Aahh, October. Pleasant days, a nip in the night air and a plump fall moon hanging low on the horizon. With a blood-red Mars behind it, fifty times larger than even the harvest moon. At least if you were Joshua.
Mars seems to have inspired fear in ancient cultures. Ares, the Greek god of War (known as Mars to the Romans) was accompanied by two sons, Deimos (meaning “panic”) and Phobos (meaning fear), also the names of Mars' two moons. The Sumerians called it Enlil and believed it caused the Great Flood. The Canaanites, Chaldeans, and Phoenicians held ceremonies to appease Mars under the name Baal. So did the Israelites under later kings.
In Greek mythology he is a destructive force to be propitiated; The Greek name "Ares" means "bane, ruin, or curse”. Mars features prominently in the Iliad by harnessing his horses, "Panic" and "Rout" to wreak havoc on earth.
So why is Mars, the God of War in mythology? One of our clues is that Mars looks like it has been through a war itself. It has hundreds of thousands of impact craters, but they all occur on one side.
In other words, they were all formed in a very short amount of time.
Something catastrophic happened in the past and it involved Mars. And that something apparently gave Mars its two moons. Irregularly shaped chunks of rock (unlike our spherical moon), they appear to be asteroids or remnants of a fragmented planet that got captured by the Mars' gravitation.
And those two moons are our second clue.
Have you ever read Gulliver's Travels? One of the places Gulliver visits is a flying island known as Laputa, inhabited by intellectuals and scientists. The residents of this island had discovered how to levitate the island magnetically and had discovered the two moons of Mars:
"They [the Laputians] have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the center of the primary planet exactly three of its diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the center of Mars".
These scientists also reveal that one although Deimos rises in the east on Mars, like every other moon in our solar system, Phobos rises in the west.
Which is startlingly accurate information, given that Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels in 1726, and astronomers didn't official discover the two moons of Mars until 1877.
So what happened with Mars that struck fear into ancient hearts, and allowed descriptions of it moons 150 years before they were ever observed in a telescope?
Scientist Don Patten has a theory: orbital resonance.
Orbital resonance is a phenomenon in which heavenly bodies, when their orbits approach each other, create gravitational influence greater than the sum of their individual gravitational pulls. This phenomenon, occurring through the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, is believed to have caused the reverse of the positions of the planets Uranus and Neptune in the past. Some situations of orbital resonance manage to stabilize, but most eventually result in a change in position that alleviates the recurrent gravitational stress.
Enter Mars. Computer simulations of such an interaction between Mars and Earth suggest that Earth and the Planet Mars were once on resonant orbits of 360 days and 720 days, respectively, a situation that would result in very close flybys every 53 years, alternating flybys in March and October. Such flybys would eventually result in an alteration of the orbits of one or the other or both.
Hmm. The Festivals of Mars in Greek and Roman cultures were in March and October.
And, starting some time before 701 BC, ancient cultures started changing their calendars from a 360-day year, which was the ancient standard, to a 365 day year. The Roman Empire, in its infancy, added five days. Hezekiah added a Jewish leap year that included a whole extra month.
What apparently happened was that Mars got kicked out of an orbit in which, every 54 years, it was a huge and terrifying presence in the night sky of earth, accompanied by tidal surges, meteor showers, and other natural phenomenon that caused "fear and panic" on earth, kicked back into the benign one it occupies now. And earth's orbit changed enough to require an extra five days in the year.
And that explains the long day of Joshua. Each time one of these near pass-bys would occur the Earth's axis would putatively shift over 5 degrees and thus increase the length of the day by approximately eight hours. So from our relative point on the Earth, the sun would appear to "stand still" in the sky. It also explains the meteor shower and other natural events that Joshua records.
Remember that other piece of Greek mythology regarding Phaeton? He persuaded his father to let him drive the chariot of the sun across the sky but lost control and fell into the sea.
The Roman poet Ovid, working from ancient sources, put the story in writing about 50 BC. In the original version, from Phoenician legends, Phaeton’s wanderings around the sky resulted in the sun remaining in the sky for an extra day. The story also records that Phaeton’s sisters were turned into the first amber.
Is it coincidence that the Phoenicians were the world’s principal source of amber in ancient times and just happened to be the enemy that Joshua was fighting on the day that he prayed that the sun would stand still?
Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese legends also describe a long day about the same time.
And legends of American Indian tribes, as well as the Aztecs and Mayans, describe a long night. The Omaha legend says a rabbit caught the sun in a trap.
Intriguingly, natives of the Fiji islands, ostensibly halfway in between the western and eastern hemispheres, have a legend of a long sunset.
There are a whole lot of things that are really remarkable about this. God answered Joshua's prayers. The most preposterous stories of the Bible, when you dig around a little, are always corroborated by science and history. If we lived in the time of Joshua, we could see Mars hanging in our October sky, 50 times bigger than that orange moon we're used to.
But the most remarkable thing of all is that when God put the planets in motion, he had it timed, factoring in the exact minute when the tension created by orbital resonance between Mars and Earth would launch Mars further out into space, so that somewhere pretty close to 701 BC the sun would stand still-- at the exact moment that Joshua cried out to his God.
That omnopotent, omniscient God loves his people. And he answers prayer!
And we serve that same God today.