It is hardly fair to compare the Torah’s and the Quran’s accounts of Moses and Aaron. The scale and significance is entirely different. Four whole books of the Torah’s five are devoted to the life, teachings, and ministry of Moses (and Aaron, but he’s secondary and mostly implied as a spokesperson), and it is all told as part of the epic founding of Israel as a nation favored by and bound to God. In Surah al-A’raaf, Moses serves mainly as an archetype with which to validate Muhammad. No biographical information or historical placement is necessary for this purpose. While Moses is still an important prophet –being one of the only four to receive a divine book– he bears the implicit shadow of failure. His ministry and teachings fell short of creating lasting change, necessitating the need for future prophets and ultimately the more perfect ministry of Muhammad.
Now, in some sense Christians have a similar attitude as Muslims concerning Moses’s ministry and the Torah books. We largely use them to prophesy our own religion, and struggle with whether and how to apply the substance of their teachings. Christians might reinterpret the meanings of Torah scriptures, but claim no prophetic right to retool the Jewish writings. Islam does claim such a right, however, and the Quran contradicts Torah accounts regularly. There is no known historical evidence for Moses, leaving no decisive way to argue the matter. In today’s post, I’m going to try and steer clear of pointing out contradictions between Surah al-A’raaf and Kitaab al-Kharouj (The Book of Exodus). The narrative importance traditionally ascribed to all the small details in Exodus are just too many to bog down this post with. Besides that, I need to brush up on my knowledge of Exodus and get my facts straight…
Moses and Aaron in Egypt
So to recap the cycle of the prophets Noah, Hud, Saleh, (arguably) Lot, and Shuayb: God sent to each community a prophet preaching reform of faith and lifestyle, the community largely denies the prophet, and then God annihilates the dissidents. When the surah continues in ayat 103-160 to Moses and Aaron, however, we find that their joint ministry is substantially different. For one thing, there are two simultaneous prophets, which might just be the only such incident in the Quran. Moses seems to be the only one doing anything and Aaron’s role is not stated, but perhaps Aaron’s role in Exodus as spokesperson for Moses is implicit. It is not always clear when Aaron is or isn’t involved, so I’m just going to say Moses and imply Aaron as I write. Another difference from the Al-A’raaf’s first five prophets is the function of Moses’s ministry. He is not preaching to reform or warn in direct terms. His first act of ministry is to take the Hebrews from Egyptian subjugation and migrate. He’s not, “change your ways or be destroyed,” but “let my people go.” Lastly, unlike their predecessors, Moses and Aaron go on to establish a lasting community with written and specific guidance from God.
The story starts in ayah 103, with God sending Moses to Pharaoh and the leaders of Egypt. While his ministry is not focused on converting the Egyptians, prophetic authority and submission are at the heart of the struggle. Moses introduces himself as a deputy of God and orders Pharaoh to release the Hebrews into his care as such. Moses’ words place him in a position independent of and superior to Pharaoh’s, and for Pharaoh to obey would imply that he agrees with that superiority. Pharaoh’s struggle for authority also features in the showdown between Moses and the sorcerers of Egypt. Pharaoh offers the kingdom’s magicians a closer place within his hierarchy if they can outdo Moses’s miracles. When they lose and convert as a result, Pharaoh is upset because they converted without his authorization. The ex-sorcerers trade their pursuit of earthly authority and go over Pharaoh’s head by directly submitting to God, even to the point of death. “Islam” is defined as “a state of peace” or “a state of submission.” So in a way Moses does preach conversion to Islam, but it is indirect. Submitting to Moses’ commands would imply that they accept his role as deputy of God which would necessitate a more complete submission, one the rest of Pharaoh’s court aren’t willing to make.
The Egyptians’ plot does run much like that of the prophetic patterns we have already seen: they refuse to react to miraculous signs, inquisition those who convert, settle into a pattern of self-affirmation, spitefully lash out against that which is associated with the prophet (the killing of Hebrew male children is done here as a power play by Pharaoh against Moses, much like the way the Thamudi leaders tortured the auspicious she-camel), and are completely obliterated by plagues. In this way it is just another loop in the cycle of God’s judgment. The Hebrew and Egyptian-convert parts of the story, however, parallel Muhammad and his followers’ early situation in Mecca. They are told to be patient and hopeful in their suffering, they pray for strength to hold their faith through torture and martyrdom, they seek migration out from a hostile community, and they are hinted with the possibility of becoming the next holders of societal dominance.
Moses on Sinai
Upon taking the Israelites out of Egypt, after an eventless interaction with some anonymous pagan community, the Israelites ominously ask Moses to institute idol worship like the pagans. Moses rebukes them, and then leaves Aaron in charge while he goes to make his forty-day appointment with God on Sinai.
Moses’s first request to God upon Sinai is to see Him. In a way, this could be translated as the same weakness that the Israelites just displayed, of wanting a physical form to associate with God. God responds by telling Moses no, and to illustrate the point He tells Moses that He shall make Himself visible to a nearby mountain. The mountain is leveled by this exposure and Moses himself is knocked unconscious. Upon awakening, Moses repents of his need for visualizations of God and calls himself the “First of Believers,” a title that the Quran also applies to Muhammad.
I’m going to share the corresponding incident in Exodus because I think it is relevant to an interesting conversation in Islam. In chapter 33:12-23, Moses (on his second session in Sinai) asks to see God, and God acquiesces. It is all very vague, and I’d suggest you read it to see what I mean. For example, God does not agree to show His full self to Moses, but only His “glory” and “back.” This passage is understood to anthropomorphize metaphysical attributes of God (His goodness/glory, as the passage says) and not suggest that God has an actual face, hand, and backside. The Quran does this too, mentioning the hands, foot, or face of God. More striking is that in Exodus God is able to manifest/interact in some way in the physical world, while in the Quran God and the physical are so incompatible that it is impossible to do without destroying the latter. This begs the question of how God is able to interact with the physical world at all? While this surah describes God as acting directly with Moses, I believe from other non-Quranic readings that Islamic tradition always implies angelic moderation in these events.
After this incident, God commends Moses and inscribes instructions on stone tablets for him to take to the Israelites. I noted that as He commends Moses He tells him to “Be among the grateful.” Remembering the angels’ and Iblees’ expectation that humankind will be ungrateful to God, this passage has an added meaning of “surpass their expectations.” The contents on the tablets are not described beyond being a little something about all things. God exhorts Moses to build his community on the laws, and explains that the alternative is doom, and that those who defy God cannot be convinced to do otherwise by any means.
The Golden Calf
So then we come to the Golden Calf story. Part of this story has already been told in part back in Al-Baqarah, but this surah’s telling includes more detail. The Israelites take advantage of Moses’ absence in order to recycle their gold ornaments into a calf-shaped idol –but immediately express remorse. Strangely, this happens before Moses even gets back to camp, which provides us with perhaps the kindest depiction of the Israelites yet as people with their own consciences.
[Biblical Tanget: There is some suggestion in the Exodus telling of this story that the Israelites were not inventing their golden calf out of contrariness. One plausible theory for their actions is that they grew impatient with waiting to be told how to worship God, and so took to worshiping God in a way that was pleasing to them: iconography and revelry. In verse 32:1, the word translated as “gods” in most translations is actually אֱלֹהִים, “Elohim,” which is the word used to name God in Genesis. It is a plural word, and is used as such in other places, but can also be understood to mean “God” in the sense of the “royal we” that is ubiquitous in the Quran and precedented in the Bible. This idea seems supported by the fact that the Israelites go on to only make one idol, and not multiple.]
Next in the surah, Moses returns and is so upset that he shouts at the Israelites, throws the Torah tablets on the ground, and grabs Aaron by the hair. Aaron protests his own innocence, saying that the people had threatened him with death and asking Moses to not kill him according to the wishes of his enemies. What follows is an interesting moment when Moses then stops to pray to God, on behalf of himself and his brother, for forgiveness. This is interesting because one could argue that neither Moses nor Aaron has done anything directly wrong. Or have they? Aaron at the most acted cowardly, while Moses jumped to conclusions and, in his rage, threw God’s commandments aside. I think this story could make good fodder for lessons about humans failing to be more than merely innocent. Aaron should have been brave, Moses should have been inquiring and mindful before jumping to accusations. They were both innocent of the crime at hand, but both guilty in their failure to take the right steps in reaction, thus needing mercy too. These are not infallible prophets, at least by my reading.
The aftermath is a little more fuzzy. We know from Al-Baqarah that the Israelites are commanded to execute members of their community, but it isn’t included here. God promises to repay justice on the guilty in their lifetimes and also promises mercy on the innocent and repentant. After this in ayah 155, Moses appoints 70 men to come with him to another appointment with God, and we come to some linguistic blurriness. It says literally that the men are seized by an earthquake–which suggests judgment. Other translations treat “earthquake” metaphorically and say the men were taken by trembling–which suggests fear. Again, Moses prays for their forgiveness, using language which suggests the earthquake is a testing of their faith and not a judgment. I don’t know what the moral of this story is. It feels incomplete, since we don’t know who these men are or anything about their actions and reactions. There is also a telling of Moses striking water from the rock. It’s not anecdotal, but only referenced to the establish idea that God divided the people into twelve different groups (as the rock released twelve different streams of water) and that everyone knew their place.
Thus end the string of prophetic cycles in this surah. The rest of the time spent with the Israelites is used to describe how the majority of them fell astray and how God scattered their populations as punishment.
Redaction and Dependence
The Quran does seem to go out of its way to contradict Biblical stories. Some skeptics of the Quran’s divine origin assume that Muhammad only had a flawed knowledge of Jewish and Christian beliefs, thus the inconsistencies in the Quran. The assumption is that if he would have had better knowledge, then he would have been more faithful to the older accounts. Upon reading the Quran, I no longer buy this idea. While some moments, like the plagues on Egypt or mash-up of Gideon and Saul in the character Talut, probably could fall into such a category, there are moments like Lot’s ministry, Moses wishing to see God, and Aaron’s vindication from idolatry that are more detailed than they need to be. Instead of flawed understandings, I sense that the Quran goes out of its way to include these moments because it’s eager to tell its version of what the original story should have been. Lot should have been a prophet to Sodom and Gomorrah in order to fit the prophetic cycle of warning before condemnation. Moses should not have been able to experience some perception of a wholly other God. Aaron should not have been active in committing idolatry after having experienced and witnessed the divinity of God. And so the Quran makes efforts to redact the stories according to its theological purposes.
Yet while redacting the Biblical stories, the Quran also shows a dependence on them. Ayat 115-117 narrate the showdown between Moses and the sorcerers. The translation I’ll give you is Sahih International, as I did take the time to check the real Arabic words and Sahih is the most direct, and I’ve removed the interpretive additions that are usually posted in brackets.
They said, “O Moses, either you throw, or we will be the ones to throw.” He said, “Throw,” and when they threw, they bewitched the eyes of the people and struck terror into them, and they presented a great magic. And We inspired to Moses, “Throw your staff,” and at once it devoured what they were falsifying.
The reason I’ve posted this is it struck me how the narration doesn’t really say what happened. A few ayat before this scene, Moses has thrown his staff on the ground, turned it into a snake. It’s not far to jump to the conclusion from the wording here that Moses and the sorcerers are just repeating variations of that earlier miracle, but it is still a conscious jump. Because I do know the Exodus account, which does explicitly describe the details of the contest (where Aaron/Moses’s snake eats the priests’), I cannot help but envision the battle of the snakes and don’t have to deduce or speculate what these events are.
The same goes for the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Surah al-A’raaf says nothing of Pharaoh’s attempt to avenge himself by militarily wiping out the Israelites on the shores of the Red Sea. It only says in ayah 136, after describing the duplicity of the Egyptians in failing their vows of compliance: “So We took retribution from them, and We drowned them in the sea because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them.” It sounds like all of Egypt was destroyed, all the more so because it continues in ayah 137: “And We caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which We had blessed. And the good word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of what they had patiently endured. And We destroyed [all] that Pharaoh and his people were producing and what they had been building.” It sounds as if Egypt has been completely destroyed as an empire, and possibly that the Israelites took possession of Egypt (although that latter idea is not substantiated in the rest of the surah’s text). Again, my Biblical knowledge fills in the gaps and makes sense of the scenes. In this way, the Quran depends on the Biblical material, despite working backwards to amend things it finds incompatible.
Now Fast Forward
The accounts of the prophets fill a solid chunk of this surah, and ends by not-so-subtly prophesying the ministry of Muhammad. The prophetic description of Muhammad is a grand one, and one that is considered very important: “…the Messenger, the unlettered prophet whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them.” This is the famous passage that points Muhammad out as illiterate, and it is important to know how this plays in Muslim understanding of the Quran. Because Islam regards the Quran as so important, complex, and poetic a book, Muhammad’s illiteracy serves to prove that the Quran must have come from a divine source. I’m going to withhold establishing my own opinion of that argument until I have read the whole Quran.
This reaches the end of the historical lore of Al-A’raaf. Next week I’ll continue on into the other material that is less historical in detail and other etcetera materials to wrap up this chapter!