Israel’s Response to the Covenant

"We obey" or "We disobey"?

Regarding the making of God’s covenant with Israel the Torah reports:

"When Moses went and told the people all the LORD's words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the LORD has said we will do.’ Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; WE WILL OBEY.’ Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’" Exodus 24:3-8

Contrary to the above, and roughly 2100 years after the event, the Quran suddenly claims that the people responded by saying that they will disobey:

There came to you Moses with clear (Signs); yet ye worshipped the calf (Even) after that, and ye did behave wrongfully. And remember We took your covenant and We raised above you (the towering height) of Mount (Sinai): (Saying): "Hold firmly to what We have given you, and hearken (to the Law)": They said: "We hear, and WE DISOBEY:" And they had to drink into their hearts (of the taint) of the calf because of their Faithlessness. Say: "Vile indeed are the behests of your Faith if ye have any faith!" S. 2:92-93 Y. Ali

The contradiction is obvious. The people EITHER said that they will obey, OR they said that they will disobey. These are not parables or allegorical texts. These are straight-forward statements about historical events (embedded in an exhortation in the case of the Quran). Their meaning is plain and not "open to interpretation", and the Quran made a very clear historical error in its reference to the event.

There are a number of other passages in the Bible and in the Quran which are connected with this issue. Sam Shamoun wrote a detailed paper on the Quran's error regarding the Israelites' response to God's offer of the covenant (

Muslim writer Asif Iqbal then thought up a response to Shamoun’s article which he first submitted to the site "Understanding Islam" (here, 7 January 2005). Apparently it so impressed the editors of "Bismika Allahuma" that they published it on their site as well (here, 25 January 2005).

The following is our evaluation of Iqbal’s article. The reader is advised to first carefully read the original article and the Muslim response before proceeding with our critique and rebuttal. Our article will consist of two major parts:

  1. Exposing the major logical fallacies of Iqbal’s response (by Jochen Katz)
  2. The Incoherence of the Quranic Account (by Jochen Katz)
  3. A detailed discussion of Iqbal’s arguments (by Sam Shamoun)

1. The major logical fallacies of Iqbal’s response

Looking at the main ideas and logical structure of the Muslim response article, it becomes apparent that Asif Iqbal's "rebuttal" is one big smoke screen trying to divert attention from the problem instead of clarifying it. The main errors in Iqbal’s reasoning are in three categories.

A. Words and Deeds

Two elements need to be kept separate in this event of God offering Israel his Covenant:


Israel’s immediate verbal response

Israel’s later deeds


We will obey



We will disobey


All of us know from experience that many people say one thing and do another. It is rather common among politicians to promise one thing before the elections and do something else after being elected. That is why very few people trust politicians. However, this is not merely found in politics. It happens in most families that the parents ask or command the children to do something and the children respond, "Yes, we will do it", but, at the end of the day, they haven’t done it.

Often people have good intentions to obey, but then something else happens, they forget or otherwise become unwilling or unable to do what they originally promised. In other instances people may be deliberately lying, i.e. making a promise without any intention to keep it. In any case, it is a very common human trait to agree in word when standing in front of an authority, but later to disobey in deeds.

When discussing Israel’s response to God's offer of the covenant we need to keep these two questions separate:

What did the Israelites SAY (immediately)?
What did the Israelites DO (later)?

The Quran agrees with the Bible that the Israelites disobeyed God in their later deeds.
The Quran contradicts the Bible regarding their immediate verbal response to God's commands.

Israel’s immediate verbal response according to the Torah: We obey.
Israel’s immediate verbal response according to the Quran: We disobey.

Apparently attempting to make the reader forget the contradiction in the reported verbal response of the Israelites, Iqbal makes an effort to emphasize the similarities between the Bible and the Quran regarding the later disobedience of the Israelites. He states:

The Qur'an then says (which is confirmed by the Old Testament as well), that even after watching such an overwhelming show of Yahweh's might, the Israelites rebelled against the covenant of Yahweh soon afterwards.

This raises the obvious question in the mind of a hearer that how the could [sic] Israelites have done such a thing? (bold emphasis mine)

We fully agree that Bible and Quran both report the later disobedience of the Israelites. However, this is completely irrelevant. The issue under discussion is the error of the Quran regarding Israel’s immediate verbal response to the offer of God’s covenant. The point of contention is not what they later DID, but what they first SAID.

It is fascinating to see Iqbal jumping directly from (a) the awesome display of God’s power [Bible and Quran agree in principle that this happened, though they disagree on the details of what happened] to (c) Israel’s later disobedience [as already stated above, Bible and Quran agree on the disobedience], but leaving out (b) Israel’s immediate response to God’s offer of the covenant! Isn’t that the point this discussion is all about?

In the second paragraph the Muslim author raises yet another irrelevant question. Speculating about a possible motivation for the disobedience of the Israelites (i.e. why they may have done what they have done) is not going to erase the error of the Quran regarding their initial verbal response either. It merely adds yet another question and a different topic:

What the Israelites first said ---- what the Israelites later did ---- why the Israelites later did what they did ...

The question was and still remains: What did the Israelites say?

Iqbal’s response is not a solution to the problem. It is merely an attempt of diverting the attention away from the problem.

B. Past and Present

Muslims would vigorously protest if we were to argue:

In the light of the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida we conclude that Muhammad and his companions were terrorists.

They would immediately point out that we cannot judge people of the past by what some people are doing today. We cannot conclude that a group of people living centuries ago has acted a certain way simply because some other people in another country, another cultural environment, and in another time did this as well. Such a conclusion is wrong in general and it is still invalid if the second group are remote descendents of the first.

However, that is exactly Iqbal's main logical fallacy, comprising the bulk of his article. It can be seen, for example, here:

This verse says that some of the Jews of Medina were used to playing on the resemblance between words, thereby reversing the meanings of the commands either to suit themselves or to make fun of the addressee.

In light of this statement when we look at the response of the Israelites to Yahweh's covenant as given in the Old Testament, ... (bold and underline emphasis mine)

This is an utterly wrong and irresponsible method of interpreting texts, or rather, manipulating texts. Whatever some Jews may have done in Muhammad's time (ca. AD 625) had no influence on what the Israelites did or said in Moses' time (roughly 1450 BC). Just as Muslims do not want Muhammad and his companions to be judged by the words and deeds of contemporary terrorists, 1400 years after the death of Muhammad, so later events in the history of the Jews have no relevance whatsoever for the question what historically happened in Moses' time. This is merely another desperate diversion tactic.

However, Iqbal’s reasoning is actually quite revealing since this twisted interpretation follows a pattern established by Muhammad himself. Muhammad often projected his own experiences back into the stories taken from the Bible. That is one reason why the Quran is not revelation, but forgery. This issue is discussed in considerable detail in the article "I am ALL the Prophets".

C. Defending the Quran by contradicting the Quran?

Iqbal concludes his article with this paragraph:

In any case, both the Old Tastament (sic) and the Qur'an state in unequivocal terms that the Israelites did violate the covenant after promising to abide by it.

Iqbal is back to the theme of emphasizing similarities between the two books as if those similarities would prove that the Quran is not in error in those instances where it disagrees with the Bible. However, one may have to read the above sentence a second and third time to discover that Iqbal just contradicted the Quran. Let me quote it again with extra emphasis:

In any case, both the Old Tastament (sic) and the Qur'an state in unequivocal terms that the Israelites did violate the covenant after promising to abide by it.

Where exactly does the Qur'an state in unequivocal terms that "the Israelites did violate the covenant after promising to abide by it"? The whole article was about the problem that the Quran contains the erroneous claim that the Israelites responded to God with "We hear, and WE DISOBEY" (S. 2:93). Iqbal has not presented any verse from the Quran in which the Israelites are reported as responding with a promise to obey. Simply claiming that both books state the same (and therefore there is supposedly no error in the Quran) will not be sufficient. The contradiction is still there. Iqbal has not given any evidence that Sura 2:93 means the opposite of what it says at face value.

Finally, I want to point out one aspect which I find surprising and encouraging in Iqbal’s article. When discussing discrepancies between the Bible and the Quran, Muslims usually argue that the Quran is correct (without seeing any need to question that assumption), and if the Bible disagrees, then the Bible must be false or corrupted. In this case, however, the Muslim author apparently takes the correctness of the statement in the Torah as a given, and seeks to harmonize the Quran with the Torah. After a considerable amount of exegetical gymnastics, Iqbal arrives at the conclusion that the Quran means, or meant to say, the opposite of what it clearly states.

In other words, the Bible reports the answer of the Israelites correctly, but the Quranic statement somehow got corrupted since it is now giving the impression to mean the opposite of what it is supposed to mean.

2. The Incoherence of the Quranic Account

Sam Shamoun’s original article about the Quranic error regarding Israel’s response to the Covenant argued this case solely on the basis of external, historical reasons, i.e. it concluded that this is an error in the Quran because other documents that are historically more reliable (the Torah), contradict the Quran on this issue.

In this section, I will present a number of internal reasons why the Quranic version does not make sense and must be rejected. Let me quote again the Quranic account, adding extra emphasis on some important pronouns:

There came to YOU Moses with clear (Signs); yet YE worshipped the calf (Even) after that, and YE did behave wrongfully. And remember We took YOUR covenant and We raised above YOU (the towering height) of Mount (Sinai): (Saying): "Hold firmly to what We have given YOU, and hearken (to the Law)": THEY said: "We hear, and WE DISOBEY:" And THEY had to drink into their hearts (of the taint) of the calf because of THEIR Faithlessness. Say: "Vile indeed are the behests of YOUR Faith if YE have any faith!" S. 2:92-93 Y. Ali

Iqbal presents the following as background for this story:

Here, the Qur'an first recalls to the Jews of Medina a Talmudic tradition according to which Yahweh had suspended the Mount Sinai over the Israelites and given them the option of either the acceptance of the covenant or sudden death:

" commenting on the verse: "And they stood at the netherpart of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17), R. Dimi b. Hama said:“This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, suspended the mountain over Israel like a vault, and said unto them: 'If ye accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, there will ye find your grave.'" (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 2b)

"And they stood under the mount” (Exodus 19:17): R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,'If ye accept the Torah, 'tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.'" (Talmud, Shabbath 88a)

I agree with Iqbal that this passage is first of all addressed to the Jews of Medina who rejected Muhammad as a genuine prophet of God. Clearly, the Jews of Medina never met Moses, who lived some 2100 years before their time. Therefore, the statement, "There came to YOU Moses …", is not literally true, but we can accept that it addresses the Israelites collectively, i.e. it speaks to and about the Jews of Medina as standing in a tradition with their ancestors. Since most of this passage is using the direct address "you", it is all the more striking to find a switch from the second person to the third person for two sentences: "(Saying): ‘Hold firmly to what We have given YOU, and hearken (to the Law)’: THEY said: ‘We hear, and WE DISOBEY:’ And THEY had to drink into their hearts (of the taint) of the calf because of THEIR Faithlessness." Clearly, the pronoun THEY refers to the Israelites in Moses’ time only. The current listeners are not included here. This makes sense, since they were not there, did not respond to God directly, and were not those who were punished for the worship of the Golden Calf.

We agree that the Quran still seeks to make the connection between the old Israelites and the Jews of Medina accusing them that they are "just like their ancestors". However, the statement "They said: ‘We hear, and we disobey’" in this passage refers only to the Israelites of Moses’ time.

Here is an outline of what supposedly happened according to the Quran, part of which is stated explicitly, and other elements are assumed implicitly:

Explicit: God puts before Israel a covenant which includes the obligation that the Israelites have to obey certain laws and commandments.

Implicit: Israel doesn’t seem to be too motivated to enter into that covenant. God puts some pressure on the Israelites by suspending a mountain above them, threatening the Israelites that either they accept the covenant, or they will be buried under this mountain. (This is confirmed by the Talmudic texts, which Iqbal accepts as the correct background to the story.)

Explicit: The Israelites respond: We will disobey.

Implicit: The covenant is given to Israel despite their reply and announcement that they will not obey.

Explicit: Israel later worships the Golden Calf and is punished for this.

Here are some of the problems:

1. What happened to that mountain? Upon the very simple alternative, obedience or death, the answer is: We will disobey! Did God merely put that mountain down on the ground again, being frustrated that his threat had not worked, but without doing what he promised? In the Quranic version God is displayed as not being true to his word: either he was not serious with his threat in the first place, or he was too weak to do what he said.

2. Why did Israel receive the covenant anyway? Instead of dying in the desert, the Israelites are given the promised land, God continues to send them many prophets even after the time of Moses (e.g., David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, another unnamed prophet at the time of Saul, John the Baptist, and most importantly, Jesus). Even in the Quran, the majority of its stories about the past are stories of God’s history with Israel. Not only did God not kill them as threatened, they receive the covenant, and everything else is just as if they had said, "Yes, we obey." The answer allegedly given in 2:93 does not fit together with the rest of the Quran.

[Side remark: They are even punished for the idolatry of worshipping the Golden Calf as if they had just agreed to the covenant which included the command not to worship anyone but God, i.e. God holds them accountable to the laws of the covenant. This also assumes that the covenant was enacted.]

3. Was Israel able to deceive God? Iqbal seemingly wants to connect this story with the behaviour of the Jews of Medina who supposedly tricked, or at least tried to trick, Muhammad with playing on words. Now, granted, some people are really clever with words and they may certainly be able to trick other human beings, even prophets, to make them believe they said they will obey, although they really had said they will disobey.

If the Israelites in this story had stood only before Moses, just like the Jews in Medina stood only before Muhammad, this would have been possible. However, this is not an option in this case, since it was not Moses who held that mountain over them and, after being deceived by their clever words, put it down and went ahead with the covenant because he falsely assumed they had agreed to it. No, the Israelites answered directly to God. To assume that they were able to trick God into believing they had agreed, although they had in reality said that they will disobey, implies that God is not all-knowing. What is worse, this means that he is not even able to understand correctly what people say with an audible voice. And given all the history that God continued to have with the Israelites later on, he only seems to have found out that he had been tricked by the time Muhammad came along (2100 years later). There is absolutely no evidence that he cancelled the covenant with Israel before that time. Jesus, the last prophet before Muhammad, was still sent to the Jews.

Does Iqbal find that scenario credible? Does any Muslim find that to be a credible story? I certainly find this rather incoherent and an insult to an almighty and all-knowing God.

Thus, even without looking at the Bible, that story doesn't make sense. This is an error in the Quran not only because it contradicts the Bible, but also because the internal evidence found within the Quran testifies against the Quran.

To these main three reasons based on the attributes of God, I want to add a fourth one:

4. The psychological impossibility. There is one more aspect that makes this story highly unlikely, not to say impossible. One just doesn’t say "I will disobey you" into the face of God, or would you? Most people would not even dare say such words into the face of their employers, or as soldiers in the face of their superior officers. However, in our case there was not just some human authority figure standing before them.

There may be a few very courageous (or should we call them suicidal?) people who would show defiance in the face of a mountain hanging over them, but certainly not a large group of people, i.e., a whole nation. The vast majority certainly said (shaking in their boots): We obey. Anything else is simply inconceivable.

[And if anyone dared shouting, "I will disobey," those around him would probably have quickly shut his mouth, even killed him, in order to avoid getting buried under that mountain. Don’t underestimate mass-panic.]

Muhammad Asad, Muslim translator and commentator on the Quran, probably understood this quite well, and therefore added a footnote to the phrase "We have heard, but we disobey" in Surah 2:93, saying:

It is obvious that they did not actually utter these words; their subsequent behaviour, however, justifies the above metonymical expression.

Asad is obviously rather uncomfortable with this Quranic statement. However, despite Asad’s attempt to rationalize it away, the Quran clearly states that THEY SAID it. The Quran could easily have stated: They said, "We hear and we obey" but they lied and were disobedient. But the Quran does not state anything to that effect, it states that they responded by SAYING, "we will disobey", in the face of God and despite a mountain hanging over them.

These are four strong reasons, mostly based on the attributes of God, partly on the psychology of human beings, why the version of the event that is put forth by the Quran is not credible.

3. A detailed discussion of Iqbal’s arguments

… to follow shortly …

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