There is still another chapter ahead in the story of Moses’ journey to prophethood. He must journey to Midian, become a tribal shepherd, and start a family. Then he can return to Egypt. Interestingly, this surah has very little to say about Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh in Egypt. There is no mention of the showdown with the priests, no plagues, no retaliation from Pharaoh. I would say that this surah is interested in showing us anything but what the Quran usually frames as the central conflict of Moses’ ministry.
Today’s blog post will again be confined to combing the small details from a small segment of the surah. We’ll start where we left off after Moses fled from the retribution of the Egyptians. Try reading through ayat 22-43 to see what details pop out to you.
Ayat 22-29 encompass Moses’ life amongst the Midianites. He flees those who would kill him in Egypt and goes to Midian as a man without a plan. What Moses hopes on his way out is that God will provide for him “the sound way.” This prayer has the potential to be interpreted in many ways. Moses currently lacks any family protection, means of living, or home. The soundness he is praying for could just be these items of basic security. If we adopt Yusuf Ali’s creative expansion of the murder story –that Moses was conflicted over the nuts and bolts of righteous living– then perhaps this prayer is for guidance on the way to live morally. Another option, something that I forgot to muse upon last week, is that maybe Moses is self-aware of his destiny to overthrow Pharaoh and free the Hebrews. In his willingness to execute violence upon the Egyptians, was he thinking he was taking his first steps in this quest? And since those efforts resulted in disastrous failure, is he now adopting patience and wisdom to rely upon God to reveal the methods that would be successful? All of these prayers would be answered through the coming events.
The instance of Moses showing kindness to the Midianite sisters at the well has lots of different details from the Exodus account, but these largely don’t change the meaning. The only difference that I think suggests a change in meaning is that the women aren’t being threatened by the other shepherds. Instead, they are resigned to water their flocks after their male equivalents, obeying a status quo resulting from their lack of a public male authority. Thus Moses’ act of watering the sheep is a less urgent and thus more exemplary act of kindness and social intercession. I think the sisters’ accepted rank as those who must water last informs us that their family is not very esteemed in the community. Given that the Midianites have a very negative legacy in the Quran, the family’s status as underdogs could have positive implications. One could speculate that perhaps they were of the monotheistic mind that the general Midianites are so hostile to. Indeed, some sources of Islamic tradition like to identify Moses’ father-in-law (Biblically known as Reuel or Jethro) as the Quranic prophet Shu’ayb, though this brings up some timeline questions and thus likewise gets rejected by other sources of Islamic tradition.
It is noteworthy how the sisters are portrayed in this surah. There are only two of them, but they are never distinguished from each other. There is no instance where one of them gets to be mentioned without remembering the fact that she is one of two. Even their father treats them as an interchangeable. That’s kind of a bummer, since it creates a sort of anonymity that undermines their ability to be characters. Multiple times through the Midian segment “one of the two women” is involved. One-of-the-two bashfully approaches Moses and relays her father’s invitation to their house. One-of-the-two boldly advocates for her father to hire Moses. If it’s the same woman, the combination of bashful and bold would make for a nuanced character who secures her own needs in socially appropriate ways (potentially echoing the historical way that Muhammad’s first wife Khadija secured a marriage with him through male intercessors). If not, we get the impression that one sister is bashful and the other sister is bold, but never know which one Moses picks or why he picks her. I’m going to go forward and assume it is the same woman both times, since Moses marries one and it makes narrative sense for it to be the same woman throughout.
There is a sort of meet-cute between Moses and One-of-the-Two. In ayah 24, after showing kindness to the women, Moses waits in the shade and prays to God to provide, “whatever good you would send down to me.” The very next ayah leads with One-of-the-Two approaching Moses with an invitation to her father’s house. The woman’s approach and presence is emphasized, which strongly implies that (besides the invitation to her father’s house) she is part of the good that God is sending Moses. Tying back to An-Nisa 19, the Quran does view wives and women as something good from God to be taken seriously. Though –as with the goodness of all mankind– this goodness is conditional.
In the realm of details confuse me with their mere existence, the father-in-law contracts Moses to work for a term of eight years. Or ten. Whichever. Moses agrees that either term is fair, then fulfills his term… But which one? If he only fulfilled the eight, then we’d presume his father-in-law was the generous one and released him at the earlier date. If he fulfilled the ten, then Moses was the generous one and stayed longer than the minimum. Does it matter to the story whichever one Moses fulfilled? No. I’m just really puzzled why it would be here if it doesn’t have anything to say.
….I’ve nothing new here
So I’m going to pass over the scene of the burning bush because it doesn’t really offer us anything new except to remember that Moses was afraid of the Egyptians punishing him for murder. God promises Moses that the Egyptians will be unable to touch him. If you are just discovering my blog and want to read my thoughts on the the burning bush story, you can read through my encounter with it in Surah Tah Ha.
Bumping Against Archaeology
The same really applies to Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh, which is very scant in details or story beats. As I said in today’s introduction, this surah is much more interested in telling the stories that are outside what the Quran usually repeats as Moses’ central narrative. A new informative detail an ayah 38 is that Pharaoh has positioned himself as a god, and moreover as the only god his court observes.
The Egyptians were depicted as polytheists in Al-ʕaraaf 127, yet Pharaoh in this story is clearly challenging the existence of any ilahu, “god,” besides himself. How to reconcile that? Well, one option is to take the quote in this surah and say that Pharaoh is elevating himself not as the god of the Egyptians, per se, but only as their authoritarian. I don’t see this interpretation supported by the context of what Pharaoh is saying, or by any of the lexicon entries for ilahu, whose roots relate mostly to divinity and objects of worship. Another option is to say that the word in Al-ʕaraaf 127, which gets conventionally translated as “your gods,” ilihataka (gods + 2nd person possessive suffix) would actually be translated as “worship to you,” (“worship” + 2nd person object suffix). And this second option, while not present in any of my translations, has a number of scholarly endorsements listed within Lane’s Lexicon. To evaluate those claims is outside my knowledge, but I did notice that the only justification for this proposal stemmed entirely from Quranic material and not other sources.
If we reconcile the Quranic passages in the direction of Pharaoh having set up a monotheism with himself in the center, we then have to face some discomfort with the archaeological record. There is only one spat of monotheism in Egypt’s history, and that was directed towards worship of the sun. Otherwise, Ancient Egypt’s remains display a continuous polytheism. Since the Quran’s Pharaoh seems to have reigned over at least a generation’s time frame, we’d expect some kind of evidence to remain of his exclusive cult of self. Ancient Egyptians were prone to redacting their history, but the monuments of a pharaoh were not easy to redact.
Akhenaten‘s time of exclusive sun-cult could not even be eradicated from the record when the other cults recovered their place in the culture. That being said, there is no archaeological evidence supporting the life events of Moses whatsoever, and in this absence any claims relating to his story cannot be definitively challenged.
Where Did that Come From?
Several elements are a little bewildering because they don’t connect to anything in the Exodus story, or within their own narrative. For example, the character of Haman is mentioned, but his significance not explained. At the beginning of the surah his name appeared twice in conjunction with Pharaoh’s in a way that positions him as a companion, maybe even equal: “Pharaoh and Haman and [both] their armies.” Perhaps this pairing serves to mirror the pairing of Moses and Aaron. In today’s reading we see Pharaoh bossing him around in a way that suggests Haman is subordinate. Again, that is kind of like Aaron to Moses. But what role does Haman play? Who is Haman that we should care to know his name? And when Pharaoh tells Haman to build him a tower, what’s the significance of the tower? Neither Haman nor the tower interact with Moses and Aaron or affect the plot of the story. Because these elements are sort of “dropped” into the story, lacking connections with any of the relevant plot, some people take the stance that this is the Quran sort of name-dropping familiar Biblical elements to appeal to People of the Book. I mostly doubt that, and let me explain why.
First, let’s examine these things as potentially connected to other Biblical stories unrelated to the Exodus account. A character named Haman is the prime antagonist in the Book of Esther. Haman is a Persian anti-semite who hates the Jews because their religion undermines his pride and authority. He influences the king to exterminate the Jews, and sets about building a tall gallows on which to hang a specific Jew, Esther’s uncle Mordecai, against whom he has a grudge. So we see a parallel between these stories in that there is a man named Haman who constructs a tall structure. The tall structure in this surah, however, cannot in any way be compared to a gallows. It shows some similarity to the concept of the Tower of Babel, a structure that was built to reach into the heavens. Remember that the concept of the world in both the time periods of Genesis, Exodus, and the Quran was that the earth had a vaulted ceiling above which God’s realm of Heaven existed. We could perhaps speculate that this tower was hypothesized to reach into and beyond that ceiling, allowing Pharaoh to look at God.
In these particular cases, I am against the notion that these story elements are shoddy rip-offs of Biblical materials. I would say it is possible that Muhammad heard of Esther’s Haman in some capacity of him being an antisemitic court official, and from there conflated him with Pharaoh’s court. That much I can imagine and accept. Alternately it is plausible that the use of Haman (a very simple set of syllables) for two distinct characters is purely a coincidence. However, that this Haman builds a tower I reject as being as being derived from Esther’s Haman building a gallows. Esther’s Haman built a gallows in order to hang his particular pet-peeve-person, and through the events of the story he ironically gets hung upon his own gallows. It’s a pretty big and distinctive story beat. Let me argue that if Muhammad had knowledge of Haman’s building project in Esther, then I would imagine the form and function of Haman’s building project in the Quran story would reflect such knowledge in some way. Al-Qasas‘s Haman is ordered to build a tower so that Pharaoh may investigate/defy God. Neither the initiation of the project, the motivation, the type of construction, or its purpose in the story resemble the ironic gallows of the Book of Esther.
And as to the tower itself, towers are really generic symbols of man’s hubris.
Just because this story features a tower that in some way aspires to reach heaven or God does not mean it is derived from the specific incident of the trope in Genesis. Again, there’s not a lot of connection between the story of Pharaoh searching for a proof of God and the people of the earth seeking to consolidate their population into one place.
There are things in the Quran that are clearly connected to Biblical equivalents. There are things in the Quran that have no apparent connection to the Bible but that Islamic tradition links to Biblical equivalents. Then there are things that I’d argue do not have connection to each other except for having been born in the same world.
So if Haman and the tower Pharaoh ordered him to build are not instances of Muhammad sloppily trying to incorporate Biblical things into the Quran, then why are they here? While the tower has no service to the plot of this story, it does contribute to the moral commentary of the Quran. It serves to exemplify and denounce a sort of rationalism that tries to operate apart from divine revelation. Pharaoh, rather than listen and humble himself to a prophet, seeks an independent way of proving or disproving God’s existence. His attempt at rationalism is based off of the hubris that he can achieve knowledge through his own secular design, though of course the integrity of his search is undercut by his cynical predisposition. By providing this example, the Quran makes negative comment upon those who reject the divine revelation it offers and claim to seek out knowledge independently.
Admittedly, I’m also inclined to whinge upon the inclusion of Haman through some bitterness. I dislike that Haman gets to be a named character when he displays no agency or personality (who is he that we should care to know the name of the man that Pharaoh bossed around?) while Moses’ wife is a very active part of Moses’s story in Midian and she doesn’t even get an entire identity to herself.
Made it Through the Details
So I didn’t have too much fun writing this post because it felt like getting bogged down examining the details. All these little details build a big impression, though, and I remind myself that it is worth inventorying them. Months down the line, specific details will fade from my memory, but impressions will remain. Having my thought process available to me later will be valuable. That is part of the point of this project, after all, to sit and notice what I’m reading and be conscientious about how I react.
Moses’ story does get a little more continuation after this point, but it is no longer in a narrative form and will just be isolated references. Next week we’ll wrap up this surah and zoom out to consider what its uniting theme might just be.