The Book of the Wars of the Lord (lost non-canonical biblical book; date unknown)

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The Wajib al Mujib, the river widely believed to have been the Arnon river mentioned in the Bible.

Status: Lost

The Book of the Wars of the Lord, also referred to as The Book of YHWH's Battles, is a book mentioned in the Pentateuch in the Book of Numbers chapter 21, verse 14. It is one of several non-canonical books referenced in the Bible and Torah that has become lost to time. Its brief mention and the manner in which it is mentioned has led to a theological debate among scholars that has continued for nearly a Millenium including when it was authored, who authored it, what it contained, and whether or not it existed at all.

It is widely agreed that Numbers 21:14 mentions the Book of the Wars of the Lord to attest the statement mentioned the verse prior and that Numbers 21:15 is a quote taken from the aforementioned book. The three verses together read:

13 From thence they removed, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites: for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the LORD, What he did in the Red sea, and in the brooks of Arnon, 15 “And at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling of Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab.” (KJV)

However, due to the manner in which verse 15 and the following verses are quoted, there has been lasting debate as to how far the quoted excerpt extends.

Troubles in Translation

The start of the debate regarding the latter portion of Numbers 21 and its relation to the Book of the Wars of the Lord dates back to the 13th century when Jewish scholar and rabbi Nachmanides suggested that the Heshbon Ballad which starts on Numbers 21:28 was also an excerpt from it.[1] The ballad reads:

28 For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon: it hath consumed Ar of Moab, and the lords of the high places of Arnon. 29 Woe to thee, Moab! thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: he hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters, into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites. 30 We have shot at them; Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah, which reacheth unto Medeba. (KJV)

Professor Edward L. Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University.

Professor Edward L. Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University agrees with Nachmanides and builds upon his notes by theorizing that the Song of the Well may also be from the Book of the Wars of the Lord stating that, although different in genre, collections of holy songs do not need to have a central theme. He points at the book of Psalms as an example of this, and states that Nachmanides "gloss" of Numbers 21:16 leads him to believe they share that belief. Other theologians have pointed to this in the past including Carl Heinrich Cornill, while others such as Eduard Nielsen have disagreed. The Song of the Well reads:

16 And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the LORD spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water. 17 Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it: 18 The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah:

Due to the unclear nature as to when the quote from the Book of the Wars of the Lord ends, as well as which verses after 21:15, if any, are sourced from it, some seminaries have deemed this portion of Numbers 21 to be "corrupt".[2] Those who hold this belief cite the fact that the LXX (Septuagint) does not support the fact that a Book of the Wars of the Lord existed.[3]

Others, however, have taken the approach that the muddled state of the passage is not because of it being "corrupt" but rather because of an issue in translation. Sigmund Mowinckle attributes the issue to the fact that E (the Elohist) did not see the purpose in stringently outlining the exerpted material. However, nowadays the concept of the Elohist source in biblical documentary theory has since widely been abandoned. In his article, Greenstein mentions that the excerpt in Numbers 21:15 appears to stop mid-sentence. He remedies this by parsing the unexpected Hebrew object marker "את" as a shortened form of the verb "א.ת.י" meaning "to come". As such, Greenstein translates verse 15 as:

“Come to Waheb in a storm; and come to the streams of the Arnon, etc.”

S. A. Binion, an Egyptologist and translator[4], took notice that the verb "Vaheb" was shown in the LXX as "Zoob" after it replaced the "V" with a "Z". Instead, he suggested changing the V to an R, making the word read "Rahab" instead. Binion's full translation of 21:14-15 is as follow:

Therefore it will be said in the book of the wars of the Lord, That which happened to Rahab in Supha, and that which has taken place at the brooks of Arnon.

In this translation, "Supha" refers to the Red Sea while "Rahab" refers to Egypt, as it is called this title in Isaiah 30:7 which reads:

For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty, therefore I have called her, “Rahab who sits still.” (NRSV)

Portrait of Archibald Sayce, an Egyptologist and linguist.

Binion comes to the conclusion that the intent of the excerpt from the Book of the Wars of the Lord is to say that the miracles that occurred at the Red Sea and those of which happened at the brooks of Arnon would be seen in the future as "equally marvellous". However, Assyriologist and linguist Archibald Sayce disagreed with this notion, instead keeping the Z from the Septuagint, changing "Vaheb" to "(Di)Zahab". Sayce's full translation is as follows:

Wherefore it is said in a book, The wars of Yahveh were at (Di)Zahab in Suphah, and at the brooks of Arnon.

Sayce then points to Deuteronomy 1:1 which showcases (Di)Zahab being within the borders of the kingdom of Edom, reading:

These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side Jordan in the wilderness, in the plain over against the Red sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab. (KJV)

Sayce also points to I Kings 9:26 which states:

And king Solomon made a navy of ships in [Ezion-Geber], which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom. (KJV)

Some theological scholars believe Pharaoh's Island in the Gulf of Aqaba to have been home to have been the home of Ezion-Geber.[5] Sayce draws the same conclusion and goes on to state that the "war of Yahveh" mentioned could have possibly been against the Egyptians, recalling the fact that southern Palestinian cities were captured during the reign of Ramses III.[6] However, in all of this, not once does Sayce refer to this book as being titled the Book of the Wars of the Lord. This is likely due to the fact that ancient Hebrew books tended to be titled by the first word or phrase contained within them.

Possible Contents & Relation to Jasher

Portrait of Abraham Ibn Ezra.

In the 12th century, Jewish scholar and rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the Torah, wrote his belief the writings mentioned in Exodus 17:14 about Amalek may have been contained within the Book of the Wars of the Lord. However, other scholars including Nachmanides disagree with the sentiment, with Nachmanides specifically stating that Ibn Ezra's theory was "nothing more than a pretext".[7]

A debate about whether or not the Book of the Wars of the Lord is the same book as the lost Book of the Upright(Jasher) has also been debated for a time. Sigmund Mowinckle suggests this due to the fact that in old times, bravery and war were often seen hand in hand, thus the Book of the Wars of the Lord could also be seen as the Book of the Brave (Upright). A lost Book of Songs mentioned in I Kings 8:53 is often changed to the Book of Jasher by scholars due to the Hebrew transliteration of "ספר השיר" being the same as the Book of Jasher with two letters transposed making it a possibility all three titles refer to the same book.[8] Should this theory be true, that would add Joshua 10:13, II Samuel 1:18, and I Kings 8:53 in the Septuagint as content and allusions to content from the Book of the Wars of the Lord. On the contrary, other theologists believe the two books to be similar in theme, with the Book of the Wars of the Lord being a collection of songs of Israelite victories in battle and the Book of the Upright being a collection of songs to remember the fallen, both books being purposed to "teach the Judeans how to bow" as put in the words of David.

The time in which the Book of the Wars of the Lord was authored is unknown, though general consensus is that, like the Pentateuch, it was likely non-Mosaic in nature (i.e. not written by Moses). This falls in line with the belief that Moses and the story of Exodus are merely legend and not a record of historical events. This belief is in part rooted by Isaac La Peyrère, a biblical critic who was of the belief that while Moses did not write the Pentateuch or Book of the Wars of the Lord, that they were put together from his writings long after his death.[9]

Dating through Moabite History

The Moabite Mesha Stele.

In his book Oral Tradition, Eduard Nielsen takes note of the Moabite border along the Arnon stream. He brings attention to the fact that in Judges 3:12, the Moabites are stated to have a border at the Jordan River, which is to the North of the Wajib al Mujib, the river believed to be the biblical Arnon stream. This has lead some scholars to believe that the Moabites were forced past south of the Arnon by the Israelites and that Numbers 21:15 is a song in relation to the borders of Israel.

Nielsen points out that there are three recorded campaigns against the Moabites, once by David, once by Omri, and once by Jeroboam II. These are mentioned in II Samuel 8:2, II Kings 3:4 and the Mesha Stele[10], and II Kings 14:25 respectively. These campaigns in mind, Nielsen comes to the conclusion that the Book of the Wars of the Lord was likely to have been written at the end of Jeroboam II's reign at the earliest, and before the fall of Samaria at the latest.[11]


Despite its brief mention in the Pentateuch, the Book of the Wars of the Lord has been referenced throughout the centuries. The book's title has been used as the title for a number of polemical works between Jewish scholars and rabbis, especially between the 10th and 15th centuries.

In the Magnalia Christi Americana, the Book of the Wars of the Lord has been used as the title for the book containing the controversial American folklore story of Hannah Duston.[12]