We find the reason for the title of this surah (Al-Baqarah means “The Cow”) in today’s section, the story of a cow or heifer that was to be sacrificed as a purification from sin (2:67-71).  The sacrifice even seems to be able to raise the dead!  This appears to be connected to the story in Number 19:1-10 of the red heifer offered by Moses for the purification of the people.  Nonetheless, it seems like a weird story to me! 

Most of this passage is a scathing indictment against the Jewish nation for their disrespect of God and abuse of their covenant.  They hypocritically pretend to be allied with God when in reality they only serve themselves.  They wave race and election and God’s promises about as some sort of insurance policy they can cash in to save their rock-hard hearts.  You cannot treat God like this and think all will be okay.  The conclusion of the matter is crystal clear:

Truly those who do evil and are surrounded by their sins will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain, while those who believe and do good deeds will be the inhabitants of the Garden, there to remain. (2:81-82)

How one’s faith is manifested through behavior determines one’s destiny, and the “children of Israel” (at least some of them) have been found wanting. 

The very first verse in this section introduces a new idea.  Are Muslims exclusivists like most traditional Christians or are they in fact more inclusive than us? 

The Muslim believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians [another Semitic monotheistic ancient religion] — all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good — will have their rewards with their Lord.  No fear for them, nor will they grieve. (2:62)

Interestingly, a moderate Muslim think tank in Washington DC called The Center for Islamic Pluralism uses this exact verse as a banner statement for their site, so maybe so at least in some permutation.  The Muslim commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about this verse:

The point of the verse is that Islam does not teach an exclusive doctrine, and is not meant exclusively for one people. The Jews claimed this for themselves, and the Christians in their origin were a sect of the Jews. Even the modern organized Christian churches . . . [believe]  that all who do not believe in it or who lied previously to [rejected the saving power of] the death of Christ are at a disadvantage spiritually before the Throne of God. The attitude of Islam is entirely different. Islam existed before the preaching of Muḥammad on this earth: the Qur’ān expressly calls Abraham a Muslim (3:67). Its teaching (submission to God’s will) has been and will be the teaching of Religion for all time and for all peoples.

But then doesn’t the rest of today’s section talked about the spiritual bankruptcy of the Jews?  I am getting ahead of myself but I know we will come to passages in which Allah commands Muslims to try to convert Jews and Christians to their religion.  It does not seem like Islam is as inclusive as Ali would like it to appear.  It seems all he is doing is saying Allah accepts (actually envelopes) anything that came before 610 CE (the advent of Islam) and calls that Islamic or the one true “Religion” as well (i.e., Abraham).  In that way it may sound like Islam is more inclusive than Judaism or Christianity, but really it insists on the legitimacy of only one way.  It doesn’t get more exclusive than that.  I suspect we will see (as happens in the rest of this passage) the Qur’an come back and exclude aspects of Judaism and Christianity every bit as much as these religions exclude Islam.  This will be another idea to pay attention to.