Israelite wars in the Bible contrasted with the Quran

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 10 November 2023

“(Moses said:) My people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has ordained for you and do not turn your backs, for then you will turn back losers. They said: Moses, in it are a powerful people, and we shall not enter it until they go out from it; if they go out from it, then surely we will enter. … They said: Moses, we will never enter it so long as they are in it; go therefore you and your Lord, and fight; surely here we sit.” — ch. 5, Al-Mā’idah, v. 21–24

یٰقَوۡمِ ادۡخُلُوا الۡاَرۡضَ الۡمُقَدَّسَۃَ الَّتِیۡ کَتَبَ اللّٰہُ لَکُمۡ وَ لَا تَرۡتَدُّوۡا عَلٰۤی اَدۡبَارِکُمۡ فَتَنۡقَلِبُوۡا خٰسِرِیۡنَ ﴿۲۱  قَالُوۡا یٰمُوۡسٰۤی اِنَّ فِیۡہَا قَوۡمًا جَبَّارِیۡنَ ٭ۖ وَ اِنَّا لَنۡ نَّدۡخُلَہَا حَتّٰی یَخۡرُجُوۡا مِنۡہَا ۚ فَاِنۡ یَّخۡرُجُوۡا مِنۡہَا فَاِنَّا دٰخِلُوۡنَ ﴿۲۲ قَالُوۡا یٰمُوۡسٰۤی اِنَّا لَنۡ نَّدۡخُلَہَاۤ اَبَدًا مَّا دَامُوۡا فِیۡہَا فَاذۡہَبۡ اَنۡتَ وَ رَبُّکَ فَقَاتِلَاۤ اِنَّا ہٰہُنَا قٰعِدُوۡنَ ﴿۲۴

“…How often has a small group overcome a numerous army by Allah’s permission! And Allah is with the steadfast. And when they went out against Goliath and his forces, they said: Our Lord, pour out patience on us and make our steps firm and help us against the disbelieving people. So they put them to flight by Allah’s per­mission. And David killed Goliath, and Allah gave him kingdom and wisdom, and taught him of what He pleased. …” — ch. 2, Al-Baqarah, v. 249–251

کَمۡ مِّنۡ فِئَۃٍ قَلِیۡلَۃٍ غَلَبَتۡ فِئَۃً کَثِیۡرَۃًۢ بِاِذۡنِ اللّٰہِ ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ مَعَ الصّٰبِرِیۡنَ ﴿۲۴۹ وَ لَمَّا بَرَزُوۡا لِجَالُوۡتَ وَ جُنُوۡدِہٖ قَالُوۡا رَبَّنَاۤ اَفۡرِغۡ عَلَیۡنَا صَبۡرًا وَّ ثَبِّتۡ اَقۡدَامَنَا وَ انۡصُرۡنَا عَلَی الۡقَوۡمِ الۡکٰفِرِیۡنَ ﴿۲۵۰﴾ؕ فَہَزَمُوۡہُمۡ بِاِذۡنِ اللّٰہِ ۟ۙ وَ قَتَلَ دَاوٗدُ جَالُوۡتَ وَ اٰتٰىہُ اللّٰہُ الۡمُلۡکَ وَ الۡحِکۡمَۃَ وَ عَلَّمَہٗ مِمَّا یَشَآءُ

Both the Bible and the Quran relate that Moses and his followers were saved from the Pharaoh in Egypt by crossing over the sea from there to the land now known as the Sinai peninsula. Both the Quran and the Bible tell us that on this side of the sea the Israelites were required to fight a number of local tribes. In the first verse I read above, Moses is ordering his people to fight one such nation, but they refuse because they fear that the enemy is too strong or they just don’t want to fight. The second passage I read refers to a time some 400 years later when Saul was made their King and they had to fight a battle under him. Their enemy had a warrior of a huge size and strength called Goliath. David, who was young at the time, offered to go to fight this giant of a man, and Saul sent him. David succeeded in his combat with Goliath and killed him. Hence we have the expression, David versus Goliath, when a small force stands up to fight a much more powerful force. As I said, the Quran and the Bible both relate these events, the Quran doing it very briefly, and the Bible in great detail.

However, the Bible goes on to record other wars of Moses and his successors, in which the Israelites behaved most brutally towards their enemies, and this brutality says the Bible was commanded by God Himself. According to the Bible, God instructed them, by His revelation to Moses, about fighting their enemies in their new land as follows:

“when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy, ch. 7, v. 2).

Later on the same instructions say that, regarding cities which are very far away from them:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labour and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies” (Deuteronomy, 20:10–14).

The instructions go on to say about the near cities:

“However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them … as the Lord your God has commanded you” (20:16–17).

The Bible then records numerous instances in which these instructions were carried out in practice. Moses sent a force of 12,000 troops for a revenge attack on the people of a country known as Midian. The Bible says:

“They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. … The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals…” (Numbers, 31:9–11).

But when they brought back the captives and the spoils of this war, Moses was displeased that they had let the women and children live:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?, he asked them. … Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (31:15–18).

The spoils from this war included several hundred thousand animals, and 32,000 virgin women, the Bible says (31:32).

After the death of Moses, the leader of the Israelites was Joshua. Muslims also believe in him as a prophet. Under his military leadership, the Israelites captured several cities, one after another, starting with Jericho. After victory there it is stated that they:

“destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua, 6:21).

Regarding the next city conquered by Joshua, called Ai, it is stated that the Israelites first killed all their men in the fields, then everyone who was in the city:

“Twelve thousand men and women fell that day … Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai. But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the Lord had instructed Joshua” (Joshua, 8:24–26).

After this, the book of Joshua in the Bible mentions a series of seven conquests by him. In each case it is stated that he destroyed the city and killed everyone in it, leaving no survivors. After mentioning these conquests it is stated:

“So Joshua subdued the whole region… together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” (10:28–40).

In the next chapter of this book, the conquest of more cities is related and it is stated at the end:

“The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. As the Lord commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it” (Joshua, 11:14–15).

It is further added that it was God Himself who caused the enemies of the Israelites to rise up against them so that “they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (11:20).

I mentioned above Kings Saul and David, who came some 400 years later. Saul was told that God had given the instruction, regarding a certain enemy nation, that he should attack them

“and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel, 15:1–3).

About the prophet and king David it is stated:

“Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes” (1 Samuel, 27:9).

The Quran contains no mention or even any hint whatsoever of such Israelite wars, even though it gives accounts of events from the lives of these prophets and from Israelite history. The two incidents that the Quran has related in connection with the wars of the Israelites, as I read in the verses at the start of this khutba, are those which convey noble and inspiring lessons. They do not portray the Israelite prophets as carrying out wholesale slaughter of the defeated enemies of their nation and exter­mina­ting them, but rather as being courageous, patient and steadfast in the face of overwhelming odds.

In the incident of Moses, from which I only read some extracts at the beginning of this khutba, he urged his community to fight their enemies, but they refused. Only two men stood with Moses (5:22). Moses replied to his people that he had no control over their actions, so they are responsible for their own refusal to fight. This incident teaches us that when our leader calls us to action to save the community from its opponents, we must not ignore his call and sit by idly. And if there are only a handful among us who wish to answer the call, they should stand up like the two men who responded to Moses’ call.

The second incident, that of Saul, David and Goliath, again if you read it in full in the Quran, and not just what I read out above, teaches us that a smaller group, exercising patience and steadfastness, can triumph over an enemy vastly greater in number and power, but it must make sacrifices to succeed.

This is another great favour that the Quran has done to the Jews, that it has not included, nor referred to, nor even hinted at, those stories of wars in their own scripture which show them as wiping out entire nations or killing every human except for their virgin women and taking these as the bounties won in war, and doing all this under the leadership of their great prophets acting under God’s commands. The Quran has saved their image from being blackened and tarnished by not mentioning any such story. Whether these brutalities were actually perpetrated for some reason which is now not known to us, or these accounts are gross exaggerations made by those who wanted to revel in the power and dominance of their nation, it is difficult to say.

I close with the following guidance from the Quran about responding to attacks. Although it is directed at Muslims, any civilised nation can benefit from it:

·       “And if you take your turn, then retaliate with the like of what you were afflicted with. But if you show patience, it is certainly best for the patient” (16:126);

·       “Repel (evil) with what is best, when lo! he between whom and you is enmity would be as if he were a warm friend” (41:34);

·       “It may be that Allah will bring about friendship between you and those of them whom you hold as enemies. And Allah is Powerful; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful” (60:7);

and finally:

·       “And among the people of Moses is a party who guide with truth and with it they do justice” (7:159).