Moses and the Samaritan

Jochen Katz

In the story of incident with the golden calf we read

He [Allah] said, "We have tempted thy people since thou didst leave them. The Samaritan has led them into error." Then Moses returned ...
they [the Israelites] said, "... and we cast them [(gold) ornaments], as the Samaritan also threw them, into the fire." (Then he brought out for them a Calf, a mere body that lowed; and they said, "This is your god, and the god of Moses, whom he has forgotten." ...) ...
Moses said, "And thou, Samaritan, what was thy business?" ...
-- Sura 20:85-88, 95 (Arberry, slightly adapted)

How can a Samaritan have led the Israelites astray at the time of Moses [about 1400 B.C.] when the city of Samaria was founded by King Omri in about 870 B.C. (see 1 Kings 16:24)? But "the Samaritans" as a distinct people only emerged after the exile of the Northern kingdom of Israel and the resettlement of the area under king Sargon II in after 722 B.C. with non-Israelites which then adopt a syncretism [mixture] between the religion of the Jews and their own polytheistic background. Hence, it is historically impossible that a Samaritan could have led the Israelites into idolatery in the time of Moses. This is another time compression of at least 500, but rather 700 years.

It is interesting to notice that while Yusuf Ali attempts to change this word to "Samiri" and Pickthall to "As Samirii." Arberry in the English, and Kasimirski in the French both correctly translate it "Samaritan." Yusuf Ali, in his footnotes, "bends over backwards" to explain his choice by suggesting that the name could mean "Shemer," which denotes a stranger, or "Shomer," which means a watchman, the equivalent of "Samara" in Arabic, which he implies is close enough to the Samari he is looking for. But the Arabic simply does not give Ali the leeway to concoct other meanings for this word. To be consistent with the Arabic he should keep his translation consistent with the text, as Arberry and Kasimirski have done.

According to Thomas Patrick Hughes' "Dictionary of Islam", page 564, al-Baidawi says [about as-Samiri] that his name is Musa ibn Zafar, of the tribe of Samaritans.

Where does this confusion come from? There are two main passages in the holy scriptures that deal with calf idols.

After the reign of Solomon the children of Israel were divided in the Southern kingdom of Judah and the Northern kingdom of Israel, but still the only legitimate place of worship was the temple in Jerusalem. Probably in order to legitimize his rule, Jerobeam I also instituted places of worship in his kingdom and put up a calf in each of them (1 Kings 12:26-33). But God clearly denounced this as pagan through his prophets (v. 30; 3 Kings 10:29; 17:16; 2 Chronicles 13:8). Samaria then later became the capital of this (Northern) kingdom of Israel. But there is one very clear passage in the prophet Hosea which might be the root of the confusion between the two "calf worship" incidents, the one in the desert at Moses time, and the other in the kingdom with capital Samaria.

Throw out your calf-idol, O Samaria! My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of purity? They are from Israel! This calf - a craftsman has made it; it is not God. It will be broken in pieces, that calf of Samaria. -- Hosea 8:5-6

The Qur'anic account continues in 20:97 [in excerpts] with

(Moses) said [to the Samaritan]: "Get thee gone! But thy (punishment) will be that thou wilt say, 'Touch me not'; ... Now look at thy god, of whom you hast become a devoted worshipper: We will certainly burn it in blazing fire and scatter it broadcast in the sea!"

See the close connection between the two accounts. It is "that calf of Samaria" [Hosea] and the Samaritan was its "devoted worshipper" [Qur'an]. And in both accounts God announces to destroy it. But there is one more parallel with the Samaritans in the Bible and the Samiri/Samaritan in the Qur'anic story. His punishment will be that he is "untouchable", which means "impure" - exactly the way the Jews viewed the Samaritans because of their idolatery, starting in Ezra's time and up to today. These parallels are very clear. And it is also clear that there were no Samaritans until 700 years after Moses. Muhammad has travelled around in the Middle East and would have known about the Samaritans as well as the contempt of the Jews for the Samaritans and that they are "untouchable" (impure) because of their idolatery (syncretistic religion). The only thing Muhammad does is trying to explain this contempt of the Jews for the Samaritan(s) but makes the mistake to connect it to the wrong golden calf.

One last question to ponder: If "as-Samirii" does not mean "the Samaritan", how else would you express "the Samaritan" in Arabic? There is still to this day a small Samaritan community in the Middle East. How are they called in Arabic?

Every once in a while, knowledgable Arab Muslims who have not been contaminated yet by the apologetics around this issue naturally confirm that "as-Saamiri" indeed means "the Samaritan". It never crossed their mind that this would mean anything else: [1]
Further discussion: Our answer to a Muslim response

Contradictions in the Qur'an
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