© Anthony E. Larson, 2002
Learning from the Scriptures
“Search the scriptures,” said the Savior. So, most Latter-day Saints do just that. We search for spiritual truths and counsel that might strengthen our testimonies and help us live better, more righteous lives.
But while those spiritual truths are vital, there is much more to the scriptures that we often overlook – things that we were meant to learn as well as the spiritual truths, things that, when internalized, can immensely enhance and correct our worldview.
Take the story of Joshua’s long day, for example.
“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 … So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.” (Joshua 10:12, 13.)
Joshua’s story is a powerful example of the influence a prophet can wield when acting in the name of God, an astounding example of the use of priesthood power. This is the primary message of the story.
However, there is another side to the story – one generally overlooked. It is a secondary message, as in a parable, that holds a vital truth of its own and can prove most useful in shaping our view of science in general and astronomy in particular. Most importantly, it should teach us something about our Creator and the way he does things.
Since most readers overlook the historical accuracy of such extravagant scriptural accounts, they fail to grasp its more practical implications. In order to see this facet of the Joshua account clearly, we must focus on the implied physical nature of the event: the stopping and starting of Earth’s rotation. Of course, such an implication is unthinkable to most of us. According to all we have been taught, all that we have experienced, the Earth’s rotation cannot be stopped. The eminent astronomer, Carl Sagan, for example, declared it an impossibility.
So, what are we to make of the natural side of Joshua’s account? If the Earth really did not stop turning, as Joshua reported, what do we make of it? Is this account’s accuracy flawed? Are the scientists right, or are the scriptures right?
Happily, for Latter-day Saints there is another, unimpeachable witness in the scriptures that answers these questions definitively. That witness is the Book of Mormon.
Speaking of the power of God, Mormon editorializes, “Thus we see that … if he say unto the earth – Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours – it is done;
“And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” (Helaman 12:11-15.)
If there was any doubt about Joshua’s account, Mormon’s statement erases it. He makes it crystal clear; there is no equivocation, no hedging. He even goes so far as to clearly define the proper relationship between the movement of the sun and the earth.
Mormon is no geocentrist. He cannot be accused of ignorance in things astronomical.
Latter-day Saints cannot question the validity of such a statement, since Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct book.”
So we have two scriptural witnesses that the earth can and has stopped turning. But there is a third, extra-scriptural witness.
The will of the Lord concerning extra-scriptural books is found in the Doctrine & Covenants.
“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
“… Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine …
“Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass ….” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:118,78, 79.)
Thus, the Lord makes clear that studying theory that supports scriptural principle and doctrine is a worthy pursuit, so that we “may be instructed more perfectly.”
An excellent example of extra-scriptural text in support of Joshua’s observations is found in Plato’s Timaeus wherein Plato reveals that a Greek myth about the sun’s movement through the heavens is actually fact rather than fiction.
“There is a story … that once upon a time Phaeton, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth ….” (Plato’s Timaeus)
Plato, whose works surely qualify as among “the best books,” makes clear that the Phaeton myth is actually about a time when the sun went out of its normal course.
Now we have three witnesses: two from the scriptures, one from profane or secular history.
Here is where “the rubber meets the road,” as one adage puts it. Time to “fish or cut bait,” according to another. Do Latter-day Saints continue to believe mainstream scientists who assert that it would be impossible to halt the earth’s rotation and then restart it again, even though the scriptures plainly affirm that it has happened? Or, do we have enough faith to place our confidence in the scriptures by rejecting the view of mainstream science, even though it flies in the face of accepted scientific laws and assumptions?
So, now we have come full circle. When we read our scriptures, we are completely prepared to accept any spiritual truth offered. But, when the words of the prophets attempt to teach us concepts that belong in the realm of natural law or science, we find it difficult to accept. So, how much faith do we really have? How committed are we, in reality, to the words of the Prophets?
This is vital to a thoroughgoing study of the gospel. One cannot say that he or she believes or holds sacred the scriptures if a decision is made to accept only a part of what the scriptures offer while rejecting another part. We cannot embrace the spiritual message of Joshua’s story and be ambivalent about the rest.
More importantly, rejecting the fullness of the prophets’ message closes the door on untold learning and growing possibilities – both scientific and spiritual, because the two are really not in opposition once a few simple truths are established that are typically denied by modern science.
Seeing Joshua’s story as an accurate, eyewitness account, Mormon’s explanation as corroborating and supporting documentation and Plato’s explanation as substantiation from another culture, we stand poised to learn much about the true nature of God’s wondrous creation, the language of the Prophets, ancient history, prophecy and the symbolism of the scriptures.
“And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:24.) In this context, Joshua’s account is truly a key to the scriptures and a test of our faith.