Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Ask the Children of Israel how many clear proofs We gave to them. And whoever changes Allah’s blessing after it has come to him: surely God is severe in retribution.
(Chapter 2: Verse 211)
Allah wants the children of Israel to acknowledge the immense bounties He had given them. When you say to someone: “ask John what I have done for him,” you are confident that John’s answer will support your case. Similarly, God tells the Prophet (peace be upon him) to ask the children of Israel about the good He blessed them with. Allah knows their answer will be in accordance with what is in the Quran. Their words will also be used as evidence against the way they have been acting.
God says: “Ask the Children of Israel how many clear proofs We gave to them.” When you hear the phrase “how many” in this context, it is not meant to inquire about the exact number, rather it is an indication that the favours and proofs God gave the Israelites are too numerous to count. Likewise, when you say to your friend: “Do you know how many times I helped John out of trouble!” You are suggesting that you had helped John too many times.
In the verse “Ask the Children of Israel how many clear proofs We gave to them” God is relating to us the example of people who received His bounties and denied His favors. Asking them is actually one way to get them to talk and admit their actions, because, despite their arrogance and rejection, God knows that they cannot deny His favors when asked. Did He not part the sea to save them from Pharaoh’s army? Did He not make the staff of Moses come to life? Didn’t He shade them with clouds when they wandered the desert? Didn’t He grant them Manna, Quail, and springs of water in a place that was barren? All of these bounties, and countless more, yet they chose to be ungrateful to Allah. This is how they earned God’s wrath as He seized them with years of famine and hunger.
Even though God specifies to His Messenger to "ask the children of Israel," the question is meant as a reminder for the Muslims and whole humanity. God provided each and every one of us with countless blessings, favours, and signs of His existence.
The verse continues: ‘And whoever changes Allah’s blessing after it has come to him: surely God is severe in retribution.’ How can a person change God’s blessings, you may ask? We answer that when you receive a bounty, you must receive it with appreciation and acknowledgment. To appreciate is to attribute the favor to its Creator on the one hand, and to be ashamed of disobeying Him on the other. If you receive God’s blessings otherwise, it means that you have changed them. God says:
Do you ever consider those who exchanged God’s blessing for ingratitude and unbelief, and caused their people to settle in the abode of ruin – (14:28)
From this verse, we understand that faith and gratitude are what is required when you receive the bounties of your Lord. In fact, God’s blessings are meant to draw you closer to Him in gratitude and reverence.
The verse ends with: ‘And whoever changes Allah’s blessing after it has come to him: surely God is severe in retribution.’ You may understand that the phrase “severe in retribution” is related to the Hereafter. However, some people think that the Hereafter is far off, and others who do not believe in it at all. If God’s punishment is limited to the Hereafter, then such people would spread evil on earth because they see no consequence to their actions. An individual who believes in the Hereafter, where he or she will be taken to account, would behave accordingly. Likewise, an individual who has no faith in the Hereafter would behave accordingly and often cause suffering to all around him or her. Thus, if God does not hasten some punishment for those who do not believe in the Hereafter, the world would go to ruin. So those who do not accept God’s teachings, and exchange His bounties for disbelief must see punishment in this world. In this manner, such people would fear the consequences of their actions in this world. If an oppressor knows that oppressors before him were brought to justice, he may think twice before acting. God does not postpone all punishments to the Hereafter; rather He gives a taste of it in this world. He says:
But whoever disregards My remembrance, he shall have life of hardship, and on the Day of Resurrection We shall raise him blind. (20:124)
Some of the righteous people used to supplicate: “Dear God, the unjust people see Your Hereafter as being far-off, and Your patience has deluded them; so take them to task as only the Almighty who controls all things can!”