Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Story of Moses #1

Description: An introduction to the Messenger of God sent to the Israelites; The birth, adoption and fosterage of Moses.

Jeremy Boulter

Moses the Messenger to the Israelites

Prophet Moses a.s is a figure of importance in a wide range of religious Scriptures. The Torah is attributed to him by all fundamental Jews, Christians and Muslims, and he is mentioned in each of their scriptures more than any other Prophet in regards to the delivery of the message. The Psalms and Tanakh [Jewish Bible] constantly refer to the debt which the Israelites owe God for their salvation from the Pharaoh, in which Moses was instrumental. It was also him through which the Law of God was given to the Children of Israel, a code which they were commanded to abide throughout life... In the Gospels, Jesus often compares his own authority to that of Moses amongst the Jews. The letters of Paul are devoted to demonstrating the replacement of the authority and Law of Moses with the authority and Law of Jesus as a means to salvation.

In the Quran, it not only mentions the story of Moses a.s more than any other prophet’s, but also acknowledges the Torah of Moses as the earlier revelation of God, the original of which the Quran confirms and replaces (in its application).

In looking at Moses as an exemplary Messenger, Muslims perceive many similarities between him and the Prophet Muhammad, may God praise them both. Both of them were guided to form a strong and abiding nation under God’s authority. Both brought with them God’s Law, albeit in different languages. Both were given their duty as a prophet well into maturity. Both were ordered to migrate for the sake of Allah. One of the major differences, however, is in the characteristics of their respective followers. The children of Israel are so characterized by their obduracy that the prize Moses sought (leading his people into Jerusalem, the focal point of worship for the Children of Israel) never materialized in his lifetime. On the other hand, the followers of Muhammad were pliable and eager, so much so that a mere seven years after fleeing Mecca, the focal point of Muslim worship was retaken and made subservient to them.

In this article and the ones following, the story of Moses a.s will be told as mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah, [1] along with some discussion on the similarities and differences encountered in the Christian and Judaic traditions.

In the Quran Allah states:

"Ta, Sin, Mim [three separate Arabic letters]. These are verses of the clear Book. We recite to you the news of Moses and Pharaoh in truth for a people who believe. Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corruptors. And We wanted to confer favour upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors. And establish them in the land, and to show Pharaoh and [his minister] Haman and their soldiers through them that which they had feared." [Quran: 28:1-6]

Firaun (Pharaoh) rebelled in arrogance and was haughty. He preferred this world to the Hereafter, and disobeyed the Lord. He divided his people into sects. Some of them were made to live the life of subservience and humiliation; they were the people of Israel. They were the best people of their time. Pharaoh exploited them and dealt with them unjustly, forcing them to take up only the lowest of professions. Not only that, he also killed their males while keeping their women alive.

The reason behind this evil practice was due the belief of the Israelites that there would be a child from the progeny of Ibrahim (Abraham) who would destroy the kingdom of Pharaoh. It happened when Sarah, the wife of Abraham were in Egypt, the king of Egypt tried to misbehave with her. But Allah saved her, and gave her the glad tidings that from her progeny would be born a boy who would destroy that kingdom. The Coptic people of Egypt talked about it and reached Pharaoh through his ministers. Pharaoh then commanded the slaying of all the Israelite male children.

Allah promised to grant strength and control to those who were weak and suppressed. This Divine promise was fulfilled, and they became, as Allah says in the Quran: "And We caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which We had blessed. And the good word [i.e., decree] of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of what they had patiently endured…" [Quran: 7:137].

The Story of His Birth and Upbringing

The epoch of the birth of Moses was one fraught with severe trials on the children of Israel.

Ibn 'Abbas also narrated: Pharaoh had a dream that a fire came from the direction of Jerusalem and burnt all the Coptic people and their houses, but did not harm the Israelites. He woke up terrified and gathered all his priests, soothsayers, and sorcerers, and asked them for the interpretation of his dream. They told him: "There will be born a boy from these people, who will destroy the people of Egypt." So Pharaoh ordered that all newborn boys be killed, while the girls were to be kept alive.

The Pharaoh had consulted his seers over a dream that a fire from the north destroyed the property of his Egyptian subjects, sparing the property, however, of the Israeli bondsmen. His seers explained this to be a warning that a leader would arise among the Israelites who would bring him and his nation to ruin.

His reaction was to try and prevent this from happening by killing all the male children among the Israeli bondsmen. [2] Some traditions indicate that the Pharaoh was given sincere advice not to carry out this policy completely, as it would result in a loss of man-power. Hence Aaron a.s was born in a year when male children were allowed to live, but Moses a.s in a year when all male children were to be killed. The exact truth of this, however, is not known; perhaps the policy of male infanticide was not put into practice until after Aaron’s birth.

Moses’ mother, Jochebed [3], was fortunate in that her pregnancy was not visible until very late, so she was able to conceal his birth. After he was born, she placed him in a padded chest with air-holes and let him down into the reeds on the banks of the Nile when not feeding him, [4] so that any sudden search by the Pharaoh’s police would not discover him. This was in accordance with how God instructed her.

“And We inspired the mother of Moses, [saying]: ‘Suckle him, but when you fear for him, cast him into the river and do not fear nor grieve. Verily! We shall return him to you, and shall make him one of Our Messengers.’” [Surah Al-Qasas, 28:7]

When he was a little stronger, she was told by God to let loose the chest[5], but became so worried concerning what would happen to him, she almost disclosed that she had a son in that chest in an effort to motivate people to observe where he had floated off to. However, she managed to keep everything under cover by dispatching her daughter, Miriam, to secretly spy out what became of him. Miriam witnessed some ladies of the Pharaoh’s court discover the chest and take it into the Pharaoh’s Palace.[6] When the Pharaoh’s wife, Asiyah, opened the chest and saw the baby boy, she said:

“A comfort for the eye for me and you. Don’t kill him; he may be of benefit to us, or we could adopt him as our son.”[Al-Qasas, 28:9]

As Asiyah was childless, she needed a wet nurse to feed her new-found babe.

According to Judeo-Christian traditions, Miriam witnesses her brother being found by the maids of the Pharaoh’s daughter, Merytamon, who came across Moses floating in a basket amongst the reeds while walking with the Princess near the river. The basket was not taken to the palace, but brought to Merytamon there, on the bank. Miriam then took the opportunity to offer to find the baby a wet nurse straight away. This seems a little too obvious a move, one that may have led the Egyptians to suspect the offer. According to Islamic sources, however, there seems to be an interval in which the Pharaoh’s approval was sought.

When Asiyah tried to find a suitable wet nurse among her retainers, however, she discovered that he would not suckle anyone. She sent him with her midwives to the market, seeking help further afield, where his sister spotted him again. It was there that Miriam offered to take them to a trustworthy ‘nursing’ mother.

“She said, ‘Shall I direct you to a household who will rear him for you, and look after him in a good manner?’” [Surah Al-Qasas, 28:12)

She brought them to her mother, from whom the baby Moses at last suckled with will. On being informed of the matter, Asiyah asked Jochebed to lodge with her. She refused, but agreed to foster the baby in her home for a wage, as was the custom of that day. [7] Thus did God… “…restore him to his mother, that her eye might be comforted and she might not grieve, and that she would know the promise [8] of God to be true.” [Surah Al-Qasas, 28:13]

When the Moses was weaned, he went back to Asiyah in the Pharaoh’s palace, and was thus brought up as a member of the court with all the privileges that it implied. His supposed foster relations with the Israelites made him sympathetic to them and also, reciprocally, encouraged them to trust him, so, as he grew up and reached puberty, they were inclined to seek his help when in need. This is what catalyzed the next step in the mission of Moses when he reached adulthood, as will be narrated in the next article.


[1] The words, actions and tacit approvals of the Prophet Muhammad as reported by his companions
[2] Ibn Kathir Qasas al-Anbiya; English translation, by R.A. Azimi; Pub. Darussalam, pp. 299-300: The Story of Moses
[3] Jochadebed is the name given to Miriam, Aaron and Moses’ mother by Biblical, not Muslim, scholars. The names of Moses’ sister and mother are not mentioned by authentic Islamic accounts.
[4]Tafsir Ibn Kathir: Commentary on Quran 28:7
[5] Quran, Surah Ta-Ha, 20:37-38.
[6] Ibn Abbas, Mujahid, Hasan al Basri et al in Tabari 19:532, Tafsir Ibn Kathir on Quran 28:10-11.
[7] Mentioned in Tafsir Ibn Kathir citing Ibn Abbas in the commentary on Quran 28:12.
[8] In verse 7 of this chapter, God promises to Jochebed when she sent him off into the river that He would reunite them, and also that he would be a messenger.


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