Thoughts on "Joshua's Long Day"

Allan H. Harvey
steamdoc@aol.com

After my grandmother went to be with the Lord in 1996, it fell to several of my cousins and me to sort through her belongings in the apartment where she had spent the last 19 years of her life. Grandmother owned several Bibles, tucked inside which one could often find a little treasured poem, an old note from my grandfather, or perhaps a program from a funeral. This was quite moving for me, so you can imagine my surprise when, in the midst of all that, I found a few pages of lies.

Most of us have seen the story in some form or another. It starts off something like, "Did you know science proves the Bible?" and goes on to tell the story of how NASA astronomers were puzzled to find almost a day "missing" in some "calculations," and how a Christian showed them how it corresponded to the Biblical stories of Joshua and Hezekiah. An inspiring story, except that it is completely false (I mean the NASA part is false, not the Biblical stories themselves). This lie had been made into a tract, and that tract had made its way into my grandmother's Bible.

Since then, I have run into "Joshua's Long Day" on a couple of other occasions. Lately, I have given some thought to this and similar legends and what their spread indicates about the condition of Christ's church. In this essay, I first sketch the history of this particular legend, and then mention some similar stories that circulate in the church. Then I offer some thoughts on why these legends are harmful and why they are so appealing to many Christians.

History of "Joshua's Long Day"

In 1890, Charles Totten, an instructor in Military Science at Yale, wrote a book called Joshua's Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz. This book arose out of Totten's interest in bizarre Biblical numerology. In it, he wrote wild and often unbiblical speculations related to the sun stopping for Joshua and a similar incident involving Hezekiah. The speculations were entirely based on numerology and Totten's biblical interpretations, and had no science in them.

Early in this century, Totten's work somehow got distorted and was used as a "science proves the Bible" story. In the revised story, Totten's speculations were portrayed as scientific findings of a professor at Yale. This was used in tracts and lectures and even a few books throughout the middle of this century, most notoriously by Harry Rimmer, whose ministry centered around alleged scientific "proofs" of the Bible. It is not clear whether Rimmer was knowingly bearing false witness, or was just careless in repeating what he heard from others.

Then, around 1970, the legend was reworked by a man named Harold Hill (author of several Christian books -- one is called How to Live Like a King's Kid). He took the story as reported by Rimmer and updated it to use NASA computers rather than Yale astronomical calculations, and put it in at least one of his books. That is the form that is still circulated today. While I'm not Mr. Hill's judge, it is hard to see any other explanation than that he knowingly bore false witness in this. Some Christians in science at the time asked for supporting evidence of his story, and he failed to produce any.

By the way, the story is nonsense on its face. There is no way computer calculations could detect a "missing" day. All they could do is take the current positions and motions of the planets and the laws of physics and calculate backwards to determine where objects were at some time in the past. But this would always give an answer -- the only way one could find a day "missing" would be if the results of the calculations were compared with some precise (and precisely dated) astronomical observations prior to the missing day and the positions did not line up. There are no such recorded observations from the time of Joshua.

I should mention that an excellent report on the "Joshua's Long Day" story from a professor at an evangelical academic institution is on the Web at: http://www.ibri.org/Tracts/longdtct.htm

Other Such Legends

Unfortunately, this is not the only case in which a false science-related story has spread among Christians. Here are some others you might hear:

"Sailor Swallowed by a Whale"

This story, also widely circulated by Harry Rimmer, supposedly supports the story of Jonah by telling about a sailor who was swallowed by a whale and survived inside for several days. It has been found to be unsupported by any facts. The story and its spread are documented in an article by a Professor at Messiah College which you can find on the Web at:
http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1991/PSCF12-91Davis.html
This article also mentions the "Joshua's Long Day" legend.

"Darwin's Deathbed Conversion"

According to this story, Charles Darwin on his deathbed both renounced his theory of evolution and embraced Christianity. Also false, though Darwin late in life was apparently unhappy that some people had "made a religion" out of his theories [I share his unhappiness about that]. This is documented in a nice little book called The Darwin Legend by James Moore. I wrote a review of that which is at:
http://steamdoc.s5.com/writings/moore94.html

"The Shrinking Sun", "Moon Dust", etc.

In the so-called "creation science" movement, numerous false stories get repeated in books, films, etc. Examples include the claim that the Sun is shrinking at such a rate that it could not be nearly as old as scientists say (actually, its diameter isn't changing measurably), and a story that NASA was surprised to find only about 6000 years worth of dust on the moon (actually, the amount matches the 4+ billion years the geological evidence indicates). There are many places this category of legend is debunked, but I will mention 2 books by Christian authors:

Science Held Hostage, by Howard van Till et al. (3 profs at Calvin College)
and Creation and Time, by Dr. Hugh Ross.

What's the Harm?

Are these just harmless stories? I believe they are actually a significant problem for the church for a couple of reasons.

First, they contribute to the perception that Christianity is for stupid people. While there are bigger factors in that perception (notably the "creation science" movement), these stories make Christians look foolish. Of course the Bible tells us that our faith will look foolish to outsiders (1 Cor. 1:18-25), but it is the cross of Christ that the world is supposed to scoff at, not our own silliness on matters unrelated to the gospel [or "stupid and senseless controversies" (2 Tim. 2:23)]. There's a great quote from Augustine on Christians and science-related foolishness:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world ... Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions ... If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.[1 Timothy 1.7]

At a more fundamental level, Christians should oppose the spread of these legends simply because they are false, and we are commanded not to bear false witness. It may not be so bad to pass such stories among friends, especially with a "this is interesting but sounds fishy" disclaimer. What is much worse is when those who purport to be teachers (like Rimmer or Hill) present these stories as fact without caring if they are true. Those who teach are held to a higher standard (James 3:1, for example), and have a special responsibility to cleanse their words of falsehood.

The Lure of these Legends

Why do these legends spread? They are not unlike the "urban legends" that are the topic of several books. A story gets started somehow, and develops a life of its own. Such legends in the secular world include the story that Walt Disney was cryonically frozen after his death and the story of a guy in some desert who strapped a jet engine on his Chevy Impala and ended up as a blot on the wall of a cliff (as an aside, many of these stories that appear in the "Darwin Awards," given for removing stupidity from the gene pool, are actually urban legends). The Christian church is not immune to such lies; common ones in church circles include a story about Procter and Gamble executives embracing Satanism (some of the spread of this rumor has been traced to Amway reps), an anti-Christian quote that Attorney General Janet Reno supposedly said on 60 Minutes, and an alleged FCC petition to outlaw religious broadcasting.

These legends spread because they are entertaining, and we all like to tell interesting stories. But another factor is often that they serve somebody's agenda and are what people want to hear. In the eyes of some, Janet Reno and the government are out to persecute Christians, so if something comes along that supports that they will grab onto it without worrying about whether it is true. Similarly, in the eyes of some, science is out to destroy Christianity and any opportunity to turn the tables by claiming scientific support for the faith is embraced. Paul warns us (2 Tim. 4:3-4) about the danger of having "itching ears" where we accept teaching because it is what we want to hear, not because it is true.

Finally, I think some of the lure of these legends stems from unhealthy views of Scripture. The Church has historically understood Scripture as infallible in terms of its purpose, which is to point us to God through Jesus Christ. Nowadays, however, Christians are often too lazy to interpret Scripture with its purposes in mind, and instead want to read it simplistically as a "perfect book" under human standards of perfection as one might apply to a journalistic report or a science text. That leads to expectations that science and Scripture must always be made to "line up", even when the Scripture in question, when taken in context and with its purpose in mind, is not making any scientific truth claims. Genesis 1-9 is the site of the most such problems, but it also leads to a desire for scientific support of accounts of miracles like the stories involving Joshua and Jonah. We need to allow Scripture to speak to us on its own terms, which generally address categories of questions (like those of purpose and meaning) that have little to do with the categories of questions science can answer. If we have a healthy view of the Bible which remembers its purpose and focuses on the messages God is trying to convey in that context, we won't be tempted to embrace pseudoscience or seductive legends in the false belief that we are thereby defending the integrity of Scripture. Probably we should focus less on "defending" the Bible (or human-invented doctrines about the Bible) and more on living our lives in faithfulness to the Biblical story.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Page last modified January 26, 2009