Moses and the Sorcerers

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The Appointment
The Pharaoh was a consummate disbeliever.  He had dared challenge the Lordship of God even after Moses had shown him the signs that God had told him to show.  His arrogance was such that nothing would convince him that there was a Lord to Whom all would return.  He imagined that his rule of Egypt and its vast treasures and riches meant that he was the provider of its bounties, a belief that would shortly be put to test.  Even after he had seen the two signs of Moses’ staff and hand, he believed them to be mere magical manifestations.  So he called his counselors together:

“‘Surely this man is a skilled sorcerer who wants to expel you from your land by means of magic; so what do you advise?’

They said, ‘Put him and his brother off for a while and send callers to the cities to summon every well versed sorcerer to you.’” (Quran 26:34-37)

With this advice, the Pharaoh made a proposal, which was how Moses trapped him into a very public display of relative power.  The Pharaoh said:

“O Moses!  Have you come to drive us out from our land with your magic?  We can also show you magic to match it, so set an appointment between us and you, which neither we nor you shall forget to keep, in a fair (open) place.’

Moses said, ‘Let the encounter be on the day (of the Festival) of Adornment, and let the people assemble at forenoon.’” (Quran 20:56-59)

By choosing this holiday, Moses ensured the maximum exposure of witnesses to the coming test, and therefore the maximum possible pressure to recognize the Truth that God is the only Lord, the One worthy of all worship, and there is none other than Him.

The Battle with the Sorcerers
The Bible narrates that Moses and Aaron cast down their staff first,[1]  but the Quran says the sorcerers gave Moses the choice, and he forewent the first throw.

“They said, ‘O Moses.  Will you cast first, or shall we?’

He said, ‘You cast first.’

So, when they cast (their staves and ropes), they bewitched the eyes of the people and struck terror into them with the tremendous magic they produced.” (Quran 7:115-117)

Like the miracle of Moses previously witnessed by the Pharaoh, their staffs seemed to appear like snakes. The effect of the magic was so potent that even Moses was taken aback.  But God was there, supporting him.

“Fear not!  Verily, you have the upper hand.  Cast what you have in your right hand and it shall devour the works they have done.  They are merely magical simulations, and the sorcerer can never succeed, whatever the level of skill he might achieve.” (Quran 20:68-69)

So Moses cast his staff and it became a serpent in reality, not mere magic, that swallowed all the simulated snakes.[2]

These sorcerers, who had, before the contest, been confident of victory, now realized that what they faced was not the mere trickery used by sorcerers. They new that this feat performed by Moses was not physically possible, and that it must have originated from the creator of existence.  While earlier they had been concerned about gaining the Pharaoh’s favor, now they were concerned about gaining the favor of the True Lord.

“The sorcerers fell down prostrate, in adoration.  They said, ‘We believe in the Lord of the worlds, the Lord of Moses and Aaron.’” (Quran 7:120-122)

When the Pharaoh saw their capitulation, he was furious.  He raged:

“‘You have believed in him before I gave you permission; he must surely be your chief who taught you magic.[3]  Therefore I will cut off your hands and legs from either side and have you crucified on palm trees.  Thus you will know most certainly which of us is more severe (in punishment) and more lasting.’

They replied, ‘Never will we prefer you above what has come to us from clear signs and Him Who created us; So decree whatever you wish, for you can decree only what pertains to the life of this world.  Verily, we believe (now) in our Lord, may He forgive us our sins and the magic you compelled us to perform, for God is best when it comes to rewards in comparison to your reward.’” (Quran 20:71-73)

Abdullah bin Abbas, one of the companions of the Prophet, said that these sorcerers were disbelievers at the beginning of the day, but were martyred and innocent by its end.  He cites as poof the prayer they made in the face of the Pharaoh’s threat:[4]

“‘Our Lord!  Pour out upon us patience and cause us to die as Muslims’” (Quran 7:126)

The important message that these verses convey is that believing in the Lord and the Final Day, and acting for His sake and in hope of His Reward, is the most sublime and fulfilling action a person can take.  Doing so will ensure one dwells in the Garden of Eden, beneath which rivers flow, forever as a result of purifying oneself from sin (through repentance followed by obedience).[5]  The disobedient and recalcitrant sinner, on the other hand, is promised that:

“Hell shall await him, there; he shall not die therein, nor shall he live.” (Quran 20:74)

The Pharaoh’s Counselors Advise Oppression
After this event, the advisors of the Pharaoh counseled him to come down hard on the Israelites to counter the clear victory which all had just witnessed.  They said:

“‘Would you leave Moses and his people to work corruption in the land, and forsake you and your gods?’

He said, ‘We shall slay their sons and spare their women, for surely we have a strong hold over them.’” (Quran 7:127)

Indeed, the Bible also hints that the Israelites felt the oppression of the Pharaoh, but before, rather than after, the contest.  It turned them against Moses, whom they blamed for making their lives more onerous.[6]  Also, in the Biblical story, the killing of male offspring was limited to around the time of the birth of Moses, while such a policy is described as twice applied by the Pharaoh in Islam, this occasion being the second time.  In the face of the Pharaoh’s cruelty Moses could only advise:

“Pray for help from God and be patient.  Indeed the earth belongs to God.”

But his people complained:

“‘We have been harmed before you came to us and after you came to us.’[7]

He (Moses) said, ‘It may be that your lord will destroy your enemy and make you the inheritors of the land.  Then He will see how you are going to act.’” (Quran 7:128-129)

Indeed, God sent down plague upon plague on the Egyptians due to their oppressive intransigence.  The next article will discuss these plagues, and the events that led to the flight of the Israelites.

[1] Exodus 7:12

[2] Quran 26:45

[3] He also accused them of plotting the capitulation with Moses in advance while in their cities, in order to accomplish a coup d’état. (Quran 7:123)

[4] Tafsir Ibn Kathir  commentary on Quran 7:126, citing at-Tabari 13:36

[5] Quran 20:75

[6] Exodus 5:21

[7] The scribes of the Torah turned this round, putting the words of complaint into the mouth of their prophet (Moses), saying, “O Lord, why do You mistreat Your people?  Why did You send me?  As soon as I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he made things worse for these people. You have done nothing to help Your people.” (Exodus 5:22-3)

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