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SBL e-journal

Edward L. Greenstein





What Was the Book of the Wars of the Lord?





APA e-journal

Edward L. Greenstein





What Was the Book of the Wars of the Lord?








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What Was the Book of the Wars of the Lord?

And what can we learn by comparing it to another ancient book mentioned in the Bible, Sefer HaYashar (The Book of the Upright)?


What Was the Book of the Wars of the Lord?

In the book of Numbers, the Israelites wend their way from the Sinai wilderness to the steppes of Moab. Aspects of Israel’s encounters and experiences during this eventful journey are commemorated by the quotation of various songs (or poems), which document and lend an air of authenticity to the events being described.[1] In Parashat Chukkat, no fewer than three different songs are quoted, all in ch. 21.

The Arnon Border Song

The first song quoted is an excerpt from a book called the Book of the Wars of the Lord, or more elegantly and accurately, the Book of YHWH’s Battles, which is quoted to attest the fact that the border between the Amorites and the Moabites was the Arnon stream (verse 13).[2]

Here is the text of Numbers 21:13b-15 and its typical understanding:

במדבר כא:יג ...כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב בֵּין מוֹאָב וּבֵין הָאֱמֹרִי
Num 21:13 ...for Arnon (stream) is the boundary between Moab and the Amorites.
כא:יד עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְ־הוָה
21:14 Thus is it said in the Book of YHWH’s Battles:
אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן.
“…Waheb in Suphah, and the streams of the Arnon;
כא:טו וְאֶשֶׁד הַנְּחָלִים אֲשֶׁר נָטָה לְשֶׁבֶת עָר
21:15 The watershed of the streams, bending toward the settled plain (or Ar);
וְנִשְׁעַן לִגְבוּל מוֹאָב.
And leaning on the border of Moab.”

There are two remarkable things about this excerpt: first, its puzzling syntax; and second, and of very great importance, the fact that it is cited from a named document—a written source on which the Torah draws.

A Rare Poetic Verb

Beginning with the first point, the song seems to begin in mid-sentence. A verb appears to be missing. What is done or happens at Waheb? The most appealing solution to this problem of syntax is to parse the object marker את, which is ordinarily omitted in ancient Hebrew poetry, and thus unexpected here, as a shortened form of the poetic verb א.ת.י, “to come”: “Come to Waheb in a storm; and come to the streams of the Arnon, etc.”[3]

Who is being addressed to come and the purpose of the invitation are vague. Nevertheless, Richard Steiner most sensibly notes that the opening of the song is similar to the opening in the Song of Ḥeshbon, the third of the songs quoted in this chapter: “Come to Heshbon…!” (בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן; v. 27; see below), implying that this may have been a standard opening for a song or poem.[4]

The Book of YHWH’s Battles

The song here is not simply presented as part of the text, but the Torah explicitly notes that it is quoting from an ancient written source for the song. (The term ספר, which we ordinarily translate as “book,” denotes any document set down in writing.)[5] What was this book?

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) in his commentary (ad loc.) suggested that the reference is to an ancient and now lost written source describing the various battles fought by the Israelites against their enemies.[6] R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) and Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344) offer the same understanding. That this document is a collection of war and victory songs in which the deity is the hero is also shared by modern scholars such as Jacob Milgrom and Yitzhak Avishur in their Olam HaTanach commentary (ad loc.), and Philip Budd in his Word Bible Commentary (ad loc.).[7]

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Title

The reasoning underlying this assumption is based on the title of the book, YHWH’s Battles. But ancient books did not generally use titles in this fashion, i.e., as summary statements of the book’s contents. For example, the standard Hebrew title of biblical books is generally one of the first words in the book. The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers, for instance, is Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness;”[8] this hardly sums up this very complex book which includes lists, laws, narratives, and, yes, songs. The same is true of Akkadian works, which were generally referred to by the opening words of the tablet. Some famous examples are the Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish (“When on High”) and the Gilgamesh Epic, which was known as “He who saw the source/saw it all.”

Thus, the most likely reason that the book is called YHWH’s Battles is because the first or most prominent poem in the book was called “YHWH’s Battles.” What then was the nature of this book? Unfortunately, once we stop assuming that the title tells us the nature of its contents, we have very little to go on.

The Heshbon Ballad

Later in this same chapter comes the Heshbon Ballad, relating to an Amorite conquest of Moab. It may have originated among the Amorites—or it may be an Israelite song, taunting the Moabite enemy.[9] The Torah quotes the song, which may well have been excerpted from a longer, perhaps even epic, poem, in order to corroborate its assertion (v. 26) that Sihon, the king of the Amorites who ruled from Heshbon, had defeated Moab (vv. 27-30):

במדבר כא:כז עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים
Num 21:27 Thus say the poets:
בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּבָּנֶה
וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן.
Come to Heshbon—let it be rebuilt!
And let the City of Sihon be reestablished!
כא:כח כִּי אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן
לֶהָבָה מִקִּרְיַת סִיחֹן
21:28 For a fire went out from Heshbon,
A flame from the Town of Sihon;
אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב
בַּעֲלֵי בָּמוֹת אַרְנֹן.[10]
It consumed the Steppe of Moab,
The dwellers of the Arnon’s plateau.

The Torah does not claim that this song comes from the book of YHWH’s Battles, and only says that it was sung by “balladeers” (מושלים). Nevertheless, Ramban (Nachmanides, ca. 1195-1270) argues that this quote also comes from YHWH’s Battles:

ודרך הפשט "בספר מלחמות ה'"—כי היו בדורות ההם אנשים חכמים כותבים סיפור המלחמות הגדולות, כי כן בכל הדורות. ובעלי הספרים ההם היו נקראים “מושלים”, שנושאים בהם משלים ומליצה
The peshat interpretation of “In the Book of YHWH’s Battles” is that there were in those days learned men who would write down the story of the great battles, because that is how it is in every generation. The men who wrote those books were called “balladeers” (מושלים) because they would compose in them poems and artful discourse.
והנה כאשר לכד סיחון ערי מואב כתבו המושלים בספר שקראו מלחמות ה’ את והב בסופה… וכן אמרו (להלן פסוק כ”ח) כי אש יצאה מחשבון להבה מקרית סיחון וגו’
And it happened that when Sihon conquered the cities of Moab, these balladeers wrote down in the book called YHWH’s Battles (Num 21:14) “Waheb in a storm”… They also wrote (Num 21:28), “For a fire went out from Heshbon, a flame from the Town of Sihon…”

If Ramban is correct, we now have two poems from YHWH’s Battles.

The Song of the Well

I would further suggest that the song that appears in between the Arnon Border Song and the Heshbon Ballad, namely the Song of the Well, may also be a quote from this book.[11]Although this song is entirely different in genre and has no connection to battle, this is not a problem, since collections of songs need not have a specific theme. One need only look at the book of Psalms to know this.

Comparison to the Book of Yashar

Another way we can approach the question of this document’s nature is by comparing it to another “book” called HaYashar (“The Upright”) that is cited certainly once, likely twice or thrice, and perhaps even four times in the Bible.[12]

A. 2 Sam 1:17-27

After hearing that Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, David sings a dirge for them. The opening of the dirge states that it comes from the Book of Yashar:

שמואל ב א:טז וַיְקֹנֵן דָּוִד אֶת הַקִּינָה הַזֹּאת עַל שָׁאוּל וְעַל יְהוֹנָתָן בְּנוֹ. א:יח וַיֹּאמֶר לְלַמֵּד בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה קָשֶׁת הִנֵּה כְתוּבָה עַל סֵפֶר הַיָּשָׁר.
2 Sam 1:17 And David intoned this dirge over Saul and his son Jonathan — 1:18 He ordered the Judites to be taught [The Song of] the Bow.[13] It is recorded in the Book of the Yashar.
א:יט הַצְּבִי יִשְׂרָאֵל
עַל בָּמוֹתֶיךָ חָלָל
אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים.
1:19 O Loveliest (Place) in Israel (=Mt. Gilboa),
Corpses (lie) on your heights;
How could the mighty have fallen!

B. Joshua 10:12-13

In Joshua 10, after he has routed his enemies and they are fleeing, he wishes for the day to extend so that he can complete the battle that day. At this point in the narrative, comes the quote:

יהושע י:יב אָז יְדַבֵּר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לַי־הוָה בְּיוֹם תֵּת יְ־הוָה אֶת הָאֱמֹרִי לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר לְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Josh 10:12 On that occasion, Joshua addressed YHWH, when YHWH routed the Amorites before the Israelites; he said in the presence of the Israelites:
שֶׁמֶשׁ בְּגִבְעוֹן דּוֹם
וְיָרֵחַ בְּעֵמֶק אַיָּלוֹן.
י:יג וַיִּדֹּם הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ
וְיָרֵחַ עָמָד
עַד יִקֹּם גּוֹי אֹיְבָיו
“Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon,
O moon, in the Valley of Ayalon!”
10:13 And the sun stood still
And the moon halted,
While a nation took vengeance on its foes.
הֲלֹא הִיא כְתוּבָה עַל סֵפֶר הַיָּשָׁר...
as is written in the Book of Yashar...

According to the MT, this song or poem comes from the book of The Upright.[14]

C. 1 Kings 8:12-13

The third example comes from the book of Kings. In the MT, before Solomon recites his long prayer about the Temple, he recites a brief one (1 Kings 8:12-13):

מלכים א ח:יב אָז אָמַר שְׁלֹמֹה
1 Kgs 8:12 Then Solomon said:
יְ־הוָה אָמַר לִשְׁכֹּן בָּעֲרָפֶל.
ח:יג בָּנֹה בָנִיתִי בֵּית זְבֻל לָךְ
מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ עוֹלָמִים.
“YHWH had thought to abide in a thick cloud.
8:13 I am building for You an elevated House,
A place where You may dwell forever.”

The MT does not indicate where this poem originates. The LXX, however, which has a version of this poem after Solomon’s long prayer, does say where it is from (v. 53a; NETS):

Then Solomon spoke concerning the house, when he had finished building it:

“A sun the Lord made manifest in the sky;
He said that he should dwell in deep darkness:
‘Build my house, a remarkable house for yourself, to dwell in anew.’”
And behold, is this one not written in a Book of the Song?

The LXX says that the song is from a book called The Song. Many scholars make the solid assumption that the reference to The Book of Song (ספר השיר) is a scribal error (metathesis) for the Hebrew title, The Book of Yashar (ספר הישר). The error could have been made by the translator or perhaps this error was already in the LXX’s Hebrew Vorlage.

D. Deut 31:30-32:43

The book of Deuteronomy contains a long poem towards its end that, like other songs in the Bible, is almost certainly being copied from somewhere else.

דברים לא:ל וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה בְּאָזְנֵי כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת עַד תֻּמָּם.
Deut 31:30 Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel:
לב:א הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה
וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי פִי.
32:1 Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words of my mouth!

The Torah does not say that this poem was taken from the book of Yashar, but I believe it is not only from that collection, but was actually its opening song, which is how the collection got its name.[15]

We generally refer to this song by its opening word Ha’azinu (“give ear”). But songs are not only named after the opening word, but sometimes after a particularly prominent word in the song. This is the case in David’s dirge for Saul and Jonathan.

שמואל ב א:יז וַיְקֹנֵן דָּוִד אֶת הַקִּינָה הַזֹּאת עַל שָׁאוּל וְעַל יְהוֹנָתָן בְּנוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר לְלַמֵּד בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה קָשֶׁת…
2 Sam 1:17 And David intoned this dirge over Saul and his son Jonathan — He ordered the Judites to be taught [the Song of] the Bow...

David’s lament is named “the Bow” (קשת) based on the prominent word within the poem referring to Jonathan’s “bow.”[16]

א:כב קֶשֶׁת יְהוֹנָתָן לֹא נָשׂוֹג אָחוֹר
וְחֶרֶב שָׁאוּל לֹא תָשׁוּב רֵיקָם.
1:22 The bow of Jonathan never turned back;
The sword of Saul never withdrew empty.

Naming a song by means of a prominent word is a widespread convention in early Arabic literature, such as the Qur’an and the early anthologies of songs and poems (the diwan).

In the case of Ha’azinu, I believe the name derives from the term used about YHWH in verse 4:

דברים לב:ד הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ
כִּי כָל דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט
אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל
צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא.
Deut 32:4 The Rock! His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never corrupt,
Just and upright is He.

The reference to God as “upright” is essential and not merely incidental to the poem. The song contrasts the straight, upright ways of the Deity with the ways of the people Israel, who are “stubborn and twisted” (v. 5; עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל). Israel will repay all of God’s kindnesses with rebellion and the worship of foreign gods.


What can we infer about these books from the materials we have? The simplest answer is that they are collections of songs with disparate themes. The titles of these collections appear to tell us nothing more than the name of the first or particularly prominent song appearing in the collection. Further research may show that our Tanakh includes additional poems belonging to an ancient Hebrew songbook.


June 27, 2017


Last Updated

June 17, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. He received the EMET Prize (“Israel’s Nobel”) in Humanities-Biblical Studies for 2020, and his book, Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019), won the acclaim of the American Library Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, and many others. He has been writing a commentary on Lamentations for the Jewish Publication Society.