Quran Day: Verses 60 and 61 of The Cow speak about the Israelites in the Desert

What’s in the Bible

The premise of this short passage is in the Bible: the Israelites grumbled about water and they complained about food. Regarding the water, Moses did strike a rock with his staff. There is no talk of the division of tribes here in the Bible, but in the Quran the passage leads us to the point of saying that what was derived from this experience was the tribes learning their place and that they should spread no discord in the land because God will provide for them all. I like that.

Where This Passage Goes

At first, this passage is speaking of the Israelites’ complaints against God but very quickly it ends up speaking of God chastising them for wanting to exchange what is good with what is bad (?) and telling them to go to the city. This, I don’t understand. I’m not sure what the city refers to nor why them going there will get them what they want. In addition, the Israelites are then disgraced. I’m unsure why, other than them questioning God’s ability to provide what is right, the same theme of the previous verse. However, at the end, everything returns to a common biblical theme whereby the Israelites don’t listen to the word of God and treat the prophets unjustly. It was a quick move and link from the complaining in the desert to a characterization of the Israelites’ behavior for the next 700+ years.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with these two verses, as they start and end with familiar ideas (to me) but speak of things I don’t understand in the middle. Do you know what is being discussed here? Should this city, whether symbolic or actual, be obvious to me?

Follow-up

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The Cow 60-61

60. And remember, when Moses asked for water for his people, We told him to strike the rock with his staff, and behold, twelve springs of gushing water gushed forth so that each of the tribes came to know its place of drinking. Eat and drink, (enjoy) God’s gifts, and spread no discord in the land. 61. Remember, when you said: “O Moses, we are tired of eating the same food (day after day), ask your Lord to give us fruits of the earth, herbs and cucumbers, grains and lentils and onions;” he said: “Would you rather exchange what is good with what is bad? Go then to the city, you shall have what you ask.” So they were disgraced and became indigent, earning the anger of God, for they disbelieved the word of God and slayed the prophets unjustly, for they transgressed and rebelled.

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5 Responses

  1. You’re a day early. 😉

    While this is one of the shortest “sections” of the Qur’an (only two ayat), there’s a lot of content here. Yusuf Ali devotes seven paragraphs of footnotes to these two ayat, most of which I’ll skip, although there are a few that are of interest.

    With respect to the phrase, “Eat and drink, (enjoy) God’s gifts, and spread no discord in the land” (Yusuf Ali: “So eat and drink of the sustenance provided by Allah. And do no evil nor mischief on the (face of the) earth.”), one of the themes that Yusuf Ali brings up again and again in his notes is the idea that the “sustenance” of Allah (swt) is much more than mere food and water. He provides for all of our sustenance, whether it’s to satisfy our bodies, our intellects, or our spirituality:

    The story [of the twelve springs gushing from the rock] is used as a parable, as is clear from the latter part of the verse. In the desolation and among the rocks of this life people grumble. But they will not be left starving or thirsty of spiritual life. Allah’s Messenger can provide abundant spiritual sustenance even from such unpromising things as the hard rocks of life. And all the nations can be grouped around it, each different, yet each in perfect order and discipline. We are to use with gratitude all spiritual food and drink provided by Allah, and He sometimes provides from unexpected places. We must restrain ourselves from mischief, pride, and every kind of evil, for our higher life is based on our probation on this very earth.

    BTW, apparently the rock mentioned in the Qur’an and Bible is real; in the preceding paragraph, Yusuf Ali wrote:

    Near Horeb close to Mount Sinai, where the Law was given to Moses (pbuh), is a huge mass of red granite, twelve feet high and about fifty feet in circumference, where European travelers … saw abundant springs of water twelve in number.

    Now, as to “the city,” this is an area where I think linguistic context becomes important in understanding the verse. In looking at several different translations and tafsir, there are different ways in which “the city” has been translated; for example, Pickthall uses “settled country,” Hilali and Khan, “any city.” Yusuf Ali writes “any town.” The Tafsir of Ibn Kathir says,

    (Go you down to any Misr) means, “any city,” as Ibn `Abbas said. Ibn Jarir also reported that Abu Al-`Aliyah and Ar-Rabi` bin Anas said that the Ayah refers to Misr, the Egypt of Fir`awn. The truth is that the Ayah means any city, as Ibn `Abbas and other scholars stated. Therefore, the meaning of Musa’s statement to the Children of Israel becomes, “What you are asking for is easy, for it is available in abundance in any city that you might enter. So since what you asked for is available in all of the villages and cities, I will not ask Allah to provide us with it, especially when it is an inferior type of food. ” This is why Musa said to them,

    (Would you exchange that which is better for that which is lower Go you down to any town and you shall find what you want!)

    Since their request was the result of boredom and arrogance and since fulfilling it was unnecessary, their request was denied. Allah knows best.

    However, I think that Yusuf Ali’s footnote provides some very interesting information:

    The declension of the word Misr in the Arabic text here shows that it is treated as a common noun meaning any town, but this is not conclusive, and the reference may be to the Egypt of Pharaoh. The Tanwin* expressing indefiniteness may mean “any Egypt,”** i.e., any country as fertile as Egypt. There is here a subtle reminiscence as well as a severe reproach. The rebellious children of Israel murmured at the sameness of the food they got in the desert. They were evidently hankering after the delicacies of the Egypt which they had left, although they should have known that the only thing certain for them in Egypt was their bondage and harsh treatment. Moses’s reproach to them was twofold: (1) Such variety of foods you can get in any town: would you, for their sake, sell your freedom? Is not freedom better than delicate food? (2) In front of the rich Promised Land, which you are reluctant to march to: behind is Egypt, the land of bondage. Which is better? Would you exchange the better for the worse?

    * “Tanwin” means a suffix of -n is added to a word; in this case, the transliterated word is misran.
    ** Misr is the Arabic word for Egypt.

    In this case, I think that Muhammad Asad’s translation, which ties in with Yusuf Ali’s footnote, makes the most sense in this context (Allahu alim):

    “Would you take a lesser thing in exchange for what is [so much] better? Go back in shame to Egypt, and then you can have what you are asking for!”

    The second half of the verse (“So they were disgraced…”) is also interesting. From Yusuf Ali:

    From here the argument becomes more general. They got the Promised Land. But they continued to rebel against Allah. And their humiliation and misery became a national disaster. They were carried in captivity to Assyria. They were restored under the Persians, but still remained under the Persian yoke, and they were under the yoke of the Greeks, the Romans, and Arabs. They were scatterred all over the earth, and have been a wandering people ever since, because they rejected faith, slew Allah’s messengers, and went on transgressing.

    But the moral goes wider than the Children of Israel. It applies to all nations and all individuals. If they are stiff-necked, if they set a greater value on perishable goods than on freedom and eternal salvation, if they break the law of Allah and resist His grace, their portion must be humiliation and misery in the spiritual world and probably even on this earth if a long view is taken.

  2. As a quick aside, I like the use of the term stiff-necked. There is an identical term in Hebrew that also means stubborn just as it seems to here. Got to love those Semitic language similarities.

    Also, your comments make these two verses far more discernible and understandable for me, thank you. Instead of “the city” the alternate translations, especially in light of the ensuing comment, become far more clear.

    What you ask for, Israelites, is general things that you can get anywhere (in any city), and God is providing you with all of your needs, both physical and spiritual, at this special time in your journey. Upon rereading the verses, not only can I see how this is what is happening here but also how the trajectory of the verses makes more sense when bearing these latter comments in mind.

    I find it remarkable, how with a little illumination, these two verses can not only make so much more sense but also encapsulate a huge theme and movement of the Bible. At the same time, a much larger message exists within these two verses of the Quran, as the final paragraph of your comment makes clear: all people who value the corporeal over the celestial will come up short. And this we get from beginning with a single event in the desert during the Israelites’ wanderings – hitting the rock – and ending only a moment later with the history of their interactions with the prophets.

  3. When reading this verse, one must keep in mind the previous verses and also be aware of the ones ahead of it. Verses 40-141 in al-Baqarah deal with very similar issues concerning diversity and continuity in Islam. Verses 60-61 are another prime example of when the Israelites failed and betrayed the word of God, just like in the prior verses we have read.

    “The city” (which I think is a wrong translation) refers to the word misr (or misr’an, as appears vowelled in the verse). The word means “big city” or “metropolis” (and is the name for Egypt). However, the translation should actually be “*a* city”, not “*the* city” based on the end vowelling of the word.

  4. What you ask for, Israelites, is general things that you can get anywhere (in any city), and God is providing you with all of your needs, both physical and spiritual, at this special time in your journey.

    Bingo!

  5. …all people who value the corporeal over the celestial will come up short.

    This is a theme stressed frequently in the Qur’an; e.g., 2:212, 3:14, 3:185, 4:74, etc., but especially 33:28-34, where the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) were asked this question.

    And this we get from beginning with a single event in the desert during the Israelites’ wanderings – hitting the rock…

    I think this gets back to the “density” of the Qur’an, giving spiritual lessons with an economy of words. Taking incidents from the lives of the various Prophets (pbut) and examining and applying the spiritual lessons that can be derived.

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