The Qur'an's Nine Signs And A New Exodus' Date

When Jews get together to celebrate Passover at the annual Seder meal, they frequently and incorrectly say that Jewish slaves built the Egyptian pyramids, and they always refer to the ten plagues. However, the Qur’an states that there were nine signs; and that difference might help us better understand how the historical Exodus took place.

As a Rabbi I can tell you that the Torah never specifically refers to TEN signs or plagues. Indeed Psalm 78: 44-51 lists NINE signs/plagues in a somewhat different order from Exodus as follows:

“He turned their river into blood; they could not drink from their streams. He sent swarms of flies that devoured them, and frogs that devastated them. He gave their crops to the grasshopper, their produce to the locust. He destroyed their vines with hail and their sycamore-figs with sleet. He gave over their cattle to hail, their livestock to bolts of lightning. He unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility— a band of destroying angels. He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death but gave them over to the plague. He struck down all the firstborn of Egypt.”

The Torah's Book of Exodus lists these events as preceding the many times when Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to demand freedom for the Children of Israel to leave Egypt, and return to their homeland. There probably were other disasters that befell Egypt during these many years; when Moses and Aaron were not sent to confront Pharaoh yet again.

Also, Psalm 105:23-36 also lists NINE miracle plagues. And these NINE plagues are also not listed in the same order as in Exodus. Should we then believe that Prophet David, the author of Psalms, did not know the number or order of the plagues?

Or is it not wiser and more honest to start with the premiss that both Prophet Moses and Prophet Muhammad were inspired by the One and only God; to deliver God's message of guidance for living a holy life to two different people, at two different times, who were living in two different kinds of circumstances.

So, when there are differences between the Bible and the Qur'an; they are not contradictions; but rather differences of perspective or emphasis due to the different historical needs of each religious community.

The plagues as listed in the Bible are: (1) Waters turn to Blood (2) Frogs (3) Lice (4) Swarms of Wild Beasts (5) Livestock Epidemic (6) Boils (7) Hail (8) Locusts (9) Darkness (10) Death of the First Born.

The Quran does twice refer to NINE signs as signs of God’s will and greatness for monotheistic believers; which are often plagues for Pharaoh type people.

The Qur’an states: “To Moses We did give NINE Clear Signs: ask the Children of Israel: when he (Moses) came to them, Pharaoh said to him: "O Moses! I consider you to have been worked upon by sorcery.” (17:101) and "Now put your hand into your bosom and it will come forth white without stain: (one) among the NINE signs (you take) to Pharaoh and his (Nobility) people: for they (the rulers of Egypt) are a people rebellious in transgression.” (27:12)

The Qur'an refers to Nine Signs according to one Muslim commentator, to teach us that the death of the first born males in Egypt (Exodus 11:5) occurred after the Children of Israel had already left Egypt, and were on their way to return to the Land of Israel. Thus the tenth plague did not fall on every Egyptian first born male. It was limited only to Pharaoh and his (Nobility) charioteers who pursued the escaping Jews, and then drowned in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:28)

As the Qur’an states three times: “So We seized him (Pharaoh) and his hosts (charioteers), and flung them into the sea. Now behold what was the end of those who did wrong.” (Qur’ân 28:40)

“So he (Pharaoh) resolved to remove them (kill all the Jews) from the face of the earth: but We drowned him and all (the charioteers) who were with him.” (Qur’ân 17:103)

“When at length they (Pharaoh and his charioteers) provoked Us, We exacted retribution from them, and We drowned them all. (Qur’ân 43:55)

The Qur’an understood this way, offers us a very profound understanding of the tenth plague, which the Qur’an does not consider to be a sign/plague at all; because it is a deserved punishment only of those who were guilty. This greatly limits the amount of first born who died in the last plague to just a small and directly responsible number of (Nobles and charioteers) and Pharaoh himself; and excludes all the other first born male Egyptians.

Mass Death (Toofan) is not among the TEN signs/miracles because it pertained only to the drowning of Pharaoh and his charioteers at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.

This Qur’anic teaching about the Biblical tenth plague should be discussed by Jews during the Passover Seder (April 22 evening to sunset on April 30, 2024) at the time when we recount the ten plagues. In Jewish tradition, while we rejoice at our deliverance from slavery, we should also express our regret that our freedom came at the cost of the Egyptians’ suffering, for we are all human beings.

So each person at the Seder (the ritual meal of Passover celebration) pours out some drops of wine from his or her wine cup as we recite the ten plagues, to signify having less sweetness in our celebration because some innocent Egyptians suffered due to their ruler’s sins.

As the Talmud says: “In that hour (when Pharaoh and his charioteers drowned) the angels wished to sing a song (of praise) before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying: ‘My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you sing a song?’ (Sanhedrin 39b)

And the Qur’an says: “And We took the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh and his soldiers pursued them in tyranny and enmity until, when drowning overtook him (Pharaoh), he said, "I believe that there is no deity except that in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of the Muslims.” (10:90)

And the rabbinic Midrash Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 43 says; “Rabbi Nechunia, son of Haḳanah, said: Know the power of repentance from Pharaoh who rebelled against God saying, "Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto his voice?" (Exodus. 5:2). The same tongue with which he sinned, he used to repent saying "Who is like thee, O Lord, among the mighty?" (Exodus 15:11).

Thus the teaching of mercy in the Qur’an’s reduction of the number of Egyptians killed at the end of the signs; and the rabbis desire to reduce the Seder’s celebration joy about the Egyptian defeat support one another. Qur’an and Torah are not contradictory; they are co-operating revelations from the one and only God because as a well known Hadith says: "Prophets are paternal brothers (sons of one father by co-wives). Their mothers (mother tongue, motherland etc.) are different but their religion (from one God) is one." (Bukhari Vol. 4: Book 55 #651 and Muslim Book 30: #5834-6).

Finally, Jews should read and discuss this passage from the Qur’an at the end of the Seder: “And We certainty settled the Children of Israel in an agreeable settlement [Israel] and provided them with good things. And they did not differ until [after] knowledge had come to them. Indeed, your Lord will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over [that] which they used to differ. So if you [O Muhammad] are in doubt, about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord, so never be among the doubters. (Qur’an 10:93-4)

Dr. Joseph Weinstein points out that the biblical exodus account describes a mass refugee movement in which thousands of oppressed Hebrews (or Israelites) fled Egypt following the downfall of an unnamed Egyptian Pharaoh. Trouble began when Pharaoh enslaves and abuses his Hebrew subjects, thereby incurring the wrath of their God. God sends Moses to strike Egypt with a host of natural disasters, including the plagues of hail, darkness, and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. The Israelites flee Egypt, but Pharaoh and the Egyptian army follow, only to be destroyed at the Red Sea.

The Israelites continue into the wilderness, where they find themselves critically short of food and water, surviving only with the help of God. At Mount Sinai the God who got them out of Egypt makes a partnership agreement with the Israelites. A generation later, some of their descendants finally reach safety in the Land of Canaan.

Scholars interested in finding a historical basis for this narrative generally work backwards from the archaeological evidence in Canaan. Since mass settlement of the Judean highlands took place in the 12th century B.C.E., they assume that the exodus from Egypt must have taken place a generation or two earlier.

Dr. Weinstein says that the most commonly suggested time is during the reign of the 19th Egyptian dynasty ruler Rameses II (ca. 1279–1213 B.C.E.) or his son Merneptah (ca. 1213–1203) who had a stone marker engraved that mentions the Israelites among others who lived in Canaan.

Recently the reigns of the 20th dynasty ruler Sethnakht (c.1198–1194 B.C.E.) or his son Ramesses III (c.1194–1184 B.C.E.) have also been suggested, but the Merneptah stone makes that unlikely. However, Egyptian sources report several natural disasters that afflicted Egypt just before the collapse of Hyksos rule, including abnormal weather conditions and an outbreak of disease. As in the Torah, they blame these disasters upon divine intervention by a deity of the West Semites.

It is possible that these events, that occurred several generations earlier, were connected with the later Biblical Exodus. This view is supported by the Hearst Medical Papyrus, copied during the early 18th dynasty shortly after the Expulsion of the Hyksos, which contains an incantation against a “(Disease) of the Ꜥꜣmw (West Semites)” involving black skin lesions.

It blames this disease upon pꜣ-nṯr-ḥry, an Egyptian rendering of the supreme West Semitic deity ˀEl ꜤElyon (God most High), mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (as a synonym title for the God of Israel).

Several of the biblical plagues resemble one or another of these natural disasters. The two reports of dramatic storms attest to disturbed weather conditions that could underlie the biblical plagues of hail (Exodus 9:13–35) and darkness (Exodus 10:21–23), and the winds that swept the locusts into the sea (Exodus 10:19) and blew back the waters of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14;21).

Likewise, the plagues of pestilence (Exodus 9:1–7) and boils (Exodus 9:10–12) closely resemble the “Disease mentioned on the Hearst Medical Papyrus. The resemblance would be particularly good if the references are to tularemia or cutaneous anthrax, both of which spread readily from domestic livestock to humans.

A connection to the biblical death of the firstborn is also possible, while other plagues might be explained as a logical consequence of the disturbed weather conditions and/or epidemics.

Dr. Weinstein points out that the Hyksos capital of Avaris figures prominently in the biblical account under its later name of “Rameses.” According to the biblical account, it was in the Land of Rameses that Jacob and his sons had settled (Genesis 67:11), at Rameses that the Israelites toiled in the construction of store-cities (Exodus 1:11), and from Rameses that they departed at the start of the exodus (Exodus 12:37, Numbers 33:3,5).

Although the narratives of Moses’ birth (Exodus 2:1-11) and of his appearances before Pharaoh (Exodus 5-12) do not specify where those events occurred, the setting of these events at a royal capital (Exodus 1:15-2:10; 5-12) on a branch of the Nile (Exodus 1:22; 2:3-6; 7:14-8:12) with overland access to Sinai (Exodus 2:15; 4:18-28) matches the geographic situation at Rameses.
Although the occupants of the Delta were largely West Semitic, most of them were not Hyksos—and they certainly were not members of the 15th dynasty.

That is, they were neither rulers nor conquerors, and are never referred to as Hyksos in contemporary Egyptian sources. Instead, they were farmers and herdsmen, shepherds and cowherds, weavers, dyers, and other artisans. These Hebrews or their ancestors had settled peacefully in the Delta during the latter portion of the Middle Kingdom and early part of the Second Intermediate Period.

A few of these settlers appear to have been well off. According to the Quran, Karun/Korah was a member of the Israelites who had been blessed with great wealth. He flaunted his wealth and was proud of his position in society, but he refused to use his wealth for the benefit of others.

Instead, he hoarded his riches, reveled in his own power and status, and eventually openly challenged Moses. Others served as artisans and skilled laborers on Egyptian estates.

Still others may have arrived as indentured servants, or chattel slaves. In the world of the ancient Near East, the king viewed his subjects as his servants, and his subjects viewed themselves as servants of the king. Biblical Hebrew even uses the same word—ebed—for “slave,” “servant,” “vassal,” “subject” (of a king), and “minister” (of a king).

From the perspective of northern Egyptian residents, the 15th dynasty kings were their rulers, northern Egypt was Egypt, and their ruler was king of Egypt. The existence of another Egyptian kingdom, ruled by native Egyptians, 700 km to the south, would have been largely irrelevant.

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