The Book of Jasher

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)”.

Comments

  1. I read this as a teenager. Great stuff. Thanks.

  2. I had a copy right after my mission. I devoured it too! I’ve always wondered where it came from!

  3. Midrash, whether rabbinic or medieval, has never been particularly persuasive to me as evidence that Joseph Smith was a pious fraud. Granted, however, there is no believing otherwise without faith that the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be. This is why virtually no one that is not a Mormon accepts the Book of Mormon as truth/scripture, or for that matter, as a narrative about people who actually lived in the Western Hemisphere.

  4. Last year when we were doing the Old Testament in Sunday School, I remember another classmate bringing this book with them. I assumed it was pseudopigrypha, but not being well read in the genre, I wasn’t aware of its relatively recent provenance.

  5. John Hamer says:

    BruceC and SteveP: Yep, it’s a great read.

    John F: You seem to be drawing connections between dots that I hadn’t intended to draw. My comparison between the Book of Jasher and the Pearl of Great Price was only intended to illustrate why a young Mormon (myself) was a prepared audience when it came to discovering additional scripture. After reading the Book of Jasher, I went on to read the Apocrypha and to discover in my public library the two volumes of Pseudepigrapha edited by James H. Charlesworth, and then to search out more writings of this kind. This is an interest I’ve maintained, and I actually spent the weekend reading books about Q and the Gospel of Thomas.

    J. Stapley: When I discovered its provenance, I hadn’t read the book for years, so I was a little surprised myself. But reflecting on it, it makes all the sense in the world. The Book of Jasher is very informed about extra-Biblical traditions. A lot of what it includes you’ll find jells with the other pseudepigraphal expansions, which make it seem good. However, it doesn’t really read like an ancient book. So, the idea that it was written by a Medieval Jewish scholar makes a lot of sense to me.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Ed Brandt did his Ph.D. dissertation on Jasher. The article you note is the best introduction for LDS to read, but if anyone doesn’t have access to it and wants a taste, he also wrote an “I Have a Question” article in the Ensign that gives a short version, here.

  7. http://www.ccel.org/a/anonymous/jasher/home.html for anyone who wants to read it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Jasher_(Pseudo-Jasher)

    and

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefer_haYashar_(midrash) for the midrash.

    Interesting stuff, all in all, thanks for the reminder.

  8. This took me back to my 15-year-old Sunday School class, taught by an absolutely nutty older couple that by all rights should not have been entrusted with the transmittal of doctrine to anyone, let alone teenagers. They had a vast repertoire of fishy scriptural and cosmological dogmas, ranging from the moderately speculative to the outright apostate. And I remember on many occasions, when they’d drop some crazy doctrinal bomb on us, and we’d look at them incredulously, they’d say “Well OF COURSE you haven’t learned that before. It’s not in the Bible or the Book of Mormon. It’s in the BOOK OF JASHER!”

  9. The story of Joseph and Asenath in the Pseudepigrapha is engaging in a similar manner, and probably has a somewhat parallel type of provenance (in some way), I think.

    Is there a category of scripturally-based fan fiction? Maybe that’s what we’re talking about here.

  10. Brandt’s article is also available here (p. 297).

  11. The problem with reading a lot of expansions is that you can sometimes forget what is canon and what is extra-canonical.

    Danithew — Yes, scriptural fan fiction. Genesis is a great book, but it leaves you wanting a sequel — sorry Exodus, we want one that involves the original cast. I agree Joseph & Asenath is similarly fun-filled. A romantic and exciting tale, complete with a chariot scene and much cartoonish violence at the end.

    Kevin, Justin, and Stephen M — Thanks for the links. Kevin, do you know if the dissertation considers possible influences the Book of Jasher may have had on Joseph Smith’s and John Taylor’s thinking?

    Jeremy — I had a couple of seminary teachers that were cut from the same cloth.

  12. When reading commentaries, it’s hard to tell sometimes where the accurate exegesis ends and the scriptural fan-fiction begins. Naturally there are gaps in the text. It’s easy to apply some logic to explain what happened between one scene and another.

    For example, in Genesis Chapter 22, Abraham is commanded to slay Isaac and that particular story unfolds. Then at the beginning of Genesis Chapter 23, we read that Sarah dies – but doesn’t explain exactly why she died or what led to her death. It is quite natural to conclude that Sarah died from stress after hearing that her husband tied up her son and almost sacrificed him on an altar. I’ve read as much in some commentaries.

    However, the text doesn’t actually say that, does it.

  13. However, after writing what I wrote above, I think the scriptural speculation/fan-fiction plays an important role. First, it points out the gap that exists in the text, the lack of explanation of something, the question that we are left to consider.

    As long as we remember that the potential explanation is speculation (and could be wrong) then I think we are okay, or even a little better off, for having gone through the exercise.

  14. I hadn’t read the Book of Jasher, so this post sheds some light on some of Hugh Nibley’s remarks about Abraham and Nimrod. I can’t remember which essay it was in, but in at least one of them Nibley refers to Abraham and Nimrod as contemporaries and even rivals. I always wondered where he got that stuff from. I couldn’t find it in the Bible. I suppose that the details may also have come from other old documents, but the Book of Jasher looks likely.

    I like the description of it as “spiritual fan fiction”. I think of Orson Scott Card’s Memory of Earth/Homecoming series as something similar, but harder to confuse with the original since it is in an explicitly science fiction setting.

  15. That’s a great example, danithew. Sarah dying immediately after the aborted sacrifice of Isaac is definitely one of the Biblical episodes that Jasher plays on. Satan takes the form of an old man who convinces Sarah that Abraham has actually sacrificed Isaac. After a long search, she nearly dies of grief, only to have Satan come clean and tell her Isaac is not dead, whereupon she dies of joy! (Jasher 23:86). In a speculative suggestion that perhaps approaches fan faction, Thomas Friedman suggests that in the original E source Isaac actually was sacrificed and Sarah presumably died of grief, since neither appear in E again. A good story, either way.

    Tom D: Interesting! Nimrod has a big role in the Book of Jasher as a contemporary/rival of Abraham, so that could be the source of the idea or one of the sources. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Esau ultimately kills Nimrod in Jasher, fulfilling a prophecy that the king would die via Abram’s line.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    John, I don’t know the answer to your question in 11. I’ve never read the dissertation, just the article you referenced and the Ensign article I linked to.

  17. Clay Pendleton says:

    I finally read The Book of Jasher and even though it may have been written by a Jewish Mystic – I found the legends to be quite intertaining! Even the bible has been manipulated by the hand of man, yet it has been accepted to be the chosen Word of God. I feel that more LDS should read it. I have a question if anyone can shed some light? It says in the Book of Abraham that Ham’s wife was Egyptus? In the Book of Jasher it states that Noah took Naamah, the daughter of Enoch, for wife and gave his three sons the granddaughters of Methuselah, from his son Eliakim? I feel that Ham or even his son Cush could have had a daughter named Egyptus. The lord would not allow someone who was not worthy to enter into the ark. Later, Ham could have taken one of his four sons daughters as wife and named her Egyptus?

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