Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 49
Remember when We saved you from Pharaoh’s people, who subjected you to terrible torment, slaughtering your sons and sparing only your women- this was a great trial from your Lord- (Chapter 2: Verse 49)
In this and in the upcoming verses, God makes reference to His numerous favors upon the children of Israel, especially the tremendous bounty of saving them from Pharaoh and his people. Let's look at another verse, very similar to this one, in chapter 7 of the Holy Quran. God says:
Remember how We saved you from Pharaoh’s people, who were subjecting you to the worst of sufferings, killing your sons, sparing only your women- that was a great trial from your Lord. (07:141)
As you may have noted, there are minor differences between the two verses; there are even more intricate differences in the Arabic origin. Each of these differences carry a significant meaning. Let's look at one of these differences: The verb "saved you" is translated from the Arabic verb ‘najjayna’ in the first verse, and from the verb ‘anjayna’ in the second verse. Both convey different meanings. 'Najjayna' means to protect from harm at the time of the torment, while 'Anjayna' suggests the total end of torment. Allah protected the children of Israel when the calamity befell them, and also saved them by drowning Pharaoh and his army ending all torments.
God mentioned that He saved them from Pharaoh and from the slaughtering of their sons, but this was not the only hardship they suffered. The verse says ‘who were subjecting you to the worst of sufferings’ the word 'worst' indicates that there were other types of torment. Pharaoh had subjected the children of Israel to a terrible treatment such as lashing, mocking and forced labor. He made all aspects of the Israelites' life miserable. They were burdened with heavy taxes imposed on the unemployed forcing all to work. Some of the Jews walked the streets in old torn clothes pretending of poverty and humility to be relieved from paying the heavy taxes as the following verse points out:
Go to Egypt and there you will find what you have asked for.’ They were struck with humiliation and wretchedness (02:61)
Keep in mind that God does not remind you of every bounty, He only reminds you of the biggest and most important ones. Thus, while Allah saved the Israelites from all kinds of abuse and hardship under the rule of the Pharaohs, He only reminds them in the Quran that He saved their sons from being slaughtered and their women from being enslaved.
Here we should take time to highlight the historic accuracy of the Quran. The title Pharaoh, referring to Egypt's rules, appeared in the Quran during the mention of ancient civilizations. God says:
Have you not seen how your Lord did with the people of A'ad? With the city of Iram of the lofty pillars? The likes of which has not been created in all the land? And Thamood, who hewed out the rocks of the valley? and Pharaoh, he of the tent-pegs? They were tyrants in the land and made much corruption therein. (89:6-12)
Here, the civilization of the Pharaohs and the ancient Egyptians was linked to those of A'ad and Thamood. Then came the story of Prophet Joseph, which happened after the period of A'ad and Thamood. In the story of Joseph, the Quran referred to the Egyptian ruler as a king, not a Pharaoh. God says:
The king said, ‘Bring him to me,’ but when the messenger came to fetch Joseph, he said, ‘Go back to your master and ask him about what happened to those women who cut their hands- my Lord knows all about their cunning.’ (12:50)
Then we come across the story of Prophet Moses, which occurred many years after Prophet Joseph (peace be upon them). Here we see the title Pharaoh mentioned again. So the Egyptian rulers were given the title Pharaoh before the time of Joseph and again after his death, but the title king during Joseph's time. This corresponds perfectly with what we now know about the Egyptian dynasties. The Hyksos, who were not Egyptian, came to rule Egypt shortly before the time of Prophet Joseph. They assailed into Egypt, defeated the Pharaohs, and ruled for years until the Pharaohs got their act together and kicked them out.
These historical facts were not known until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The stone that helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and opened the historical records. We learned that the Hyksos were king shepherds who colonized Egypt for a period of time. The Quran accurately related historical events and described the rulers of Egypt with their proper title, whether Pharaohs or kings. The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, but the Quran had correctly chronicled the history eleven centuries prior. It is one of the many miracles within the Quran which was discovered lately by scientists.
This brings us back to the verse, why was there a mention of ‘slaughtering your sons’ in one verse and ‘killing your sons’ in the other? Slaughtering is not the same as killing as it requires bloodshed. killing can be done by drowning, strangling, hanging and so on.
God wants us to realize that Pharaoh took retribution from the children of Israel twice. When the Egyptians returned to rule, they killed many Israelites because they were allies of the Hyksos and supported their rule. In fact, the Hyksos King appointed Prophet Joseph, who was from the children of Israel, as the minister. Thus, when the Pharaohs re-conquered Egypt, they took revenge by killing the Israelites and burning their homes.
Slaughtering is related to another incident. One night, Pharaoh saw a dream that a fire came from Jerusalem and burnt the houses of the Egyptians while sparing those of the Children of Israel. When he woke up, he gathered his astrologers and sorcerers who told him that the dream meant that his reign would perish at the hands of a child born to one of the Israelites. So Pharaoh, fearing for his rule, decided to slaughter all the baby boys of the Israelites. Slaughtering was the method of choice for Pharaoh he wanted to assure the death of each and every boy. He was later advised that if continues to kill all the baby boys, He will soon run out of strong slave laborers to do the work. Hence, Pharaoh proclaimed that every other year all the baby boys of the Children of Israel would be slaughtered. Prophet Aaron was born in the year when boys were spared, while Moses came to the world in the year when boys were slaughtered. God, however, had a different plan for him.
These verse continues 'and sparing only your women' Note that Allah did not say 'sparing your girls', or 'sparing your daughters,’ Why? It is because Pharaoh kept women alive for indecent acts and enjoyment. This was an especially severe punishment for the Israelites to endure. God says: ‘this was a great trial from your Lord’. Most of us associate the word 'trial' with hardship or evil. But in fact, the word 'trial' includes both good and evil as the following verse illustrates:
Every self shall taste death. We test you with both evil and good as a trial. And you will be returned to Us. (21:35)
A test, or trial, in by itself is not frightening, but the consequences of that test maybe. If you do well when tested, you will earn success and you will have nothing to worry about. If, on the other hand, you fail, then the consequences maybe unpleasant. God says:
When Abraham’s Lord tested him with certain commandments, which he fulfilled, He said, ‘I will make you a leader of people.’ Abraham asked, ‘And will You make leaders from my descendants too?’ God answered, ‘My pledge does not hold for those who do evil.’ (02:124)
The children of Israel were tested in two ways: first with great evil of Pharaoh's actions of killing and slaughtering their sons, while sparing women. Second, they were tested with good by being saved from Pharaoh and his army. They succeeded in their first test through patience and prayer. Thus, God supported them with two Prophets, Moses and Aaron. In the second test, after being saved from Pharaoh, they committed acts which we will discuss in upcoming sessions.