The Problem of Miracles

There is no doubt that part of the problem is that the biblical text makes a certain assumption about the nature of the world and our experiences in it. One of those considerations is that there is a supernatural aspect, that the primary cause of the world–the reason for its existence and its continuation–is a result of divine agency and that there are secondary causes.

Consider a running stream. We see the water flowing in its channel and assume that the cause for this flow is related to the properties of gravity acting on the molecules of water. We look at the channel and its rough edges and attribute that to the erosive effect of water on the environment cutting a channel through the earth’s crust. Therefore, the stream exists because of the water flowing through the channel. We limit the causes to mechanical actions, which are largely secondary causes.

However, what if the stream exists because someone dug a channel to direct water away from their property? That would be the primary cause of the stream’s existence. However, that doesn’t explain why water has the properties that it does or behaves in the manner it does. So, in some sense, in the world of our experience, all causes are secondary in relation to the ultimate primary cause.

We look at the world, due to a materialistic influence, as disconnected from primary causes, subsequently focusing on how things interact rather than why they interact the way that they do. The how and the why can often blur as the former deals with substance while the latter deals with function. The issue of substance and function are interrelated, so much so that we can often confuse how something works with why it works that way. 

While the ancient world might not have been familiar with explanations involving the mechanical, substance-related aspect of the creation, they were intimately familiar and concerned with the function-related aspect of the world in which they inhabited. They recognized causes couldn’t simply be reduced down to the material aspect of the universe. To paraphrase one thoughtful philosopher on the subject, the explanation of why water boils under a given set of conditions doesn’t explain why someone puts the kettle on to boil the water.

The question of what such a discussion of causation has to do with the report of the sun and moon stopping in Joshua 10 undoubtedly arises, but it has to do with the issue–some might even say the problem–of the miraculous.

As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not a question of whether miracles happen, but what does it take to identify a miracle as a miracle. Indeed, I would argue that it’s our modern predisposition to ignore causal relationships, to negate the supernatural out of hand, that inhibits so many from recognizing them.  

Defining the Miraculous

In defining what a miracle is, the general definition that has been conceived is that it is “an event that defies common expectations of behavior and subsequently is attributed to a superhuman agent” (Roberts). Moreover, miracles—especially in the Old Testament context— often take different forms and are often presented in a fashion that obscures either the divine agent or establishes some disconnected element to accomplish a feat (Zakovitch).

Such examples of this disconnection are prominent in the Pentateuch, especially in the Exodus account where Moses is told to do something, such as raising his staff, in order to initiate the miraculous action. Or perhaps a character is directed to create a seemingly impossible situation, such as the trial of the gods in 1 Kings 18. In the New Testament one can see what is often described as direct, person-to-person miraculous interventions, such as healing of the sick, curing of disease, and even the raising of the dead.

The instances where a miracle is reported, in whichever point in the overall biblical narrative occurs can be essentially characterized by four means: 1) the form of the miracle; 2) identity of the agent; 3) the presence or absence of an intermediary agent; and 4) responses by observers (Roberts). Miracles (NT terminology) or signs and wonders (OT terminology) can essentially be broken down into at least five categories: instrumental, communicative, punitive, sociopolitical, and theological (ibid).

One of the difficulties present in viewing the miracle stories presented in the Bible as factual is that the ancient world is replete with miracle stories of healings, prophetic utterances, celestial portents, and even extraordinary acts of power by individuals (Roberts). Interestingly, with the arrival of the Roman period in history, careful distinctions between “miracles” as purely divine acts and “magic” where a human agent was involved began to appear, with the former—especially in Christian contexts—being attributed to God and the latter being attached to demonic actions (ibid).

With that in mind, the most grievous sin that one can commit—especially in scholarly circles—is to believe that the Bible is describing something that actually happened in the past (Smith, 19).  Conversely, the greatest sin that a conservative evangelical can commit is to dare to interpret Scripture a way contrary to a traditional interpretation by taking into account the literary parallels, imagery, or metaphors that are found in other ancient texts.

These are sins that a conscientious interpreter, dealing with the text as the text, will undoubtedly be accused of in interpreting much of the biblical material. Such approaches result in Ben—a confessed atheist—being accused of being a closeted believer, while it results in a confessing believer, such as myself, being accused of being a closeted atheist at worst and a compromising man-pleaser at best.

The true distinction between the two of us, whether or not we will actually believe that something occurred, but what that occurrence was. 

Again, I am prepared to fully admit that the biblical text describes things which occurred in history, meaning that if we traveled back in time and were actual witnesses to the events, we would see something occurring in real time. The difference would be how we would describe the event, with our modernistic, scientific precision, and how pre-scientific, pre-modern people would describe it. While there might be some overlap, the two events would undoubtedly be described differently, primarily due to the fact that we use different language than they would and we would have a disparate variety of literary motifs and metaphors to draw upon.

Ben–and I would not presume to speak for him–would likely take a different view that would either naturalize what occurred, if he even believed that it occurred at all. And reading his post, it’s difficult to say exactly what he believes about the historicity of the Book of Joshua as a whole, much less what he believes about one event described therein, other that knowing, “of no better way to read and understand these ancient texts other than in their ancient context.”

And while Robert Clifton Robinson and I may agree that the text is describing something that actually occurred, how we understand it may be entirely different. Indeed, we would both seem to agree that the text is describing a fact, but how we come to that conclusion is entirely different.

For Context

Joshua 10 begins by narrating event following the destruction of Ai by describing the fear of the king of Jerusalem had against the men of Gibeon. This is important, because Gibeon had essentially made a nonaggression pact with Israel in Joshua 9, a pact that was made via subterfuge. As a result, Israel was now bound to protect a people that had surrendered themselves to their authority. 

In Joshua 10:5, the narration tells that a combined force was assembled in order to lay siege to and destroy the city of Gibeon. In v6, Gibeon sends to Joshua and the Israelites for assistance to break the siege. V7-11 give us a synopsis of the battle, which included a forced march through the night to engage the collected armies and route them, thereby saving the inhabitants of Gibeon.

V12-14 are where the issue arises as we are given a description of what is apparently a miraculous event of both the sun and the moon stopping, or at least appearing to stop, in heaven. However, it should be noted that the last half of v12 and all of v13 appear to be a quotation of what was perhaps a song that celebrated the victory, a song that was apparently found in a lost text identified as “The Book of Jashar”.

There are at least three alleged quotations of the “Book of Jashar” found in the Old Testament, which was apparently a book of songs about Israel’s pious heroes, as the name of the book seems to be a play on the Hebrew word for “righteous” (Helton). Moreover, the text appears as a supplement to the more historicized description of the battle, causing some to see v12-14 as something of an interpolated gloss, while others see it as more integral (Gruenthaner, 274-5).  

Similarly, when it comes to interpreting the passage–as a unit–it depends upon a number of factors, such as who the speaker is (Joshua or Yahweh) and where one parses the extent of the quotation (Dozeman, 441-3).

An additional factor may be an element that we might not even consider is the fact that there was a degree of solar worship present in Canaan, though not evidenced in Israelite practice, that may contribute to our understanding of the passage (Lipiński).


Dozeman, Thomas B. Joshua 1-12: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Yale University Press. 2015.

Gruenthaner, Michael J. “Two Sun Miracles in the Old Testament”. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3, July 1948, pp. 271-290

Helton, Stanley N. “The Book of Jashar”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press. 2016.

Lipiński, Edouard. “Shemesh”. Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible, Second Edition. William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1999.

Roberts, Ronald D. “Miracle”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press. 2016.

Smith, Morton. “The Present State of Old Testament Studies”. Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 88, No. 1. March, 1969. p. 19-35

Zakovitch, Yair. “Miracle: Old Testament”. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 4. Doubleday Publishing. 1992.