The entirety of Gal Weinstein’s project is concerned with memory: the memory of a distant mythical past – in which the land of Israel was conquered by Joshua Bin Nun – mingles with memories from the recent past, from the early days of the Zionist settlement project. These two realms of memory are both collective, and both constitute important elements in the construction of Israeli identity. Yet the backward-looking gaze that shapes “Sun Stand Still” is paralleled by a gaze towards the future, an anxious gaze that may also be interpreted as an apocalyptic prophecy. Weinstein’s work offers a visual interpretation of the words that describe the biblical miracle. As a scholar of the Bible, I will focus in the following discussion on the miraculous disruption of the world’s natural order – the arrest of the sun and moon during Joshua’s battle against the Amorite kings – and offer a number of reflections on the story of this ancient miracle and on its reincarnation in Weinstein’s work.
The astounding suspension of the sun and moon’s movement is succinctly described in the Book of Joshua:
Then Joshua addressed the Lord, on the day when the Lord routed the Amorites before the Israelites; he said in the presence of the Israelites: “Stand still O sun at Gibeon, O moon in the Ayalon Valley!” And the sun stopped and moon stood, while a nation wreaked judgment on its foes, as is written in the Book of Yashar. Thus the sun halted in mid-heaven and did not press on to set, for a whole day; Neither before nor since has there ever been such a day, when the Lord acted on words spoken by a man, for the Lord fought for Israel (Joshua 10:12–14).
The miracle in the Ayalon Valley takes place at a turning point in the history of the Israelites, their entrance into the land of Israel, while engaging with the miracle of all miracles, the beginning of all beginnings: the creation of the world: “And God made the two great lights, the great light for dominion of day and the small light for dominion of night” (Genesis 1:14-18). In Joshua, the two great lights cease to rule the sky, and are temporarily stopped in their course.
A reading of the verses concerning this miracle in the Book of Joshua makes us wonder who performs the miracle – God or Joshua? The answer is seemingly simple: Joshua turns to God, praying to Him to arrest the sun and moon and illuminate the battlefield so that He might complete the victory over the enemy. God answers Joshua’s request, and is thus responsible for the miracle. Joshua’s greatness is measured by the fact that God responds to his prayer: “Neither before nor since has there ever been such a day, when the Lord acted on words spoken by a man.” In Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon offers a similar prayer to stop the sun until he achieves victory over the Trojans and destroys their city:
Zeus most honored and mighty, the dark-cloud dweller of heaven, now may the sun not set and the shadows of night come upon us, ever, until i have thrown to the earth the great palace of Priam, blackened with smoke, and have kindled its gates in fiery blazes.1
Yet Joshua’s words, “Stand still O sun at Gibeon, O moon in the Ayalon Valley,” do not sound like a prayer to God. Rather, he directly commands the sun and moon, and they obey his command. Joshua’s words do not portray him as the servant of God, but rather as a powerful mythical hero. Indeed, in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, the Jewish scribe Ben Sira describes the miracle performed by Joshua as a superhuman act: “Was it not by his hand that the sun stood, so that one day became like two?” (Ben Sira 46:4). In other words, Joshua used his own might and power to stop the sun in its course.
Joshua’s command to the celestial lights can be interpreted in two different ways. According to one interpretation, the Hebrew verb dom (“stand still”) refers to both parts of the commandment: “Sun stand still at Gibeon, and moon [stand still] in the Ayalon Valley.” This interpretation is echoed in the following verse: “and the sun stopped and moon stood.” It calls to mind the dream of Joshua’s ancestor, Joseph (Joshua is a descendant of the tribe of Ephraim, Joseph’s son). As Joseph describes in his second, megalomaniacal dream to his brothers: “And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Genesis 37:9). Joseph seems to see himself standing in the sky on the same plane as the sun and moon, or perhaps even above them, as the constellations kneel before him and accept his rule. Joshua’s commandment, which is an interpretation-realization of Joseph’s dream, is no less megalomaniacal than that of his distant forefather. According to another interpretation of Joshua’s words, he commands the sun alone to stand still in order to illuminate the battlefield – as described in verse 13, which details the commandment’s fulfillment: “Thus the sun halted in mid-heaven and did not press on to set, for a whole day.”
It is worth remembering that, in the cultural sphere in which the verses from Genesis and the Book of Joshua were written, many saw the sun not as a celestial constellation created by God, but as a great and powerful god in its own right. The sun was worshipped in this manner even at the Temple in Jerusalem, a custom that stopped only after King Josiah purified the Temple: “He put down the horses that the kings of Judah would dedicate to the sun, from the entrance of the House of the Lord . . . And the chariots of the sun he burnt in fire” (2 Kings 23:11). These chariots symbolized the daily journey of the sun across the sky. In Psalm 19, the sun is likened to “a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course. His rising place is at one end of the heaven, and his circuit reaches the other” (verses 6–7).
In the two great ancient civilizations that bordered on the land of Israel, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the worship of the sun god was unrivaled by that of any other god. In Babylon, The Hymn to Shamash, the sun god, included the following verse:
Regularly and without cease you traverse the heavens
Every day you pass over the broad earth.
The flood of the sea, the mountains, the earth, the heavens,
Like a . . . you pass over them daily without cease.
. . . You press on, Shamash, going by day and returning by night. Among all there is . . .
None who is supreme like you in the whole pantheon of gods.2
In Egypt, Pharaoh Akhenaten worshipped the sun god Aton as a universal deity, as expressed in The Hymn to Aton:
Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven
Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon, Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made.3
The Hebrew Bible contains another story in which the sun is arrested and even made to go backwards. When King Hezekiah falls ill and prays to God for recovery, he receives a promise of healing accompanied by an omen. This story is told twice in the Bible, once in 2 Kings 20:1–11, and again in Isaiah 38:1–8. In Isaiah, the retreat of the sun is explicitly mentioned as taking place at Ma’alot Ahaz (Sundial of Ahaz). As the prophet Isaiah explains to the king: “And this is the sign for you from the Lord that the Lord will do the thing that He has promised: I am going to make the shadow on the steps, which has descended on the dial of Ahaz because of the sun, recede ten steps. And the sun receded ten steps, the same steps as it had descended” (Isaiah 38:7–8). In other words, the miracle was entirely divine, as described in the Book of Job: “Who commands the sun not to shine” (Job 9:7).
If we return to Joshua, the miraculous act of arresting the sun without arresting the moon is twice as impressive. One could compare this feat to that of stopping one dial on a mechanical clock, while the second dial continues to turn. Agamemnon’s prayer similarly speaks of arresting the sun alone, for there was no point in stopping the moon in order to illuminate the battlefield. Indeed, later rabbinic traditions that discuss the biblical miracle focus on the sun. One such example is an interpretation concerned with underscoring the supremacy of Moses, which notes that, in contrast to Joshua, who arrested the sun once in its course, “The sun stood for Moses twice” (Midrash Psalms 19:8).
The Book of Joshua clearly states that Joshua was compensated for his service to his people: he was given the town Timnath Serah (19:40), and was buried there (24:30). Yet the Book of Judges, when it mentions the site of his burial, refers to the town as Timnath Heres (2:9), which is probably the original version of the name. The Hebrew word heres is a synonym for the word shemesh (“sun”), as made evident by Judges 14:18: “On the seventh day before sunset” (yavo haharsa). What becomes clear is that the name of the town in the Book of Joshua was intentionally changed to Timnath Serah in order to blur the special connection between Joshua and the sun that obeyed him. Rashi’s well-known commentary on Joshua interprets the meaning of the name Timnath as follows: “And in another place [the writer] calls the place Timnath Heres because an image of the sun was erected on [Joshua’s] grave to say: ‘This is the one who stopped the sun.’ And everybody who passes his grave says, ‘Pity for him who did such a great deed and died'” (24:30). Whereas the heroes of other national myths are awarded eternal life and the status of gods for performing similar miracles, in the Bible – which only recognizes the existence of a single God – heroes die like all other mortals.
Joshua sought to arrest the sun in order to arrest time, a secret desire shared by many, if not all, human beings; and yet the sun continues on its course.
* * *
In Gal Weinstein’s exhibition, the sun appears three times: first in the title of the project (“Sun Stand Still”), a second time in the title of the work in the pavilion’s inner courtyard (Marble Sun, 2014), and a third time on the entrance-level floor, where it constitutes a vestige whose rays have been uprooted from the ground. Weinstein’s Marble Sun alludes to another primeval act: it constitutes a map of the agricultural village Nahalal, which represents the inception of the Zionist settlement project in the Jezreel Valley. Whereas Joshua’s sun was stopped to ensure the defeat of his enemies, Nahalal’s shining sun was supposed to fill visitors to this agricultural creation with optimism and joy. Yet Weinstein’s Nahalal is composed of marble – a material used for memorials and commemoration, and thus one that triumphs over time. The marble’s unpolished surface, moreover, endows it with the appearance of an archeological remnant, an ancient vestige whose origins lie in Italy.
The light of the sun also entertains a dialogue with the pavilion in which this project is located – a typically white Bauhaus building representing a blank new page in Jewish history, and symbolic of purity and progress. Joshua’s miracle, which is recounted at the beginning of the Early Prophets (the historical books from Joshua
to Kings) does not prevent the darkness – the destruction that befell the people of Israel at the end of this literary unit, with the Babylonian exile. Yet the miracle of Nahalal – a human feat performed by the Zionists of the early 20th century – seemed to foretell the advent of a bright, shining future. However, this optimistic vision of the future quickly dissolves when one enters the pavilion and discovers that the dream has already been shattered. The display on the entrance level, which is made of steel wool and titled Persistent, Durable, and Invisible (2017), simulates an expanse of mold overtaking the floor and spreading with determination across the walls, which seem to have known better days. The mold coats the age-old ornamentation on the wall, the somewhat mysterious vestiges of a glorious past. Pervading the entire space, it underscores the extent of the decline. The megalomaniac dream of a productive agricultural settlement project has failed, giving rise to an image of destruction reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah’s description: “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants and houses without people, and the ground lies waste and desolate. For the lord will banish the population – and deserted sites are many in the midst of the land” (Isaiah 6:11–12). This apocalyptic end opens onto a new beginning that is anything but comforting – an image of a different kind of growth in a world devoid of human beings.
At the same time, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to another source of light – to the video work Enlightenment (2017), which is projected onto one of the walls: flames envelop a section of the human brain (made of cotton wool). Does Enlightenment represent a new beginning shaped by human progress, thus demonstrating the creative power inherent in the human mind? Whereas the design of the ancient, mythical miracle was structured by the tension between the role of God and the role of man, modern man no longer needs God. God has indeed vanished, and the new sun rises within man’s mind. Yet one can also read this work in a different, even inverse manner: the sun does not stand still, but is rather consumed and spent almost instantly, so that once again we are left with nothing but decline. The human mind has yet to find a cure for the geriatric diseases that consume it. Ever since Adam’s creation in the Garden of Eden, man has sought to become god-like, yet he remains human: “flesh, and not God” (Isaiah 31:3).
The wall work extending up from the entrance floor to the top floor appears to offer a counterpart to the image of neglect and to the spent sun: in Moon over Ayalon Valley (2017), a work composed of steel wool and colored felt, the sun has stopped, yet the full moon continues on its course, illuminating the night with a quiet, tranquilizing light. The image, which portrays a natural landscape, appears nostalgic, perhaps even hopeful. And yet something about it provokes a sense of discomfort. This, too, is an image of a world devoid of human presence.
On the intermediate level of the pavilion, which constitutes the heart of the exhibition and can also be observed from the top floor, the mold takes over once again. The valley is the Jezreel Valley, the same one captured in Marble Sun, yet it is no longer illuminated by natural light. Night has descended upon the valley, whose agricultural character has undergone a metamorphosis. No longer a patchwork of fields cultivated by human hands, it has been transformed into a sphere of growth that seems to belong to the period predating man’s creation: “and there was no man to till the soil” (Genesis 2:5). This is an expanse of mold agriculture (a mud-like substance made of decaying coffee pulp), a lab agriculture of sorts that is compatible with our high-tech age. It is a barren agriculture that produces nothing of what God gave as nourishment to Adam and Eve: God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, all the green plants for food” (Genesis 1: 29–30). Indeed, it is nothing but a fake agriculture, another image of neglect and destruction representing the end of Nahalal and its rising sun.
On the upper level, burning flames are once again evoked in the work titled El Al (2017), where fire and smoke are composed of felt and Acrilan fiber, this time appearing in the immediate aftermath of a missile or satellite’s takeoff. This work arrests the moment of takeoff as a variation on “Sun Stand Still” in the context of modern warfare, a technological war unfolding in the absence of God. Human touch, in this war of missiles, is limited to pressing a button or hitting a key on a computer keyboard. This is the war leading to the end of the world as we know it, another fruit of the Enlightenment project referred to on the lower level. Man destroys himself through his power to create. Man, who knew both good and evil, chose evil. Does the missile represent the current conflict unfolding in the same land where Joshua Bin Nun battled his enemies? Is the missile “ours” or “theirs”? Does it carry a nuclear warhead? Does the moment of takeoff represent the moment in which everything is lost? The missile shooting up towards the sun will soon fall as it charts a manicdepressive trajectory, representing the rise and fall of human megalomania.
The series of contrasts between divine miracle and human creation, sun and “enlightenment,” the mythical world and the technological world, nature and industry, war and peace, beginning and end, “Sun stand still at Gibeon” and “Moon in the Ayalon Valley,” leaves us with a series of questions: Is there a ray of sunlight or glimpse of hope visible through the dark clouds? Is this end also the symbol of a new beginning, as worded by the Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai:
But this valley is a hope
Of starting afresh without dying first.4
Will the sun shine and will the moon rise again following the takeoff? It is a riddle, and will remain so.
1 Homer, The Iliad (trans. Rodney Merrill), Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan University Press, 2007, p. 55.
2 The Shamash Hymn, in W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 128–129, lines 27–46.
3 The Hymn to the Aton (trans. John E. Wilson), in J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 370.
4 Yehuda Amichai, In This Valley, translated from the Hebrew by Yehuda Amichai and Ted Hughes.