As a writer and a Bible Geek, I get frustrated by verses like this:
Now the rest of the acts of Rehoboam, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?(1Ki 14:29 NRSV)
The author says this as if we could just go down to the local library to check this out, or search for The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah online. Apparently, he never envisioned a time when such a book would not be available to his readers.
Back in 1993, I went on an archeological dig organized by professors from Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Connecticut. (Good thing it wasn’t for basketball). The topic of theoretical sources like “Q” (which scholars say was a common source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) came up. Some students wondered why scholars would make up these sources if we don’t have any manuscripts of them. One professor pointed out about two-thirds of all ancient books we know of, we have no manuscripts for. We only know they existed because they are mentioned in manuscripts of books we do have, as in the example I gave above. If we had copies of them, who knows what more books we would learn about?
Among the books mentioned in the Bible that we have no copies of today are
- The Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14)
- The Book of Samuel the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
- The Book of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29)
- The Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
- The Records of the Prophet Shemaiah (2 Chronicles 12:15)
- The Book of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 12:15)
- The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29)
And I have to include here Solomon was said to have written more than a thousand songs (1 Kings 4:32), yet only two are preserved in the book of Psalms (72 and 127), and of course the canonical Song of Solomon. The imagination boggles at the information lost because the Biblical authors assumed these sources would be preserved forever.
The Book of Jashar
One more of these is the Book of Jashar (also spelled Jasher). In Hebrew it translates as “The Book of the Upright” or “the Book of the Just Man.” It is mentioned in Joshua and 2 Samuel.
On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.(Jos 10:12-13 NRSV)
This is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, God making the sun stand still because Joshua prayed for it. Maybe you think this did not really happen. If so, I don’t blame you. But what I’m interested in is the mention of a book that we no longer have any copies of.
Then it is mentioned in reference to “The Song of the Bow,” which David likely composed, but again, we have no manuscripts.
[David] ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.(2Sa 1:18 NRSV)
So imagine my excitement when I found out there is a copy of something called “The Book of Jasher” today. Turns out it is not the same book as mentioned in the Old Testament. It is an eighteenth-century forgery that alleges to be a translation of the “lost” Book of Jasher by Alcuin, an eighth-century English scholar.
Another book by this same name, called by many “Pseudo-Jasher,” while written in Hebrew, is also not the “Book of Jasher” mentioned in Scripture. It is a book of Jewish legends from the creation to the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, but scholars hold that it did not exist before A.D. 1625. In addition, there are several other theological works by Jewish rabbis and scholars called “Sefer ha Yashar,” but none of these claim to be the original Book of Jasher.
So potentially, there were at least three or four copies of the Book of Jashar that turned out to be fake. But just out of curiosity, I got a copy of one of these on Kindle. It presented some intriguing possibilities for biblical fiction, as I had hoped.
Making sense of Abraham’s first meeting with God
For example, Abraham’s first encounter with God is in Genesis 12. God just appears to Abraham and tells him to leave his father’s house and country and go to a land “that I will show you” (Gen 12:1-3), and he does it. I always wondered how Abraham recognized the God called Yahweh or El Shaddai when the only gods he had been exposed to were the gods of Ur and Harran. This version of the book of Jasher presents an interesting answer, even if it is speculation.
Like his neighbors, his father had idols of Babylonian gods. It was customary to offer food to these idols. In this version of The Book of Jashar, Abraham wanted to test the idols of his household. He prepared some savory meat (like Esau), placed it before them, and invited them to eat. Nothing happened. He invited them again. Don’t they smell that enticing aroma coming from the meat? Don’t they want to taste it?
He sat for hours, waiting for them to eat this delicious food he had prepared for them. They didn’t eat. They didn’t answer him when he asked why they didn’t want to eat it. And then it dawned on him. These idols have no power of their own. These gods have no power of their own. So he smashed the idols to pieces and waited to see if the gods would kill him. No harm came to him. He turned his back on the gods of his people, and that set the stage for Yahweh to introduce himself.
Helpful for biblical fiction. Sort of.
If I were to write a novel based on Abraham, that would present a believable scenario for how Abraham came to know the God he called Yahweh. There are many other examples like this that present intriguing possibilities for filling in some of the gaps in the Biblical narratives. The best stories were those associated with Abraham and his family.
But after Abraham, especially when it gets to the sons of Jacob, it goes too much into flights of fancy to be at all believable. For example, the sons of Jacob over and over again face armies in tens of thousands with one or two hundred and utterly destroy them. Two hundred shepherds obliterate armies of thirty, forty, or fifty thousand, even those in walled cities, which one man tears down with his bare hands? Not just once but several times? Come on!
“But it’s fiction,” you say.
Do you know the difference between fiction and real life? Fiction has to make sense. In Egypt, 150 Israelites kill 400,000 of Pharaoh’s army? That doesn’t make sense, because then, how could the Egyptians possibly have enslaved them? The book tries to explain it by saying they tricked the Israelites into making bricks in order to weaken them first. Then they enslaved them. But if 150 can kill 400,000 trained soldiers of the most powerful empire of the time, there is no way making bricks is going to weaken them enough to enslave them. There is no labor at all that could weaken them.
So it can be a source for Biblical fiction. But as with everything, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.