The Book of Jashar
The Book of Jashar (sefer haYashar) is a lost source of early Israelite poetry and best-known of the lost books of the Old Testament. It is referenced in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) used by compilers of the Deuteronomistic History (DH), but there are no extant copies (copies known to exist).
The original Hebrew translates as Book of the Upright. It is cited as a source by the redactors (editors) of the DH, which comprises the narrative of Israel’s history from Joshua to Kings and the outworking of the Deuteronomic code and covenant.
Three Citations in the DH
The Book of Jashar is cited in Joshua 10:13 as the source for the narrative of Joshua’s command to the sun and moon:
“And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of the Upright (Sefer haYashar)?”
2 Samuel 1:18 cites the Book of Jashar as the source for David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan:
“To teach the Sons of Judah the lament of the bow; behold it is written in the Book of the Upright (Sefer haYashar).”
David's lament immediately follows.
The Septuagint (LXX) renders sefer hayashar in both cases as “Book of the Just.” The reference to the lament is here missing so that the text reads:
“And he gave orders to teach it the sons of Judah: behold it is written in the Book of the Just."
The Latin Vulgate uses libro justorum in both citations. Syriac texts 2 Samuel use Ashir, which indicates a Hebrew reading of ha-shir meaning “the song.” Joshua in the Syriac renders the source “Book of Praises.”
A third probable excerpt from the Book of Jashar appears in 1 Kings 8:12–13. This is a couplet imbedded in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple. It survives in its fullest form in the LXX where it appears at the end of the prayer, directing the reader to the biblio tes odes (“Book of the Song”).
The Book of Jashar and Hebrew worship practice
In graduate school I was a student of Professor Duane Christensen. At the time of the writing of this article Dr. Christensen serves as Professor of Biblical Studies and Near Eastern History at William Carey International University of Pasadena, California and President of the Berkeley Institute of Biblical Archaeology and Literature.
Jashar is a common Hebrew term meaning “one who [or that which] is straight, honest, just, righteous, upright.” The title may refer either to the heroic individuals who are the subjects of the book’s poems or to all Israel as the upright people. Christensen suggests if the latter is the case, the title may be related to the term Jeshurun, which is a variant form of the name Israel (Deut. 32:15; 33:5, 26).
The three quotations from the Book of Jashar are all archaic poetry, which is sometimes designated by the Hebrew term syr meaning “song” when inserted in prose passages (e.g., Exod. 15:1; Num. 21:17; Deut. 31:30). Christensen argues out that the word “Jashar” in the title may be a variant of the verbal root syr “to sing”. Some scholars believe that the Septuagint (LXX) rendering, “Book of Song” may be the correct title.
Whichever translation of the title is correct; the reference appears to be to a standard oral repertoire of professional singers in ancient Israel who preserved Israel’s epic and poetic traditions in the context of the worship of the community, including the major festivals. Christensen notes that that the masculine noun sir eventually became a specific term for Temple music performed by Levitical choirs accompanied with instruments (see 1 Chr. 25:6–7).
The nature of the Book of Jashar
We can deduce the nature of the Book of Jashar from the three quotations. According to Christensen it was a collection of ancient national songs; ancient because of the relatively poor state of preservation of the Hebrew text in each case. The collection probably contained a variety of songs, because each of the quotations is quite different.
Left: Iosue fortis in bello (Joshua stops the sun) by Salvador Dali, 1964-67
This is an incantation addressed to the heavenly bodies to prolong daylight (or to lengthen predawn darkness) to give Israel time to complete her victory in battle against the Amorites:
“Sun, stand still in Gibeon! Moon, (stand still) in the valley of Aijalon! The Sun stood still, the Moon stayed; Until He had taken vengeance upon the nations of His enemies.”
2 Samuel 1:19–27
This is David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan. Christensen points out that this poem is a remarkable witness to David’s poetic skill and to his personal friendship with the tragic heroes involved.
Right: Report of Saul's death to David, by Jean Fouquet (c. 1470)
19 "Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights. How the mighty have fallen!
20 "Tell it not in Gath,proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 "O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, nor fields that yield offerings of grain. For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.
22 From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 "Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and gracious, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
24 "O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 "How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.
27 "How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!"
1 Kings 8:12–13
This is a couplet taken from an ancient song establishing Yahweh’s supremacy over nature and ritual. Some scholars suggest that this citation from the Book of Jashar is reminiscent of parallels found in Ugaritic poetry (ancient Ugarit is located at Ras Shamra on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria).
It may be translated...
“A sun Yahweh established in the heavens, but He hath purposed to dwell in thick darkness; I have surely built a noble house for Thee, a residence where Thou shalt dwell perpetually.”
The content, structure, and origin of the Book of Jashar are uncertain
Dr. Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965) of the University of Oslo in Denmark was one of the world's most influential Psalms scholars. Mowinckel speculated as to whether ancient poetic works such as the “Song of the Sea” (Exod. 15:1–18), the Song of Miriam (Exod. 15:21), the Song of Moses (Deut. 32), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), and the Song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1–10) were included in ancient anthologies of Israel’s heroic past. If these collections were the oral repertoire of Israel’s professional singers, Mowinckel argues that such works may well have been included in the Book of Jashar.
Professor Christensen notes that the mysterious nature of the Book of Jashar has given rise to false identifications and imitations of the book:
* The Talmud identifies the Book of Jashar with the “book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (i.e. Genesis), who were “upright.” Some ancient Jewish commentators considered the title to be a reference to the Torah.
* There was a medieval Book of Jashar paralleled, in part, the pseudepigraphical Testament of Judah.
* Alcuin, Bishop of Canterbury (d. 804 CE), is said to have discovered the Book of Jashar in the city of Gazna on a "Pilgrimage into the Holy Land, and Persia.” First published in 1829, it claimed to be the words of “Jashar, the son of Caleb” rediscovered in England in 1721. As recently as 1953, the Rosicrucian Order published a 5th edition of this text.
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