From Sea to Mountain

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The Story of Moses began in Egypt, where the Children of Israel had found refuge with Joseph over 400 years before.  The beginning of these events involved the struggle they had to endure under the oppression of the Pharaoh.  The oppression ended, however, when Moses parted the Red Sea for them by the permission of God, and then left it for God to close over the Pharaoh and his army.  From then on, the story of Moses concerned the building of a nation out of the Children of Israel, guided by God alone. However, despite being rescued from the Pharaoh and witnessing God’s punishment on him and his people, the Israelites themselves, or certain groups among them, did not show the gratitude that they should have.  Instead, they became fractious and contrary, finding fault in what God provided and repeatedly turning against Him and His representatives, Moses and Aaron, in consequence by seeking deities other than Him to worship.

Manna from Heaven and Quails
After safely crossing the Red Sea, Moses led his people southeast towards the holy mountain of Tur.[1]  Yet, even after witnessing the miracle of the crossing and the destruction of the Pharaoh and his army, there were many who grumbled; who preferred what they had come from because it had filled their mundane desires such as plentiful food to eat and water in abundance.  Of course these are basic needs, after breathing.  Still, God had saved them from death - the lack of breath - and now (safely alive) they yearned for these other basic needs.  The Quran states that God sent manna and quails down upon them to fulfill these needs, and the Bible confirms this.  According to the Bible, at first only manna was sent down, but the Israelites had yearned for meat.  God then provided them with meat for a whole month by sending the quails.  Manna would then be sent down in the morning, and quails would become abundant in the evening.  Now they harked back on the plenty they had had in Egypt.  Their complaints provoked God’s anger, as is reflected by the admonition:

“Eat of the good things we have provided for you, and do not exceed therein, or my Anger will alight on you, and upon whoever my anger alights, they will indeed perish.” (Quran 20:81)[2]

As they neared Tur, when the people were perishing of thirst, Moses prayed to God for water.  God said:

‘…Strike the rock with your staff;’ whereupon twelve springs gushed forth, and each tribe knew its own spring.[3]  ‘Eat and drink of God’s sustenance and do not act wickedly, corrupting the earth.’ (Quran 2:60)

Then the people said:

“O Moses, we cannot bear (only) one kind of food (the manna), so pray to your Lord for us to produce that which the earth grows: its herbs, cucumbers, garlic, pulses and onions.

He said, ‘Will you exchange better for worse?  Go down to any town, and you will find what you demand.’

And disgrace and humiliation were stamped upon them.  And they drew upon themselves the wrath of God.” (Quran 2:61)

Some Israelites Turn to Idol Worship
In the vicinity of Tur, they met a people who worshipped idols in the shape of a cow.  The people were Lakhemites according to some scholars of interpretation; others say they were Edomites coming down from Canaan.  The Judeo-Christian tradition states that the Israelites fought the Amilekites, who were associated with the Edomites, there and the battle swayed according to whether Moses lifted or let fall his staff.[4]  In the Quran, however, some of the people merely requested:

“‘O Moses, make for us a god like the gods they have.’

He said, ‘surely you are an ignorant people.  Surely what they are engaged upon shall be shattered, and what they have been doing is in vain.’”(Quran 7:138-139)

Whether the shattering was done by force of arms, as is said in the Bible, or by cataclysmic events, is not mentioned.  Rather, it is suggested some Israelites may have seen these people worshipping cows and been influenced by them.  Perhaps this is what encouraged the disbelievers among them who later worshipped the golden calf.[5]

“He said, ‘shall I seek for you a deity other that God, while He has given you superiority over other nations’” (Quran 7:140)

   Nevertheless, when Moses was called to the side of the Mountain again, the people strayed.  He told Aaron:

“…Take my place among my people, and do right; and do not follow the way of the corrupt.” (Quran 7:142)

Aaron did his best, as is testified by God himself:

“Aaron indeed had said to them beforehand, ‘O my people.  You are being tried in this; and verily your Lord is the Most Gracious, so follow me and obey my order.’” (Quran 20:90)

It was not Aaron who constructed the golden calf for them, as the Torah accuses him, but a man named Samiri.

It is impossible that a prophet, knowing the truth more than others, would fall into that which God has forbidden since the dawn of His message.  Indeed if that was the case, then no blame can be put on their followers if they were associate others with God as well.  For God told Moses, while he was on the mount:

“Verily, we have tried your people in your absence, and Samiri has led them astray.” (Quran 20:85)

Meanwhile, the people obstinately refused to listen to Aaron.  They said:

“We will not stop worshipping (the golden calf) until Moses returns to us (with guidance).” (Quran 20:91)

Moses Asks to See his Lord
Moses was away 40 days, which God had appointed him for fasting before revealing to him the Commandments and the Law.  When Moses came to the time and place he was supposed be, God spoke to him.  As Moses was eager to have more knowledge of Him, he asked God, as a favor, to show Himself to him.[6]  God told him that man is not able see God in the mundane world.  In Exodus, He explained that any vision of His essence would utterly destroy a man.  In fact, nothing earthly can stand God’s actual presence.  God said:

“…‘Look upon the mountain if it stands still in its place then you shall see Me.’

And when God appeared to the mountain, He made it collapse to dust, and Moses fell down unconscious.  Then, when he recovered his senses he said: ‘Glory be to You, I turn to You in repentance and I am the first of the believers.’” (Quran 7:143)

This lesson is clear.  If no man can stand the presence of God, and even mountains collapse in ruin at his presence, then how can an earthly thing be God?  How can a manufactured idol be God?  How can a living human being be God?  They cannot.  So Moses repented from asking God this favor even though God fulfilled his request to the limit of not actually killing him.  He said: 

“I have chosen you above men by My Messages, and by My speaking (to you).  So hold that which I have given already and be of the grateful.” (Quran 7:144)

The Tablets
God gave Moses tablets upon which were written ‘a lesson drawn from all things’ and ‘the explanation of all things.’

“…Hold on to these with firmness and enjoin your people to take the better therein...” (Quran 7:145)

He then told Moses what the rebellious could look forward to.  Like He had hardened the heart of the Pharaoh, He would turn those who have no right behave arrogantly on the earth as they do, away from His verses, and condemn them to disbelief, even if they were to see all the Signs.  In fact, though they might see the way of righteousness, they would not adopt it; rather, they would eagerly adopt the way of clear error when they saw it.  And what reward can they expect, if they refuse to obey God?  Nothing but the Doom of Judgment Day and eternity that is neither death, nor life, but continual destruction.[7]  This is what the calf worshippers were due, and this is what all the consistent rebels against God’s religion of strict monotheism will be due, too.

The next article will tell the story of the Golden Calf, and the event that returned the Israelites to guidance.


[1] Tur is a place name, but also means ‘tree lined mountain’.  In Judeo-Christian tradition, this mountain was called Mt. Horeb, which was often conflated with Mt. Sinai and considered to be Jebel al Musa where the monastery of St. Catherine was built.  No mountains bearing these names today exist in the Middle East, but recent archeological evidence suggests ‘Mt. Tur’ is in Arabia, just as Paul says in Galatians 4:25 (For this Hagar is Mt. Sinai in Arabia, …).  Jebel al-Lawz is the main candidate for the actual mountain of Moses’ revelation, since it is the highest mountain near the region of Midian on a direct path to Aqaba and thence to Egypt. (

[2] The first stage of the winnowing process started soon after this event, according to the Bible (Numbers 11:33), when a disease spread quickly among those who complained and decimated them.

[3] According to Exodus 17:5-6, God answered: “Go before the people and take the elders of Israel with you.  Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and there shall come water out of it, so that the people may drink.”

[4] This was the second stage of the winnowing process, according to the Bible, the complainers being the ones whose lives were lost in the battle.

[5] Tafsir ibn Kathir commentary on Quran verse 7:138.

[6] Quran 7:143.  Also Exodus 33:17-23.

[7] Quran 7:146-7

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