Sun, Moon and Storms

A few days ago, I was reading the John H. Walton paper “Joshua 10:12-15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts” (181-190 in Faith, Tradition & History, eds. A.R. Millard, J.K. Hoffmeier, and D.W. Baker) and came upon an interesting idea, quite different from Walton’s. First, the key verses, Joshua 10.12-13:

אז ידבר יהושע ליהוה
ביום תת יהוה את־האמרי
לפני בני ישראל
ויאמר לעיני ישראל
שמש בגבעונ דום
וירח בעמק אילון
ןידם השמש וירח עמד
עד־יקם גוי איביו
הלא־היא כתובה על־ספר הישר
ויעמד השמש בחצי השמים
ולא־אץ לבוא כיום תמים

The NRSV renders this:

On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites
over to the Israelites,
Joshua spoke to the LORD;
and he said in the sight of Israel,
“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?
The sun stopped in midheaven,
and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.

Now typically this passage has been taken to indicate some kind of astronomical phenomenon, literally involving the sun and moon. Yet, just prior to this (and please don’t make me type any more Hebrew!), the saving miracle of this battle was described as large hailstones raining down on the fleeing enemy combatants (see vv. 9-11). Furthermore, v. 14 appears to indicate that the amazing part was not the miracle itself, but that the Lord acted upon the suggestion of Joshua.

An idea came to me upon reading an excerpt of a balag-lamentation, “He Is a Storm, At the Healing” lines 10-15, given by Walton:

The heavens continually rumbled,
the earth continually shook;
The sun lay at the horizon
The moon stopped still in the midst of the sky
In the sky the great lights disappeared
An evil storm … the nations
A deluge swept over the lands.

It appears to me that, similar to the Sumerian idiom, the request for and description of the Sun and Moon to דמם/עמד is an ancient Hebrew idiom for a sky-covering storm, which would stretch from horizon to horizon and cover both Sun and Moon. I’ll look into it more, of course, but it certainly is an interesting possibility.

5 Replies to “Sun, Moon and Storms”

  1. Thanks. P.J., the only parts of what I would understand to be the idiomatic usage would be the דמם/עמד verbs in relation to שמש/ירח. It’s clear from the context that something more is being described than a slow sun/moon. While the verbs of the final clause:ולא־אץ לבוא(השמש) כיום תמים refer only to the sun’s setting at the end of a whole day, as it usually does, whatever mentality lies behind the proposed idiom (Were the sun/moon considered to have stopped in the sky when they were no longer visible? Was the storm more important as an omen than were the sun/moon? Why the hailstones if this was intended to describe an astronomical event only?), it seems to have been shared by the first-millennium authors of the lamentation.

    Via email, Michael Lyons brings to note Habakkuk 3.10-11 (RSV): “The mountains saw thee, and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice, it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still (שמש ירח עמד) in their habitation; at the light of thine arrows as they sped, at the flash of thy glittering spear.”

    Another set of storm imagery and again, sun/moon/stand. I’ll look further into it, of course. I’ve already briefly looked through some Sumerian texts on storms (UD), and some Akkadian omens, particularly to note the language used and any references to sun and moon, but that’s all rather distant in time and/or space from these texts. I’ll take a look through the Ugaritic poetry, which does have some quite striking storm imagery in relation to Baal, of course. It’s a little side project, though, just an idea to share.

    Thanks for the input.

  2. It’s always worthwhile raising these possibilities. One of the problems is that when an alleged ‘idiom’ is extended over several clauses it tends to be read by most readers as literal. We have four main verbs describing the phenomenon in Josh. 10:13, which means that the ‘idiom’ needs to be sustained for rather a long time. This is a problem for non-literal readings.

    However, it does seem that with an opening text like this to consider your blog will at least be interesting.

    P.J. Williams

  3. Kevin,
    Keep up the great blog and original insights. I have a post about you on my blog awilum.com. About P.J.’s comment: While an idiom might normally be restricted to several words in length, many languages and cultures have phrases and topoi that convey events. This passage might use a kind of “extended idiom” to express this event.

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