Nine signs or ten plagues: Can a Qur’anic view add to rabbinic views of Torah?

On April 6,2020 the well known Islamic magazine Al-Jumuah published my article “Nine Signs Or Ten Plagues?” which is good reading for both Jews and Muslims. For Jews, ‘Nine Signs Or Ten Plagues’ is an especially good article for discussion at a flexible internet Seder. The text is written for Muslims who know very little about the Seder.

“Still being used in the 21st century are anti-Islamic polemical arguments from 18th and 19th century Christian Missionaries who claimed that Muhammad made lots of mistakes in the Qur’an when he refers to events that occur in the Bible.

In reality, these Islamophobic writings are simply evidence of a truth, declared in Shakespeare’s play, Merchant of Venice [i. Iii. 93] written in the 1590’s: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness…”

In reality, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an all have verses that seem to abrogate or be in conflict with other verses within the same Holy Scripture.

The task of Tafsir commentators and religious scholars is to explain under which conditions and circumstances the opposing verses apply.

People who are well-educated in their own religion know this to be true, and they also know that these religious scholars often disagree with each other because some of these religious scholars lived in harsh and violent times, and so some of their explanations are harsh and extreme.

Believers who are pious but poorly educated in the various aspects of their own religion, do not realize that there are always other pious perspectives on how and when these contending and opposing verses should be applied.

Many of these people who are pious but poorly educated in the many and various aspects of their own religion, simply believe in their own teachers of Holy Scripture, rather than believing in the One who inspired the Holy Scripture.

An example of such narrow-minded thinking is to say, according to one anti-Muslim polemicist (inthenameofallah.org), that the Bible clearly describes TEN miraculous plagues in Exodus 7:14 to 12:36 but that the Qur’an wrongly says there were NINE signs.

He also adds that, in the Qur’an, the order of the plagues and even what the plagues were, differs from what is described in the Book of Exodus in the Torah. He thus concludes that the Qur’an is imperfect and false.

As a Rabbi I can tell you that this polemicist does not realize that the Torah never specifically refers to TEN signs or plagues. Indeed, Psalm 78: 44-51 lists NINE signs/plagues in a somewhat different order from the Exodus passage, as follows:

“He turned their river into blood; they could not drink from their streams.

He sent swarms of flies that devoured them,

and frogs that devastated them.

He gave their crops to the grasshopper,

their produce to the locust.

He destroyed their vines with hail and their sycamore-figs with sleet.

He gave over their cattle to hail, their livestock to bolts of lightning.

He unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility— a band of destroying angels. He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death but gave them over to the plague.

He struck down all the firstborn of Egypt.”

Exodus lists these events, each one as preceding one of the many times when Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to demand freedom for the Children of Israel to leave Egypt and return to their homeland. There probably were other disasters that befell Egypt during these years at times when Moses and Aaron were not sent to confront Pharaoh yet again.

Also, this anti-Muslim polemicist avoids mentioning (or doesn’t know) that Psalm 105:23-36 also lists NINE miracle plagues. Furthermore, these NINE plagues are likewise not listed in the same order as in the Exodus text. Should we then believe that Prophet David (Dâwûd), the author of Psalms (Zabûr), got wrong the number or the chronological order of the plagues?

Or, is it not wiser and more honest to start with the premise that both Prophet Moses and Prophet Muhammad were inspired by the One and only God to deliver God’s message of guidance for living a holy life to two different people, at two different times, two peoples who were living in two different kinds of circumstances.

So, when there are differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, they are not contradictions; but rather differences of perspective or emphasis due to the different historical needs of each religious community.

For those who want to understand the details, let us examine them. The plagues as listed in the Bible are: (1) Waters turn to Blood (2) Frogs (3) Lice (4) Swarms of Flies (5) Livestock Epidemic (6) Boils (7) Hail (8) Locusts (9) Darkness (10) Death of the First Born.

The Quran does refer to NINE signs as signs of God’s will and greatness for believers, which are often plagues for Pharaoh-type people.

The Qur’an states:

“To Moses We did give NINE Clear Signs, so ask the Children of Israel about when he (Moses) came to them. Pharaoh said to him: “O Moses! I consider you to have been worked upon by sorcery.” [Sûrah Al-Zukhrûf, 17:101] and

“Now put your hand into your bosom and it will come forth white without stain. This is (one) among the NINE signs (you take) to Pharaoh and his (nobility) people; for they (the rulers of Egypt) are a people rebellious in transgression.” [Sûrah Al-Naml, 27:12]

According to one Muslim commentator (Sayyid Qutb), the Qur’an refers to Nine Signs, to teach us that the death of the first-born males in Egypt (Exodus 11:5) occurred after the Children of Israel had already left Egypt, and were on their way to return to the Land of Israel. Thus the tenth plague did not fall on every Egyptian first-born male. It was limited only to Pharaoh and his (nobility) charioteers who pursued the escaping Jews, and who then drowned in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 14:28)

As the Qur’an states three times:

“So We seized him (Pharaoh) and his hosts (charioteers), and flung them into the sea. Now behold what was the end of those who did wrong.” (Qur’ân 28:40)

“So he (Pharaoh) resolved to remove them (kill all the Jews) from the face of the earth: but We drowned him and all (the charioteers) who were with him.” [Sûrah Al-Isrâ’, 17:103]

“When at length they (Pharaoh and his charioteers) provoked Us, We exacted retribution from them, and We drowned them all. [Sûrah Al-Zukhrûf, 43:55]

The Qur’an when understood this way, offers us a very profound understanding of the tenth plague, which the Qur’an does not consider to be a sign/plague at all because it is a punishment deserved only by those who were guilty. This greatly limits the number of first-born who died in the last plague to just a small and directly responsible number of (nobles and charioteers) and of Pharaoh himself; it excludes all the other first-born male Egyptians. This is an example of how the Qur’an enhances the understanding of the Torah.

Mass death (Tûfan) is not among the TEN signs/miracles because it pertained only to the drowning of Pharaoh and his charioteers at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.

This Qur’anic teaching about the Biblical tenth plague should be discussed by Jews during the Passover Seder [i] (April 8 evening to April 15, 2020) at the time when we recount the ten plagues. In Jewish tradition, while we rejoice at our deliverance from slavery, we should also express our regret that our freedom came at the cost of the Egyptians’ suffering, for we are all human beings.

So each person at the Seder —the ritual meal of the Passover celebration— pours out some drops of wine from his or her wine cup as we recite the ten plagues, to signify having less sweetness in our celebration because some innocent Egyptians suffered due to their ruler’s sins.

As the Talmud says: “In that hour (when Pharaoh and his charioteers drowned) the angels wished to sing a song (of praise) before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying: ‘My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you sing a song?’ (Sanhedrin 39b)

And the Qur’an says: “And We took the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh and his soldiers pursued them in tyranny and enmity until, when drowning overtook him (Pharaoh), he said, “I believe that there is no deity except that in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of the Muslims [‘ i.e., those who submit”].” [Sûrah Yûsuf, 10:90]

And the rabbinic Midrash, Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 43, says: “Rabbi Nechunia, son of Haḳanah, said: Know the power of repentance from Pharaoh who rebelled against God saying, “Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto his voice?” (Exodus 5:2). The same tongue with which he sinned, he used to repent saying, “Who is like thee, O Lord, among the mighty?” (Exodus 15:11).

Thus the teaching of mercy which we see in the Qur’an’s reduction of the number of Egyptians killed at the end of the signs, together with the rabbis’ desire to reduce the Seder’s celebration joy about the Egyptian defeat, support one another. The Qur’an and Torah are not contradictory; they are co-operating revelations from the one and only God. This concept is reinforced by a well-known Hadith:

“The Prophets are paternal brothers [sons of one ‘father’ by co-wives]. Their ‘mothers’ [mother tongue, motherland, etc.] are different but their religion (from the one God) is one.” (Bukhari Vol. 4: Book 55 #651; Muslim Book 30: #5834-5836).

[i] Seder: a Jewish home or community religious service lasting 2-3 hours which includes a ceremonial dinner held on the first, or first and second, evenings of Passover in commemoration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt.

A special booklet of prayers and songs called a Haggadah is used before the main course is served, and all who are present participate, including children who have assigned parts to recite based on the Torah’s commandment (Exodus 12:26-27):

“And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to God because He passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our homes.’”

The Passover celebration is the oldest continually celebrated religious ritual in history.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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