Cleverly devised myths: Joshua and the missing day

The Temple of Karnak, Egypt. Mud bricks with straw, as Israelites would have made as slaves.

Editor’s note: As the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology prepares to engage young minds with an interactive booth on faith and science at the upcoming National Youth Gathering July 15-19 in Detroit, our theological editor George Murphy took a few moments to think about a myth that captivated his thoughts in his youth and about how some are tempted to apply science to biblical myth.

Back when I was in fifth or sixth grade I read about an interesting discovery in Egypt. A German archaeologist, it seems, had found that in one of the cities there the bricks in some of the buildings had been made without straw. This confirmed the account in the Book of Exodus (which I knew from Sunday School) that the Israelites had been required to make bricks without straw. Growing up in a conservative Lutheran tradition, it was easy for me to believe that. This claim, with its implication that the Bible was an accurate historical record, was certainly not at the core of my faith, but I did think it was kind of cool.

Until, that is, I got to seminary and in one of my first year courses read Exodus more carefully and critically. Then I found that in fact the Israelites were not to make “bricks without straw.” Instead, they were required to gather the straw for the bricks themselves! (Cf. Exodus 5:7-12.) Although the ancient Egyptians sometimes used bricks made without straw, that material did serve to make mud bricks stronger, rather like the metal rods in reinforced concrete. The point of Pharoah’s order wasn’t to weaken the building materials but to increase the work load of the slaves.

That particular story hasn’t gotten a great deal of traction as an apologetic device among Christians, but others have. Sometime in the early 70s I was given a copy of a newspaper article titled “Alleged Bible ‘Myth’ Vindicated as Historically True.” It tells of how space scientists were using computers to find the positions of “the sun, moon, and planets out in space” hundreds of years in the future so that a satellite wouldn’t “bump into something later on in its orbits.” Running the calculations back “over the centuries” they “found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time.”

Then one member of the team remembered from Sunday School the story in Joshua about the sun standing still in Joshua 10. That was pretty impressive, but the agreement wasn’t exact. Then the Sunday School guy remembered another Bible story, the one in 2 Kings 20 in which the shadow went back ten steps on a sundial as a sign to King Hezekiah. (You can find the story, embedded in a dubious defense of it, at http://www.godsaidmansaid.com/topic3.asp?Cat2=244&ItemID=794 .)

This is a Christian urban myth that has really taken off. In my first parish a man who was a big fan of a prominent television preacher told me that in one of his sermons that preacher had told this story as proof that the Bible is true. He suggested that I might want to do the same. The story has gotten a lot of circulation, to the extent that NASA has addressed it on a website. (Go to http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/ask_astro/earth.html and scroll down the Library of Past Questions and Answers. It’s the second one from the end under “Calendar and Seasons”.)

Some people will dismiss the whole thing quickly because they realize that for the sun actually to “stand still” would require the earth’s rotation to stop, with disastrous consequences for our planet. But I think it’s worth looking into more deeply for several reasons.

First, consider the items I quoted from the story in my third paragraph. Would real space scientists be concerned about earth satellites “bumping into” the sun or moon centuries from now? That language suggests that the author doesn’t know much about the field. (Today there is a problem with “space junk,” debris from satellites, boosters, tools etc. in earth orbit — http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debris.html — but that’s hardly the same as bumping into the sun!) If the concern were with possible collisions in the future, why would it be necessary to go back thousands of years into the past? And most seriously, what does it even mean to say “there is a day missing in space in elapsed time”? This is just technobabble — and not very good technobabble at that.

Those things (and others) ought to be a tipoff to people of moderate scientific literacy that there’s something wrong with this account. Of course we all have a tendency to accept things that reinforce our beliefs, and Christians who think that the Book of Joshua provides an accurate historical account of events would be happy to accept scientific verification. But that doesn’t mean that they must be gullible, and some organizations that emphasize the historical accuracy of the Bible such as Reasons to Believe and Answers in Genesis warn against using our urban myth to support that view.

So the popularity of this urban myth is one more indication of the poor grasp of science among Americans. It’s not just that people are ignorant of scientific facts or theories but that they have little appreciation or feel for science. This is why I’ve often argued that concern for good scientific education should be an important social concern of the church. Without such training young people not only will be unable to get good jobs in an economy that depends heavily on scientific and technological factors, but they will be easy targets for intellectual and theological scams and myths.

(I make that distinction because some people who propagate mistaken claims like the one I’ve just discussed do it quite honestly, having themselves believed the story from some source. But at some point someone made up the fiction and passed it off as fact. It is not always easy to distinguish the gullible and the real “liars for Jesus.”)

Clergy and other church leaders also need to be able to deal sensitively and honestly with those who have been taken in by faulty arguments. I already mentioned the parishioner who thought I should use the “long day” story in a sermon. That person wasn’t persistent and I knew that it probably wouldn’t do any good to criticize his television hero, so I changed the subject with a noncommittal remark. In other cases it might not be so easy. I used to give this scenario to seminary students in the science-theology class I taught as an opportunity to reflect on how they would deal with it in a pastoral way.

The myths that I’ve mentioned, bricks without straw and Joshua and space science, have to do with claims about very specific events. There are also broader myths about science and religion, such as the claim that there has always been “warfare” between the two. A book that is both very instructive and fun to read is the collection of essays edited by Ronald L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard, 2009).

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.   He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary.  Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations.  His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

Photo by Michael Lusk [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

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