With the Jewish festival of Passover occurring this week, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on one of the significant differences in the story of Moses as told by the Qur’an when compared with the tradition held by the Torah. In my first blog I mentioned that the Bible and the Qur’an actually share very little in common and Passover is a perfect example to illustrate what I meant by this.
Passover is a yearly celebration commemorating the freedom of the Israelites from slavery under the Pharaoh. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that God sent plagues upon Egypt as signs, but they don’t agree on how many plagues were sent or what these plagues were. According to Exodus1, the tenth and final plague sent upon the people of Egypt was the killing of all their firstborn sons. This was not limited to just humans as it included even livestock and other animals. In order for the Israelites to be protected from this massacre, they would have to take a one year old unblemished male lamb, slaughter it, and smear its blood on their door frames. If a household followed these instructions, along with a few other rituals, then when God passed over Egypt, he would see this sign on the door and pass over the house (hence the name of the festival).
What’s interesting (and honestly a bit relieving) is that this plague is not once mentioned or referred to in the Qur’an. Actually, it’s very explicitly denied when the Qur’an says that God told Moses to flee Egypt by night along with his people2. There was no “letting go” of his people by the Pharaoh due to any plague. Further, the Qur’an says that God only gave Moses nine miracles, not all of which were plagues, and not ten plagues as the Torah holds3. Even out of the other nine, only a few of them actually match the plagues of the Biblical version. However, it is the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborns, which holds the most significant theological impact. The omission and denial of this event has very strong implications on the nature of God as described in the Qur’an when compared to the Jewish Scriptures. This omission also knocks down one of the most important pillars of Christianity for it was Jesus who was to be heralded as the final Lamb of God by Christians.
Moses: Liberator or Messenger?
In the Torah, Moses is sent by God to Pharaoh to free God’s people from bondage so that they may go worship Him4. God is not concerned with the Pharaoh or the Egyptian people; his sole concern is His “firstborn” (the people of Israel). So if the Israelites are God’s people, whose people are the Egyptians? Or the rest of humanity for that matter? As far as the Torah is concerned, God has no interest in them.
As important as Moses and the exodus are to Judaism, Exodus actually has a rather short summary of the whole event. The dialogs between Pharaoh and Moses are not highly detailed nor are there any inherent lessons within the passages besides the Passover rituals. The Qur’an by comparison spends a great amount of time recalling Moses and his encounter with Pharaoh5.
In general, the Qur’an paints a very different picture of Moses, his mission, and God when compared to the corresponding Biblical text. Here Moses is not sent just to free the Israelites (though that is one of his goals), rather, he is sent first and foremost as a messenger from the Lord of the Worlds to let Pharaoh and his people know about God and to exhort them turn towards their Lord. The Quran doesn’t deny that the Pharaoh was a tyrant, that he had massacred children, or the fact that he was an altogether terrible person. Even though it acknowledges all of this, he is still given the chance to repent and turn to God. For God says to Moses “Go to Pharaoh, truly he has transgressed all bounds. Go and speak unto him a gentle word that peradventure he may heed or fear.”6 So Moses went to him and introduced himself as the “messenger from the Lord of the Worlds.”7 When the Pharaoh asked, “who is your Lord?” Moses responded, “He is the Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. Lord of the East and the West and all that is between them. Our Lord is He Who gave unto everything its nature, then guided it aright.”8 Not surprisingly, the Pharaoh seemed concerned with the history of his people and asked, “What then is the state of the generations of old?” The answer being, “The knowledge of this is with my Lord in a Record. My Lord neither errs nor forgets. He is your Lord and the Lord of your fathers.”9
These verses in part illuminate to the listener how merciful God really is. The God of the Qur’an is always ready to forgive anyone who turns to him. More pertinent to this discussion though, God is not just the God of the Israelites, He is the God of the Egyptians as well. The Pharaoh, his court, and the Egyptians are told that He is the “Lord of the heavens and the earth.”10 Compare this with Exodus 5:2 when Pharaoh asks “Who is the Lord?” and receives the response “The God of the Hebrews.”11
The wholesale disregard and slaughter of the Egyptians by God during the time of Moses is a concept completely alien to the Qur’an. In fact we even find some of the Egyptians turning towards belief in the message of Moses such as the magicians at Pharaoh’s court, one of his family members, and even his wife12. There is also a very strong implication here that Israelites were not the only ones who fled with Moses. I tend to agree with Dr. Louay Fatoohi that the Hebrews, as the Biblical authors later came to term these people, were not just Israelites, rather the Israelites were just one of many Semitic and non-Semitic people enslaved in Egypt who the Egyptian’s termed as “apiru.”13 Meaning, when Moses fled Egypt, his group comprised of more than just Israelites. Perhaps it was someone from this group who conspired to create the golden calf since he was singled out as “the Samiri” implying that he was not an Israelite14. It would also explain why someone from the group would go back to worshiping what was most likely an image of an Egyptian deity: the Apis bull.
As far as the historicity of the Exodus and Passover are concerned, it should be noted that Biblical version is difficult to support in all of its details. Ramesses II (1303 BCE – 1213 BCE ) is the Pharaoh most often associated with the exodus and his first born died 41 years before he did15. The sheer number of people who are recorded to have fled with Moses is a staggering 2.5 to 3 million people16. By comparison, the entire Egyptian population at that time is estimated at about 4 million. The Qur’an on the other hand mentions “a small group”17. Unlike the Qur’an, the Bible is conflicted on whether the Israelites left Egypt during the day or at night18. As for figuring out the Pharaoh of the Exodus by using the Qur’an, I personally believe that Ramesses II is the best contender. I will save that discussion for a different time though.
As it can be seen, the entire concept of the Passover conflicts with Qur’an at almost every level. Not only does the Qur’an deny it ever taking place, but it also rejects many of the ideas and implications behind it such as the obsession with first born sons (Israel is first born, lambs were first born, Egyptians lost firstborns)19, God’s apathy towards non-Hebrews, and the murder of children and animals20.
The Lamb of God
Although the majority of Christians don’t celebrate Passover, the event is still very significant one as the crucifixion of Christ revolves around this event. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was killed at the same time as all the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. This symbolism is hard to miss here. John wanted his readers to know that Jesus was the lamb of God. The one who would be slaughtered to save the rest of humanity. This actually contradicts with the other gospels which say Jesus was crucified at a different time and each author had a slightly different idea of what Jesus’ death really meant21. Regardless, John’s view is what is popularly accepted and quoted. The Qur’an’s omission of Passover is a subtle but powerful statement as it implies the whole Johannine theology is baseless22.
1.) Exodus 11, 12
2.) Qur’an: 17:77
3.) Qur’an: 17:101
4.) Exodus: 3:10, 4:22, 5:1
5.) Moses is the most mentioned human in the Qur’an http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Quranic_people_mentioned_by_name
6.) Paraphrasing Qur’an 20:44, 79:17-18
7.) Qur’an 7:104
8.) Qur’an 26:24, 26:28, 20:50
9.) Qur’an 20:51-52, 26:26
10.) Qur’an 17:102
11.) Exodus 5:3
12.) Qur’an 20:70, 40:28, 66:11
13.) Fatoohi, L. & Al-Dargazelli, S. (2008). The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt, pp 179-184
14.) Qur’an: 20:85
15.) Amun-her-khepeshef was most likely his first born and he died 25 years into Ramesses’ 66 year reign. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amun-her-khepeshef
16.) Exodus 12:37, Number 1:46. 600,000 men are mentioned. Assuming there were about as many women, we get 1.2 million. Adding in children (mostly likely more than one per family), we arrive at about 3 million people. They were also supposed to have been taking with them livestock, loot from Egypt, and personal belongings.
17.) Qur’an 26:54
18.) Exodus 12:22 & Numbers 33:3 compared to Deuteronomy 16:1
19.) In several verses the Qur’an actually speaks against such societal norms when it calls out the Arabs for their obsession with having sons. 16:58-59, 43:16-17, 81:8-9
20.) Qur’an 85 is condemns mass murder by relating the massacre of a group of people. Possibly the massacre of Christians in the 6th century at al-Ukhdud. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhu_Nuwas
21.) Ehrman, B. (2009). Jesus, Interrupted, pp 23-29
22.) Although the Qur’an holds Jesus in high regard and speaks of his many miracles and virgin birth22, his divinity is denied. The Quran systematically pulls out all of the roots of Christian theology over the course of several surahs. It rejects the concept of original sin23. It denies the need to shed blood to forgive sins24. It denies that Jesus was killed25. Most importantly it denies that God begets or is begotten26.
23.) Qur’an: 19:16-22
24.) Adam was forgiven Qur’an 2:37
25.) Salvation in the Qur’an comes from deeds alone chief among them being the daily prayers and alms giving.
26.) Qur’an 4:157
27.) Qur’an 112