This article is extracted from chapter “The Exodus in the Qur’an” of the book The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources
The Qur’an significantly disagrees with the Bible in its account of how Moses introduced God to Pharaoh. But this disagreement underlines an even more fundamental and broader difference between the two scriptures. This important difference goes beyond the story of the exodus. This is the relevant Biblical account:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Release my people so that they may hold a pilgrim feast to me in the desert.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him by releasing Israel? I do not know the Lord, and I will not release Israel!” And they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us go a three-day journey into the desert so that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, so that he does not strike us with plague or the sword.” (Exo. 5:1-3)
The exclusive expressions “the God of Israel” and “the God of the Hebrews” are in complete contrast to how Moses described God to the Egyptian monarch in the Qur’an, calling Him the Lord of everything and everyone and the Lord of all peoples, including Pharaoh and his people:
Pharaoh said: “Who is the Lord of all peoples” (26.23)? [Moses] said: “The Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, if you would be sure” (26.24). [Pharaoh] said to those around him: “Do you not hear” (26.25)? [Moses] said: “Your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers” (26.26). [Pharaoh] said: “Your messenger who has been sent to you is a madman” (26.27). [Moses] said: “The Lord of the East and the West and what is between them, if you would understand” (26.28).
[God said:] “So go you both to him and say: ‘We are two messengers of your Lord; therefore send the Children of Israel with us and do not torment them; we have brought to you a sign from your Lord; peace be upon him who follows right guidance (20.47). It has been revealed to us that the torture will come upon him who rejects and turns back’” (20.48). He (Pharaoh) said: “So who is your Lord, O Moses” (20.49)? He said: “Our Lord is He Who created everything, then guided it [to its course]” (20.50). He said: “Then what about the past generations” (20.51)? He said: “The knowledge of them is with my Lord, in a book; my Lord neither errs nor forgets” (20.52).
Pharaoh said: “Let me kill Moses and let him call on his Lord. I fear that he will change your religion or cause corruption in the land” (40.26). Moses said: “I take refuge in my and your Lord from every arrogant person who does not believe in the Day of Reckoning” (40.27).
We tried the people of Pharaoh before them and there came to them a noble messenger (44.17), [saying]: “Deliver to me Allah’s servant; I am a trustworthy messenger to you (44.18). Do not exult yourselves above Allah; I have come to you with a manifest authority (44.19). I seek refuge in my and your Lord that you do not stone me” (44.20).
Moses said: “O Pharaoh! I am a messenger from the Lord of all peoples (7.104). It is a duty on me to say nothing about Allah but the truth; I have come to you with clear proof from your Lord, therefore send with me the Children of Israel” (7.105).
Moses went out of his way to stress that his God was Pharaoh’s also. This difference between the image of God in the Qur’an and the Bible is also reflected in the different objectives of Moses’ mission in the two books. The Bible confines Moses’ mission to taking his fellow Israelites out of Egypt. The Qur’an adds to that the attempt to convert Pharaoh, and by implication his people, and make them accept God as their Lord. The second objective is hinted to in Moses words to Pharaoh “peace be upon him who follows right guidance” (from 20.47), but it is explicitly stressed in these verses:
“Go you and your brother with My signs and do not slacken in remembering Me (20.42). Go both to Pharaoh; he has transgressed all bounds (20.43). Speak to him gentle words that he may remember or fear” (20.44).
Has the story of Moses reached you (79.15)? When his Lord called him in the holy valley of Tuwa (79.16): “Go to Pharaoh; he has transgressed (79.17). Say to him: ‘Do you have the will to purify yourself (79.18) and to let me guide you to your Lord so that you become pious to Him’’” (79.19)?
The exclusiveness of the God of the Old Testament as the Lord of Israel is one aspect of what may be called the “Israelization of religion.” The religion of the Old Testament is tightly and inseparably linked to the Israelites’ ethnic group. Israel is portrayed as God’s chosen people and God is said to be exclusively theirs.
This ethnic and exclusive identification of God belongs to the realms of polytheism rather than monotheism. What the Biblical Moses said to Pharaoh is in line with the polytheistic view that each people has their own god, each city has its own deity, and so on. The polytheistic Pharaoh was not surprised to hear that the Israelites had their own God, as this was what he would expect anyway, so he was only asking for more information on this new God. The Qur’an also shows Pharaoh asking Moses about his God (20.49; 28.38; 40.26, 37; 43.49), but, significantly, Moses’ answers correct the wrong implications of Pharaoh’s question, stressing that his God is Pharaoh’s and everyone else’s. Being completely focused on presenting their religion and God as theirs only, the Biblical writers seem to be completely unaware of the polytheistic implications of their claims or unbothered by them.
The Qur’an confirms that God conferred special favors on the Israelites:
O Children of Israel! Remember My favor to you and that I preferred you above all peoples (2.47). He said: “What, shall I seek a god for you other than God and He has preferred you above all peoples” (7.140)?
This preference of the Israelites over other peoples does not imply that there was anything special about the Israelites as an ethnic group, as the Bible presents it. It refers to the fact that they were privileged for a long time with being the hosts of many prophets:
We gave the Children of Israel the Book, Wisdom, and prophethood; We provided them with good things; and we preferred them over all peoples (45.16).
The Israelites cannot claim credit for the appearance of many prophets among them for the simple reason that any prophet, including those who descended from Jacob, is not the product of his people and society but rather the making of God. This is why, for instance, the Qur’an does not praise the people of Arabia for producing Prophet Muhammad or indicate explicitly or implicitly that the Arabs or the tribe of Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged, had any role in his being chosen as prophet. Every prophet was a revolutionary figure with values that were not accepted by the majority of his own people who, invariably, joined forces to undermine his mission. In their response to their prophets, the Israelites were no better than other peoples. This history is confirmed in both the Bible and the Qur’an. The latter states that they went as far as killing some prophets (e.g. 2.87; 5.70). Not even their deliverer from slavery, Moses, was spared their disobedience, arguing, and grumbling. The history of the Israelites even according to the Bible shows that they acted sinfully like any other nation. It may be argued that they were even worse, given that they had so many prophets sent to them.
One verse that stresses that God preferred Israel over other nations by sending more prophets to it also shows that the Israelite prophets were as outsiders to the Israelites as any prophet to his people:
When Moses said to his people: “O my people! Remember the favor of Allah on you when He made prophets among you and made you kings and gave you what He has not given to any of the other peoples” (5.20).
The verse makes a fine but significant distinction between how the Israelite prophets related to the Israelite people and the how their kings related to them. It describes the prophets as individuals who were made to appear “among” the Israelites, whereas it makes no distinction between the Israelites and their kings, with Moses reminding the Israelites that God made them kings. This verse calls all the Israelites “kings” because one of them, Joseph, was a king or second to the king, but it does not call them prophets though there were a number of prophets among them, including Jacob, his sons, Moses, and Aaron. This distinction between prophet and king applies even when an individual combined prophethood and kingship. In his secular function as king he is one of the Israelites, but in his religious mission as prophet he is one of the nation of prophets not an Israelite. It is the overlooking of this important distinction between a prophet and his people, even if they were his offspring, that turned the name of prophet “Israel” into a name of the nation of his descendants. In contrast, the Qur’an never uses the name “Israel” for the Israelites, only calling them the “Children of Israel,” in the same way it calls Adam’s offspring the “Children of Adam.”
It may also be argued that even if the many prophets who were sent to the Israelites were looked at primarily as prophets of God rather than Israelites, then their appearance in a relatively large number among the Israelites would still indicate the latter’s special status. This is also a false argument. God confers favors on people for various reasons, foremost among which is His mercy and bounty. Whether a favor from God is deserved by its recipient or not can only be measured by that person’s response to that favor. God favors many nations, groups, and individuals with wealth, power, good health…etc, but many of them abuse those favors. It would be ridiculous to suggest that the rich who spend their wealth on wrong causes or those with power who abuse it received these favors because they deserved them. Similarly, in the case of the Israelites, being the recipients of the great favor of having many prophets sent to them does not mean they were any better than other peoples until their handling of the favor is examined. The fact of the matter is that the Israelites killed many of their prophets and rejected many others, the most famous among them is Jesus, hence they have no claim to any preference over other peoples.
There is another critical point. The prophets with whom the Israelites were preferred over other peoples have long since gone. The Qur’an says that even their divine books have been lost. Later Israelite generations have no claim to the favor that God conferred on their forefathers! The Israelite generations that came after the prophets and after the loss of their teachings were not included in God’s special favor to their ancestors. The fact that the later Israelites were denied being the hosts of prophets or the keepers of their heritage means that this favor was not an ethnic issue in the first place, otherwise prophets would have continued to appear among them.
Also, if the Israelites were better than other peoples in the Biblical sense of this concept, then the last prophet, Muhammad, would also have appeared among them. Contrary to the Bible, the Qur’an differentiates between people only in terms of their “faith and good works” (e.g. 2.62; 5.69; 16.97).
Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi and Shetha Al-Dargazelli
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