Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 249-253 Gives Us Some Lessons From the Bible…Sort Of

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.

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11 Responses

  1. “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”
    In battle–dicipline is important–when fighting a “just war” one should not fight for glory/ego. In “just war” the responsibility is heavy because one must restrain one’s ego—for example–anger must not overwhelm us so we needlessly destroy, passion/zeal must not overwhelm reason so we lose strategy, and when the tide is favourable, we must be capable of stopping the war, (no matter how tempting it might be to continue)and accepting a truce when our enemy calls for one.
    —Were the army of Saul capable of this responsibility? if they could not obey their King and restrain themselves in drinking water—what good were they as soldiers?

    —Another note of interest—Although the Jewish tribes were members of the Medina community, Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) made peace treaties with them so that they were exempt from fighting—in return they would remain neutral in the conflict. So this reminder of David and Goliath and concepts of “just war” would likely have been for both Jews and Muslims.

    Where the story came from—Most of the similarities to the bible are obvious–some that are not—can be traced to apocrypha or rabbinical works—Yusuf Ali commentary has done a good job naming some of these. However–a note of caution—there are some Christian stories and Jewish works that have been influenced by Islam/Quran creating similarity also.

    Though the similarities are traceable and explainable–the differences are not. Non-muslim scholars have tried to come up with plausible explanations for differences such as Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) was trained by a Rabbi while he was meditating at Mt Hira and he thus came upon this knowledge—or that he encountered wise men during his travels with the caravan, or that he simply misunderstood the bible…etc. If we assume some legitimacy to these explanations—Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) would have had to be a man of great wisdom and intelligence to not only retain the Torah/Bible, various apocrypha and rabbinical works in memory–but also be able to spontaneously produce them at the right moment in the highest literary arabic style-one without parallel, then and now—in front of audiences who memorized /wrote these verses. Or… one could accept that he was an orphan boy who became a man chosen on behalf of all mankind, to recieve the gift of the Quran. —-Either way, he was one very remarkable man.

    Note-(In case there is a difference of understanding)—Muslims believe all of the Quran is a revelation–they are not “inspired writings” of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh)—He did not write—he dictated (everything from letters to peace treaties)—The Quran is not “sayings/teachings” of Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) these are ahadith and these are not “revelation”. There is a distinction. Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is not the “author” of the Quran—he is a messenger—one who brings the message.

    verse 253—This is an interesting verse about the (God-given) free-will of man vs God’s will. An all powerful God could wipe out man’s free-will and order our world as he wills it–but he does not—because it is our responsibility to bring justice, compassion and mercy within ourselves, to our societies and in our interactions with all of God’s creations. (But we will not be alone in this endeavor—God helps those who make that choice and effort.)

    Reminder—The Quran also says that all messengers are equal—therefore this verse should be read with this in mind—some Prophets had more responsibility than others–so they were given more blessings to enable them to accomplish what they were meant to.

  2. Great comments and things to be aware of – thanks so much, Kay. I hadn’t considered the additional influence of apocryphal and rabbinic works – excellent point. I feel like surely some scholar must have already worked to trace these varying traditions, despite the difficulty.

  3. As this story about Saul, the first king of the ancient Israelites, and his army is not in the Bible, I wonder where Mohammed would have heard such a story.

    Well, we can tell who’s still the non-Muslim around here. 😉

    The Muslims early victory in the first real battle between them and the Quryash would have surely seemed like a blessing sent from heaven… Thus, lessons from the Bible and the Jews would have been most appropriate at this time.

    Both you and Kay are correct, although for different reasons. Kay said that “In battle–discipline is important… Were the army of Saul capable of this responsibility? if they could not obey their King and restrain themselves in drinking water—what good were they as soldiers?” This is echoed by Yusuf Ali’s footnote #284, where he wrote:

    A Commander is hampered by a large force if it is not in perfect discipline and does not wholeheartedly believe in its Commander. He must get rid of all the doubtful ones, as did Gideon before Saul, and Henry V, in Shakespeare’s story long afterwards. Saul used the same test as Gideon: he gave a certain order when crossing a stream: the greater part disobeyed, and were sent back. Gideon’s story will be found in Judges vii. 2-7.

    I think it’s also important to remember that, when we read about ancient armies, the concept of a “professional” army was almost non-existent. Only the Spartans and the Romans had anything approaching a professional army as we understand the concept today. Virtually all soldiers then would have been irregulars. Thus, the discipline issue would have been even more important. The merest whiff of panic among the soldiery was enough to send most armies scurrying back for their own camp.

    Ibn Kathir also points out that the story of Saul’s army against the Philistines can be compared against the story of the Battle of Badr, which had taken place a few years prior to the revelation of Surah al-Baqarah:

    Allah states that Talut, the king of the Children of Israel, marched forth with his soldiers and the Israelites who obeyed him. His army was of eighty thousand then, according to As-Suddi, but Allah knows best. Talut said:

    (Verily, Allah will try you) meaning, He will test you with a river, which flowed between Jordan and Palestine, i.e. , the Shari`ah river, according to Ibn `Abbas and others. He continued,

    (So whoever drinks thereof, he is not of me;) meaning, shall not accompany me today,

    (and whoever tastes it not, he is of me, except him who takes (thereof) in the hollow of his hand.) meaning, there is no harm in this case. Allah then said:

    (Yet, they drank thereof, all, except a few of them.)

    Ibn Jurayj stated that Ibn `Abbas commented, “Whoever took some of it (the river’s water) in the hollow of his hand, quenched his thirst; as for those who drank freely from it, their thirst was not quenched.”

    Ibn Jarir reported that Al-Bara’ bin `Azib said, “We used to say that the Companions of Muhammad who accompanied him on the battle of Badr were more than three hundred and ten, just as many as the soldiers who crossed the river with Talut. Only those who believed crossed the river with him.” Al-Bukhari also reported this.

    This is why Allah said:

    (So when he had crossed it (the river), he and those who believed with him, they said: “We have no power this day against Jalut (Goliath) and his hosts.”)

    This Ayah indicates that the Israelites (who remained with Saul) thought that they were few in the face of their enemy who were many then. So, their knowledgeable scholars strengthened their resolve by stating that Allah’s promise is true and that triumph comes from Allah Alone, not from the large numbers or the adequacy of the supplies. They said to them:

    (“How often has a small group overcome a mighty host by Allah’s leave” And Allah is with As-Sabirin (the patient).)

    There’s not much more to add to Kay’s comment; she did a very good job. 🙂 I will mention, though: you’ve reached the end of the 2nd 30th of the Qur’an, at verse 252. Congrats!

  4. I think to answer your question Jay, The Islamic david seems to earn divine favor through his own empowerment whereas the Christian david gains empowerment through divine favor.

  5. I tend to like skewed stories revolving around one account. Such stories seem to orbit a phantom. Especially religious ones that seem to share the anecdotal root of truth, yet branch off with different details in each event. Sadly it seems little to no undisputed historical records are available. Ironically making evidence faith based.

  6. Jay,JD–Thankyou. Commenting here has been a surprising excersise–Sometimes you know things–they are in the back of your mind–but putting those ideas into words–has made them more clear and coherent. —Your questions are always interesting Jay, and I also very much appreciate the additional input from JD. The Quran does not encourage blind faith—It tells us to seek knowledge—and one way to find answers is to ask questions.

    JD–there is an incident of indiscipline/lack of restraint in the Battle of Uhud–by a group of archers—it unneccessarily prolonges the battle costing more lives.—I did’nt bring it up because I wasn’t sure of the chronology between this verse and the battle.–but these verses did remind me of that incident.

    Snowball—That is an interesting observation. (Islamic David). The Quran is not meant to be a history book. That may be why sometimes the names are different from the names of the Bible (Saul=Talut)—so as to emphasise the lesson rather than the story (or history)?
    I feel the Quran expects its readers to be intelligent and capable adults—this difference of perception of the relationship between man and Divine (between Bible and Quran)could be because of evolving spiritual progress of mankind?

  7. @ Kay: I did’nt bring it up because I wasn’t sure of the chronology between this verse and the battle.

    Apparently I should have dug deeper to look up the chronology of events and revelations when I wrote, “…the story of the Battle of Badr, which had taken place a few years prior to the revelation of Surah al-Baqarah”

    Badr took place on March 17, 624 (17 Ramadan 2 AH), whereas Uhud took place on 19 March 625 (3 Shawwal 3 AH). Maududi, in his chapter introduction to Surah al-Baqarah, said, “The greater part of Al-Baqarah was revealed during the first two years of the Holy Prophet’s life at Al-Madinah.” So, by the time of Badr, most of Surah al-Baqarah was probably already revealed. In which case, the story of Talut’s army crossing the stream would probably already have been known by the Muslims in Madinah. I agree with your comment regarding the archers at Uhud.

    That may be why sometimes the names are different from the names of the Bible (Saul=Talut)…

    I always thought those were the original names in Arabic, that there wasn’t any reason to change the names.

    I feel the Quran expects its readers to be intelligent and capable adults…

    Very much so! And this is one of my biggest gripes with most non-Muslims who try to “pronounce” on the meaning of the Qur’an: they give very shallow, very facile interpretations. Jay is very much the exception to this rule. And yet they’re both fond of claiming that most Muslims are dependent upon imams for understanding the Qur’an (“they don’t know what’s in the Qur’an because they can’t read,” they breathlessly claim); likewise, when told of their own weaknesses in understanding the Qur’an they often become reactionary and indignant. (I went through this same problem over at Daily Kos just the other day.) Of course the Qur’an requires its readers to be intelligent and capable. What? Allah (swt), the most intelligent, the most capable, would write a book solely for the stupid? We get out of the Qur’an what effort we put into its study as is befitting a book of such “density.” (I love that word Jay used. 🙂 )

  8. JD–Thankyou for the additional info regarding events/verses.

    Names—Yes, you are right—most names are arabized names such as Daud, Sulaiman etc. There are a couple that can be a bit puzzling though…..

    Gripes—I understand what you mean—I’m afraid I may have been guilty of that myself as I read the Torah! But then Jay said that many of the Jewish rituals were meant as a “remembrance”—I think if the Torah is read with this aspect in mind—It can be more understandable/relatable. Possibly that is how Jewish people also see it?

    I want to say more but ……….gotta go…….

  9. And yet they’re both fond of claiming that…

    Rereading my last comment, this should really have been written, And yet they’re [non-Muslims, not including Jay] fond of claiming both that…

  10. @ Kay: Gripes—I understand what you mean—I’m afraid I may have been guilty of that myself as I read the Torah!

    There’s nothing wrong with the facile, shallow interpretation per se. We all go through that stage whenever we read something we don’t understand very well, particularly for the first time. Nor is it limited to a book like the Qur’an. Understanding some of the novels by SF writer Frank Herbert has been challenging to me, especially when I was younger, but I re-read and re-read, trying to understand what was unclear to me before.

    There are just too many non-Muslims (and even some Muslims) who think they understand the Qur’an – when they don’t – and then proceed to lecture Muslims based on their extremely limited understanding, thinking they are right, dammit! when they are only exposing their ignorance. Those are the people whom I can’t stand. It’s like a student who has only a Newtonian grasp of physics trying to tell a professor teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity just how wrong they are.

    That boat won’t float.

  11. Sorry for my recent negligence of this thread – I’ve been dying to comment but have been overwhelmed with other things lately. But here I am.

    First, let me say that I understand the frustration inherent in others reading texts or attempting to understand things and then preaching them vehemently without regard for a true understanding of those texts. I often find myself very frustrated because I take a very analytical and scholarly approach to the Bible (which isn’t to say that I don’t see/understand/recognize its spiritual value as well), and I find it incredibly frustrating when someone comes along with blind faith and insists that something says what it does for some inferred theological purpose rather than asking questions to really learn, as Kay pointed out the necessity of, and seeing the historical reasons behind much of the text.

    That’s one thing I’m really enjoying about the Quran: because of the degree to which the history of Mohammed’s life (post-beginning his revelations, that is) was documented and, I think largely agreed upon by key scholars, the text is beautifully grounded in the history around it as well as its larger spiritual understanding and implications. Muslims, at least as far as I know, don’t deny or dismiss the history that surrounds the period and the revelation of the Quran and actually celebrate it as central to their religious understanding. On the contrary, Jews and Christians, outside of a largely scholastic community, often ignore, dismiss or deny the more likely truths of say, Jesus’ or Moses’ lives (to the extent to which we can know such things). I’m not saying, all of them, but enough that I find it frustrating.

    So…just empathizing a bit.

    I love understanding the Quran better and glad that you all keep me on my toes and don’t let me walk away with a false understanding of the verses. I couldn’t get through the text with such a well-rounded knowledge (not that one read through begins to approach that but well-rounded for a first read through, let’s say) without your help.

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