Helaman 12:15 and Astronomy

Helaman 12:15 reads, “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.”

If you’re like me you’ve always just read that as Mormon (or possibly Nephi) just having a knowledge of heliocentric astronomy (everything orbits the sun rather than the earth). The author appears to be alluding to Joshua 10:12-13 where the moon and the sun stand still.[1] The last week I’ve been discussing the verse with some other people which have made me rethink the verse.

The main problem with the verse is the author’s assumption that for the sun to appear to stand still it’s the earth that must “go back.” In the past I (and I suspect most people) just read the “it is the earth that moveth and not the sun” part. That “go back” is rather mysterious and undermines this somewhat. In a heliocentric view where the earth orbits the sun to make the sun stand still you’d just stop both bodies. So why does the author say “go back”?

Now you can make a solution where when the earth goes back and the sun appears to stand still. This is just the solution where the orbit and rotation of the earth are synchronized so that one side always faces the sun. (Much like the same side of the moon always faces earth. That doesn’t explain the “go back” part though.

One solution is to assume that the author isn’t just talking about the sun and moon standing still in Joshua but also Isaiah 38:8 where the “sun returned ten degrees.” That is the author is trying to describe God’s power to do both these things yet doesn’t accept the standard geocentric astronomy most ancients held. So for Isaiah in a heliocentric view the earth has to go back.

In this reading all that matters is that the earth moves while the sun is stationary. Thus for the first part of Hel 12:14-15 he’s talking about Isaiah and the middle of verse 15 he’s talking about Joshua. I’m not sure this reading makes sense either though. Note he says that when “the earth goeth back” that it “appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still.” So it seems that in his mind for the sun to stand still you have to move the earth backwards. The fact that is you move it backwards in a specially mathematical fashion you can make the sun stand still doesn’t really explain this formulation. I take him to be saying that if you move the earth backwards in any way the sun would stand still.

If this reading is right then we don’t have here just a normal heliocentric view of the solar system. Instead there’s something very odd going on.

The typical view in the ancient world was a geocentric view of the solar system. That is everything circles the earth and the earth is the center of the solar system. (See the illustration 1 for the typical pre-exilic Hebrew view and illustration 2 for the more Greek inspired view)

Now most people assume that it was just at the end of the Renaissance that heliocentric views of the solar system arose. This isn’t entirely correct. Aristarchus of Samos back around 300 BC came up with a heliocentric cosmos. While it didn’t become popular it remained an influence on many figures. Prior to that the Pythagoreans had a model where a hidden center or second sun was the center of the cosmos. Our regular sun along with earth and all other heavenly bodies then orbit this “central fire.” The sun is more a glass mirror that reflects light from this hidden source. This view is in place at least by the 5th century and may date back earlier.[2] In this system the orbits of the celestial bodies is fastest closest to the central fire with objects farther away going slower until one reaches the fixed stars that are the slowest.[3] The Pythagorean view while not the dominant one, remains highly influential well up through late antiquity and then into the Renaissance and early Modernism.

It’s worth asking about America given our Book of Mormon context. Mesoamerican astronomy was quite like the ancient near east geocentric in outlook. As with many ancient near east thinkers they took the heavenly bodies to not just be balls of rock. They were actual intelligences typically called gods, daemons or angels. Similarly the Mayans saw the planets as gods. In the ancient near east accurate data undermined a simple geocentric view. One might assume it would in ancient America as well. However we don’t have any evidence that happened. There are only four texts that survived Spanish destruction of Mayan and Aztec records. Those texts gave shockingly accurate astronomical data. The path of Venus was predicted accurate to within 2 hours for instance. Impressive for observations without telescopes. They also knew about sidereal intervals to give their accurate predictions for the paths of Mars and Venus. Because of this some have speculated that they actually did have a heliocentric view of astronomy despite no positive evidence that they conceived of the motions using that conceptual model. In any case, the records we have date well after Mormon and thus tell us little about what was believed in 400 AD let alone earlier. Still it is worth keeping in mind that Mayan astronomy rivaled ancient near eastern astronomy in some ways.[4]

As I said the more accurate ones astronomical measurements become the more of a problem a simple geocentric astronomy becomes. The typical solution for this was to add epicycles to correct the orbits. This then explains retrograde motion where the planets appear to go backwards. Ptolemy did this early in the 2cd century. With accurate data a geocentric model actually has orbits that look like illustration 3. Illustration 4 shows how epicycles produce this. The more accurate ones data becomes the more epicycles one has to add.

I think this view of epicycles may actually explains what’s going on in Helaman. With retrograde motion for a planet it will appear from earth to stop and then reverse direction. That is it will “go back.” Illustration 5 shows this for Mars and Illustration 6 is an actual time lapse photography example of this showing that the planet stops twice.

Now while this could explain the “go back” I’m sure you see the problem. This only works for planets when both the Earth and the planet in retrograde are orbiting the sun. If you’re looking at the sun there’s actually no retrograde motion as we saw back in Illustration 3. Thus if this is what Mormon or Nephi were thinking about it’d only work if they had a cosmology like the Pythagoreans where both the sun and the earth orbiting around an other center. That is the sun actually is more like a planet. Further it requires that the sun move much slower than the earth – although that’s less of an issue since as we noted that was already a feature of most cosmologies of this type.

A related objection would be that Hel 12:15 says, “surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” However I think here one could argue that the author is talking about which planet God is changing the movement. So in other words the key concern isn’t verse 15 but verses 13 & 14 where he says,

Yea, and if he say unto the earth — Move — it is moved. Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done

I think this is key to how to read the verse.

In other words I was being led astray in my interpretation by assuming a reference to Isaiah or Joshua or heliocentrism versus geocentrism. If we remove that assumption (which technically isn’t in the text) then verse 15 is just saying that God moved the earth because that is what God said in verse 13. In other words this has nothing to do with a heliocentric astronomical correction by Mormon or Nephi. It’s purely a thought experiment that if God said to the earth “stop moving” it would appear that the sun stopped.

Now of course this is all quite speculative. Further there may actually be other ways of reading the verses that explain both the earth moving rather than the sun and the “go back” phrase. I just don’t know of any. I just present all of this here as a bit of fun and partially to show that a verse we always thought we understood is a bit more mysterious than it appeared.

[1] I’m here ignoring whether this actually happened the way it’s presented. There are reasons to be skeptical much as most people read Mormon or Nephi as thinking the text is wrong. The author of these verses in Joshua appears themselves to be quoting something from a now lost Book of Jasher. We don’t have Jasher nor know its textual history. However the text seems a copy of a copy of a text of unknown providence which means we should be cautious. The implications of this actually being massive changes in planetary momentum seem huge which is an additional reason to be skeptical. What matters though is that the author in Helaman (most likely Mormon) appears to be referring to Joshua. In this reading they think the scripture in Joshua is wrong, but mainly because it’s the earth not the sun that moves. (It seems safe to assume they’re ignorant of broad physics)

[2] Pythagorean astronomy is fascinating as they also had a second earth that orbits of the far side of this central flame but is hidden because of the orbit. This actually becomes influential with the rise of heliocentrism in late Renaissance and early Modernism. Kepler for instance argues the central fire was the sun but the Pythagorians couldn’t actually say that.

[3] The speeds of planets varies in different astronomy systems. It’s hard not to notice some parallels between the Pythagorean astronomy and Abraham 3. However there are reasons to think Abraham 3 doesn’t refer to the planets viewed in a geocentric system let alone a Pythagorean like system. I should note that some, like John Gee, have argued for a geocentric system for Abraham 3.

[4] We should be cautious. It appears the Babylonians may have had even more accurate data than the Mayans. But in a certain sense predicting the paths of the planets is not really tied to having a geocentric or heliocentric cosmology. It’s a little known fact that Copernicus’ system didn’t remove the epicycles of Ptolemy’s geocentric system. In fact initially it had more and was more, not less, complicated.

28 comments for “Helaman 12:15 and Astronomy

  1. Niklas
    January 27, 2018 at 4:41 am

    It sounds like your thinking has been influenced by David A. Grandy’s article Why Things Move: A New Look at Helaman 12:15 (BYU Studies 51:2) https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/why-things-move-new-look-helaman-1215

  2. Mike
    January 27, 2018 at 10:53 am

    It is so easy to focus intensely on one subject and not consider other related ideas.

    Let us consider the concept of momentum. Objects at rest say at rest and objects moving stay moving in the same direction without the application of additional forces. This idea of momentum is a relatively modern concept first described by Newton in the 1600’s. Notice that it is easy to not believe it, especially the part about staying in motion. Nothing keeps moving forever without slowing down or needing more energy, nothing in our common experience. Why would a planet keep moving endlessly? Because without understanding momentum (and gravity), the invisible hand of God is keeping it in motion.

    One “proof” offered by those who did not believe the earth was moving around the sun was a simple experiment you can conduct right now. Pick up an object, say a pen and drop it. If the earth was really moving, say at the speed of one meter per second and it took the pen 1 second to fall to the floor, then the pen should fall one meter away from a point directly below where you dropped it. You know the pen was not moving in any direction except down because you watched it. If the earth was moving, this experiment would reveal both the direction and the speed of the movement of the earth. But alas the pen falls down straight because the earth is not moving (and because I am ignoring the momentum of both the earth and the pen.) And if you are so stubborn as to not understand this experiment or else to not take it on faith, then to the torture chamber for you.

    The interesting thing about the geocentric view and epicycles is that they actually predicted more accurately what was being observed in the heavens, than the simple early heliocentric view. Galileo had to fudge some data to make his theory work. The reason is because everyone at that time assumed round orbits. They did not realize the earth and other planets have fat elliptical orbits and not the exact same shape of elliptical orbits and they were close to being in the same plane but not exactly in the same plane. Much better telescopes were needed to figure all that out. Epicycles which are thought to be obsolete and useless today are sort of like using an abacus as an adding machine.The epicycles are actually an excellent conceptional device to calculate what are now called Fourier series. (This work was done in the early 1800’s). From the practical point of view of launching space crafts and bringing them back safely to earth, these kind of calculations are need anyway.

    Throw the discoveries of the 20th century into the mix. We know the earth is moving, the sun is moving in the galaxy, the galaxy is moving with its local group, billions of galaxies are moving around, and the closest one to us (the Andromeda galaxy twice the size of the our Milky way) is going to collide with our galaxy in about 4-5 billion years. An try to understand this, the space in which they move is expanding. I have had how space-time fits into this explained to me more than once. But it didn’t make enough sense for me to even remember it. No large religious organization has come even close to getting their mind around the more radical implications of the physics of the 20th century. Newton had an enormous influence on religion but not Einstein, at least not yet. Maybe if God called young physicists instead of elderly executives to the LDS apostleship and they were given the time….

    Now I happen to be related to a very intelligent young physicist who explains some of these things to me. When I look at these passages in the scriptures it is obvious that the author of the Book of Mormon was influenced by the ideas of Newton but not Einstein. And this should trouble very few since we can also find hints of Shakespeare in the same text but not that of Seinfeld. It is often a mistake to use sacred texts to raise or answer scientific questions. They have little authority beyond their intended realm.

  3. Jerry Schmidt
    January 27, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    Clark Goble, again you helped me expand my thinking, as did Mike. This is why I value this blogsite. Bravo, gentlemen, and thank you.

  4. Clark Goble
    January 27, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Niklas I’ve not read that one. Thanks for the reference. I’ll try and check it out tonight.

  5. Mark Bukowski
    January 27, 2018 at 10:17 pm

    I think it is dangerous to take any scripture as if it has anything to do with science. We do not believe the Book of Mormon is “God-breathed” and infallible because it is clear that it came through the filter of Joseph’s very human brain. It is designed to be useful for spiritual lessons and to bring us closer to Christ, and think that these few words may well have been pure Joseph. I would not get worked up about it or find it too significant. The entire chapter is about the might of God and the wonders he can accomplish and THAT to me is the lesson to be learned here, not that Joseph might have been caught up in describing the power and might of God and gotten carried away in his interpretation of the spirit of the passage.

  6. sjames
    January 28, 2018 at 1:35 am

    Please excuse this naive question: Are you saying the scripture is referring to the earth’s orbit or rotation? From my read the scripture seems to refer to rotation and lengthening of the day. if we rotate the earth back a little, then that would appear to accomplish the perception that the sun is standing still and indeed the day would be lengthened. Or have I Issued the point?

    14 Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done;

    15 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.

  7. Ben
    January 28, 2018 at 11:20 am
  8. Clark Goble
    January 28, 2018 at 7:10 pm

    Mark, while I’m somewhat sympathetic to that view I do think there’s value in realizing that the objects discussed in scripture are often the same as our every day encounters with objects. Indeed they must be for scripture to be relevant. If we viewed scriptures as completely cut off from our day to day experience then scripture just wouldn’t matter. Now of course the theorizing in scripture is different from how we theorize about it. However there often are coherent views we can see. By recognizing that the scripture has coherent views that allows us to build a model of what’s said and then avoid misreading.

    I read the BYU paper that Niklas and Jared over LDS Science discussed. (Judging from my name in the comments I’d apparently read that six years ago and forgotten it) I think they’re right that we have to break out what we’re reading into the text. The assumption that it’s heliocentric is just that. I would take exception to Jared’s assumption that Mormon necessarily shares the common OT view of the firmament over the earth and the underworld underneath. However I do think he’s right that the planets are under God’s command and that’s key to the verse. The big question is the meaning of “go back.”

    Ben’s reading in the comments over at Jared’s it sounds like a similar point to what I think. Maybe your comment there was in my subconscious forgotten and waiting to get out.

    What’s interesting is that to the degree the stars were seen as intelligent that’s a post-exilic view that gets picked up from other sources – particularly in the Hellenistic period through the Roman period of Israel. The intelligent stars pops up in Abr 3 as well. Helaman doesn’t explicitly make the earth and sun intelligent, just that they have to do what God says. Although the Mayan view was a geocentric view with the stars/planets as gods as I mentioned.

    SJames, the main problem is that if you move the earth back then the sun moves back – it doesn’t stand still. So that “move back” is very mysterious. Read literally (and I don’t think that we’re bound to do so) it seems like to stand still you have to move back. A possibility is that the author had both the sun and earth moving in opposite directions and you have to move the earth back to make the sun stand still. However that then runs into problems with the sun not mov

  9. January 28, 2018 at 9:19 pm

    Judging from my name in the comments I’d apparently read that six years ago and forgotten it

    That’s half the reason I have a blog…so I can go back and remind myself what I think. :)

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  10. Jack
    January 29, 2018 at 6:49 am

    Here’s an interesting verse from Exodus 14:

    “21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to *go back* by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.”

    It’s clear that the Lord is causing the sea to retreat or “go back.” I think it is in this particular sense that Mormon is describing the motion of the earth with respect to the sun appearing to stand still. And I think the reason for the earth’s motion being viewed as a retreat may also have to do with Mayan directional orientation, as per Grandy’s article. The Maya oriented themselves to the East or toward the rising sun. And, so, perhaps, Mormon would have imagined himself facing East while the earth moves west to keep pace with the sun. Thus, from his perspective, the earth would seem to be moving backwards or retreating from the East. I think it’s that simple.

    The real wrench in the works, though (for me), has been the explanation that follows:

    “…yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.”

    I think you’re right to see it as an extension or an answer to the ideas presented in the precious verses. But, still, it took me a long time to divest it (or my reading of it) of its heliocentric feel. For the longest time it came across as a modern midrashic insertion by Joseph Smith–flawed as it was. But, more recently, I’ve begun to view it as an aphorism or a truism of sorts–in the sense that this is something that every child knows: “For, as we all know, what goes up must come down.” Or: “As we all know, the earth obeys God perfectly.”

  11. Jack
    January 29, 2018 at 6:56 am

    Or, perhaps better said: “When God speaks the earth obeys.”

  12. Jack
    January 29, 2018 at 7:11 am

    Pardon me for rambling on…

    I might be reaching–but the whole of Helaman 12 is about how we are less than the dust of the earth precisely because the dust obeys God while humanity doesn’t. And, so, the insertion of an aphorism would have to do with that basic idea: That we ought to be as obedient as the dust we’re made of, so to speak. “Remember the old adage: When God speaks the earth obeys.”

  13. Jerry Schmidt
    January 29, 2018 at 8:20 am

    Jack, I appreciate your reading of the narrative; it gives the OP additional depth.

    To all, as to whether science and scripture are a bad mix, cosmology, at its language roots, is the study of the cosmos. The quote from the B of M implies knowledge of the cosmos that may either come from revelation or the study of the cosmos. As with much revelation, study leads to revelation. I find modern science often is theorizing what previous prophets already seemed to understand. Does it matter whether humans come unto understanding through theory and experiment or through divine insight? Why not both?

  14. Clark Goble
    January 29, 2018 at 10:49 am

    Just to be clear, my main focus isn’t why things move. Which is Grandy’s focus. Rather to me the more interesting question is what cosmological configuration is necessary for the sun to appear motionless if the earth moves back. As I said the closest I can come up with is retrograde motion. But it doesn’t really work for various reasons. For one it requires a Pythagorean conception of the solar system. For an other it is only true for a short time.

    I do think Mormon (the likeliest author) is contrasting his view with either the view on the brass plates or more possibly the view of the surrounding culture (presumably pre-classical Mayan). Grady’s point about Alma 30 is interesting – i.e. that the planets move because God moves them. Although it’s hard to say too much about cosmology from that.

    The one interesting thing Grady does bring up is the “stormy wind.” There are hints that Nephi and Lehi were familiar with the broader Canaanite cosmology. For instance Lehi’s dream has quite a few elements including the mists of darkness which bear an eerie similarity to the primordial mists is Canaanite cosmology. Winds then enable creation. (There’s some debate over how to translate the underlying word which also means spirit) In 1 Enoch 18 winds support the foundation of the earth, the firmament of heaven and heaven itself. “And I saw the winds turning the heavens and moving the orb of the sun and all the stars” (18:4) In 1 Enoch the winds themselves help create the earth.

    Of course 1 Enoch doesn’t necessarily tell us much about Mormon’s views although there are a lot of parallels to Lehi’s vision.

  15. Jack
    January 29, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks, Jerry. I’m glad someone was able to make sense of the mess I left behind. :D

    Clark,

    Yeah–since we don’t know precisely what Nephite cosmology looks like it’s difficult to come up with a picture that makes perfect sense. I think we can be certain that the Maya didn’t view the earth as a whirling orb (though the Nephites might have–we don’t really know). So, all I’m really suggesting is that the earth — the very ground — simply moved horizontally towards the West, keeping pace with the sun. And it’s my understanding that some ancient cosmologies have the earth floating, as it were, like an island in the sea–and that would certainly allow for some kind of mobility on the part of the earth–in the minds eye, that is.

    That said, it might be worth considering Abraham’s cosmology in light of this discussion. IMO, his view was basically geocentric in nature–though I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the earth was fixed in it’s place. The exposition of Abraham’s “cosmic clock” seems to suggest that the earth might have some kind of motion through the sidereal heavens along with the other celestial bodies. The Sun moves at a rate of a day to a cubit which amounts to 365 days to make a full circuit. The moon takes 28 days and the earth 24 hours. So, what I’m suggesting is that, just as the motion of the sun and moon is measured against the backdrop of fixed stars, so to, the earth’s motion might have been measured against that same backdrop–but in the sense that, like the other celestial bodies, rather than rotating on its axis, it drifts through the cosmos.

    So the long and short of it is: When Alma and Mormon speak of the earth’s motion they really may have a configuration in mind that’s a little more complex than a fixed geocentric model with the earth moving from time to time when acted upon by God. If we import Abraham’s view (which may be an unhealthy thing to do–I know) what we get is a sense of *everything* moving towards the East at their various rates (including the earth) in eternal rounds–which allows the earth to be acted upon with a little more fluidity with regard to its motion.

  16. Jack
    January 29, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    And, of course, that doesn’t really answer your question about the earth going back. Heh.

  17. Clark Goble
    January 29, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Abraham’s cosmology is more controversial than some realize. Gee and a few others push a geocentric model while Rhodes and a few others push a heliocentric model. Then there are a few who try to push a contemporary physics model although I’m pretty dubious about such attempts. Part of what makes Abraham more complex is that it’s not clear when the papyri which dates to around the 1st century is being translated and when there’s a kind of deconstructive move to the origins with the original Abraham. I raise that since the explanation of Fac 2 and Abraham 3 actually lines up reasonably well with 1st century cosmology – particularly the more platonic conceptions.

    For the more planar view, that actually works quite well to explain move back except that it only works if both sun and earth are moving. But the author is quite explicit that the sun’s not moving.

  18. Jack
    January 30, 2018 at 12:54 am

    Yeah–that’s a tough one. It could be that Mormon (or Joseph Smith) were just naive about celestial mechanics. On the other hand, we might still be reading too much of our modern cosmology into the text–that is, if we assume that Mormon might be suggesting that the sun *never* moves.

    However, if the earth “goes back” as the waters of the Red Sea “go back” then, perhaps, Mormon is just referencing God’s hand in the motion of the earth in that particular instance. In other words, “surely God is moving the earth and not the sun” might be what he’s really suggesting.

    And on top of that — as I suggested above — Mormon might be referencing an aphorism having to do with the dust of the earth.

  19. Jack
    January 30, 2018 at 1:18 am

    Oh! I wanted to say–I find Grandy’s chiastic structure of Helaman 12 to be quite interesting:

    A Men who reject God as ruler over them are less than the dust of the earth (12:6–7)

    …B Dust of the earth moves and divides asunder [opens] at the command of God (8)

    ……C Mountains and hills tremble, break up, are made smooth at God’s command (9–10)

    ………D The primordial foundations of the earth rock at the power of God’s voice (11–12)

    ………..E The earth moves as God so commands, whereby the day is lengthened (13–14)

    …………..X “Thus, according to his word, the earth goeth back” (15)

    ………..E’ “For surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun” (15)

    ………D’ The waters of the great deep dry up if God so commands (16)

    ……C’ Mountains move, are raised up, and bury cities at God’s command (17)

    …B’ At the command of God the earth hides [closes up] treasure because of iniquity (18–19)

    A’ God will reject and cast off men because of their iniquities (20–21)

    We can see that this particular structure highlights God’s power over the earth–thus lending credence to the idea that when Mormon indicates that the sun does not move he is merely reinforcing his narrative about the earth being acted upon by God.

  20. Jack
    January 30, 2018 at 3:04 am

    Me again. Forgive me for belaboring this point.

    I think we also need to remember that in *every* other instance in Helaman 12 where Mormon talks about the movement of the earth or the dust, it is clear that God is the one that’s making it happen–the dust is being acted upon, so to speak. And, so, when we get to verse 15 we need to keep in mind that this is most likely another instance of God moving the earth–and try to avoid importing a modern conceptualization into the text, i.e. the idea that earth moves continuously because of its rotation.

  21. Mark Bukowski
    January 30, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    Clark, to reply to your comment, were I God, I would make it easy on myself and simply adjust the perception of the viewers, and keep it entirely phenomenological. I had a post here about “hallucinating reality” a while back and we know that God can cause visions. So I can’t imagine that a “mass vision” is beyond God’s ability. That allows for a literal interpretation, a mass hallucination interpretation, or all kinds of psychological interpretations as well. One does not have to defy science to make any interpretation one wants. I am reminded of a similar phenomenon which was allegedly observed in one locale and others of the same faith at the same time, which started quite a discussion about what could have caused it. I think this Helaman episode is precisely analogous to the Fatima example. First wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_of_the_Sun and now the skeptical explanation: http://www.miraclesceptic.com/solarmiracle.html I am not saying this was not a miracle caused by God- I am simply saying that there are many possible explanations, and that the LESSON of the story is that God provides for his people, should not be confused by all the scientific possible explanations. The point is that if we have faith, God will provide. How He does that is largely His business, not ours, and suggest it is not useful to worry about literal interpretations because the function of scripture is not to explain science. Every time we try to do that, it leads to semantic confusion by confusing a scientific language game with a religious one. It is confusing a “how” question with a “why” question. How did God do it? Irrelevant. Why did he do it? To teach us he provides for the faithful. THAT is the lesson here in my opinion.

  22. Clark Goble
    January 31, 2018 at 12:14 am

    Mark, I don’t think I’m saying that Helaman 12:15 represents how physics actually works and that we should therefore study it carefully. Rather I think I’m just making a mild hermeneutic point trying to understand the conceptual model the author is working under. That can be helpful to help us understand other passages. I’m completely fine with an author having incorrect conceptual schemes out of which to teach correct principles.

    In this case I think the author (again presuming Mormon but it could have been Nephi or an expansion of some sort during the translation process) isn’t even describing a phenomena that happened. Rather he’s making some claims about God’s power, and along the way either contrasting his view with the view of scripture or perhaps his local culture. It’s also possible, although I’ve come to see as less likely, that he’s commenting on Joshua or Isaiah. (And Joshua as I mentioned is itself riffing on the narrative from the now unknown Book of Jasher. I certainly agree this seems minor and perhaps a bit of fluff. But I think it’s interesting and perhaps may one day have implications I don’t know see.

    To the more tangental point about science and scripture. I don’t think I’d say scripture can’t speak on science. But I don’t think it typically does. Yet there may be questions about what really happened. While we can always say it doesn’t matter because it could all be a vision, I tend to find that a bit problematic. First off because I think religious experiences do interact with the world. That is I don’t think we can dismiss all of God’s interventions as potentially in a fictitious visionary state. They matter because they interact with us. To the degree that they affect us in our lived life, then what we might call “the real world” and the “imaginary world” merge.

    Put it an other way, when a mechanic works on my car, I want it to be more than a language game. When God works on me I want it to be more than just words as well. If I’m say spinning out of control on black ice headed for a crash, praying as best I can I survive, then it matters that what happens happens in the real world. Now of course after the experience there a numerous ways to interpret the experience. Some might say all are equal. I’m not sure I could say that. Something happened. Maybe it was coincidence I ascribe to an answer to prayers. Maybe it was God intervening. Maybe I can’t tell just by looking which is which. But in theory, they are distinguishable.

    Whatever Mormon believed about the movement of the sun and earth, it doesn’t matter. If God stopped the earth in it’s rotation about its axis or orbit about the sun the consequences would be devastating. So I’d assume God wouldn’t do that. If it appears like the sun stayed still, I’d place more likelihood that God merely ensured some bright light kept it sunny and people merely inferred the sun had stopped moving. Not that I disagree with Mormon about God being able to stop the earth. I just think the consequences of stopping the earth would be more than the sun appearing to stand still. Consequences counterproductive enough that I doubt God would do it.

  23. Mark Bukowski
    January 31, 2018 at 1:34 am

    Clark, thanks for your response. As always I think we get to an impasse at the same point when we discuss interpretation vs “reality”. I think there is no functional difference in our lives- for things ARE as we perceive them- and it is impossible to tell the difference, while you insist

    “But in theory they are distinguishable” is exactly the theory I would question and answer that no, they are not distinguishable.

    It is the old correspondence theory of truth problem questioning how one gets outside of one’s own perceptions and interpretations of “what really happened” TO what really happened. It cannot be done. We are always prisoners of our own perceptions.

    I have experienced God intervening physically in my life- at one point I am positive He caused me to not fall off a roof through a miracle of my garment mysteriously wrapping itself several times around a loose nail, and in an other instance, by stopping my speeding car in a distance which was I believe was beyond being physically possible. I was convinced I was going to plow into the other car, but somehow the car stopped short of a collision, and others in the car also could not believe that it could have stopped through natural causes. No one was hurt. But did He “really” intervene and was that random loose nail just that- a random loose nail? How can we possibly tell? We cannot so it is a useless discussion. It is unresolvable.

    I see no incompatibility with Mormon INTERPRETING that “God stopped the earth” and God “really” stopping the earth, as it functions in the scriptures in teaching us that God takes care of his children, and find it irrelevant to discuss if it “really happened” or not. It is a distinction without a difference and in my opinion, it is a linguistic confusion to even consider if it “really happened” since knowing it is in principle impossible anyway. It’s like debating whether unicorns are “real” since we all know what they look like, and have a sizable literature, so at least in literature they are “real”. For all practical purposes, there is no difference.

    So why is this distinction important from my perspective? Simply because people actually become atheists because in a case like this, they would say “What? God stopped the earth? Impossible! These believers are simply dillusionary”

    I think it is important that we make distinctions like this, and I find that the Pragmatism of James effectively justifies religious belief by dropping the appearance/reality distinction which is untenable anyway.

  24. Clark Goble
    January 31, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    To be clear by reality I’m not necessarily buying into correspondence but making a claim about future or potential future experiences. So if someone tells me something is really in the safe, that’s a claim about the experience I’d have were I able to open the safe. That’s a bit of a philosophical tangent but I just don’t think that issue really ends up mattering too much.

    For your example, I think that while we can’t verify right now what happened that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the future that could tell us. (Presumably God or some delegate was involved and we could ask them to find the truth of the matter) So I think we have to distinguish between what we can easily know now from what is knowable. All you’re really saying is that you right now don’t have an experience to make such a distinction. However surely preparatory to any such experience is figuring out what types of differences could allow us to make such distinctions. More or less that’s all I’m doing here.

    To your main point, I think we have to distinguish between how someone describes an experience from what is really going on. Nibley makes this point relative to Noah for instance – arguing for a spectator account rather than a “god’s eye view” of what happens. Our descriptions are always tied to theories and those theories themselves might be wrong. Indeed I’d argue that Mormons whole comment presupposes that he thinks that’s happening in this case.

  25. Jack
    January 31, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    “Indeed I’d argue that Mormon’s whole comment presupposes that he thinks that’s happening in this case.”

    I have to admit–the more I think about your interpretation the more I like it.

  26. February 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    Interesting post yet again. I agree that the author is writing from his cultural cosmology, not from any modern scientific point of view, and that also we have no idea what his cultural cosmology was. So your speculative foray into the topic is interesting.

    To the point, the author says that the earth goes back so “that it lengthen[s] out the day for many hours,” and that by going back “it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still,” but he knows that it is the earth that moves. So the earth “moveth back” causes a lengthening of the day and the sun to stand still. What is he thinking?

    One of the earlier comments by sjames I think is pretty straightforward. If we assume that he means the axial rotation of the sky one could rotate the daytime back. You commented that would also move the sun back, but this is true only if the author conceives as the earth and sun connected. The verses in question are talking about God’s word, however, and one could assert that God could make the day longer by turning the sky back without moving the sun, by the power of his word. Yes, this interpretation has problems, but seems the simplest.

    Of course, if one is far enough away from the equator, the daytime changes between summer and winter solstice. In fact, the sun rises at different points on the horizon during its annual course and on solstice days stops its north or south progression and “stands still” for a few days before it reverses course. If we define the earth, not as a globe in space, or even the dirt on which we stand, but by the horizon framed by the stars that frame the solar cycle, then we could say that the earth goes back to its solstice points while the sun stands still. On summer solstice this lengthens out the day. This interpretation also has some problems, but is actually observable.

    Also, the author might have some calendar implement in mind very familiar to him and entirely forgotten by us. What if, in his town/city, there is a common calendar keeper, including some architectural feature that frames the sunrise or sunset on specific days and by watching the sun rise in this particular spot it appears to be caught or stand still? The author may infer that by God’s word he could move the earth on that day so that the sun is not in its appointed position? This could apply to not just an architectural feature, but a combination of gnomons, cairns, or other implements that defines earth and sun and time to his culture.

    Bottom line, we do not know, but I struggle to see how it is a reference to Joshua or Isaiah? And I struggle to see geocentric or heliocentric models in the text as well, though, early on I thought it was referring to heliocentrism, a rereading of the text (as you just did) made me realize that we were dealing with a different kind of cosmology, though my best guess is it deals with observational astronomy.

  27. Clark Goble
    February 5, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    The typical assumption that it’s tied to Joshua or Isaiah is that the author is alluding to a famous text where the sun stood still. The Isaiah one is lesson common but involves emphasizing the “back” part. There we have the sun moving back on a kind of sun dial. Even if the Book of Joshua wasn’t on the brass plates, it seems quite plausible that the Book of Jasher that Joshua refers to was. In that case Mormon would just be alluding to this as a case where God could make things stop where people would assume the sun stopped when it was actually the earth.

    But you’re quite right that if this is an allusion, it’s not an explicit one and that may well be a mistaken assumption most people have made.

  28. Ryan Gotchy Mullen
    February 13, 2018 at 12:08 am

    If the author of Helaman 12:15 did conceptualize the axial rotation of the earth, then for the sun to appear to stand still, a retrograde force would have to act on the earth. A large force would reverse the motion of the earth, but a smaller force would simply reduce it. The “back” in God’s command “Thou shalt go back” could be interpreted as the direction of the applied force and not the direction of the resulting motion (ie angular velocity) of the earth.

Comments are closed.