But for the lesson that Asad points out (that faith is nothing without a disregard of material interests), I can’t figure out why Saul would tell his men that God is testing them based on their ability not to drink the water. From the previous few verses we know that we’ve turned to a discussion of ancient Israel, and it seems as though the Quran is teaching us what value the stories should have.
As this story about Saul, the first king of ancient Israelite, and his army is not in the Bible, I wonder where Mohammed would have heard such a story. If these verses are Medinan, then there are a few Jewish tribes around, some of whose members had converted, and others whom Muhammed would have just interacted with in the day to day. At this time, the Jews, I believe, were communicating a number of elements from their religion and scriptures to Mohammed so I’m guessing he’s learning quite a bit that is winding up in the Quran.
That said, this verse seems particularly fitting for this time period because of the escalation in tensions with the Quryash in Mecca. The Muslims early victory in the first real battle between them and the Quryash would have surely seemed like a blessing sent from heaven – one they could have never received without the faith they had and the sacrifices they were making to live away from their families and kinsmen. And the Muslims were, of course, the underdogs as the end of verse 249 suggests. Thus, lessons from the Bible and the Jews would have been most appropriate at this time.
What I wonder, though, is where this particular story came from. Was it a legend amongst the Jews that was communicated to Mohammed as they discussed the Bible, or was it something that was revealed to Mohammed and made sense after these discussions? I would love to see a book that traced the origins (to whatever extent possible) of the bible-related tales in the Quran that aren’t actually in the Bible. That would be fantastic.
On a similar note, I’m pondering the portrayal of the story with David and Goliath, only because of the different way that the Bible recounts this story – that David came later to the battleground because he was not part of Saul’s forces. Then he slew Goliath. These verses make it sound as though David was there, slew Goliath and then God loved him. Perhaps this is just the Quran abbreviating the story to its essentials since what is relevant in the Bible is not as relevant here, or when the story was getting summarized, it became naturally abridged this way.
In any case, this also seems to me to be a particularly Medinan notion because it justifies the need to fight and do battle: without the ability to defend oneself, corrupt people would have taken over everything. At a time when the early Muslim community in Medina would have been learning that it were going to have to take on a military aspect, it would have been important that they be reassured about the necessary steps to come. Not that fighting wasn’t already a part of Arab tribal life in the years before Mohammed, but the Quryash had not been fighting for a while at this point and reminding them of the need to defened themselves and the divine justifications for doing so would have been crucial.
My guess upon reading verse 253 was that the person God spoke to Himself was Moses and Asad confirmed that suspicion in his note on this verse. That makes Moses, Jesus and Mohammed those people to whom God communicated His messages in a comprehensive way. The latter part of verse 253 is quite a note about Free Will and Human Nature.
Can you help me flesh out anything that I’ve said about these verses, correct anything or add anything that I missed? Thanks so much for being a part of Quran Read-A-Long!
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The Cow 249-253
249 And when Saul set out with his forces, he said: “Behold, God will now try you by a river: he who shall drink of it will not belong to me, whereas he who shall refrain from tasting it – he, indeed, will belong to me; but forgiven shall be he who shall scoop up but a single handful.” However, save for a few of them, they all drank [their fill] of it. And as soon as he and those who had kept faith with him had crossed the river, the others said: “No strength have we today [to stand up] against Goliath and his forces!” [Yet] those who knew with certainty that they were destined to meet God, replied: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by God’s leave! For God is with those who are patient in adversity.” 250. And when they came face to face with Goliath and his forces, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Shower us with patience in adversity, and make firm our steps, and succor us against the people who deny the truth!” 251. And thereupon, by God’s leave, they routed them. And David slew Goliath; and God bestowed upon him dominion, and wisdom, and imparted to him the knowledge of whatever He willed. And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another,* corruption would surely overwhelm the earth: but God is limitless in His bounty unto all the worlds. 252. These are God’s messages: We convey them unto thee, [O Prophet,] setting forth the truth-for, verily, thou art among those who have been entrusted with a message. 253 Some of these apostles have We endowed more highly than others: among them were such as were spoken to by God [Himself], and some He has raised yet higher.’ And We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration. And if God had so willed, they who succeeded those [apostles] would not have contended with one another after all evidence of the truth had come to them; but [as it was,] they did take to divergent views, and some of them attained to faith, while some of them came to deny the truth. Yet if God had so willed, they would not have contended with one another: but God does whatever He wills.