The Bible is a complex and malleable work, often difficult to define and even difficult to follow. It repeats itself, it offers multiple versions of the same events, it is filled with later inclusions designed to bring legitimacy to later rulers, and it is couched in a literary tradition now almost entirely lost.
Which is not to say the Bible itself is not aware of this literary tradition. Many evangelical Christians today see the Bible as inviolate, standing alone as the Word of God, but it is rife with errors and makes frequent references to other contemporary works.
One such is the Book of Jasher. The authors of the Old Testament clearly expected their audience to be familiar with this lost work, but to modern audiences it is entirely a mystery.
What, then, can we piece together about this lost text, and its importance to the Bible.
Book of the Upright
Before we even start, it is worth mentioning that the Book of Jasher may not even exist. Some scholars, looking for the simplest explanation for its complete lack of survival, have speculated that the Book of Jasher, also called the Book of the Upright, might simply be the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
The principal reason for this thinking is the first reference to Jasher, in the Book of Joshua which follows the Pentateuch. During a battle against Adonizedek, King of Jerusalem, Joshua notes that he can pray to stop the motion of the Sun and Moon until his victory is won, saying “Is this not written in Sefer HaYashar [Book of Jasher]?”
This is perhaps tenuous. While there are references which could be interpreted as referring to Joshua’s victory, there is nothing of stopping the Sun and the Moon. Nor is there any support for this thesis from the other times Jasher is referenced in the Bible.
The second reference comes from the Book of Samuel. The “sons of Judah”, the Hebrews, are to be taught “the Bow” in the manner according to the Book of Jasher. This is often glossed as a lesson in archery, but “the Bow” may be something entirely different, perhaps a poem from Jasher. Either way, the Bible does not record it, assuming that its audience would know what this is.
The final reference occurs in the Book of Kings. A prayer of Solomon in this book is described as being written down in “the book of song” which seems almost willfully vague. However, in the Hebrew this “book of song” with a minor spelling amendment now reads “the Book of Jasher”.
So, a book that the Biblical authors and its audience were familiar with, which may contain prophecies and may contain poetry. None of this helps us get to the real contents of Jasher, and in truth that may be lost forever.
However the book continues to fascinate because of the shadow it casts over the Bible, and what it can tell us about the intent of the authors. They clearly intended their text to be rooted in history, a demonstration of their wider textual knowledge and the expectations they had as to the literacy of their readership. Alternatively, the Book of Jasher may have been extremely widely known, enough to merit its inclusion as a common cultural cornerstone.
And, maddeningly, for a brief moment we thought we had found it. In 1750 a text appeared claiming to be the lost book, rediscovered in the city of Gazna and translated by an Abbot of Canterbury.
The book was a marvel: Jasher, the son of a supporter of Moses, recounted the entire of biblical history to that point, offering a third version of the stories of Genesis and Exodus. But the book was also entirely a fake, as was pointed out in the same year as its publication.
Jasher then remains missing. And yet, through these references in the Bible we can see how it formed part of a lost literary tradition, a corpus of texts in which the Bible was designed to sit. Only in understanding these texts and contextualizing the Bible can its message be truly understood.
Top Image: Joshua stops the sun, just as the Book of Jasher said he could. Source: Ilario Spolverini / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green