Exodus in Bible and Qur’an
The story of the Exodus a central narrative in the Holy Scripture of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Elements of the story appear in many texts of the Bible and in the Qur’an. We present a comparison of how the story unfolds in the Book of Exodus and in the Qur’an. (We’ve also provided three easily downloadable versions of these comparisons, one of which includes texts from the New Testament along with the Book of Exodus and the Qur’an.) As you read these texts, you might want to keep the following questions in mind or use them for discussion. Despite its importance to all three religions, the significance of the story is not quite the same to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Below, David, Mary, and Shafiq write about the significance of the Exodus/Passover story within their traditions.
- How do you feel when you read these texts?
- What are the major similarities and differences between them?
- Should the fact that the Exodus occupies a significant place in the Bible and the Qur’an have implications for the relationship between Jews and Muslims? If so, what might those implications be?
The Story of the Exodus in the Qur’an
Suras 7, 10, 28, and 44. Based on the translation by Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qu’ran
The Story of the Exodus: Excerpts from the Book of Exodus and Deuteronomy
Translation from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh
. 28:2 These messages, clearly written, and showing the truth, 28:3are from the Divine. We [now] convey to you some of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, setting forth the truth for [the benefit of] people who will believe. 28:4Behold, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and divided its people into castes…
. 28:5 He deemed one of these groups so utterly low that He decided to slaughter their sons and spare [only] their women: But it was God’s will to bestow favor upon those [very people] who were deemed [so] utterly low in the land, and to make them forerunners in faith, heirs [to Pharaoh’s glory], 28:6and to establish them securely on earth, allowing Pharaoh and Haman  and their hosts to experience through those [children of Israel] the very thing against which they sought to protect themselves.
. 28:7 And so, [when Moses was born,] God inspired his mother: instructing her, “Suckle him [for a time], and then, when you have cause to fear for him, cast him into the river, and have no fear and do not grieve – for We shall restore him to you, and shall make him one of Our message-bearers!” 28:8And [some of] Pharaoh’s household found [and spared] Moses, because Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were sinners indeed! 28:9[We had willed] that Moses would become their enemy and a source of grief to them. Now the wife of Pharaoh said: “A joy to the eye [could this child be] for me and you! Slay him not: he may well be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son!” And they had no presentiment [of what Moses was to become]. 28:10On the morrow, however, an aching void grew up in the heart of Moses’ mother, and she would indeed have disclosed all about him had We not endowed her heart with enough strength to keep alive her faith [in God’s promise]. 28:11And so she said to his sister, “Follow him.” And [the girl] watched the baby from afar, while they [who had taken him in] were not aware of it. 28:12Now from the very beginning We caused Moses to refuse the breast of [Egyptian] nurses; and [when his sister came to know this,] she said: “Shall I guide you to a family that might rear him for you, and look after him with good will?” 28:13And thus We restored baby Moses to his mother, so that her eye might be gladdened, and that she might grieve no longer, and that she might know that God’s promise always comes true – even though most of them know it not!
. 28:14 Now when [Moses] reached full manhood and had become mature [of mind], We bestowed upon him the ability to judge [between right and wrong] as well as [innate] knowledge: for thus do We reward the doers of good. 28:15And [one day] he entered the city at a time when [most of] its people were [resting in their houses,] unaware of what was going on [in the streets]; and there he encountered two men fighting with one another – one of his own people, and the other of his enemies. And the one who belonged to his own people cried out to him for help against him who was of his enemies – whereupon Moses struck him down with his fist, and [thus] brought about his end. [But then Moses] said [to himself]: “This is of Satan’s doing! Verily, he is an open foe, leading [man] astray!” 28:16[And] he prayed: O my Sustainer! Verily, I have sinned against myself! Grant me, then, Your forgiveness!” And He forgave him – for, verily, He alone is truly forgiving, a dispenser of grace. 28:17Said he: “O my Sustainer! [I vow] by all the blessings which You have bestowed on me: Nevermore shall I aid such as are lost in sin!” 28:18And next morning he found himself in the city, looking fearfully about him, when lo! the one who had sought his help the day before [once again] cried out to him [for help – whereupon] Moses said to him: “Behold, you are indeed, most clearly, deeply in the wrong!” 28:19But then, as soon as he was about to lay violent hands on the man who was their [common] enemy, the latter exclaimed: “O Moses, do you intend to slay me as you slew another man yesterday? Your sole aim is to become a tyrant in this land, for you do not care to be of those who would set things to rights!” 28:20And [then and there] a man came running from the farthermost end of the city, and said: “O Moses! Behold, the great ones [of the kingdom] are deliberating upon your case with a view to killing you! Be gone, then: verily, I am of those who wish you well!” 28:21So he went forth from there, looking fearfully about him, and prayed: “O my Sustainer! Save me from all evildoing folk!” 28:22And as he turned his face towards Midian, he said [to himself]: “It may well be that my Sustainer will [thus] guide me onto the right path!”
. 28:29 And when Moses had fulfilled his term [working for his father-in-law, Jethro], and was wandering with his family [in the desert], he perceived a fire on the slope of Mount Sinai [and so] he said to his family: “Wait here. Behold, I perceive a fire [far away]; perhaps I may bring you from there some tiding, or [at least] a burning brand from the fire, so that you might warm yourselves.” 28:30But when he came close to it, a call was sounded from the right-side bank of the valley, out of the tree [burning] on blessed ground: “O Moses! Verily, I am God, the Sustainer of all the worlds!”
. 28:31 And [then He said]: “Throw down your staff!” But as soon as [Moses] saw it move rapidly, as if it were a snake, he drew back [in terror], and did not [dare to] return. [And God spoke to him again:] “O Moses! Draw near, and have no fear for, behold, thou art of those who are secure [in this world and in the next]! 28:32“[And now] put your hand into your bosom: it will come forth [shining] white, without blemish. And [then] hold your arm close to yourself, free of all fear.” These, then, shall be the two signs [of thy bearing a message] from your Sustainer to Pharaoh and his great ones – for, behold, they are people depraved!”
. 10:88 And Moses prayed: “O our Sustainer! You have truly granted splendor and riches to Pharaoh in his lifetime and to his great ones with the result, O our Sustainer, that they are leading [others] astray from Your path! O our Sustainer! Wipe out their riches, and harden their hearts, so that they will not develop faith and perceive the grievous suffering [that awaits them]!” 10:89[God] answered: “Your prayer is accepted! Continue, then, [you and Aaron] steadfastly on the right way, and follow not the path of those who have no knowledge [of right and wrong].”
. 7:103 We sent Moses [and his brother, Aaron] with Our messages to Pharaoh and his great ones, who willfully rejected them. Behold what happened in the end to those spreaders of corruption! 7:104And Moses said, “O Pharaoh! Verily, I am an apostle from the Sustainer of all the worlds, 7:105so constituted that I cannot say anything about God but the truth. I have now come to you with a clear message from your Sustainer: Let, the children of Israel go with me!”
. 7:106 Then [Pharaoh] replied, “If you have come with a sign, produce it – if you are a man of truth!” 7:107Then [Moses] threw down his staff, and lo! it became a serpent, plainly visible; 7:108and he drew forth his hand, and lo! it appeared [shining] white to the beholders.
. 7:109 The great ones among Pharaoh’s people said, “Verily, this is indeed a sorcerer of great knowledge, 7:110who wants to drive you out of your land!” [Pharaoh asked:] “What, then, do you advise?” 7:111They answered: “Let him and his brother wait awhile, and send heralds to all cities 7:112who shall bring before you every sorcerer of great knowledge.” 7:113And the sorcerers came to Pharaoh [and] said, “Verily, we ought to have a great reward if it is we who prevail.” 7:114[Pharaoh] replied “Yes; and, verily, you shall be among those who are near to me.” 7:115Pharaoh’s sorcerers said, “O Moses! Either you shall throw [thy staff first], or we shall [be the first to] throw.” 7:116He answered: “You throw [first].” And when they threw down [their staffs], they cast a spell upon the people’s eyes, and struck them with awe, and produced mighty sorcery. 7:117And [then] We commanded Moses, “Throw down your staff!” And lo! it swallowed up all their deceptions:
. 7:118 whereupon the truth was established, and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers’ tricks were exposed as fraudulent. 7:119Thus they were vanquished there and then. Utterly humiliated, 7:120 the sorcerers fell down, and prostrating themselves 7:121exclaimed, “We have come to believe in the Sustainer of all the worlds, 7:122the Sustainer of Moses and Aaron!”
7:123 Pharaoh responded, “You have come to believe in him though I have not given you permission? Behold, this is indeed a plot which you have cunningly devised in [my] city in order to drive out its people! But in time you shall come to know, [my revenge]. 7:124Most certainly, I shall cut off your hands and your feet in great numbers, because of [your] perverseness, and then I shall most certainly crucify you, in great numbers, all together!” 7:125They answered “Verily, unto our Sustainer do we turn —7:126for you take vengeance on us only because we have come to believe in our Sustainer’s messages as soon as they came to us. O our Sustainer! Shower us with patience in adversity, and make us die as men who have surrendered themselves to You!” 7:127And the great ones among Pharaoh’s people asked him, “Will you allow Moses and his people to spread corruption on earth, and to [cause thy people to] forsake you and your gods?” [Pharaoh] replied, “We shall slay their sons in great numbers and shall spare [only] their women: for, verily, we hold sway over them!”
. 7:128 [And] Moses said to his people: “Turn to God for aid, and have patience in adversity. Verily, all the earth belongs to God: He gives it as a heritage – to such as He wills of His servants; and the future belongs to the God-conscious!” 7:129[But the children of Israel] said, “We have suffered hurt before and since you have hast come to us!” [Moses] replied, “It may well be that your Sustainer will destroy your foe and make you inherit the earth: and thereupon He will see how you act. 7:130Remember that We overwhelmed Pharaoh’s people with drought and scarcity of fruits, so that they might take it to heart. 7:131But whenever good fortune alighted upon them, they would say, ‘This is [but] our due,’ and whenever affliction befell them, they would blame their evil fortune on Moses and those who followed him. Oh, verily, their [evil] fortune had been decreed by God – but most of them knew it not.”
7:132 And then Pharaoh’s great ones told him “Whatever sign you may produce before us in order to cast a spell upon us, we shall not believe you!”
. 7:133 Thereupon We let loose upon them floods, and [plagues of] locusts, and lice, and frogs, and [water turning into] blood – distinct signs [all]: but they gloried in their arrogance, for they were people lost in sin. 7:134And as each plague struck them, they would cry: “O Moses, pray for us to your Sustainer on the strength of the covenant which He has made with you! If you remove this plague from us, we will truly believe in you and will let the children of Israel go with you!” 7:135But whenever We removed the plague from them, giving them time to make good their promise, they would break their word.
. 7:136 And so We inflicted retribution on them, and caused them to drown in the sea, because they had been heedless of His messages. 7:137By contrast, to the people who [in the past] had been deemed utterly low, We gave as their heritage the eastern and western parts of the land that We had blessed. And [thus] your Sustainer’s good promise to the children of Israel was fulfilled in response to their patience in adversity. And We utterly destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people had wrought, and all that they had built. 7:138And We brought the children of Israel across the sea .
. 44:30 And, indeed, God delivered the children of Israel from the shameful suffering
44:31 [inflicted on them] by Pharaoh, seeing that he was truly outstanding among those who waste their own selves; 44:32and, indeed, God chose them knowingly above all other people, 44:33and gave them such signs [of Our grace] as would clearly presage a test [of their ultimate faith].
 Elsewhere the Koran identifies Haman as one of Pharaoh’s chief advisors. This figure is not to be confused with the biblical figure with the same name in the Book of Esther.
 The English translation of one of the Arabic words used to describe Allah is “We.” The use of “We” serves as a reminder that God is in everyone and everything and therefore plural.
. Exodus 1:8 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 1:9And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 1:10Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” 1:11So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. 1:12But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.
. 1:22 Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
. 2:1 A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2:2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. 2:3When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. 2:4And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. 2:5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. 2:6When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” 2:7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” 2:8And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 2:9And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 2:10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.”
. 2:11 Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. 2:12He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 2:13When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” 2:14He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: “Then the matter is known!” 2:15When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.
. 3:1 Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 3:2An angel of Adonai appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. 3:3Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” 3:4When Adonai saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” 3:5And He said, “Do not come closer.”
3:7 And Adonai … [ said to Moses], “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. 3:8I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey …. 3:10Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.”
. 4:1 But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: ‘Adonai did not appear to you?’” 4:2Adonai said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “A rod.” 4:3He said, “Cast it on the ground.” He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it. 4:4Then Adonai said to Moses, “Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail”—he put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand—4:5“that they may believe that Adonai, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you.” 4:6Adonai said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales! 4:7And He said, “Put your hand back into your bosom.”—He put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, there it was again like the rest of his body.
. 4:21 And Adonai said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go.
. 5:1 Afterward Moses and [his brother] Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says Adonai, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” 5:2But Pharaoh said, “Who is Adonai that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go.”
. 5:20 As [the foremen of the Israelites] left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path, 5:21and they said to them, “May Adonai look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” 5:22Then Moses returned to Adonai and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? 5:23Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”
6:1 Then Adonai said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”
. 7:8 Adonai said to Moses and Aaron, 7:9“When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Produce your marvel,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.” 7:10So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as Adonai commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent.
. 7:11 Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells; 7:12 each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods.
. 7:19 And Adonai said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout Adonai and of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” 7:20Moses and Aaron did just as Adonai commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood 7:21and the fish in the Nile died.
. 7:22 But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them—as Adonai had spoken. 7:23Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this. [And God sent six more plagues against Egypt— Frogs, Vermin, Wild Animals, Cattle Disease, Boils, Hail, and after each Pharaoh promised to let the Israelites leave, but changed his mind.]
. 10:7 Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship Adonai their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” 10:8So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go, worship Adonai your God! Who are the ones to go?” 10:9Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe Adonai’s festival.” 10:10But he said to them, “Adonai be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief. 10:11No! You menfolk go and worship Adonai, since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.
. 10:15 [And God sent a plague of locusts] so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land of Egypt. [Then came a plague of darkness.]
. 11:1 And Adonai said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all.
12:21 Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. 12:22Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to Adonai lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.
12: 23 For when Adonai goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and Adonai will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.
. 12:29 In the middle of the night Adonai struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. 12: 30And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.
12:31 He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship Adonai as you said ! 12:32Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”
. 14:5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” 14:6He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; 14:7he took six hundred of his picked chariots, and the rest of the chariots of Egypt, with officers in all of them.
14:8 Adonai stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, 14: 9the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.
. 14:21 Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and Adonai drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, 14:22and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 14:23The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen. 14:26Then Adonai said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.” 14:27Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But Adonai hurled the Egyptians into the sea. 14:28The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horse men— Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.
. Deuteronomy 7:6 For you are a people consecrated to Adonai your God: of all the peoples on earth Adonai your God chose you to be His treasured people. 7:7It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that Adonai set His heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; 7:8but it was because Adonai favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that Adonai freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The Significance of Exodus/Passover
in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Significance in Judaism
To say that Passover is an important Jewish festival is true, but hardly does justice to the salience of the Exodus in Jewish consciousness. It would be more correct to say that the Jewish People trace their very birth as a nation to the Exodus narrative and that the saga constitutes the archetype that binds together two of Judaism’s most fundamental themes — exile and redemption. As the Bible recounts, Jacob’s family, the children of Israel, go down from Canaan to Egypt in search of food during a famine. Eventually they become enslaved and through it all, emerge as a nation. Here’s how the Book of Deuteronomy puts it in a passage that is central to the Passover Haggadah. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation” (Deuteronomy 26:5). Amidst their suffering the Israelites lose all hope for a better life. But God hears their wordless cry of pain, and remembers the divine promise to free the Israelites from oppression in Egypt and return them to the Promised Land. From slavery to redemption, from exile to Israel — this constitutes what Jews have traditionally believed to be God’s design of Jewish history. Just as God eventually redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, God’s redeeming hand would intervene once again on behalf of suffering Jewish communities wherever they lived. That hope helped sustain Jews through the dark times of exile and persecution. The key to preserving that hope lay in following Deuteronomy’s injunction to “remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (16:3). And over the millennia, Jews have remembered. Phylacteries, worn during daily morning prayers, contain the thirteenth chapter of the book of Exodus (along with three other passages) which includes a commandment to remember the Exodus with a summary of the story. Along with other references to the Exodus, the morning prayers feature the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), the song that Moses and the Israelites sang after safely passing through the Red Sea and witnessing their Egyptian pursuers perish in the waves. The third paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-41), recited every morning and evening, also refers to the Exodus. The sanctification of the Sabbath and of all festivals speaks of these holy times as “a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.” And when day is done, and it’s time for the Night Prayer, many traditions include this passage:
[And Moses said,] “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.” —Exodus 15:26
As the story of the Exodus permeates the religious life of Jews, it has also inspired Jews to take action on the stage of world politics. In 1946, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister when the state was created in 1948, testified before an international commission charged with making recommendations about the future of Palestine. The war and the Holocaust had just come to an end and Jewish hopes lay in statehood. Ben-Gurion rooted those hopes in the ancient story of Passover.
[M]ore than 3,300 years ago the Jews left Egypt. It was more than 3,000 years before the Mayflower, and every Jew in the world knows exactly the date when we left. It was on the 15th of Nisan [the beginning of Passover]. The bread they ate was matzot. Up till today all the Jews throughout the world . . . on the 15th of Nisan eat the same matzot, and tell the story of the exile to Egypt; they tell what happened, all the sufferings that happened to the Jews since they went into exile. They begin [the Passover Haggadah] with these two sentences: “This year we are slaves; next year we shall be free. This year we are here; next year we shall be in the Land of Israel.” Jews are like that.*
Significance in Christianity
Was the Last Supper a Seder? Like many questions about events and practices in antiquity, insufficient evidence precludes a definitive answer. The Seder itself has evolved over the centuries; how Jesus and his disciples might have celebrated Passover before the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. would in any case differ from the Seder as specified by the rabbis in later Jewish texts, such as the Mishnah and Talmud. Regardless, the early followers of Jesus drew upon the imagery of Passover in varied ways as they sought to understand his life, death and resurrection. In one of his early letters, Paul speaks of Jesus as “our paschal lamb, Christ, [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Gospel of John refers to Jesus as the “lamb of God” (1:29, 26) and the writer of the Book of Revelation makes abundant use of the metaphor, referring to Jesus as the lamb some 28 times. New Testament writers saw in the Passover a way of interpreting Jesus’ passage from death to life: “The drama of Jesus’ passion week is painted on the canvas of Passover, its memories of a past deliverance and its hopes for a future one.”* All four canonical gospels situate the death of Jesus during the festival of Passover when large numbers of pilgrims would have temporarily enlarged the population of Jerusalem and made Roman officials wary of potential rebellions by their Jewish subjects. Historically, this chronology is virtually certain, and explains why the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate would have left his splendid Mediterranean palace in Caesarea to come to Jerusalem with his minions to oversee the unruly population. It is he who ordered that Jesus be crucified. But while the gospels include historical material, they are not in the first instance historical reportage. Rather, they are theological remembrances of Jesus and his “Reign of God Movement,” written some forty to seventy years after the crucifixion. References and allusions to Passover carried heavy symbolic weight. Thus, the depiction of the Last Supper as a Passover meal in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke should be read more as a “ritualized metaphor” than as a straightforward fact.* John also works at this symbolic level when he situates the Last Supper at the more indeterminate “before the festival of Passover” (13:1) and places the death of Jesus, “the lamb of God,” at the precise hour when the paschal lamb was sacrificed in the Temple on the Preparation Day for Passover. Yet, despite these highly symbolic scenes in John, it may be that his chronology fits historical realities better. If the Last Supper was a Passover meal as depicted in the synoptic gospels (that is, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, who share common sources), then the subsequent events of the arrest, trial before the chief priests and elders of the people, trial before Pontius Pilate, flogging and death on the cross would have taken place on the Passover. This is not likely. More important, however, is the way in which the imagery of Passover enabled Jesus’ disciples to make meaning of his death and to ritualize this in a meal in remembrance of him. Just as God had heard the groaning of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel] Exodus 2:24), so God was delivering his people through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Historian Israel J. Yuval suggests that after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70, two competing interpretations of the Passover developed. The rabbinic interpretation, evident in the Seder, adhered to the original meaning of the redemption from slavery to freedom; it pointed to a second deliverance still to come. The Christians told of a second redemption already at work in the crucifixion and resurrection. Both stories, Yuval observes, offered a liturgical alternative to the ancient sacrificial rite; they both addressed the question of how to celebrate a festival of redemption in an age of foreign domination and oppression. Both began with degradation and ended with praise, with hope for the future.* Today, however, these two interpretations of Passover no longer need compete, but rather exist in conversation with each other and with Islam. For the children of Abraham, the movement from slavery to freedom, from death to life is a pilgrimage in every age and culture.
Significance in Islam
The Qur’an stands for social justice with equal rights and duties for all. The Qur’anic criterion for the rise and fall of nations is not who believe in God and who do not, but it is justice on earth, protection of human rights and peaceful coexistence. Corruption, oppression and violation of basic human rights pave the way for the downfall and destruction of the nations on earth. The story of Exodus represents the Pharaoh and his army as tyrants, oppressors and a cruel ruler who not only enslaved the Israelis but oppressed them and usurped their human rights. There is a number of such stories in the Qur’an that refer to the rise and fall of nations. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’anic stories are spread throughout the scripture, with the story of Joseph as an exception. The purpose of Qur’anic storytelling is to derive meaningful lessons and to warn society against any kind of social injustice. This is true about the story of Exodus, which is the most significant and spread across the entire Qur’an. In each place, the story points to advice to reform, social justice, respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence. At the same time, the Qur’an warns aggressors about dire consequences. Justice and arrogance oppose each other. Arrogance leads to excessive use of power, usurpation of human rights and persecution. The Exodus story in the Qur’an portrays Pharaoh and his leaders as arrogant (istakbaru, 10:75) by claiming mighty power on earth and using it excessively against the Israelites (10:83). When they were told that a boy would be born among the Israelites and would kill the Pharaoh, they went to an extreme to kill all newborn males in Israelite families. The Exodus story in the Qur’an describes the Israelites as Mustad`afun (the weak, the low, in society) who lived in slavery in Egypt and were persecuted and deprived of their human rights. Pharaoh and his chiefs used all their powers to suppress and oppress them. The Israelites were believers. God had mercy upon them to liberate them. God sent Prophet Moses to free them from the Pharaoh’s slavery. The Qur’an says that God asked Moses to go to Pharaoh because he had rebelled and transgressed all limits (20:24). God admonished Moses to speak softly and mildly to him (20:44). But Pharaoh would not listen to any advice and continued with his oppressive policies, even threatening to kill Moses. The Israelites went through a lot of hardship for many years. The Qur’an praises them for their patience at this dreadful time and for their peaceful resistance to the Pharaoh. Finally, God rewarded them with freedom and Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the sea. The Qur’an says: “ But it was Our will to bestow Our favor upon those [very people] who were deemed [so] utterly low in the land, and to make them forerunners in faith and to make them heirs [to Pharaoh’s glory]”(28:5). In another verse the Qur’an says: “whereas unto the people who [in the past] had been deemed utterly low, We gave as their heritage the eastern and western parts of the land that We had blessed. And [thus] thy Sustainer’s good promise unto the children of Israel was fulfilled in result of their patience in adversity; whereas We utterly destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people had wrought, and all that they had built” (7:137). But the promise of God to believers to sustain them in power is on the condition that they establish social justice on earth and stay away from arrogance and corruption. Whosoever violates God’s law of social justice on earth, whether believers or non-believers, would not stay in power for long and would be replaced. The Qur’an says: “This, because God would never change the blessings with which He has graced a people unless they change their inner selves: and [know] that God is all-hearing, all-seeing” (8:53). The downfall comes when there is little hope left to reform. The Qur’an says: “For, never would thy Sustainer destroy a community for wrong [beliefs alone] so long as its people behave righteously [towards one another]”(11:117). The Qur’an invites people to look into the history of nations to see what happened when they opted for arrogance and oppression over justice: “Have they never journeyed about the earth and beheld what happened in the end to those [deniers of the truth] who lived before their time and were [so much] greater than they in power? And [do they not see that the will of] God can never be foiled by anything whatever in the heavens or on earth, since, verily, He is all-knowing, infinite in His power?”(35:44).