Part Five: The Book of the Wars of the LORD

Book of the Wars of the LORD

(Compiled from Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible; Britannica.com; universalium.academic.ru; jewishvirtuallibrary.com; Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible; ccel.org)

As the Israelites camped just outside the border of Moab, on their way into the Promised Land, Moses, the author of Numbers, quotes a saying from the Book of the Wars of the Lord:

Numbers 21:14-15: 14 So it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord: “Waheb in Suphah, and the valleys of the Arnon, 15 and the hill-side of the valleys that goes to the place of Ar, and rests on the side of Moab.”

The BOOK OF THE WARS OF YAHWEH, also known as the BOOK OF THE WARS OF THE LORD (Heb. יהוה סֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת, Sefer Milḥamot YHWH), is mentioned only once in the Bible (Num. 21:14). We know the name only from this incidental reference.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, it is a lost document that apparently contained a collection of poems and war songs by different authors describing the victories of Yahweh, the God of Israel, over the enemies of Israel. It probably included hymns of victory, curses, songs, and other literary genres.

The date of the work is variously assigned to the periods of the desert, Joshua, or David.

In the Septuagint and in the Aramaic Targums, the words “The Wars of the Lord” are the beginning of the poetic quotation and are not part of the name of “the Book.” The book referred to would then be the Torah.

However, the Vulgate and medieval and modern explanations concur that “The Wars of the Lord” is the complete title of a book which, like several other literary works, has not been preserved.

The extent of the actual quotation from this book is debated. Some think it comprises only verse 14 itself, others include verse 15, while others go so far as to include verses 17–20 (“The Song of the Well”) and the poem in verses 27–30.

The existence of such a book indicates that early written, as well as oral, traditions were relied upon within the documents of the Pentateuch. There is Talmudic and Midrashic evidence that the forefathers, including Moses, wrote books other than the Torah that were maintained and studied.

The Book of the Wars of the LORD is cited in the medieval Book of Jasher (Jashar) translated from Hebrew by Moses Samuel c. 1840. (http://www.ccel.org/a/anonymous/jasher/home.html)

From Jasher, Chapter 90 verse 48, “And the other affairs of Joshua and his battles and his reproofs with which he reproved Israel, and all which he had commanded them, and the names of the cities which the children of Israel possessed in his days, behold they are written in the book of the words of Joshua to the children of Israel, and in the book of the wars of the Lord, which Moses and Joshua and the children of Israel had written.” Emphasis added

The verse above describes the book as being a collaborative record written by Moses, Joshua, and the children of Israel.

According to most scholars the Book of the Wars of the Lord is not identical with, but similar to, the Book of Jashar.

However, the theologian, Joseph Barber Lightfoot, suggested that the book was one and the same as the mysterious biblical Book of Jasher. From Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, [1831], at sacred-texts.com: “There are endless conjectures about this book, both among ancients and moderns. Dr. Lightfoot’s opinion is the most simple, and to me bears the greatest appearance of being the true one. “This book seems to have been some book of remembrances and directions, written by Moses for Joshua’s private instruction for the management of the wars after him. (See Exodus 17:14-16). It may be that this was the same book which is called the book of Jasher, i. e., the book of the upright, or a directory for Joshua, from Moses, what to do and what to expect in his wars; and in this book it seems as if Moses directed the setting up of archery, see 2 Samuel 1:17-18, and warrants Joshua to command the sun, and expect its obedience, Joshua 10:13.”

2 Samuel 1:17-18 “17 Then David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son, 18 and he told them to teach the children of Judah the Song of the Bow; indeed it is written in the Book of Jasher…”

Joshua 10:12-14 “12 On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” 13 So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. 14 There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!”

Matthew Henry wrote the following concerning what might have transpired on the day Moses voiced Num. 21:14

What their achievements were, now that they pitched on the banks of the river Arnon, we are not particularly told, but are referred to the book of the wars of the Lord, perhaps that book which was begun with the history of the war with the Amalekites, Ex. 17:14.

Write it (said God) for a memorial in a book, to which were added all the other battles which Israel fought, in order, and, among the rest, their actions on the river Arnon, at Vaheb in Suphah and other places on that river. Or, it shall be said in the rehearsal, or commemoration, of the wars of the Lord, what He did in the Red Sea, when He brought Israel out of Egypt, and what He did in the brooks of Arnon, just before He brought them into Canaan.

Note, in celebrating the memorials of God’s favours to us, it is good to observe the series of them, and how divine goodness and mercy have constantly followed us, even from the Red Sea to the brooks of Arnon. In every stage of our lives, nay, in every step, we should take notice of what God has wrought for us; what He did at such a time, and what in such a place, ought to be distinctly remembered.” Emphasis added

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