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Beyond Linguistics – Those pesky books: The book of Jasher

We should be aware that scripture does not stand as an island in the literary world. Every now and then we discover bridges across to other extra-canonical texts. In the past we have seen how extra-canonical translations and texts can contribute to canonical texts but what about entire books? A case in point is Joshua 10:13 (and 2Sam 1:18) where a certain “Book of Jasher” is referenced, a book that we do not find as part of the OT canon. So what exactly is contained in this (סֵ֣פֶר הַיָּשָׁ֑ר) “Book of Jasher”?
We know that the book actually existed at some point and was in wide use as it was referenced in other texts such as the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah, the Legend of the Jews, and other rabbinic works.
It turns out that there are quite a few claimants to this title, not to mention quite a few forgeries. Some of the supposed Hebrew manuscripts for Jasher have been floating around since the 1800’s, purportedly acquired in Spain and India. While it would be impossible to discuss the merit and provenance of the manuscripts, I happen to have the English translation of one such manuscript which proved to be rather fascinating.
You’d probably be curious to know what the book contains. It does contain the expanded account of the day the sun stood still (Jasher 88:63-64), as referred to in Josh 10:13, as well as the use of the bow (Jasher 56:9) referenced by 2Sam 1:18. Further to that it actually contains details of “Jannes and Jambres” who opposed Moses as mentioned in 2Tim 3:8-9. Paul assumes common knowledge of these two characters who aren’t mentioned anywhere else in the bible. (According to the book, they were the two sons of Balaam, the magician in Pharaoh’s court that Moses confronted.)
This so-called Book of Jasher (henceforth referred to as simply “Jasher”) consists mainly of parallel accounts of Genesis, Exodus and parts of Joshua. What makes it exceptionally interesting is that the accounts furnish a lot of details not found in Genesis (and the other books) itself – some of which offers rather interesting explanations to otherwise rather puzzling narratives. I say “so-called” because the authenticity of the book cannot be ascertained and there are a handful of inconsistencies here and there. As a whole, however, the text seems fairly credible so take this for what it’s worth. While I cannot reproduce the entire book here, I can provide some interesting examples to give you an idea of what the book contains.
For example, in Gen 19:26 we are told that Lot’s wife “looked back behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” I suppose all of us have at some point wondered at the severity of the consequence, and also on why Lot’s wife had looked back. The bible itself doesn’t offer any more details than this but the parallel account in Jasher does. Jasher 19:52-53 reads:-
“And he [the Lord] overthrew these cities, all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground; and Ado the wife of Lot looked back to see the destruction of the cities, for her compassion was moved on account of her daughters who remained in Sodom, for they did not go with her. And when she looked back she became a pillar of salt, and it is yet in that place unto this day.”
* square brackets are my comments
Well, now we know her name – Ado. And it seems that she looked back out of concern for her daughters. This is an example of the kind of additional detail that could be found in Jasher. This same kind of elaboration can be found for many of the Genesis accounts – though nothing that contradicts the basic biblical narratives. Another elaboration that’s of some interest is the background of Abram’s life and his relationship with his father Terah. Jasher 11 has the account. Here are some excerpts:-
(11:19-20) And Abram asked his father, saying, Father, tell me where is God who created heaven and earth, and all the sons of men upon earth, and who created thee and me. And Terah answered his son Abram and said, Behold those who created us are all with us in the house. [referring to his idols] And Abram said to his father, My lord, shew them to me I pray thee; and Terah brought Abram into the chamber of the inner court, and Abram saw and behold the whole room was full of gods of wood and stone, twelve great images and others less than they without number.
(11:29-33) And Abram took the savory meat from his mother, and brought it before his father’s gods into the chamber, and he came nigh unto them that they might eat, and he placed it before them, and Abram sat before them all day, thinking perhaps they might eat. And Abram viewed them, and behold they had neither voice nor hearing, nor did one of them stretch forth his hand to the meat to eat. And in the evening of that day in that house Abram was clothed with the spirit of God. And he called out and said, Woe unto my father and this wicked generation, whose hearts are all inclined to vanity, who serve these idols of wood and stone which can neither eat, smell, hear nor speak, who have mouths without speech, eyes without sight, ears without hearing, hands without feeling, and legs which cannot move. Like them are those that made them and that trust in them. And when Abram saw all these things his anger was kindled against his father, and he hastened and took a hatchet in his hand, and came unto the chamber of the gods, and he broke all his father’s gods.
You get a sense of the drama and Abram really comes to life as a character in Jasher. There are lots more such elaborations in the book but you get the idea. If nothing else, it’s really fun reading. On a more serious note, these details are consistent with the Canaanite idol worship practices of the day and are entirely credible.
So there you go – is this THE “Book of Jasher”? I couldn’t say but if it is, it sure offers some interesting insights. Sure beats playing PG!!! Haha.