Beth-horon, the Battle of
1. The Political Situation
2. Joshua's Strategy
3. Joshua's Command to the Sun and Moon
4. The Astronomical Relations of the Sun and Moon
5. The "Silence" of the Sun
6. "Yahweh Fought for Israel"
7. The Afternoon's March
8. The Chronicle and the Poem Independent Witnesses
9. Date of the Events
10. The Records Are Contemporaneous with the Events
1. The Political Situation:
The battle which gave to the Israelites under Joshua the command of southern Palestine has always excited interest because of the astronomical marvel which is recorded to have then taken place.
In invading Palestine the Israelites were not attacking a single coherent state, but a country occupied by different races and divided, like Greece at a later period, into a number of communities, each consisting practically of but a single city and the cultivated country around it. Thus Joshua destroyed the two cities of Jericho and Ai without any interference from the other Amorites. The destruction of Jericho gave him full possession of the fertile valley of the Jordan; the taking of Ai opened his way up to the ridge which forms the backbone of the country, and he was able to lead the people unopposed to the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim for the solemn reading of the Law. But when the Israelites returned from this ceremony a significant division showed itself amongst their enemies. Close to Ai, Joshua's most recent conquest, was Beeroth, a small town inhabited by Hivites; and no doubt because in the natural order of events Beeroth might look to be next attacked, the Hivites determined to make terms with Israel. An embassy was therefore sent from Gibeon, their chief city, and Joshua and the Israelites, believing that it came from a distant land not under the Ban, entered into the proposed alliance.
The effect on the political situation was immediate. The Hivites formed a considerable state, relatively speaking; their cities were well placed on the southern highland, and Gibeon, their capital, was one of the most important fortresses of that district, and only 6 miles distant from Jerusalem, the chief Amorite stronghold. The Amorites recognized at once that, in view of this important defection, it was imperative for them to crush the Gibeonites before the Israelites could unite with them, and this they endeavored to do. The Gibeonites, seeing themselves attacked, sent an urgent message to Joshua, and he at the head of his picked men made a night march up from Gilgal and fell upon the Amorites at Gibeon the next day and put them to flight.
2. Joshua's Strategy:
We are not told by which route he marched, but it is significant that the Amorites fled by the way of Beth-horon; that is to say, not toward their own cities, but away from them. A glance at the map shows that this means that Joshua had succeeded in cutting their line of retreat to Jerusalem. He had probably therefore advanced upon Gibeon from the south, instead of by the obvious route past Ai which he had destroyed and Beeroth with which he was in alliance. But, coming up from Gilgal by the ravines in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, he was exposed to a great danger, for the Amorites might have caught him before he had gained a footing on the plateau, and have taken him at a complete disadvantage. It was thus that the eleven tribes suffered such terrible loss at the hands of the Benjamites in this very region during the first inter-tribal war, and probably the military significance of the first repulse from Ai was of the same character; the forces holding the high ground being able to overwhelm their opponent s without any fear of reprisals.
It would seem possible, therefore, that Joshua may have repeated, on a larger scale, the tactics he employed in his successful attack upon Ai. He may have sent one force to draw the Amorites away from Gibeon, and when this was safely done, may have led the rest of his army to seize the road to Jerusalem, and to break up the forces besieging Gibeon. If so, his strategy was successful up to a certain point. He evidently led the Israelites without loss up to Gibeon, crushed the Amorites there, and cut off their retreat toward Jerusalem. He failed in one thing. In spite of the prodigious efforts which he and his men had made, the greater part of the Amorite army succeeded in escaping him and gained a long start in their flight, toward the northwest, through the two Beth-horons.
3. Joshua's Command to the Sun and Moon:
It was at this point that the incident occurred upon which attention has been chiefly fixed. The Book of Jashar (which seems to have been a collection of war songs and other ballads) ascribes to Joshua the command:
`Sun, be thou silent upon (be) Gibeon (compare Revised Version margin);
And thou, Moon, in (be) the valley of Aijalon.
And the Sun was silent,
And the Moon stayed,
Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies'
And the prose narrative continues, "The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."
4. The Astronomical Relations of the Sun and Moon:
In these two, the ballad and the prose chronicle, we have several distinct astronomical relations indicated. The sun to Joshua was associated with Gibeon, and the sun can naturally be associated with a locality in either of two positions: it may be overhead to the observer, in which case he would consider it as being above the place where he himself was standing; or on the other hand, he might see the locality on the skyline and the sun rising or setting just behind it. In the present instance there is no ambiguity, for the chronicle distinctly states that the sun was in "the midst of heaven"; literally, in the halving of the heaven, that is to say overhead. This is very important because it assures us that Joshua must have been at Gibeon when he spoke, and that it must have been noonday of summer when the sun in southern Palestine is only about 8 degrees or 12 degrees from the exact zenith. Next, the moon appeared to be associated with the valley of Aijalon; that is, it must have been low down on the horizon in that direction, and since Aijalon is Northwest of Gibeon it must have been about to set, which would imply that it was about half full, in its "third quarter," the sun being, as we have seen, on the meridian. Thirdly, "the sun hasted not to go down," that is to say, it had already attained the meridian, its culmination; and henceforward its motion was downward. The statement that it was noonday is here implicitly repeated, but a further detail is added. The going down of the sun appeared to be slow. This is the work of the afternoon, that is of half the day, but on this occasion the half-day appeared equal in length to an ordinary whole day. There is therefore no question at all of the sun becoming stationary in the sky: the statement does not admit of that, but only of its slower progress.
5. The "Silence" of the Sun:
The idea that the sun was fixed in the sky, in other words, that the earth ceased for a time to rotate on its axis, has arisen from the unfortunate rendering of the Hebrew verb dum, "be silent," by "stand thou still." It is our own word "dumb," both being onomatopoetic words from the sound made when a man firmly closes his lips upon his speech. The primary meaning of the word therefore is "to be silent," but its secondary meaning is "to desist," "to cease," and therefore in some cases "to stand still. "
From what was it then that Joshua wished the sun to cease: from its moving or from its shining? It is not possible to suppose that, engaged as he was in a desperate battle, he was even so much as thinking of the sun's motion at all. But its shining, its scorching heat, must have been most seriously felt by him. At noon, in high summer, the highland of southern Palestine is one of the hottest countries of the world. It is impossible to suppose that Joshua wished the sun to be fixed overhead, where it must have been distressing his men who had already been 17 hours on foot. A very arduous pursuit lay before them and the enemy not only had a long start but must have been fresher than the Israelites. The sun's heat therefore must have been a serious hindrance, and Joshua must have desired it to be tempered. And the Lord hearkened to his voice and gave him this and much more. A great hailstorm swept up from the west, bringing with it a sudden lowering of temperature, and no doubt hiding the sun and putting it to "silence."
6. "Yahweh Fought for Israel":
And "Yahweh fought for Israel," for the storm burst with such violence upon the Amorites as they fled down the steep descent between the Beth-horons, that "they were more who died with the hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword" (Jos 10:11). This was the culminating incident of the day, the one which so greatly impressed the sacred historian. "There was no day like that before it or after it, that Yahweh hearkened unto the voice of a man" (Jos 10:14). It was not the hailstorm in itself nor the veiling of the sun that made the day so remarkable. It was that Joshua had spoken, not in prayer or supplication, but in command, as if all Nature was at his disposal; and the Lord had hearkened and had, as it were, obeyed a human voice: an anticipation of the time when a greater Joshua should command even the winds and the sea, and they should obey Him (Mt 8:23-27).
7. The Afternoon's March:
The explanation of the statement that the sun "hasted not to go down about a whole day" is found in Jos 10:10, in which it is stated that the Lord discomfited the Amorites before Israel, "and he slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and smote them to Azekah, and unto Makkedah." The Israelites had of course no time-keepers, no clocks or watches, and the only mode of measuring time available to them was the number of miles they marched. Now from Gibeon to Makkedah by the route indicated is some 30 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."
8. The Chronicle and the Poem Independent Witnesses:
Joshua's reference to the moon in connection with the Valley of Aijalon appears at first sight irrelevant, and has frequently been assumed to be merely inserted to complete the parallelism of the poem. But when examined astronomically it becomes clear that it cannot have been inserted haphazard. Joshua must have mentioned the moon because he actually saw it at the moment of speaking. 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. The next point is especially interesting. The ballad does not expressly state whether the sun was upon Gibeon in the sense of being upon it low down on the distant horizon, or upon it, in the sense of being overhead both to Joshua and to that city. But the moon being above the Valley of Aijalon, it becomes clear that the latter is the only possible solution. The sun and moon cannot both have been setting--though this is the idea that has been generally held, it being supposed that the day was far spent and that Joshua desired it to be prolonged--for then sun and moon would have been close together, and the moon would be invisible. The sun cannot have been setting, and the moon rising; for Aijalon is West of Gibeon. Nor can the sun have been rising, and the moon setting, since this would imply that the time of year was either about October 30 of our present calendar, or about February 12. The month of February was already past, since the Israelites had kept the Feast of the Passover. October cannot have come; for, since Beeroth, Gibeon and Jerusalem were so close together, it is certain that the events between the return of the Israelites to Gilgal and the battle of Beth-horon cannot h ave been spread over several months, but must have occupied only a few days. The poem therefore contains implicitly the same fact that is explicitly stated in the prose narrative--that the sun was overhead--but the one statement cannot, in those days, have been inferred from the other.
9. Date of the Events:
A third point of interest is that the position of the moon gives an indication of the time of the year. The Valley of Aijalon is 17 degrees North of West of from Gibeon, of which the latitude is 31 degrees 51 minutes North. With these details, and assuming the time to be nearly noon, the date must have been about the 21st day of the 4th month of the Jewish calendar, corresponding to July 22 of our present calendar, with a possible uncertainty of one or two days on either side. The sun's declination would then be about 21 degrees North, so that at noon it was within 11 degrees of the zenith. It had risen almost exactly at 5 AM and would set almost exactly at 7 PM. The moon was now about her third quarter, and in North latitude. about 5 degrees. It had risen about 11 o'clock the previous night, and was now at an altitude of under 7 degrees, and within about half an hour of setting. The conditions are not sufficient to fix the year, since from the nature of the luni-solar cycle there will always be one or two years in each cycle of 19 that will satisfy the conditions of the case, and the date of the Hebrew invasion of Palestine is not known with sufficient certainty to limit the inquiry to any particular cycle.
10. The Records Are Contemporaneous with the Events:
It will be seen however that 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. Each, therefore, supplies a strictly contemporaneous and independent record.
This great occurrence appears to be referred to in one other passage of Scripture--the Prayer of Habakkuk. Here again the rendering of the English versions is unfortunate, and the passage should stand:
`The sun and moon ceased (to shine) in their habitation;
At the light of Thine arrows they vanished,
And at the shining of Thy glittering spear.
Thou didst march through the land in indignation,
Thou didst thresh the nations in anger' (Hab 3:11,19).
E. W. Maunder