Condemned to Wander

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The Wandering Years
The tale of the Ten Commandments and the detailing of the Law of Moses are not mentioned in the Quran, because the event was superseded by what was sent to Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him.  However, several events concerning the time of wandering are told, three of which we will mention here.

The Cloud
The first of these is that God shaded the Israelites with clouds.  In the Bible it mentions that a cloud accompanied them in the desert, from which commands were issued.[1]  This, however, was not the function ascribed to them in the Quran.  While they were wandering the Israelites could feel comfortable in their shade, even in the heat of the day, and this lasted while God sent manna and quails to feed them daily.  He said:

“And We sheltered you with clouds and sent manna and quails: so consume the good things We have provided for you…” (Quran 2:57)

The Refusal to Fight
The second event[2]  probably refers to the refusal of the Israelites to fight the giants of Kadesh.[3]

Moses said to the Israelites: ‘Remember the Favor of God on you in making prophets among you, and kings, giving you what He has not given to others.  Enter the holy land which God has assigned to you, and do not run away, lest you be resurrected as losers.’

They said: ‘O Moses!  The people in the land are of great strength, so we cannot enter it while they are there; we will only enter it when they leave.’

Two God fearing men[4]  of those on whom God had bestowed His Grace said: ‘Assault them through the gate, for victory will be yours once you are inside; so if you are really believers, put your trust in God.’

The people said: ‘O Moses!  We’ll never enter it as long as they are there.  Why don’t both you and your Lord go and fight them together?  We will just sit right here and wait.’

Moses feared the reaction of God against the people led and, by association, himself.  He appealed to God: ‘O my Lord!  I have power only over myself and my brother, so separate us from the disobedient rebels!’

In the event, God was mild in the punishment he ordained: ‘Therefore this holy land is forbidden to them for forty years; in distraction they will wander through the land.  So don’t be sorrowful over the disobedient rebels (against Me).’

This confirms the sentence meted out in the Torah.[5]  However, the text of the Bible shifts some blame to Moses himself, saying that when he hit a rock twice instead of talking to it (as commanded) to obtain water for the people, God accused him and Aaron of disbelieving in the means demanded.  Therefore, it concluded:

“You will not bring this congregation into the land I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)[6]

Needless to say, no such blame is laid upon Moses in the Quran, who is always depicted as an obedient slave of God.

The Cow
The third event is the story of the cow that the Israelites almost refused to sacrifice.  When Moses told them God had commanded them to sacrifice a cow, they questioned.  First they took it for a joke:

‘Are you making fun of us?’  they said.

Then they asked for a plain description.  ‘A cow that is neither too young nor too old’, they were told, ‘but somewhere in between’.

‘What about its color?’  they persisted.

‘It’s a bright yellow cow, and very nice to look at,’ they were informed.  Yet still they questioned.

“Call upon your Lord for us to make plain to us what it is.  Verily to us all cows are alike, and surely, if Allah wills, we will be guided.

He [Moses] said, He says, ‘It is a cow neither trained to till the soil nor water the fields, sound, having no other color except bright yellow.’

They said, ‘Now you have brought the truth.’  So they slaughtered it though they were near to not doing it.” (Quran 2:70-72)

The description of the cow matches that given in the Bible describing a special sin offering, except for the color (red instead of yellow).[7]  However, in another less detailed description, the ritual established for absolving the guilty party of the murder of a man whose murderer is not known,[8]  comes reasonably close to the reason stated in the Quran and Prophetic Narrations as to why this sacrifice above was ordered.

A rich man from whom his nephews wished to inherit was killed by one of them, and left on the open road.  When he was found the following morning, a dispute started about who had killed him.  Then the people had suggested that the disputers went to Moses, the Messenger of God, for help.  When one of the nephews complained to him about the murder, Moses gathered the disputers and the onlookers together.

‘In the name of God, I adjure you all, if any one has any knowledge of this affair, disclose it now!’

No one seemed to know anything about it, so the people had demanded that he asked the Lord about the matter.  In reply to the request, God had merely ordered the slaughter of a cow.  He did not designate a particular quality of cow, but the people insolently demanded clarification.  Each time God named a characteristic, they persisted in demanding more details.  When they had finally stopped questioning, they had a tall order on their hands.  How could they find such a singular unblemished cow as God ultimately described?

When they finally found a man who owned such a beast, it cost them ten times its weight in gold to purchase.  With great reluctance, they had paid the price and slaughtered the cow.  Then God said, by way of His messenger: “Strike (the dead man) with a piece of (the cow)...” (Quran 2:73)

When they did that, God brought the man back to life temporarily.  Moses then asked him who had been his murderer, and he pointed out the culprit and said, ‘my nephew.’  Then he fell dead again.[9]

These three stories show that the majority of the people Moses had led out of Egypt were ungrateful to their Lord, despite His care, attention, mercy actions and clear signs.  They were characterized by a singular lack of modesty and submissiveness, continually challenging the role of Moses and their duty to obey him.  Was it that they felt that they had the right due to God choosing the descendents of Israel as His ‘chosen people’?  Did they suspect Moses was actually Egyptian and not from among their people, despite the legends, and so had less right to God’s ear than they?  Had God’s promise to save them obscured their minds from doing righteousness?  Whatever the case, their resulting comportment led to God greatly increasing the difficulties they faced and the tests they had to go through until they could barely bear them.

God only wishes to make our worship of Him easy.  It is our own rebellious nature which makes worship of Him a chore.  Furthermore, those who set themselves against God find that they never actually encounter the way to salvation again, often ending up destroyed by His Will without ever repenting.  This means their ultimate abode will not be heaven, which should be what we all seek, but the place we would all rather avoid.


[1] Numbers 9:15-23 and Deuteronomy 1:33.

[2] See the Quran 5:20-26.

[3] Numbers 13:31-32.

[4] Joshua and Caleb, according to the Bible (Numbers 14:6-9)

[5] “Verily, not one of these evil men from this generation will see that good land I swore to give unto your fathers, save Caleb and the son of Jephuneh.” (Deuteronomy 1:35-36)

[6] (Moses said) “The Lord was angry with me for your sakes, saying ‘You will not go there either.’” (Deuteronomy 1:37)

[7] Numbers 19:2-9

[8] Deuteronomy 21:1-9

[9] Ibn Kathir, in Stories of the Prophet; English translation by R. A Azimi; pub. Darusallam 2003; p. 428-429: the Story of the Cow.

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