The Return to Egypt

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Moses is Given His Mission
When Moses stood by the bright, burning bush, he heard the voice of his Lord commanding him to go to the Pharaoh and his people, to put the fear of God into their sinning hearts.[1]  One of the proofs that it was indeed God who was commanding him was the staff Moses was carrying.  He was asked:

“‘What is that in your right hand, O Moses?’  He said, ‘It is my staff, which I lean on, and use to beat down leaves for my sheep to feed upon; and it has other uses, too.’  God said, ‘Cast it down, O Moses!’  So he cast it down, and it turned into a snake, slithering.’” (Quran 20:17-19)

When Moses saw his own staff turn into a quivering snake, “He turned in flight, and did not look back.” (Quran 28:31).  Then God said:

“Grasp it and do not fear!  We shall restore it to its former state.” (Quran 20:21)[2]

After reassuring Moses that he was safe[3], God commanded him:

“Press your (right) hand to your (left) side!  It will come out shining white and stainless, as another sign.” (Quran 20:22)

“…These are two proofs from your Lord...” (Quran 28:32)

The narrative of the Bible says:

“And if they also do not believe these two signs, and still do not take you seriously, then you shall take some water from the Nile and spill it on the ground.  The water that you will take from the Nile will turn into blood on the ground.” (Exodus 4:9)

Water full of blood, although its version slightly different, is also mentioned in Islamic sources as well as being “among nine signs to the Pharaoh and his people, and indeed they are rebellious people.” (Quran 20:12)

It was at this point that the command to go to the Pharaoh was given, but Moses was hesitant.  He told God of his fears:

“My Lord!  I have killed one of them, and I fear that they may slay me.  My Lord!  I fear they may reject me.  And my chest will be straightened and my tongue will be tied.” (Quran 26:12-13)

So he prayed:

“O my Lord!  Open my chest for me and make my task easy for me, and loosen the defect of my tongue.  Give me a helper from my family, Aaron my brother,[4]  to add to my strength and share my task, so we may glorify you without cease.” (Quran 20:25-35)

God, reassured him, saying:

“You are granted your request, O Moses.” (Quran 20:36)

And thus did God give Moses his first mission.  He said:

“We will certainly strengthen your arm with your brother, and We shall give you both such authority that they will not be able to harm you.  So by Our Signs, you, and whoever follows you, shall be the victors.” (Quran 28:34-35)

In the Bible, it says Aaron was sent out by God to meet Moses near the holy mountain and that Moses had his two sons circumcised while on the journey back,[5]  but these details are absent from the Islamic narrative.  The story jumps straight to the first meeting with the Pharaoh.

Meeting the Pharaoh
When Moses and Aaron came before the Pharaoh, they told him that they were messengers from the Lord of the worlds and demanded that he send the Children of Israel away with them.  In the Bible, this is presented as a trick – a request to go a three day journey into the desert to make sacrifices that would, in reality, be a break for freedom.  In the Quran, however, it is a straight request to free their people from bondage and oppression.  They said:

“…Do not oppress them.  We have come from your Lord with a sign, and peace to all those who follow guidance.  Surely, it has been revealed to us that chastisement will befall him who rejects and turns away.” (Quran 20:47-48)

The Pharaoh reminded Moses:

“Did we not bring you up among us as a child and let you dwell many years of your life with us?  And did you not do the deed that you did.  And you are one ungrateful.” (Quran 26:18-19)

This is the proof that the Pharaoh he was sent to was the very same Pharaoh he fled from in the first place, not another, as the Judeo-Christian tradition would have it.  According to Exodus 4:19, God is supposed to have said:

“All the men who seek your life have died.”

However, the seekers of his life could have been the friends and family of the man he killed who had incited the Pharaoh to sentence Moses to death, not necessarily the Pharaoh himself.  Moses replied:

“I did it then, when I was in error.  So I fled from you when I feared you; but my Lord has (since) invested me with wisdom and appointed me as one of His messengers.  And this favor with which you reproach me is (balanced by the fact) that you have enslaved the Children of Israel.” (Quran 26:20-22)

Then the Pharaoh asked:

“‘Who, then, is the Lord of you both, O Moses?’  He was told: ‘Our Lord is He Who gave to each thing its form and nature, then guided it aright.’” (Quran 20:49-50)

And when he asked what ‘the Lord of the worlds’ was, Moses told him:

“‘Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, if you seek to be convinced with certainty.’” (Quran 26:24)

The Pharaoh was not convinced, and held up the example of the traditional idol worship in his society:

“He said, ‘What about the generations of old?’  Moses said: ‘The knowledge thereof is with my Lord, in a Record.  My Lord is neither unaware nor does He forget; (It is He) Who has spread the earth out for you like a bed, and opened roads for you therein, and sent down rain from the sky.’”  (Quran 20:51-53)

Thus Moses reminded the Pharaoh that the malpractice of his forefathers is recorded and will be punished, and directed his attention to the reality of the manifest world – something that could not be the product of any man, let alone idols carved by men.  Nevertheless, the Pharaoh remained obstinately clinging to his own supposed godhead.  He began playing to his audience, seeking to keep his hold over his people:

“Pharaoh said to those around: ‘Do you not hear (what he says)?’

(Moses) said: ‘Your Lord, and the Lord of your fore-fathers.’

Pharaoh said: ‘Verily, (this) Messenger who has been sent to you is a madman!’

Moses said: ‘Lord of the east and the west, and all that is between them, if you would only understand!’

Pharaoh said: ‘If you choose a god other than me, I will certainly imprison you.’” (Quran 26:25-29)

But Moses trumped his boasting self display:

“He said: ‘Even if I showed you something clear (and) convincing?’

The Pharaoh said: ‘Produce it then, if you are truthful!’

Then (Moses) flung down his staff and it became a veritable serpent; and he drew out his hand, and behold, it was white to all beholders!” (Quran 26:30-33)

Part of this event is also reported in the Bible, as is the Pharaoh’s reaction:

“‘When Pharaoh speaks to you, he will tell you to prove yourself with a miraculous sign.’ (Exodus 7:9)  ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh.  Let it become a viper!’

(When) Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh.  They did exactly as God had said.  He[6]  flung his staff down before Pharaoh, and it became a viper.  Pharaoh summoned his scholars and magicians.” (Exodus 7:10-1)

It is the appointment with these ‘scholars and magicians’ which eventually led to the escape of the Israelites from Egypt.  And the story of the battle with the Sorcerers and the Pharaoh’s reaction to its outcome will be the subject of the next article.

[1] Quran 28:33, 26:10-11.

[2] The Bible also testifies to this event, “‘What is that in your hand?’ asked God.  ‘A staff,’ [said Moses].  ‘Throw it on the ground.’  When he threw it on the ground, it turned into a snake, and Moses ran away from it.  [Then] God said to Moses, ‘Reach out and grasp its tail.’  When he reached out and grasped [the snake], it turned back into a staff in his hand.  [God said,] ‘This is so that they will believe that God appeared to you.’” (Exodus 4:2-5)

[3] Quran 28:31.

[4] In Quran 28:34, Moses says “My Brother Aaron is more eloquent in speech.”

[5] Exodus 4:25-7.

[6] In Exodus, it is Aaron, directed by Moses, who casts the staff.  In the Quran the staff clearly belongs to Moses, and it is he who does the actual casting.

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