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Sun, Stand Thou Still

In the course of many Science and Religion debates, one of the favorite targets of the scientists is the passage in Joshua 10: 12-13, in which it is concluded that “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed.”  Scientists like to point out the mechanical difficulty in this process, for which the religionists have little answer, except to rely on faith and belief.  As it turns out, those in favor of the more literal translation of Joshua are probably correct, and the scientists have once again mistook phenomena for which they don’t understand for religious enthusiasm.  

The basic concept is contained in the article, "Sun, Stand Thou Still; A Consideration of the Possibility”.  Basically, the article relies on biblical and other ancient historical records which describe an occurrence in historical times (circa 1500-1400 B.C.E.) in which the Earth's rotation was apparently halted for a period of approximately twenty hours, after which normal rotation was resumed.  The purpose is to consider if such an occurrence is even physically possible, and by implication whether or not the description on the one hand of the Sun and Moon standing still, and on the other hand the Sun not rising after a lengthened night of some twenty hours constitute accurate descriptions of a real event.  The combination of supporting historical records and the viability of a physical mechanism to temporarily halt the Earth's rotation strongly suggests that at one point in historical times, the Sun did, indeed, stand still.  


Sun, Stand Thou Still; A Consideration of the Possibility  

Dan Sewell Ward

Copyright 1990, 1995 Dan Sewell Ward  

One of the more astounding passages in the traditional Bible [King James Version] is that contained in Joshua 10: 12-13:  

            "Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.

            "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.  Is not this written in the book of Jasher?  So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."  

This account is repeated without substantial modification in later and alternative versions of the Bible.  While often viewed as a passage not to be taken literally, there are numerous other ancient historical accounts which describe in essence the same event, and thus lend credence to the accuracy to the Biblical description.  More significant to the potential credibility of these observations are the accounts from the early civilizations of Meso America (e.g. from the Annals of Cuaulititlan -- as related by Immanuel Velikovsky [1]) which refer to a day when the sun rose slightly, set again in the east, and then after an extended night rose again.  Zecharia Sitchin [2] has addressed this phenomena as well, noting the Andean tradition that during the third year of the reign of Titu Yupanqui Pachacuti II, the fifteenth monarch in Ancient Empire times, there occurred an extended night of some additional 20 hours.           

The critical factor, of course, is that the sun standing still "in the midst of heaven" over Israel would correspond to an extended night on the other side of the world.  Thus the Annals of Cuaulititlan version of a brief but aborted sunrise in the Americas corresponds to the Sun being overhead in Palestine (with 6:00 AM in Central America corresponding to 2:00 PM in Israel).  In describing the same event, but coming from different sides of the Earth -- and thus providing an alternative viewpoint in describing the same event -- attests strongly to the potential accuracy of each of the traditions.  Furthermore, the distinct nature of the descriptions reduce the likelihood of the ancient Meso American civilizations borrowing from the folklore or traditions of the Mideast, unless, of course, they had gone to the trouble of converting coordinates in order to account for the world being a sphere.           

A principal difficulty in accepting these historical accounts at face value is the lack of a physical mechanism by which the sun and moon could appear to stand still.  The obvious implication that it was in fact neither the sun nor the moon which stood still, but in reality the temporary cessation of the Earth's rotation which is described, does not alter the inevitable skepticism.  On the contrary, the fact that both the sun and moon were observed to stand still at the same time (which to a mind believing in the stability of the earth would not be an automatic assumption) lends further credence to the concept that the Earth did in fact temporarily cease to rotate, and then after many hours resumed what was apparently its normal rotation.  

The Earth's Inertia  

The essential question is whether or not a major, albeit temporary, modification to the Earth's rotation (equivalent to the sun and moon standing still) is physically possible.  In other words, does the event fall within the physical and natural laws commonly accepted by modern day science?  Obviously, if such an event is physically possible, then we must consider the theories of Velikovsky and Sitchin (and others) much more seriously, and question if similar events could occur in the near future.  The recent collision of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy with the planet Jupiter implies that such events within our solar system and within our time frame, and thus cannot to be dismissed out of hand.  

In his highly controversial book, Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky [1] propounded the startling and subsequently highly controversial theory that the earth encountered a near collision with the planet Venus, and that in this near collision, the presence of Venus affected the rotation of the Earth in such a manner as to result in the apparent observation of the sun and moon standing still.  Velikovsky did not, however, attempt to explain the physical mechanism which would allow Venus to temporarily stop or slow the rotation of the Earth.  Sitchin [2] suggested the possibility of a disruption in the Earth's rotation by the close approach of an errant comet, but also failed to consider in any detail the physical mechanism by which this could occur.  

In order to stop the rotation of the Earth, a great deal of energy would be required in order to overcome the enormous inertia of the rotating Earth.  It is reasonable to ask whether or not a near collision with the planet Venus or some other astronomical body of significant size could provide that amount of energy in a form which could be applied to stopping the Earth's rotation -- and at the same time not result in truly catastrophic destruction of the Earth.  For example, the kinetic energy associated with the rotation of the Earth (or any solid sphere) is related to its moment of inertia by the equation:  

E  =  (1/2) I w2  

where the moment of inertia, I, is given by:  

I  =  (2/5) M R2  

and where the other variables in the two equations are:  

            w  =  the rotational speed of the Earth  =  7.29 x 10-5 rad/sec,

            M  =  the mass of the Earth  =  5.983 x 1024 kg, and

            R  =  the radius of the Earth  =  6.37 x 106 m (at the equator).  

The energy requirement to stop the rotation is thus approximately:  

E  =  (1/5) M R2 w2   =  2.58 x 1029 joules

With the near collision of the Earth and another planet, the gravitational potential energy is given by:

U  =  G M m / r


            G  =  the Universal Gravitation Constant  =  6.67 x 10-11 J m / kg2,

            m  =  the mass of the second planetary body, and

            r  =  the distance (center to center) between the planets.  

If we assume that the colliding body has the physical characteristics of Venus (as does Velikovsky [1]), then we can determine m to be equal to 0.81 times the Earth's mass, and can then relate the gravitational potential energy, U, to the distance between the planets, r:  

U  =  G M (0.81) M (1/r)  =  1.934 x 1039 J m (1/r)  

Thus, in order to have enough gravitational potential energy to stop the Earth's rotation, U must equal or exceed E, and the required distance between the planets must be given by:  

r  =  (1.934 x 1039 J m) / (2.58 x 1029 J)  =  7.5 x 109 meters

Or approximately, 4,660,000 miles.  This can be compared to the earth-moon distance of about 240,000 miles.  

These calculations indicate that there is sufficient gravitational potential energy in a planetary encounter between the Earth and (as an example) Venus to cause the Earth to cease rotating.  At the same time, the other astronomical body need come no closer than about ten times the earth-moon distance.  Inasmuch as the moon is still with us, it is unlikely that a much closer approach would have left the moon's orbit intact.  

The Need for a Handle  

The difficulty with the above calculation is that it assumes that most of the total gravitational potential energy can be utilized to slow or stop the Earth's rotation.  It is unlikely that such an “efficiency” would be realized in the first place, and in the second place, we would need a “handle” or lever -- a torque -- which the gravitational attraction between the planets could utilize in order to slow or stop the rotation.  Even more significantly, if the Earth's rotation were, in fact, stopped, it would then be necessary to postulate a mechanism whereby the rotation could be restarted, and in addition, be brought up to essentially the same speed of rotation as before (such that the number of days in the year would be approximately the same).           

Interestingly enough, we do appear to have such a "handle".             

The Earth's crust is a thin layer of rock "floating" on the underlying surface of the Earth.  If we assume that the proposed close encounter between the Earth and another planetary body results only in the crust being displaced with respect to the rotating Earth's core and mantle, then we potentially solve several problems at once.  First, the uneven distribution of the continental land masses over the Earth (as opposed to the ocean depths) provides the gravitational “handle” with which to stop the crust's rotation.  Secondly, the restart mechanism is easily made available by virtue of the fact that during the encounter the vast bulk of the Earth's mass would continue to rotate while the crust (or outer shell of the Earth) would move in relation to the core, essentially slipping like a relatively loose belt on a spinning flywheel.  Then as the other planetary body pulled away from the encounter and the mutual gravitational force was reduced, the frictional forces between the Earth's rotating core and mantle and the temporary “stationary” crust of the Earth would cause the crust to rather quickly be brought back up to speed.  The resulting rotational speed would likely be affected to some extent, but depending upon the specific mechanics of the encounter could be increased or decreased slightly.  The number of days in the year would thus be modified by several days either way, but not so changed as to radically change the physical characteristics of the Earth.  

Continental Slippage  

We can recalculate the required energy to halt the crust's rotation with respect to the core and mantle of the Earth by noting that the moment of inertia of a this shell (i.e. the Earth's crust) is given by:

I  =  (2/3) Mc R2

where Mc is the mass of the crust.           

According to Strahler [3], the density of the crust is about 2900 kg/m3; its thickness varying from about 3 kilometers (at the ocean floor) to 40 kilometers (in the continental land masses).  On average the thickness of the continents covering one third of the Earth's surface is about 33 kilometers, while the average thickness of the oceanic crust is about 8 kilometers.  If the radius of the Earth (as defined by the oceans), Ro, is approximately 6.37 x 106 meters, and the radius of the Earth (as defined by the continents), Rc, is approximately (6.37 + .017) x 106 meters, we can make a rough estimate of the mass of the continental portion of the Earth's crust as:  

Mc  =  (density)(volume)  =  2900 kg/m3 [(Rc)3 - (Ro)3] 4/3 (3.14)  =  2.52 x 1022 kg.  

Recalculating the required energy, E, we obtain:  

E  =  1.82 x 1027 J  

The available gravitational potential energy between the planetary body (one with the mass of Venus) and the continental land masses of the Earth's crust is:  

U  =  (8.15 x 1036 J m) (1/r)  

Solving the latter two equations for r yields:  

r  =  4.48 x 109 meters  

or approximately 2,780,000 miles.  


We may conclude that it is possible, within the well known laws of mechanics and physics that the Earth's crust (the continental areas -- which were the areas of most concern to the people living at that time) ceased to rotate for a period of about a day.  Given the physical mechanism whereby the Earth's continental land masses are gravitationally attracted to a close encounter with another planetary body and thereby slip over the rotating core and mantle, the subsequent coming back up to speed due to frictional forces between the crust and the rotating core/mantle (and the variation in the gravitational attraction due to the passing of the other planetary body), the independent confirmation of ancient histories with the Biblical account lead us to the conclusion that at least once in ancient times the Earth's rotation was interrupted so that the sun and moon appeared to stand still.           

There are two notable implications arising from this conclusion.  The first is that the distance between the various continental land masses may have been effected, resulting in continental relative movement considerably more notable than a slow moving “continental drift”.  This could result in a major mountain building episode if the process of the restart mechanism caused the Earth's continents to interact with an uneven rotating core/mantle in such a way as to crumple the leading edge of the continents as they struck a lump in the mantle.  Even if such a mountain building process did not occur during the encounter described by Joshua, earlier near collisions may indeed be responsible for the mountain building episodes and continental movement.  Of course, in this case, we are no longer talking about a slow continental drift, but a sudden and rapid continental movement, effectively rearranging the continental land masses on the surface of the Earth in a matter of hours or days (as opposed to geological time scales).           

The second implication is, of course, that a near-collision with a planetary or large body in historical times, combined with the recent collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy and Jupiter, leads us inevitably to the conclusion that such events may have occurred more than once in prehistorical times -- leading us to speculate on revising our theories of gradual evolutionary changes over geological time (effectively substituting catastrophism for gradualism) -- and that such collisions may occur within our solar system in the future, or at the very least, much more often than we might like to think.


Chronicles of Earth         Near-Earth Objects         Tunguska Explosion

Forward to:

Comet Hale-Bopp         Comet Shoemaker-Levy          Planet X

Nibiru Cycle         A Glancing Blow         The Party’s Over



 [1] Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1950.

[2]  Zecharia Sitchin, Zecharia, The Lost Realms, New York, Avon Books, 1990.

[3]  Strahler, Arthur N., The Earth Sciences, Second Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.



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