The Qur’an and Jewish Legends: The Suspension of Mount Sinai

We have noted before that the Qur’an borrows numerous legends and apocryphal stories from extra-biblical Christian and Jewish sources. Here we will see that the Qur’an also borrows legends from the Babylonian Talmud, another extra-biblical Jewish text. 

Several chapters and verses in the Qur’an speak of a mountain being suspended over the Jews:

2:63: And (remember, O Children of Israel) when We made a covenant with you and caused the mount to tower above you, (saying): Hold fast that which We have given you, and remember that which is therein, that ye may ward off (evil).
 
2:93: And when We made with you a covenant and caused the Mount to tower above you, (saying): Hold fast by that which We have given you, and hear (Our Word), they said: We hear and we rebel. And (worship of) the calf was made to sink into their hearts because of their rejection (of the covenant). Say (unto them): Evil is that which your belief enjoineth on you, if ye are believers.
 
4:154: And We caused the Mount to tower above them at (the taking of) their covenant: and We bade them: Enter the gate, prostrate! and We bode them: Transgress not the Sabbath! and We took from them a firm covenant.

7:171: And when We shook the Mount above them as it were a covering, and they supposed that it was going to fall upon them (and We said): Hold fast that which We have given you, and remember that which is therein, that ye may ward off (evil)

All these texts refer to the same biblical episode of the giving of the Torah (Law) to the Jews at Mount Sinai. They all say that Allah “raised” above the Jews the mountain. This interpretation is also consistent with an early understanding in Muslim sources. In Tafsir Ibn Kathir we read: “Allah stated that when He took their pledge from them, He raised the mountain above their heads, so that they affirm the pledge that they gave Allah and abide by it with sincerity and seriousness” (2).

Those familiar with the Babylonian Talmud and Jewish legends of the first millennium will no doubt pick up similarities. In the Babylonian Talmud, we discover a very similar story of God suspending Mount Sinai over the people of Israel. The Babylonian Talmud reads as follows (emphasis added),

 
X. But how can they present such an argument, since it is written, “The Lord came from Sinai and rose from Seir to them, he shined forth from Mount Paran” (Dt. 33:2), and further, “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). Now what in the world did he want in Seir, and what was he looking for in Paran? Said R. Yohanan, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, made the rounds of each and every nation and language and none accepted it, until he came to Israel, and they accepted it.” 
Y. Rather, this is what they say, “Did we accept it but then not carry it out?” 
Z. But to this the rejoinder must be, “Why did you not accept it anyhow!” AA. Rather, “this is what they say before him, ‘Lord of the world, did you hold a mountain over us like a cask and then we refused to accept it as you did to Israel, as it is written, “And they stood beneath the mountain” (Ex. 19:17).’” 
BB. And [in connection with the verse, “And they stood beneath the mountain” (Ex. 19:17),] said R. Dimi bar Hama, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over Israel like a cask and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, then there is where your grave will be.’” (2)

This text attempts to explain why God offered a covenant to many nations, but none accepted it until Israel did. But God used force in lifting the mountain, hanging it over the Jews, and saying that if they rejected, then “there is where your grave will be.” 

The Qur’anic narrative is strikingly similar and suggests that the author thought that this Jewish legend was a part of Jewish scripture or a historical story. This makes sense since the author of the Qur’an would have been dependent on oral traditions for his knowledge of the Torah. The Qur’an also evidences people accusing Muhammad of retelling legends of the ancients (6:25, 25:5), which would make sense in light of the Qur’an’s borrowing of this Jewish legend. The Qur’an’s author does not appear to have had direct knowledge of and access to the Jewish scriptures, but heard stories probably communicated via Jewish oral tradition. We do know, or at least Muslim sources say, that Muhammad had access to Jewish tribes and interacted with them, thus perhaps being the source from which he learned this Jewish legend.

References

  1. IslamKotob. Tafsir Ibn Kathir all 10 volumes.
  2. Neusner, Jacob. 2011. The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. Hendrickson Publishers.

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