What Was Israel’s Response To The Covenant?

Asif Iqbal

In one of his recent articles, Sam Shamoun contends that because the Qur’an cites the response of the Israelites to Yahweh’s covenant as:

“We hear and we disobey” (2:93; 4:46)

whereas the Bible quotes the same as:

“We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (Exodus 24:7)

“We will serve the LORD our God and obey him.” (Joshua 24:24)

therefore, the Qur’an, and I quote Shamoun, “is in error, a point which cannot be debated on historical or logical grounds.”

This hubristic remark results from shutting one’s eyes from the context of the cited Qur’anic remark in verse 2:93, as well as the complementary nature of 4:46 in its elaboration. The issue discussed in the context of 2:93 was the malicious tongue-twisting of the Israelites, which, in practice, was reflective of their disrespectful and defiant attitude vis-a-vis the implications of Yahweh’s covenant.

Thus we read in the verses 2:58?-59:

“When We said: “Enter this town, and eat comfortably from it wherever ye please; enter the gate doing obeisance, and say ‘HiTTa’, and We shall forgive you your transgressions and increase those who do well.”

Then those of them who did wrong substituted a word different from that which had been said to them; so We sent down upon those who had done wrong wrath from the heaven for their reprobate conduct.”

In this episode, which is mentioned again in 7:161-162, the Qur’an says that the Israelites were required to enter a certain town in a submissive and unostentatious manner. To bring home this message to each and every one of them, they were required to pronounce the word “HiTTatun”, meaning: “forgiveness”, and perform prostrations upon entering the town.

How did they react to this command? The Qur’an says that in an attempt for seeking a divine license for their intended spree of promiscuity and dissipation, the arrogant and uncouth elements among them substituted a similar-sounding but opposite in meaning word, (perhaps “Khatiatun” meaning: “Sin”), for the prescribed “HiTTatun”, meaning: “forgiveness” — an action for which they were seized by God’s wrath.

In this connection, another incident is recounted in the immediate context of 2:93 by the Qur’an in the form of the following verse:

“O ye who have believed, do not say: Ra`ina but say Unzurna and hearken” (2:104).

As-Suyuti1 cites the opinion of Ibn `Abbas to the effect that the Arabian Jews, when addressing Muhammad, used to pronounce the word “Ra`ina” (meaning: “look at us”) in such a way as to relate it with the Hebrew “Ra” in the sense of the “Evil One”. Therefore, the Qur’an advised the sincere believers to use a different word “Unzurna” (“behold us”) while addressing the Prophet, which did not lend itself to this disconcerting play on words.

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Further in this regard, some narratives2 assert that the Jews of Medina, when meeting Muhammad, maliciously changed the salutation “As-Sal?mu `Alikim”, i.e., “peace be upon you”, into “As-Samu `Alikum”, meaning: “death be on you”.

This incident is echoed in the Qur’an as:

“And when they come to thee, they give thee a greeting which Allah has not given thee” (58:8).

This is the context in which we can rightly understand the verse in question: 2:93 (and 4:46).

The Qur’an says in 2:92-93 (A. J. Arberry’s translation):

“And Moses came to you with clear signs, then you took to yourselves the Calf after him and you were evildoers. And when We took compact with you, and raised over you the Mount. “Take forcefully what We have given you and give ear.” They said, “We hear, and rebel” [sami`na wa-`aSina]; and they were made to drink the Calf in their hearts for their unbelief. Say: Evil is the thing your faith bids you to, if you are believers.”

Here, the Qur’an first recalls to the Jews of Medina a Talmudic tradition according to which Yahweh had suspended the Mount Sinai over the Israelites and given them the option of either the acceptance of the covenant or sudden death:

“…in commenting on the verse: “And they stood at the netherpart of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17), R. Dimi b. Hama said: “This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, suspended the mountain over Israel like a vault, and said unto them: ‘If ye accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, there will ye find your grave.'” (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 2b)

“And they stood under the mount” (Exodus 19:17): R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.'” (Talmud, Shabbath 88a)

The Qur’an then says (which is confirmed by the Old Testament as well), that even after watching such an overwhelming show of Yahweh’s might, the Israelites rebelled against the covenant of Yahweh soon afterwards.

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This raises the obvious question in the mind of a hearer that how the could Israelites have done such a thing?

The key to a correct understanding of this question is supplied by the Qur’anic verse 4:46 (Arberry’s translation):

Some of the Jews pervert words from their meanings saying, “We have heard and we disobey” [sami`na wa-`aSina] and “Hear, and be thou not given to hear” and “Observe us” [Ra`ina] twisting with their tongues and traducing religion. If they had said, “We have heard and obey” [sami`na wa-at`ana] and “Hear” and “Regard us”, [Unzurna] it would have been better for them, and more upright; but God has cursed them for their unbelief, so they believe not except a few.

This verse says that some of the Jews of Medina were used to playing on the resemblance between words, thereby reversing the meanings of the commands either to suit themselves or to make fun of the addressee.

In light of this statement when we look at the response of the Israelites to Yahweh?s covenant as given in the Old Testament, we find the following words:

“[The Israelites said to Moses] Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey[“we-Shama`nu we-`asinu”]” (Deuteronomy 5:27) (NIV translation).

The recorded Hebrew for the expression “We will hear and obey” is also supplied in the above quote which, needless to say, sounds very similar to the Qur’anic “We hear, and disobey” [“sami`na wa-`aSina”], but opposite in meaning.

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Therefore, to answer the (above-cited) question as to how the Israelites could have broken Yahweh’s covenant, the Qur’an says that they did precisely what the Jews of Medina were used to doing whenever they came to Muhammad: i.e., playing on the resemblance between words.

Addressing the Jews of Medina, the Qur’an says here that when it was time for the Israelites to say “We will hear and obey” [“we-Shama`nu we-`asinu”], the more audacious elements within them did what you do, i.e, played on the required “We will hear and obey” to make it “We will hear and disobey” — just as the Jews of Medina used to pronounce in their meetings with Muhammad this Hebrew expression “we-Shama`nu we-`asinu” a la the Arabic “sami`na wa-`aSina”, to imply in reality the opposite of what they apparently meant.

This ambiguity in pronunciation later enabled them to rationalize their disobedience of their promise made to Yahweh, — a crime for which the Qur’an says they were later “made to drink the Calf in their hearts” (2:93), — something which is also mentioned, albeit in a literal sense, by Exodus 32:20:

“And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.”

In light of these considerations, it becomes clear that a superficial and over-simplified comparison, such as Shamoun’s, of the response of the Israelites to the covenant, as it occurs in the Qur’an, to the same in the Bible is liable of creating confusion is the context of the Qur’anic expression is not taken into account.

In any case, both the Old Tastament and the Qur’an state in unequivocal terms that the Israelites did violate the covenant after promising to abide by it.

Footnotes

  1. al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Quran, Lahore: Suhail Acadamy, 1974, Vol. i, p. 138; also al-Mutawakkili, ed. William Yancy Bell, Cairo: Nile Mission Press, 1926, p. 59. []
  2. Such as the hadith to be found here. []

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