The Book of Jashar

By Benjamin Rosenbaum


Susan Marie Groppi, Fiction Editor
Strange Horizons

November 7, 2002

Dear Susan,

Following the death in 1998 of my beloved cousin, Oedipa Maas, I came into possession of certain effects of the late Timothy Archer, at one time Bishop of San Francisco. Bishop Archer's association with the Qumran excavations (which led to his break with the Church) has been recounted elsewhere, and Ms. Maas had already donated documents relating to those events to appropriate collections. She had apparently overlooked, however, a single amphora containing a fragmentary but well-preserved codex, which Bishop Archer had not yet opened at the time of his death. At the suggestion of Josiah Carberry, a former professor of mine, I brought this artifact to S. L. Kermit of Missolonghi University.

Imagine my astonishment when the text proved to be a transcription of Biblical Hebrew originally written as early as the First Temple Period, a thousand years before the other Qumran scrolls were written. That astonishment was matched only by my delight when the Professor asked me to help prepare an English translation of the text.

As the translation progressed, we became convinced that the text could not be other than the Sefer haYashar mentioned, and quoted, in 2 Samuel 1:18-27, or a very early pseudepigraphy thereof.

Professor Kermit was convinced that the publication of the documents would form the capstone of his career. Alas, in this endeavor he was unsuccessful. Every reputable journal rejected his papers. Some gave no reason. Others objected to the fact that Bishop Archer had removed the codex from the dig without permission. But I believe that many also found the content of the Book deeply troubling.

It is true that the great question implicit in Samuel and Chronicles is here stated baldly: why is David chosen, and why Israel? That God's love may be an arbitrary and capricious passion is as unnerving to us as it was to Mezipatheh. Yet, if our theology cannot encompass the arbitrariness of Divine favor, how can it hope to deal with our present world?

Professor Kermit became increasingly embittered and erratic. The last time he called me, shortly before his troubling and inexplicable disappearance, he accused a nameless conspiracy of the "heirs of Mezipatheh" of hindering our work's acceptance. He begged me to use my contacts as a fiction writer to secure some sort of publication for the work, albeit without the legitimization of peer review, and this I am endeavoring to do.

It was lovely to see you all at WorldCon. Keep up the good work.


The Book of Jashar

By Anonymous
Translated from the Hebrew by S. L. Kermit and Benjamin Rosenbaum

Now this is the book of the second life and second death of Jonathan the upright, son of Saul, son of Kish, son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, of the tribe of Benjamin; and of Mezipatheh, who drank the blood of men, and who hunted David, the chosen one of God, when Saul was king in Israel.

In those days there dwelt among the Philistines, in the temple of Dagon at Ashdod, an undying one holy to Dagon. His name was Mezipatheh, and he fed on the people of Ashdod and of Gath and of Ekron, and their captives in war.

At the first new moon of winter and the first new moon of summer, the virgins of Ashdod would be brought to him, and he would drink the blood from their throats. These were called brides of Dagon, but they did not live on and become like Mezipatheh, for he was jealous of his powers.

After great battles, the captives were brought to the temple of Dagon to wait in the darkness. Mezipatheh leaped among them like lightning among summer clouds, tearing their throats out with his teeth. But the great warriors who had oppressed Ashdod he killed slowly, snapping all their bones.

Mezipatheh's right arm was shriveled and of no use, for the sun had seen it. His one terror was that Ra the sun might see him and resent his betrayal, for in his first life, his life as a man, he had been a priest of Ra in Egypt. But he had fled Egypt and fled the sun, and now the Philistines were his herd and he watched over them and sought their glory. And the Philistines were the mightiest of the peoples of Canaan, and they routed the tribes of Israel and made slaves of them.

One night Mezipatheh cast the stones of divination and the stones said to him: Fear David, for the LORD loves him.

Mezipatheh summoned Achish son of Maoch, king of Gath, and said: "Is it true that David the Israelite lives in Ziklag under your protection? Is this not the same David who slew our Goliath, who brought his king Saul two hundred of our foreskins as a bride-price? I have heard the Israelites sing,

'Saul made havoc among thousands,
but David among tens of thousands.'

Why do you offer him protection?"

Achish said, "If it please Dagon: Saul, king of the Israelites, seeks to kill David, and David has fled the land of his fathers. He will fight for us now."

Mezipatheh told him: "David will be king in Israel, and cause us more sorrow than ever did the house of Saul. Bring him here on some pretext, and I will slay him."

So Achish held a feast in the forecourt of the temple of Dagon. He feared David would refuse to approach the temple, so he said: "The feast is in the forecourt of the threshing-hall," for the threshing-hall was next to the temple. It did Achish's heart sorrow to betray David, but he thought: Surely Dagon has sent us the undying one.

David sat eating in the courtyard in the firelight, eating salt fish and venison and porridge of groats and drinking wine, and his lieutenants traded boasts with the warriors of the Philistines, and the wind from the sea grew still; and Mezipatheh came to kill him. But then Mezipatheh smelled the oil on David, with which Samuel had anointed him many years before, and he thought: "What is that smell?" And he stood at the edge of the firelight wondering. David saw him and took him for a foreign beggar, from his dress and his shriveled arm.

David said, "Say, brother! I too am a stranger in this land. I will play us a song." And he took out his harp and he played the Song of the Stranger. Mezipatheh remembered Egypt and his life as a man, and the wives and children he had left in Egypt. And all in the gathering fell silent to hear David sing.

Mezipatheh thought: After this verse ends, I will kill him. And then: No, after this verse. The song has many verses, and soon Mezipatheh saw that the sky was pale in the East, and the terror of meeting Ra came on him, and he fled.

Achish wondered at this, for he had never seen Mezipatheh fail at anything.

In the evening when Mezipatheh awoke, he said to Achish: "Where is David?" And Achish said: "He has returned to Ziklag, with his wives and men-at-arms." And Mezipatheh said: "I will go and kill him there." And he left Gath that night.

When the dawn came, Mezipatheh buried himself in the sand by the road, and the next night he went on and reached Ziklag.

When Mezipatheh came to the house of David, Abigail, a wife of David, widow of Nabal of Carmel, was chopping onions for a night meal. David was not there. Mezipatheh came first to kill Abigail, but he stopped at the threshold of the kitchen, for the smell of the onions burned in his nose. Mezipatheh could meet a man and smell if the harlot with whom he had lain the night before was fertile, and to smell the raw onions was for him like looking into the desert sun. He thought: I will bring her into the courtyard.

"Be not afraid," he said to Abigail.

Abigail turned and saw him, and she saw a grain of sand that was left on the ball of his eye from the day before, and then she knew he was not a living man. But she said: "Peace be upon you, my lord, and may you find favor in the sight of the LORD of Israel, greatest of the gods."

Mezipatheh spat and said, "Woman, I am priest of Dagon the mighty, eater of men, whose breath is the surf, whose heart is the tide."

Abigail said: "Is he mighty, your Dagon?"

Mezipatheh said, "He is as mighty as the sea."

Abigail said, "Praised be the LORD of Israel, who created the sea and all things."

Mezipatheh laughed. "You are but a rabble of desert shepherds! You say your god created the sea? If the creator of all things loves your people as his own, why do we rout you and make slaves of you?"

Abigail said, "Forgive my impertinence, my lord. What does a woman know of such things? Surely, this Dagon must be a fine creature, for the LORD of Israel allows him to live in his sea."

Mezipatheh was full of rage and he shouted, "Dagon can crush your god like the bones of a red mackerel!"

Abigail laughed. "That is like saying that a Philistine could blow the horn of the priests of Israel," she said, and pointed to a ram's horn that hung on the wall.

Because of the onions, Mezipatheh could not smell that she was lying, and so he ran into the kitchen and snatched up the horn and blew a great blast. But it was the battle horn of David, for calling his troops. All the fighting men of David's camp took their swords and rushed to the house of David. Mezipatheh heard them, and counted their footsteps. He thought, they are too many for me, and David is not among them. So he fled through the window and made his way back to Ashdod.

Some time later the princes of the Philistines prepared to make war on Saul. Mezipatheh said to Achish: "Bring David with us, and I will kill him in the fray of battle." Then he left to travel to Mount Gilboa alone.

Achish said to David, "You know that your men and you must take the field with me." David answered, "Good, you will see what your servant can do." And Achish said to David, "Then I will make you my bodyguard for life." But his heart was aggrieved, for he knew David would die.

But when the princes of the Philistines were gathered at Aphek, they saw David and said, "Why are those Hebrews here? They will surely betray us." They pressed upon Achish and forced him to send David away. So David and his men returned to Ziklag and did not fight Saul's army.

The Philistines fought a battle against Israel, and the men of Israel were routed, leaving their dead on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines pursued Saul and his sons and killed them: Saul, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, killing them as night fell. Mezipatheh arrived and Achish told him, "We have extinguished the line of Saul."

Mezipatheh asked, "Where is David?"

Achish answered, "The commanders would not tolerate him, and I have sent him back to Ziklag."

And Mezipatheh said, "Fool! Now that Saul's line is dead, David will be king in Israel, and cause my people great suffering. Wait here, and I will do what I can."

Mezipatheh went to the bodies of Saul and his sons. Saul, Abinadab, and Malchishua were cold, but the spark was not gone from Jonathan. Mezipatheh killed Jonathan and awakened him into the second life, and carried him to a secret place in the mountain.

When Jonathan could speak again, he said, "What is this you have done?"

Mezipatheh said, "Rejoice, Israelite, for this day you have died and risen again. You will not die any more, and you will be king in Israel. You will be a mighty king, for you will have the strength of a thousand. And I will deliver David, the enemy of your house, into your hands. Only you must swear never to make war upon our cities, and to send us tribute in the threshing season."

Jonathan said, "You tell me I cannot die?"

Mezipatheh said, "Two things can kill you. I am one, for I am older and stronger than you will ever be. The other is the face of the sun."

Jonathan said, "What you have done is evil, Philistine! I died with honor, a fighting man. I will not live as an abomination."

Mezipatheh spat upon the ground. "You Hebrews are mad! But listen to me, Jonathan son of Saul. I have given you new life and a kingdom. Now I will give you a new name. You shall be called Osher, happiness. Forget the rules of men, for you are not a man any more. Seek the happiness of your new life, and forget the old."

Jonathan said:

"I will not be Osher:
I will be Jashar, the upright.
I will seek the will of the LORD of Israel.
Who am I to do harm to LORD's anointed?
Who am I to cause David to suffer,
David the love of my heart?
A baby is born without anything,
A man who dies is wrapped in a linen shroud.
The LORD allots the length of a life,
And winnows the field of warriors.
Shall Jonathan be a sorcerer to escape death,
Shall the son of Saul flee the hand of the LORD?
Saul spared the Amalekite, Jonathan ate of the honeycomb;
No son of Saul will rule Israel any more.
But David's rule will be sweet as honey,
As lovely before the LORD as the feet of a dancer."

Mezipatheh was afraid, for he saw that Jonathan was determined. He had not brought anyone else into the second life, and he had no kin of his own kind. He said to Jonathan: "Listen! I have given you new life and a kingdom. Spurn the kingdom if you must, but do not throw away the life I have given you."

Jonathan broke away from him and ran to the high ground. He leapt from peak to peak across Mount Gilboa, scattering the gazelles. But Mezipatheh leapt always just behind him. Jonathan leapt into the tops of the cedars, leaping from cedar to cedar. Mezipatheh followed, and caught Jonathan by the wrist at the top of the tallest tree. He said, "If you will not save yourself, save your people! For I swear to you, if you do not follow me I will destroy Israel to the last man."

Jonathan said,

"Will a demon stand in the place of the LORD,
Will a monster do judgement upon Israel?
Many have made this boast before,
Many will make it afterwards.
A man who will not die is a coward,
And one who hides from the sun is blind.
What are your powers, Mezipatheh, that you should judge?
Your might, that you should prophesy?
Can you set another moon in the sky,
Or teach the meadowlark a new song?
Proud kings are cast down, their slaves raised up:
No man can know the heart of the LORD."

Then Mezipatheh was enraged, and he threw Jonathan from the slopes of Mount Gilboa and into the desert foothills among the jackals, and from there Jonathan fled.

Mezipatheh sat for a while on Mount Gilboa, repenting of having awakened Jonathan into the second life. Then he went in search of him.

Along the way he met an ass grazing beside the road. When the ass saw him, it raised its head and laughed the laugh of a man. Mezipatheh wondered at this, and he said aloud: "What is this?"

"I am the ass of Balaam, who was given speech by an angel of the LORD," said the ass.

"Why do you laugh?" asked Mezipatheh.

"For you and I are the same," said the ass.

"What!" said Mezipatheh. "I am the undying one of Dagon, sacred to Dagon, eater of men, whose breath is the surf, whose heart is the tide!"

"There is no Dagon," said the ass. "The God of Israel is the only God."

"Dagon can crush the God of Israel like the bones of a red mackerel!" shouted Mezipatheh.

"No," said the ass. "There is no Dagon. You are a man who does not die, and I am an ass with the power of speech. But no creature can know the heart of the LORD of the world."

"And why would the LORD of the world love Israel?" asked Mezipatheh. "Does the LORD love those who are great? Yet many are greater than this rabble. Does the LORD love those who are kind? Yet the world knows that Israel slew the women and children of Canaan. Does the LORD love those who follow him? Yet even their priests lie with the temple-harlots of Astarte!"

"I do not know," said the ass. "But you will never kill David of Israel, for the LORD loves him. Do as my master Balaam did, and bless Israel."

Mezipatheh was angry and he flew at the ass and drove it away, and the ass ran into the desert. But when it was a long way off, he called: "Ass of Balaam, if I bless Israel, will I see the sun again?"

And the ass called back, "Yes, you will see the sun."

And Mezipatheh went on along the road.

He caught up to Jonathan and took hold of him and struggled with him, and they wrestled. They strove many hours in darkness and in silence, and they were bathed in each other's blood.

When dawn came, Mezipatheh buried himself in the sand, and Jonathan died. And Mezipatheh carried the bones of Jonathan to Beth-shan.

Mezipatheh traveled to Ziklag where David's camp was. He sat on a hill the whole night and watched the camp of David. And Mezipatheh knew there was no Dagon, for he knew that the Place of Dagon was empty behind its curtain. And he sorely missed the face of Ra, and the fields lying golden in His light.

When dawn came, he rose and blessed Israel, saying,

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwelling-places, O Israel!"

And Mezipatheh saw the sun, and he burned in the rays of the sun and died.

When David awoke in the morning, the news was brought to him that Jonathan and Saul were dead. He sang:

"You mountains of Gilboa,
Let there be no dew or rain on you,
Nor fields of fine fruits,
For there the shield of the mighty was horribly cast away,
The shield of Saul, as if he were not anointed with oil!
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty,
Jonathan's bow did not retreat,
And the sword of Saul did not return empty.
Saul and Jonathan -- lovely and pleasant in their lives,
And in their death they were not divided:
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.
You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in scarlet and other delights,
Who put golden ornaments on your gowns.
How the mighty are fallen in the midst of the battle!
O Jonathan, you were slain in the high country,
I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan;
You were delightful to me;
Your love for me was wonderful,
Surpassing the love of women.
How the mighty are fallen,
And the weapons of war destroyed!"

David was king in Israel forty years. He defeated the Philistines and drove them from Israel, and Achish of Gath paid him tribute. He suffered Achish to rule on in Gath, for the good that he had done him, and he conquered the Ammonites, and the Moabites, and the Edomites, and the Amalekites, and the Arameans to Zedad. And the LORD loved David.

Benjamin Rosenbaum bounces around Basel, Switzerland, with his wife and baby daughter, where he writes fiction and poetry, programs in Java, and plays rugby. His work has appeared in F&SF, Harper's, LCRW, and The Vestal Review. His previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more about him, see his website.