. There is no trace of the savage and truly heathen exultation and boasting which characterize ancient monuments of victory.” A later psalmist gives the secret:

“We have heard with our ears,
O God, Our fathers have told us,
What work Thou didst in their days,
In the days of old” (Ps. 44:1–4).