Loyalty is a hard thing to come by. 

Moses didn’t have it (61:5).  People rose up and doubted his leadership.  They second-guessed his decisions.  Rebellion came. 

So too with Jesus (61:6).  His popularity sky-rocketed, but it plummetted just as quickly.  He was opposed bitterly by the Jewish religious leaders.  They turned against him, like they had with Moses.   

Now is there any wonder that people oppose Muhammad?  There shouldn’t be. 

But what God desires are people who will do what they say, people who will “fight in solid lines for His cause” (61:4).

Interestingly, this surah ends with Jesus’ disciples extolled for their faithfulness to God’s cause (61:14).  Essentially, they stand as an example of what to be.  God supports such people.

Jesus is quoted in today’s surah as saying the following:

Children of Israel, I am sent to you by God, confirming the Torah that came before me and bringing good news of a messenger to follow me whose name will be Ahmad. (61:6)

Of course, the Bible does not state that Jesus ever said anything of the sort.  Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come after him (John 16:7).  He talked about his own second coming (Matthew 24).  But Jesus never said another prophet would come after him.  In Jesus’ mind he was the end.  This new move of God was the culmination of what came before.  The Church that would follow was simply the working out of the Kingdom that started with Jesus.  That working out continues to this day.   

The name “Ahmad” means “praised” or “the praised one.”  This happens to be what the name Muhammad means too.  Clearly, the implication is that Jesus is foreshadowing the coming of Muhammad.  As convenient as that would be for Islam, Christians are going to have a hard time accepting this.

Today’s new surah, “The Story,” derives its name from the “story” of Moses that is retold here.  A few days ago we had some stories about Moses and Solomon that were not included in the Bible, but today with just a few new details this is the same story of Moses we know from the Bible.

Moses is born, a Hebrew baby boy in Egypt where Hebrew baby boys are “slaughtered” (28:4).  In order to save him, his mother places Moses in the river where he is rescued by the murderous Pharaoh’s own daughter who adopts Moses as her own son.  Nonetheless, God worked it out that Moses was reunited to his mother as his “wet nurse” (28:12-13).

When Moses has reached adulthood, he inadvertently killed a man as Moses tried to separate two men who were fighting.  This becomes well-known, and when Moses tries to break up another fight and one of the man fears that Moses will kill him too, Moses flees to the region of Midian.

In Midian, Moses is given great hospitality from a “father” (28:23), even to the point of being given one of the man’s daughters as a wife.  One day, while traveling in the area, Moses happened upon the burning bush where he meets God, “the Lord of the Worlds” (28:30).  Moses is sent back to Egypt by this God with a staff that turns into a snake and a hand that can become leprous and then be healed. Pharaoh, though, only “behaved arrogantly” refusing to respond to Moses’ message.  Thus, he and his army were thrown in the sea (28:39-40).

Today’s passage ends with this summary of Moses’ life:

We have Moses the Scripture to provide insight, guidance, and mercy for people, so that they might take heed.  (28:43)

It seems Moses will serve as a model for the work Muhammad is being called to, as described in the rest of the surah.

Today we begin a new Meccan surah named “The Ants” because of an esoteric mention of the animals made by King Solomon in ayah 18.  The main point of this section is the same it has been in many of the surahs we have reads thus far: don’t judge the goodness of the Qur’an or the effectiveness of the prophet based on the reception of the people; a long line of prophets have been rejected just as is happening to Muhammad. Breaking through the monotony of repetition, are some interesting stories about two biblical characters not told in the Bible.

Moses is reported as saying he will go over to the Burning Bush to find fire that he can bring back to his family so that they can warm themselves (27:7).  Interesting new idea not borrowed from the Bible.

King Solomon is reported as knowing the language of birds (27:16).  He could also marshal ranks of jinn and birds along with people, possible for battle (27:17).  Solomon’s power was so great that even the armies of ants feared him and ran to their homes (27:18).  The strangest stories of all is that of a hoopoe, a beautiful, regal bird, who had scouted out the southern kingdom of Sheba in fine military fashion (27:20-44).  This story appears to be the back-story of the Queen of Sheba that many of us would know from the Bible.  This pagan queen and her powerful armies are humbled by the wisdom of Solomon and the Queen devotes herself to Solomon’s God.  Interesting!

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

One ayah early in today’s reading gave me pause:

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. (27:4-5)

It would appear from this passage that these people were given the freedom to believe the prophet’s message of a second life, but with their freedom they rejected.  Then Allah overwhelms their freedom and sends them into a degradation that is made to seem alluring and that causes them to walk further and further from Him.  My question from this is how much of a chance are people given before their chances are over and they are sealed for destruction?  Is this a one-shot thing?  How patient is this God?

Fear or Faith? 

Which will it be?  That is one of the most foundational questions of life.

All of us have lived in fear at times.  Rejection, Loneliness,  Punishment.  Reprisal.  Injustice.  Violence.  Poverty.  Disease.  Death.  Shame.  Embarrassment.  Failure.  Fear is an emotion we know well.

Often at the root of that fear is the feeling that we do not measure up, that we will be too incapable to face what may come.  Imagine being Moses and Aaron sent to face off against Pharaoh, the strongest man alive in Moses’ time.  This is a fool’s errand.

It is no wonder then that three times in today’s passage God tells Moses “do not be afraid” (20:46, 68, 77; c.f., 20:21).  In fact, this is a common admonition in the Qur’an (3:175; 5:44; 11:70; 15:53; 27:10; 28:7; 28:31; c.f., 5:54; 48:27).  As many of us know, this is also a regular refrain in the Bible (used over 75 times).  Fear or faith — which will it be?

But how is it possible to have faith in the face of fear?  The answer is in what causes our fear.  As was said above, we often fear that we are incapable or insufficient for the situation at hand.  Quite frankly, we are incapable to face some situations.  Faith, though, looks beyond self.  Faith inserts God into the equation.  Faith says the power dynamic has changed because now we have God on our side.  Today’s passage describes that realization this way:

[Moses and Aaron] said, “Lord, we fear he will do us great harm or exceed all bounds.”  [God] said, “Do not be afraid, I am with you both, hearing and seeing everything.” (20:45-46)

The Bible says it similarly:

“I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. (Genesis 26:24)

“Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them.  The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes.” (Deuteronomy 1:29-30)

“This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.'” (2 Chronicles 20:15)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

“So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6)

Almost without exception, in both the Bible and the Qur’an the “do not be afraid” passages are all paired with God saying HE will do something.  A believer can find the ability to have faith where others would fear because they have God’s power on their side.

This is the only way to explain the change in Pharaoh’s sorcerers, as stated in 20:70-73:

[So it was, and] the sorcerers three themselves down in submission.  “We believe,” they said, “in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.”  Pharaoh said, “How dare you believe in him before I have given you permission?  This must be your master, the man who taught you witchcraft.  I shall certainly cut off your alternate hands and feet, then crucify you on the trunks of palm trees.  You will know for certain which of us has the fiercer and more lasting punishment.”  They said, “We shall never prefer you to the clear sign that has come to us, nor to Him who created us.  So decide whatever you will: you can only decide matters of this present life — we believe in our Lord, [hoping] He may forgive us our sins and the sorcery that you forced us to practice — God is better and more lasting.”

Before, their sorcery was all about them.  A little sleight of hand.  Illusion.  The power of suggestion.  Seeming power but really only what their own hands and ingenuity could conjure up. But when they saw the “signs” of Moses and Aaron, they recognized true power.  A power outside humanity.  It is faith in this kind of power that makes their bravery possible.

About a third of the surahs in the Qur’an start with one to five Arabic letters (i.e., “Alif Lam Mim,” 2:1).  There are many theories on these and many think they are largely some sort of memory device.  This new surah, the twentieth, starts with “Ta Ha,” two letters again but also the way one would say “O man!” as if to get the reader’s attention.  This chapter is largely a retelling of the stories of Moses and Adam.

Memory is the major theme that runs through the first section of this surah.  The Qur’an describes itself here as a “reminder” to a world that has forgotten (20:3).  The implication here is a connection with what has come before, in this case the Bible.  To be a reminder, the stories of Moses and Adam would have had to be well-known. 

Three further points are made about memory.  First, prayer is intended to help the worshiper remember God (20:14).  How can one pray genuinely and not bring God and His good deeds to the front of their minds?  Second, Muhammad is warned to be mindful of how closely allied he allows himself to get with unbelievers (20:16).  They will become “distractions” and turn his mind from remembering God.  Third, one of the benefits to having Aaron alongside him as a partner will be that they together will be able to remember God better (20:34).  Community helps with memory. 

As today’s section ends, God gives Moses a dual mission: go to Pharaoh but also remember Me.  This is very interesting.  It was not enough for Moses to go.  His mission was not simply one of obedience.  God does not frame Moses’ mission simply in terms of the task he is to do.  Every bit as important was the internal reality that Moses was going to have to keep firmly in mind if he were to have success in his mission.  The internal memory was every bit as important as the external actions.      

This reminds me of a description of the effective spiritual life Henri Nouwen has given in several of his books (the same thoughts can be found in this online article).  Nouwen encourages us to picture the ideal spiritual life like an old wagon wheel.  We must start at the center or hub of the wheel.  This is our internal, personal devotional life, what Nouwen calls “solitude.”  This is us and God.  This is the domain of prayer and Scripture and fasting.  Like the wheel, this is what holds everything  together.  This is where we hear we are loved and accepted by God, where we gather the strength to face whatever else may come and to do so with virtue.  This would be Moses’ prayer life. 

Nouwen then proceeds out to the spokes.  This is “community,” those like-minded believers we surround ourselves with.  They give our external life structure and move us out into the world in many different directions.  They are connected to the center of the wheel in that they too are experiencing private “hub-moments” with God, but they are also connected to the tire tread as these friends deliver us into the unbelieving world, where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak.  This is Moses’ companionship with Aaron. 

Finally, Nouwen describes the tire tread as “ministry,” those places where we interact with an unbelieving world in an attempt to connect them with both the community and God we have found.  Ministry is the real purpose for solitude and community.  We are here to shape our world.  Just like a tire, this is where the stress and pressure is.  Tires pop and have slow leaks.  Maybe this is the “distress” 20:2 was talking about.  This is Moses’ mission to face Pharaoh.

The greatest point today is this: a successful spiritual life cannot be lived on auto-pilot.  It takes intentional effort to remember and let those memories guide us.

Today we come to the third story in this surah, an interesting tale about Moses unlike anything we read in the Bible. 

Khidr

Moses is on a journey with a servant and maybe others as well.  He is to meet a wise teacher at the spot where “the  two seas meet,” which may mean the tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Gulf of Aqabah and the Gulf of Suez join to form the Red Sea.  It appears they were to take a fish with them in some fashion where the fish would stay alive.  Moses would know he had come to the right place when the fish disappeared or escaped.  This happens and soon Moses meets the mysterious, unnamed teacher (Islamic tradition calls this man Khidr).  Moses pledges to follow the man and learn what he may, but the man warns Moses that he will have a hard time bearing with the man patiently and Moses is not to ask questions about anything until the man explains it in his own due time.  Moses agrees and off they go.     

As Moses and the man travelled on, they came to a boat and as they sailed the teacher drilled a hole in the hull causing it to take on water.  Moses cries out in confusing, wondering aloud why the man would do such a thing.  He is scolded by the man to not ask questions as Moses had promised.  Next, they happened upon a boy and without warning the man killed the boy.  Moses was shocked and cried out his bewilderment.  Again, the man warned Moses not to ask questions but to bear patiently with him.  Last, the two came to a town and asked for food but were refused.  In response to this lack of charity, the man saw a broken-down wall nearby and built it back up.  Beside himself, Moses again asked why the man did not seek recompense. 

At this the wise teacher announced that he and Moses would be parting ways.  As he had predicted, Moses was simply unable to bear patiently with the man.  Before they parted, though, the teacher took time to explain the three strange actions he had taken.  First, the damaged boat belonged to a poor couple who needed the boat to make a living but very shortly all intact boats would be seized by the king.  The damage would actually keep the couple from losing their boat for good.  Second, the boy was in fact headed to a lifestyle that would bring hardship on the parents, so by killing the boy the man had actually made way for the couple to have an obedient boy who would be a blessing to them.  Last, the wall that the man repaired belonged to man who had recently died but not before he buried a treasure under the wall intended for his sons when they reached maturity.  With the wall crumbling as it was, soon the treasure would be exposed and these inhospitable townspeople would take the treasure for themselves leaving the orphans to beg.  The wise teacher was honored the father’s intent and rescued the boys from destitution.       

Simply put, the message is a simple one: things are not always as they seem.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about the ironic turnabouts at the end of this passage:

There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty maybe real mercy; returning good for evil may really be justice and not generosity (18:79-82). God’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.

Can we walk with a faith that trusts the wisdom that leads us or are we too tied to our own judgment?  It will take discipline and patience.  We will have to restrain our tongue.  We will have to remain open-minded and humble.  We will have to seek after a source of wisdom, and then give ourselves to it.    

Bear in mind that this is Moses we are talking about.  Educated in the royal courts of Egypt, Moses was no country bumpkin.  This is the same Moses who had the wisdom to lead his people to the Promised Land.  Tradition also says he wrote the first five books of the Bible.  That Moses.  Even he did not possess all wisdom.  If Moses needed a humble spirit of submission, how much more do we?