Commentary of the Quran (Chapter 2:51-54)
By: Mohammad Sobhanie
Prophet Musa on Mount Sinai – Part II
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
وَإِذْ وَاعَدْنَا مُوسَىٰ أَرْبَعِينَ لَيْلَةً ثُمَّ اتَّخَذْتُمُ الْعِجْلَ مِن بَعْدِهِ وَأَنتُمْ ظَالِمُونَ ﴿٥١﴾ ثُمَّ عَفَوْنَا عَنكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ ﴿٥٢﴾ وَإِذْ آتَيْنَا مُوسَى الْكِتَابَ وَالْفُرْقَانَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ ﴿٥٣﴾ وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ يَا قَوْمِ إِنَّكُمْ ظَلَمْتُمْ أَنفُسَكُم بِاتِّخَاذِكُمُ الْعِجْلَ فَتُوبُوا إِلَىٰ بَارِئِكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ عِندَ بَارِئِكُمْ فَتَابَ عَلَيْكُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ ﴿٥٤﴾
Translation: And when We made an appointment with Moses for forty nights, you took up the Calf [for worship] in his absence, and you were wrongdoers. Then We excused you after that so that you might give thanks. And when We gave Moses the Book and the Criterion so that you might be guided. And [recall] when Moses said to his people, ‘O my people! You have indeed wronged yourselves by taking up the Calf [for worship]. Now turn penitently to your Maker, and slay [the guilty among] your folks. That will be better for you with your Maker.’ Then He turned to you clemently. Indeed, He is the All-clement, the All-merciful.
Commentary: Despite all of the miracles that the Children of Israel witnessed, they still fell in love with worshipping Samiri’s golden calf. Commentators argue that their love of the calf could not be eliminated from the hearts of the Israelites without an extraordinary punishment other than slaying themselves.
The Qur’an does not detail the exact method on how the guilty Israelites killed themselves, nor is the number of those who were executed revealed. Some commentator’s quote that anywhere from ten to seventy thousand perished before a divine revelation ordered them to cease further slaughter. At that point, Allah (SWT) accepted their repentance and forgave their sins.
The quoted numbers could be exaggerated. Perhaps Allah (SWT) in His mercy forgave them the moment they demonstrated their willingness to submit to the divine command. In this case, Allah (SWT) took the killing of some as equal to the execution of all.
This is similar to the dream of Prophet Ibrahim (AS), where he was commanded to sacrifice Ismail. Before Ibrahim could reach the ultimate stage of sacrificing his son, he was told, “O Ibrahim! You have indeed made the vision come true.
Pondering Points: Two important points come to mind; the first is that a nation which lacks critical thinking is always prone to exploitation by people like Samiri. He did not build the golden calf with his own wealth. Rather, he used the jewelry, gold and wealth of the Children of Israel to lead them astray from the divine path. This is true even today, for vulnerable communities prone to corrupt leaders.
The second point is that Qur’anic verses imply that the Children of Israel were already inclined towards idol worship. They had asked Prophet Musa (AS) to make them idols shortly after their exodus from Egypt previously. Later on, they took Samiri’s calf for worship while their hearts were imbued with love for the calf:
وَأُشْرِبُوا فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْعِجْلَ ﴿٩٣﴾
and their hearts had been imbued with [the love of] the Calf
One might ask why Allah (SWT) tested the Children of Israel with idolatry, a subject in which they were weak and woundable. Let us look at the alternative.
Allah (SWT) could have let the Children of Israel die with that inclination towards idolatry, and resurrected them with disgrace on the Day of Judgment. Punishment and disgrace in the hereafter is more severe than in this world. This, however, was not the case.
Instead, Allah (SWT) made the Children of Israel realize their worldly mistakes and errors and granted them an opportunity to repent and ask for His forgiveness. The latter option was a divine test, as stated in the following verse:
قَالَ فَإِنَّا قَدْ فَتَنَّا قَوْمَكَ مِن بَعْدِكَ وَأَضَلَّهُمُ السَّامِرِيُّ ﴿٨٥﴾
Allah (SWT) said to Musa (AS), ‘Indeed We tried your people in your absence, and the Samiri has led them astray.’