Growing up, I had in my home an unusual book organized into chapters and verses that read like scripture. Published in Salt Lake City in 1887 and reprinted in 1973, it announced itself to be “The Book of Jasher referred to in Joshua and Second Samuel.” The title page itself cited Joshua 10:13 “Is not this written in the Book of Jasher?” and 2 Samuel 1:18 “Behold it is written in the Book of Jasher.” The book was translated into English from Hebrew “faithfully and elegantly” according to four certificates dated 1840. What was this scripture-like book, referenced in the actual Bible, that I’d plucked from my mother’s library?
As a young teenager, I poured over the book, which turned out to be a fascinating expansion of the Bible’s first five books with a special emphasis on Genesis. Expanding Genesis stories is familiar ground for Mormon scripture. The Pearl of Great Price adds two creation stories (Moses 2-3, Abraham 4-5) to the two already in Genesis. We also have expansions of the Cain and Abel story (Moses 5:16-59), a new story of Enoch (Moses 6:21-8:2), expansions of the Abram/Abraham story (Abraham 1-3), and expansions of the Moses story (Moses 1), among others.
The Book of Jasher covers much the same ground, only more so. I remember fondly the stories of a relatively youthful Abram in Chaldaea, whose father Terah is made prince of the host of King Nimrod of Shinar. Like Enoch and Peleg, Nimrod is one of those characters among the “begets” in Genesis who lack complete stories but are associated with intriguing tidbits of information. From Genesis, we know that Nimrod “was a mighty hunter before the Lord” and that he was credited with founding empires in Iraq (Gen. 10:8-12).
In the Book of Jasher we are told that Nimrod’s power initially sprang from his inheritance of the garments which God had made for Adam (Jasher 7:24-32). We also find that it is King Nimrod who commissioned the construction of the tower of Babel (9:20-39) and that he was the king who ordered Abram’s execution (12:58), causing him to leave Ur of the Chaldees and migrate to Haran and ultimately Canaan. Although the idea that Abram’s life was threatened is not found in Genesis, it is paralleled to an extent in the Pearl of Great Price (Abraham 1:12-18, Fac. 1). The author of the Book of Jasher also realized that by the mathematics of the “begets,” the long-lived patriarch Noah would have been alive at the same time as young Abram, which allows the former to instruct the latter (Jasher 9:5-6, 12:63).
In fact, Abram’s education with Noah leads to my favorite Abram story in the Book of Jasher. Outside Noah’s household the whole world was contaminated with idolatry (Jasher 9:9-10). When Abram turned fifty (still just a teenager in patriarch years), he returned to his father Terah’s house to see twelve idols in their shrines, “and the anger of Abram was kindled, when he saw these images in his father’s house” (11:16). However, Abram played it cool, hid his anger and quizzed Terah, asking “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?” Terah answered with assurance, “Behold those who created us are all within this house!” and he took Abram to the inner court, which was “full of gods of wood and stone, twelve great images and others less than they without number” (11:19-20).
Abram plays along and has his mother prepare a sacrifice of savory meats for his father’s gods. When he places the meats before them, nothing happens, leading Abram to the idols, asking them why they had failed to stretch forth their arms to taste the meat? He then gets his mother to make a bigger sacrifice with more delicious meats, but the same non-result is repeated. For Abram, if you’re an idol, two strikes are apparently enough. He immediately gets his hatchet and chops all the idols to bits, save the largest, in whose hand he places the hatchet (11:21-34).
His father comes in to see what all the racket is about, only to find his beautiful idols ruined. He screams at Abram, “What is this work thou hast done to my gods?” (11:38). Abram replies:
Not so my lord, for I brought savory meat before them and when I came nigh to them with the meat that they might eat, they all at once stretched forth their hands to eat before the great one had put forth his hand to eat. And the large one saw their works that they did before him, and his anger was violently kindled against them, and he want and took the hatchet that was in the house and came to them and broke them all, and behold the hatchet is yet in his hand as thou seest (11:39-40).
To which Terah replies the equivalent of “are you nuts, kid?”:
What is this tale that thou hast told? Thou speakest lies to me. Is there in these gods spirit, soul, or power to do all thou hast told me? Are they not wood and stone, and have I not myself made them, and canst thou speak such lies, saying that the large god that was with them smote them? It is thou that didst place the hatchet in his hands, and then sayest he smote them all (11:41-42).
Of course, Abram has a ready answer: “And how canst thou then serve these idols in whom there is no power to do any thing?” Check and mate! After a long diatribe, Abram concludes with relish by taking the hatchet from the last idol and smashing it too before running away (11:49). I always loved that story. The Book of Jasher has some fun stuff.
But where did it come from prior to Salt Lake City 1887? It turns out that the Mormon connection is early. The book was first published in the United States in 1840. Two years later a copy had made its way to Nauvoo, where it received some favorable press in the Times and Seasons, and was introduced “not as scripture, but history sustained by other history.”* This recommendation was enough to keep it alive in Mormon circles† and to put a reprint on my mother’s shelf for me to find.
Where did it come from prior to 1840? As it happens, this particular Book of Jasher is not the lost Book of Jasher referenced in the Old Testament. This is clear because there are plenty of anachronisms that show the book is not ancient. Some of the most tell-tale include additions to the begat list of Noah’s descendents. By way of background, medieval Europeans held that all the world must be descended from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth. The problem is that the nations in Genesis 10 have a parochial flavor, describing a narrow middle-eastern world in the seventh century b.c.e. or so. The names in Genesis may have accounted for everyone an ancient Hebrew had heard of, but they fail to account for the peoples of the known world in the Middle Ages, much less today.
The Book of Jasher corrects this problem, as far as the known world of the Europen Middle Ages is concerned. For example, we learn that “the children of Chittim [Kittim in Genesis 10:4] are the Romim who dwell in the valley of Canopia by the river Tibreu” (Jasher 10:16). Thus, the Biblical Kittim = the Romans dwelling by the Tiber River. Likewise “the chidren of Gomer [from Genesis 10:2]…were the Francum, who dwell in the land for Franza” (Jasher 10:8). We also learn that “the children of Elishah [from Genesis 10:4] are the Almanim…and of them were the people of Lumbardi who dwell opposite the mountains of Job and Shibathmo, and they conquered the land of Italia and remained there unto this day” (Jasher 10:15). Alamanni, of course, is the generic French and Spanish name for Germans, and the Germanic Lombards only conquered Italy as of the 6th century c.e. — hardly an advertisement for the Book of Jasher’s remote antiquity. In fact, these and other clues have allowed scholars to trace the book to a medieval Jewish writer in thirteenth century Spain.‡ Thus the mystery of origins is solved.
Nevertheless, I still have the copy I “borrowed” from my mother (she has long since replaced this one with a new copy) and I still love the stories. I like to think of Abram snatching the hatchet to break up one last idol before fleeing off into the sunset — Is it not written in the Book of Jasher?
* Times and Seasons 3 (1 Sept. 1842): 902, 4 (15 Nov. 1842): 8, 5 (15 Dec. 1844): 745.
† For a summary of the book’s Mormon connections, see Edward J. Brandt, “The Book of Jasher and the Latter-day Saints,” in C. Wilfred Griggs (ed.), Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 297-318. The book’s cover design is by yours truly.
‡ Ibid., 303. See also the Wikipedia article on the “Sefer haYashar (midrash)”.