The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10

Joshua 10 has one of the most remarkable miracle stories in the whole of the Old Testament  outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Fresh off of victories at Jericho and Ai, Joshua’s Israelite army faces down a coalition of five Amorite kings; victory is swift, and with the enemy on the run, Joshua commands the sun and moon to stop moving, apparently in order to give the Israelites more time to pursue and slaughter the Amorites. So great is this feat that the narrator exuberantly declares, “there has been no day like it before or since!” and the chapter eventually ends with Israel in firm control of the Judahite heartland.

This passage, sometimes referred to as Joshua’s Long Day, is a puzzler. Exactly what kind of miracle is supposed to have occurred here? What traditions is the author working with? Answering these questions has proven quite difficult, since voluminous books and papers have been written on Joshua 10, and there is a remarkable diversity of opinions on every facet of the story among biblical scholars.

The passage is also interesting for its role in the debate between science and religion that has embroiled theologians, church authorities, and other interested parties since the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Even today, the interpretations given by those with a more conservative perspective reveal much about the thinking of modern biblical literalists.Read More »

The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.

As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?

I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood?Read More »

Kuntillet Ajrud

And Then There Was One: Yahweh and the Shema

One of the most famous phrases in all the Old Testament is certainly the declaration in Deuteronomy 6:4, referred to as the Shema after its initial word.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד
šᵉma’ yiśrāêl yahweh ’ělōhênū yahweh ‘eḥāḏ

The best nuance with which to translate this statement has been debated. The NRSV and its footnotes offer no fewer than four options, for example. I used to frequently hear it in sermons expressed as “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God!” and there is a popular church song that uses this translation as its main lyric. Hearing it this way, people naturally assume the Shema to be a simple expression of monotheism.Read More »

Lilith in the Bible and Jewish Folklore

Anyone who has read through Isaiah has come across the hauntingly beautiful poetry of Isaiah 34. This apocalyptic poem, which scholars now believe was a late addition to the book, appears to describe the destruction of Edom by the Nabateans in the 5th century BCE¹.

Verses 12 through 16 describe the desolation of the land:

The satyrs will make their home there,
its nobles will be no more,
kings will not be proclaimed there,
all its princes will be brought to nothing.

Thorns will grow in the palaces there,
thistles and nettles in its fortresses,
it will be a lair for jackals,
a lodging for ostriches.

Wild cats will meet hyenas there,
the satyrs will call to each other,
there too will Lilith take cover
seeking rest.

The viper will nest and lay eggs there,
will brood and hatch its eggs;
kites will gather there
and make it their meeting place.

(Isaiah 34:12–16, Jerusalem Bible)

Along with this bestiary of wildlife, we encounter some interesting mythical creatures — satyrs and Lilith. Let’s take a closer look at the latter.

Read More »

Archaeologists pinpoint the introduction of the domestic camel in Palestine

Archaeologists pinpoint the introduction of the domestic camel in Palestine Archaeologists have established a more precise date for the introduction of camels to Palestine: the 9th century BCE. This reinforces what Bible scholars and archaeologists have already known for decades — that the Bible’s portrayal of camels as a common beast of burden around the […]