Joshua's Long Day and the NASA Computers

In recent years various versions of the following account have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the U.S. and even beyond:

The Space Program and the Bible

(Yellville, AR, Mountain Echo, 26 Mar 70)

Did you know that the space program is busy proving that what has been called "myth" in the Bible is true? Mr. Harold Hill, president of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, MD, and a consultant in the space program related the following development:

"I think one of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Greenbelt, MD. They were checking the position of sun, moon and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1000 years from now. We have to know this so we don't send a satellite up and have it bump into something later on in its orbits. We have to lay out the orbit in terms of the life of the satellite, and where the planets will be so the whole thing will not bog down! They ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries and it came to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong, either in the 'info' fed into it, or with the results as compared to the standards. They called in the service department to check it out and they said 'It's perfect.' The IBM head of operations said 'What's wrong?' 'Well, we have found that there is a day missing in space in elapsed time.' They scratched their heads and tore their hair. There was no answer.

"One religious fellow in the team said, 'You know, one time I was in Sunday School and they talked about the sun standing still.' They didn't believe him, but they didn't have any other answer so they said 'Show us.' So he got a Bible and went back to the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for anybody who has 'common sense.' There they found the Lord saying to Joshua, 'Fear them not; I have delivered them into your hand; there shall not a man of them stand before thee.' Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy and, if darkness fell, they would overpower him. So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still! That's right! The sun stood still and the moon stayed ... and hasted not to go down a whole day!' Well, they checked the computers, going back into the time it was written and found it was close but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua's day was 23 hours and 20 minutes -- not a whole day. They read the Bible and there it said 'about (approximately) a day.'

"These little words in the Bible are important. But they were still in trouble because, if you cannot account for 40 minutes, you'll be in trouble 1000 years from now. Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits. Well, this religious fellow also remembered somewhere in the Bible it said the sun went backwards. The spacemen told him he was out of his mind. But they got out the Book and they read these words in 2 Kings 20: Hezekiah, on his death-bed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah, who told him that he was going to die. Hezekiah did not believe him and asked for a sign as proof. Isaiah said, 'Do you want the sun to go ahead ten degrees?' Hezekiah said 'It is nothing for the sun to go ahead ten degrees, but let the shadow return backwards ten degrees.' Isaiah spoke to the Lord and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees backward! Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes! 23 hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in 2 Kings make the missing day in the universe."

Isn't that amazing! Our God is rubbing their noses in his TRUTH. That's right.

Naturally, many Christians are excited about the story, but others are asking "Is it really true?" Such a question may sound like lack of faith to some, but without rejecting the biblical accounts, an attempt to investigate this story is just obedience to the apostle's commands "Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thess 5:21) and "Whatsoever things are true ... think on these things" (Php 4:8). So let us ask, "Is the story true?"

William Willoughby, the religion editor of the Washington, DC Evening Star and an evangelical who is seeking to have creation taught in the public schools, wrote an article on the NASA computer story in his "Washington Perspective" column of August 8, 1970. He had contacted NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center at Greenbelt, MD and was told that no one there knew of any such event having occurred. So many people have written NASA about the story that they have printed up a special form-letter to answer them.

Willoughby also contacted Harold Hill in Baltimore. Hill sticks to his story, which he claims to have on good authority, but he says he cannot locate his documentation.

These facts by themselves cast something of a shadow on the story, but the doubt increases when certain details of the story itself are examined. Mention is made of "a day missing in space in elapsed time," but nothing is said about how this day was discovered, except that a computer found it. But computers cannot do any calculations that humans cannot do, nor do they "know" anything that we don't. Their real advantages are speed and accuracy.

To detect a day missing in elapsed time, it would be necessary to have a known fixed-point in time before the day that is missing. Moreover, the above story suggests that the scientists found not only that exactly one day was missing, but that 23 hours, 20 minutes of it was lost in the time of Joshua (not after 1250 BC; many conservative scholars put it back around 1400 BC), and the remaining 40 minutes was lost in the time of Hezekiah (about 700 BC). So in this case, we need two fixed-points: one before the time of Joshua and another between the times of Joshua and Hezekiah. These fixed-points must be known with an accuracy of a few minutes both by astronomical calculation and by contemporary historical records in order to detect the discrepancy.

The only method I know of which could produce such accuracy would be observations of eclipses of the sun, since these are total only along narrow paths and only last for a few minutes at any specific locality. But the earliest dateable eclipse of the sun occurred in the year 1217 BC, after the time of Joshua (see the article ``Eclipse'' in the 1970 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica). In any case, ancient eclipse observations are not given with an accuracy of a few minutes even by local time, so confirmation of Joshua's long day by science seems to be impossible at present. This strongly suggests that the computer story is a hoax.

In addition, the main features of this story are older than either NASA or electronic computers! In his Harmony of Science and Scripture, published in 1936, Harry Rimmer recounts the following story (pp 281-282):

There is a book by Prof. C. A. Totten of Yale, written in 1890, which establishes the case beyond the shadow of a doubt. The condensed account of his book, briefly summarized, is as follows:

Professor Totten wrote of a fellow-professor, an accomplished astronomer, who made the strange discovery that the earth was twenty-four hours out of schedule! That is to say, there had been twenty-four hours lost out of time. In discussing this point with his fellow-professor, Professor Totten challenged this man to investigate the question of the inspiration of the Bible. He said, "You do not believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and I do. Now here is a fine opportunity to prove whether or not the Bible is inspired. You begin to read at the very beginning and read as far as need be, and see if the Bible cannot account for your missing time."

The astronomer accepted the challenge and began to read. Some time later, when the two men chanced to meet on the campus, Professor Totten asked his friend if he had proved the question to his satisfaction. His colleague replied, "I believe I have definitely proved that the Bible is not the Word of God. In the tenth chapter of Joshua, I found the missing twenty-four hours accounted for. Then I went back and checked up on my figures, and found that at the time of Joshua there were only twenty-three hours and twenty minutes lost. If the Bible made a mistake of forty minutes, it is not the Book of God!"

Professor Totten said, "You are right, in part at least. But does the Bible say that a whole day was lost at the time of Joshua?" So they looked and saw that the text said, "about the space of a whole day."

The word "about" changed the whole situation, and the astronomer took up his reading again. He read on until he came to the thirty-eighth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. In this chapter, Isaiah has left us the thrilling story of the king, Hezekiah, who was sick unto death. In response to his prayer, God promised to add fifteen more years to his life. To confirm the truth of His promise, God offered a sign. He said, "Go out in the court and look at the sundial of Ahaz. I will make the shadow on the sundial back up ten degrees!" Isaiah recounts that the king looked, and while he looked, the shadow turned backward ten degrees, by which ten degrees it had already gone down! This settles the case, for ten degrees on the sundial is forty minutes on the face of the clock! So the accuracy of the Book was established to the satisfaction of this exacting critic.

Comparing this account with the NASA computer story, notice that both include the same three numbers: a whole day missing overall; 23 hours and 20 minutes lost at the time of Joshua; and 40 minutes at the time of Hezekiah. Here, too, we have a dramatic (but rather different) story of how a skeptic is brought to see the truth of Scripture. In addition, there is reference made to a book by a C. A. Totten, which dates back to 1890.

Charles Adiel Lewis Totten is listed in Who Was Who in America (1:1247). He was a professor of military science at Yale from 1889 to 1892, when he resigned to spend more time on his religious studies. He was a British-Israelist, believing that the Anglo-Saxons were the lost tribes of Israel, and an Adventist, who predicted the reign of Antichrist would occur in the seven-year period 1892-99. Among his many writings is Joshua's Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz, published in 1890. After some exertion and considerable frustration, I succeeded in locating a copy of the third revised edition, published in 1891. Since then, the work has been reprinted by Destiny Publishers of Merrimac, Massachusetts.

Reading Totten's book brought another shock -- the dramatic story of a skeptic convinced does not appear! Instead, Totten himself, a non-skeptic all along, seeks to show that a total of 24 hours are missing from past time, of which 23 hours, 20 minutes were lost in Joshua's day, and 40 minutes at the time of Hezekiah.

Totten does not actually reproduce the calculations by which he seeks to prove his case, but merely gives the results. On pages 39, 59 and 61 of the edition I consulted, the fact emerges that Totten is using an assumed date of creation -- the autumnal equinox, September 22, 4000 BC (p 61) -- as the known fixed-point before the long day of Joshua! Taking the first day of creation to be a Sunday by his understanding of Scripture, and finding that by calculating back from the present, September 22, 4000 BC would fall on a Monday, he concludes: "... it can come so by no possible mathematics without the interpolation or 'intercalation' of exactly 24 hours" (p 59).

Totten's presentation tends to obscure his method of discovery. It looks like he really started with this 24 hours missing, then decided from the ten degrees mentioned in the Hezekiah incident to assign 40 minutes to that event (since the sun moves about 10 degrees in 40 minutes), leaving 23 hours, 20 minutes to Joshua. But Totten has mentioned no fixed-point between the times of Joshua and Hezekiah, and therefore he has no way of showing, independent of the biblical material, that just such a division of the total time is to be made. Totten's work, then, does not give any independent support to the Scripture accounts.

Totten does tell us where he got his date of creation. It was calculated by the British Chronological Association. This group, headed up by Premier Chronologist Jabez Bunting Dimbleby, used to publish an almanac entitled All Past Time, in which they claimed to be able to account for every day since creation. Examining their almanac for 1885, it appears that they established their chronology by adding up the numbers given in the received text of the Old Testament, using a liberal supply of speculation regarding ancient methods of keeping the lunar and solar calendars aligned. The whole work is rather technical, but a few minutes reading convinced me that their method of interpreting Scripture is often arbitrary. In the light of archeology, few conservative Christians would now accept 4000 BC as the date of creation, even among those who believe the earth is much younger than geologists are willing to concede. But Totten's whole scheme depends entirely on knowing the exact day of creation.

In summary, Totten's work has no foundation independent of the Bible, and it is questionable whether he has properly understood Scripture in regard to his fixed-point, the date of creation. Sometime between Totten's work in 1890 and Rimmer's in 1936, the results were put in the form of a dramatic story in which Totten becomes a bystander and a skeptical astronomer the calculator. Since 1936, the story has apparently been updated by the additions of "space age" features, including NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center scientists to replace the lone astronomer, and computers to speed up the tedious calculations.

Does this story have any lessons for us as Christians? I think so. We would all like to see skeptics turn to Christ, and it is sometimes a temptation for us to "bend" the truth a little to make a stronger argument. After all, the end (eternal life for someone) justifies the means (a little lie), doesn't it? No, it doesn't! This is trying to do God's work using Satan's tactics!

In the long run, when God allows the truth to come to light, such lies only give unbelievers modern examples by which to claim that the Bible writers were guilty of the same things. Our attempt to "help" God thus becomes an argument for unbelief. Instead, Christians should have such zeal for the truth that unbelievers will come to see that we really have it.

We should rebuke the Rimmers and the Hills and others who have passed on these stories. They (and we) should be careful in checking sources, especially for materials which are favorable to our position. And certainly we should not be inventing stories to make Christianity look good! There are excellent evidences for the truth of Christianity, so that those who choose to reject it will have no good answer in the day of judgment. Let us be active helping people see this while they can still turn to Jesus Christ.

Robert C. Newman, PhD, astrophysics

Professor, Biblical Seminary