Quran Day: The Cow 47-59 Recounts Exodus and God’s Relationship with the Israelites

Though there are an endless number of things to say about these verses, I’m going to go with two in particular: the first is the events recounted in Exodus and recalled here and the second is this notion of remembering.

What Comes from Exodus

Verse 49 begins a list of things that happened to the Israelites in the second book of the Bible, Exodus, the one that begins with the Israelites’ enslavement. God recounts how He saved the children of Israel from Egypt, parted the sea to aid their escape, communed with Moses, and how the Israelites made a calf, how God gave Moses the Book and Discernment (which I believe means the Bible and Prophecy, though instead of prophecy perhaps wisdom and [juris]prudence), how God sent manna and quails, etc.

Another hot topic in these sections is the Israelites’ disobedience (and they were so unruly between Egypt and Canaan that it’s a wonder they got anything – worse than bratty children in the backseat of a car!), and God’s continual mercy as he forgave them and still allowed them to go forward.

The Actual Bible in the Bible…and Then in the Quran

I would like to point out three things though. First, how it says that God gave Moses the Book. As I take this to mean the Bible, I must say that according to the Five Books of Moses, this didn’t happen. God didn’t give Moses a book (to read about Moses’ biblical authorship and the specifics of Deuteronomy’s mention of this, click HERE). Now, of course, this isn’t too important because the inherited tradition is that God did give Moses the Bible (or at least the beginning of it) so we’ll move on.

My Trouble with Verse 58

The second thing is verse 58, the one part of the events recounted (which admittedly seem to extend outside of Exodus), that I don’t understand or at least can’t match up to anything in the Bible. I don’t remember God ever saying that or anything like it to the Israelites, but perhaps it’s the Quran’s way of saying that God gave the Israelites every chance to go to Heaven (this great city?) and that they just had to do it a certain way and as the following verses showed, they just kept sinning and perverting God’s word.

It is fascinating that God tells the Israelites to repent in these verses because repentance and forgiveness by God were concepts entirely absent from ancient Israelite religion (that is, the religion reflected in Genesis, Exodus-Deuteronomy). I believe that forgiveness and repentance are very important concepts in Islam and so it’s interesting that in recounting ancient Israelite history, the Quran has God emphasizing the importance of repentance to the Israelites, though the concept was never there and doesn’t exist in that part of the Bible, beyond basic apologizing after the Golden Calf incident, but certainly not as a theological emphasis or doctrinal necessity.

Finally, though a quick summary, I would like to say that for the most part this section captures the gist of the Old Testament. God did the Israelites a lot of favors from Egypt forward, the Israelites treated God poorly and were totally ungrateful, and then throughout the Prophets the Israelites are accused, like verse 59 here, of perverting the word of God and being sinners. Thus, retribution was sent, ultimately for the Jews in the form of the Babylonian Exile.

Remembrance

The last thing I want to mention is the way many of these verses start, emphasizing “Remember.” This makes me think of the Passover holiday celebrated by Jews that is designed to make Jews remember the many things that God did for them. Jews recount the events so that they never forget what they owe God. That feeling, though obviously in brief, seems echoed here based on the interweaving of God’s great actions, mercy and forgiveness.

What do these verses make you think about? What can you add to our understanding of these verses? Is there any part of the summary of ancient Israelite history that you have trouble placing as a biblically recounted event?

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The Cow 47-59

47. Remember, O Children of Israel, the favors I bestowed on you, and made you exalted among the nations of the world. 48. Take heed of the day when no man will be useful to man in the least, when no intercession matter nor ransom avail, nor help reach them. 49. Remember, We saved you from the Pharaoh’s people who wronged and oppressed you and slew your sons but spared your women: In this was a great favor from your Lord. 50. Remember, We parted the sea and saved you, and drowned the men of Pharaoh before your very eyes. 51. Yet, remember, as We communed with Moses for forty nights you took the calf in his absence (and worshiped it), and you did wrong. 52. Even so, We pardoned you that you may be grateful. 53. Remember, We gave Moses the Book and Discernment of falsehood and truth, that you may be guided. 54. Remember, Moses said: “My people, by taking this calf you have done yourselves harm, so now turn to your Creator in repentance, and kill your pride, which is better with your Lord.” And (the Lord) softened towards you, for He is all-forgiving and merciful. 55. Remember, when you said to Moses: “We shall not believe in you until we see God face to face,” lightening struck you as you looked. 56. Even then We revived you after you had become senseless that you might give thanks; 57. And made the cloud spread shade over you, and sent for you manna and quails that you may eat of the good things We have made for you. No harm was done to Us, they only harmed themselves. 58. And remember, We said to you: “Enter this city, eat wherever you like, as much as you please, but pass through the gates in humility and say: ‘May our sins be forgiven.'” We shall forgive your trespasses and give those who do good abundance. 59. But the wicked changed and perverted the word We had spoken to a word distorted, and We sent from heaven retribution on the wicked, for they disobeyed.

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8 Responses

  1. These verses must be placed in the context of Islamic history, like most of the Qur’an. When Muhammad revealed his revelations to the community of Mecca, most of the locals did not agree with his message. Muhammad and his followers found themselves living under oppression. Seeking refuge, Muhammad migrated to Medina, where he was welcomed by those who believed in Muhammad. Medina was a diverse city, populated by Jews, Christians, and polytheists. Therefore, the Qu’ran also addresses these groups. It is important to understand that Islam was not created in a vacuum. There were people of other faiths who lived amongst Muhammad and his followers.

    Moreover, it is crucial to point out how these verses refer to Moses and the story of Exodus. Islam emphasizes on continuity. Muhammad is not a “new” prophet, who is presenting a “new” message. Rather, he is continuing the line of monotheism. The Qur’an wants you to “remember” because one must recognize that Muhammad comes from a line of former prophets. One can say that this makes Muhammad’s case a lot more convincing to other monotheists.

    The story of the golden calf lays a fair warning to the community that one can seek guidance from God, but that does not guarantee that his guidance will be followed. The Israelites made a mistake in worshiping the calf, but God forgave them. We already encountered God’s forgiveness in the story of Adam and his wife. Therefore, forgiveness is granted to all from Adam and his wife to the Israelites, from the line of the prophets to the people of Medina. Forgiveness continues through all of those who live righteously.

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  3. …how God gave Moses the Book and Discernment (which I believe means the Bible and Prophecy, though instead of prophecy perhaps wisdom and [juris]prudence)…

    “The Book” is the Tawrah, the original of which Muslims believe to be lost (the Pentateuch not being the original Tawrah). The “Discernment,” normally translated as “Criterion,” has several different opinions attached to it. Muhammad Asad wrote:

    Muhammad ‘Abduh amplifies the above interpretation of al-furqan (adopted by Tabari, Zamakhshari and other great commentators) by maintaining that it applies also to “human reason, which enables us to distinguish the true from the false” (Manar III, 160), apparently basing this wider interpretation on 8:41, where the Battle of Badr is described as yawm al-furqan (“the day on which the true was distinguished from the false”). While the term furqan is often used in the Qur’an to describe one or another of the revealed scriptures, and particularly the Qur’an itself, it has undoubtedly also the connotation pointed out by ‘Abduh: for instance, in 8:29, where it clearly refers to the faculty of moral valuation which distinguishes every human being who is truly conscious of God. (Quran Ref: 2:53)

    Yusuf Ali wrote:

    Allah’s revelation, the expression of Allah’s Will, is the true standard of right and wrong. It may be in a Book or in Allah’s dealings in history. All these may be called His Signs or Miracles. In this passage some commentators take the Scripture and the Criterion (Furqan) to be identical. Others take them to be two distinct things: Scripture being the written Book and the Criterion being other Signs. I agree with the latter view. The word Furqan also occurs in 21:48 in connection with Moses and Aaron and in the first verse of Sura 25, as well as in its title, in connection with Muhammad. As Aaron received no Book, Furqan must mean the other Signs. Al Mustafa (Muhammad) had both the Book and the other Signs: perhaps here too we take the other signs as supplementing the Book. …

    While I think Asad’s argument has merit, I tend to favor Yusuf Ali’s “latter view.” Allahu alim. (God knows best.)

    The second thing is verse 58, the one part of the events recounted (which admittedly seem to extend outside of Exodus), that I don’t understand or at least can’t match up to anything in the Bible.

    Muslim exegesis is somewhat over the map with respect to the town mentioned in this verse. The tafsir (exegesis) of Ibn Kathir says:

    The correct opinion about the meaning of, `the holy land’ mentioned here is that it was Bayt Al-Maqdis (Jerusalem), as As-Suddi, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, Qatadah and Abu Muslim Al-Asfahani, as well as others have stated. … However, some scholars said that the holy land is Jericho, (Ariha’) and this opinion was mentioned from Ibn `Abbas and `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd.

    However, Yusuf Ali wrote:

    This probably refers to Shittim. It was the “town of acacias,” just east of the Jordan, where the Israelites were guilty of debauchery and the worship of and sacrifices to false golds (Num. xxv. 1-2, also 8-9): a terrible punishment ensued, including the plague, of which 24,000 died. …

    Muhammad Asad wrote:

    The word qaryah primarily denotes a “village” or “town,” but is also used in the sense of “land.” Here it apparently refers to Palestine. (Quran Ref: 2:58)

    Once again, Allahu alim.

    The last thing I want to mention is the way many of these verses start, emphasizing “Remember.”

    As Hilla mentions, the Qur’an addresses many different groups, not just Muslims. These verses that begin “Remember” were being addressed to Jews.

    BTW, once again, Hilla has done a very good analysis.

  4. Funny, as I was reading through Asad and Ali’s opinions on the first matter, I thought, upon arriving at the latter view of Ali that this made the most sense to me so far.

    Also, how fascinating that the “Book” is the Torah and not the entire Bible. This leads me to a huge swath of questions which absolutely fascinate me.

    What do Muslims think about the rest of the, so called, Old Testament as compared to the Torah. What about the Bible as a whole? It seems that the Torah would be considered the oldest part, but as you’ve said, what we have today is not the original Torah as given by God. This, of course, would help explain my constant struggle with correlating the Quran’s versions of the Torah stories by simply allowing that the Quran is tapping into the original Torah before its (would it be right to say?) corruption. Is the original Torah thought to still exist anywhere in its proper form or has it simply been lost over the ages by alterations and corruptions?

    What a fascinating element this introduces into my thoughts on the matter. Honestly, it probably won’t keep me from comparing the two texts since their similarities and differences are still interesting and relevant, both historically and theologically, but it’s an excellent point to keep in my head as I wrestle with that fact.

  5. Funny, as I was reading through Asad and Ali’s opinions on the first matter, I thought, upon arriving at the latter view of Ali that this made the most sense to me so far.

    Well, you’re not as “traditional” as I am. 😉 I’ve found that as I’ve studied the Qur’an and Islam more (which has been a 13 years process), my thinking has become more orthodox. Muhammad Asad was an interesting person and, as a Jewish revert to Islam who was raised with a strong religious education, he presents insights that most Muslims wouldn’t necessarily have due to his background. However, like many other Muslim writers, he has his critics, due to his neo-Mu’tazilite leanings (the Mu’tazilah was an Islamic school of thought that died out centuries ago). I present Asad’s commentary to you in part because it’s a Islamic scholarly tradition to compare and contrast the works of different scholars; we read, compare and make up our own minds, moving toward ijma’, consensus, instead of the extremes. (IMO, Asad tends to be somewhat extreme.) Personally, I tend to prefer Yusuf Ali’s commentary, although he too has his own critics. 😉

    Also, how fascinating that the “Book” is the Torah and not the entire Bible.

    This gets into a little bit of Islamic “Prophetology.” 🙂 In Islam, there are believed to have been a total of 124,000 prophets sent worldwide, from the time of Adam (pbuh), the first prophet, to Muhammad (pbuh), the last. The vast majority of these prophets are anonymous; we only know of 25 through the Qur’an, although some others are mentioned (anonymously), such as those in the parable of the Companions of the City (36:13-29). Now, of all these prophets, only five were given books: Abraham (whose book has been lost), Moses (Tawrah, corrupted), David (Psalms, perhaps the least corrupted (Allahu alim)), Jesus (Injil, corrupted) and Muhammad (Qur’an). So, when we discuss “the Book,” we’re being more specific, almost always referring to one of the five above. (Or occasionally referring to all five books collectively, which we believe Allah (swt) has.)

    This leads me to a huge swath of questions which absolutely fascinate me.

    Ask away.

    What do Muslims think about the rest of the, so called, Old Testament as compared to the Torah. What about the Bible as a whole?

    To be honest, I don’t think most Muslims “think” about the Old or New Testaments all that much. It’s not a slight against the Bible; in fact, we greatly respect it and all of the previous prophets (pbut). This is why, despite all the acts of desecration on the Qur’an committed by “Christians,” you haven’t seen any Muslim acts of desecrations against the Bible. Astaghfirullah! That thought is pretty much unthinkable. But you don’t also see a lot of Muslims studying the Old or New Testaments that much either, although some do. Muslims by and large concentrate on the Qur’an and ahadith for their religious studies, which can be very time consuming by itself.

    This, of course, would help explain my constant struggle with correlating the Quran’s versions of the Torah stories by simply allowing that the Quran is tapping into the original Torah before its (would it be right to say?) corruption.

    I would agree with this. There are a number of verses in the Qur’an that essentially say, “This is what happened in the past; you (and everyone else) weren’t there, you don’t know what really happened.” For example, verse 12:102, after the story of Joseph (pbuh) has been concluded (which is a really wonderful surah, btw):

    Such is one of the stories of what happened unseen, which We reveal by inspiration unto thee; nor wast thou (present) with them then when they concerted their plans together in the process of weaving their plots.

    Is the original Torah thought to still exist anywhere in its proper form or has it simply been lost over the ages by alterations and corruptions?

    No. From our perspective, it’s been lost, probably not completely (Allahu alim), but enough that Muslims generally distrust what’s currently written. See, we try to stay theologically “pure,” in a manner of speaking. We try to avoid the corruptions and accretions (bida) that people add onto a religion. (This was a major reason why Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab began his reforms in the 1700s, which has become known as Wahhabism.) Which parts of the Old or New Testaments are correct? We don’t know. So we try to avoid being dogmatic on these hair-splitting issues. Like the verse above, we don’t know what really happened, we weren’t there; where Allah (swt) presents information on a matter we accept that as the truth. Read 18:1-26, especially verse 22.

    Honestly, it probably won’t keep me from comparing the two texts since their similarities and differences are still interesting and relevant, both historically and theologically, but it’s an excellent point to keep in my head as I wrestle with that fact.

    Nor should it. By all means, don’t stop.

  6. what does Islam say or views on exodus

    • @ John: A lot! 😉 Seriously, there’s too much information in the Qur’an about the Jewish Exodus to summarize that discussion. Moses (pbuh), for example, is mentioned by name in the Qur’an about 125 times.

      @ Jay: Come back, all is forgiven! 😉 (The joy of being a new husband: blogging goes by the wayside. 😉 )

  7. I want to come back so much! – blogging has fallen by the wayside in a most serious way, largely because all of my writing responsibilities and time spent on other projects (not to mention the joys of being a new husband, of course). My business and two other teaching jobs have left me with no time to even look at this blog, but I assure you that its neglect nags at me. I even thought yesterday while I was out, I would love to return to this blog!

    I’m going to St. Louis to deliver a paper this weekend on the portrayal of fat in South Park at the PCA/ACA (basically, American Popular Culture) conference and then next week I’m leaving the country for 6 weeks. Hopefully in my absence I’ll find some time to revisit this blog and think about how to bring it back, particularly my favorite part, Quran Read-Along.

    How are you, JDsg? How is your family? Are you still working on your book?

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