Qur'an Contradiction

Moses or Jacob?

The Qur'an tells the story or rather stories of Moses and Pharaoh in many places, and we have already discussed many errors and contradictions found in these passages (cf. the list of links here). This short article points out another detail on which the Qur'an contradicts the Bible, because the author of the Qur'an confused two stories of the Bible and imported details from one story into another.

Both Moses and Jacob had to flee from their homes (Jacob because he tricked his brother Esau, and Moses because he had killed an Egyptian), and they found their wives in similar ways. While being abroad they met these young women as they were tending a flock of sheep and needed help to give them water from a well. These similarities certainly helped to confuse the two stories in the mind of the author of the Qur'an.

The biblical story of Moses meeting his wife:

When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father's flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, "Why have you returned so early today?" They answered, "An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock." "And where is he?" he asked his daughters. "Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat." Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, "I have become an alien in a foreign land." Exodus 2:15-22

The quranic version of Moses meeting his wife:

And when he arrived at the watering (place) in Madyan, he found there a group of men watering (their flocks), and besides them he found two women who were keeping back (their flocks). He said: "What is the matter with you?" They said: "We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take back (their flocks): And our father is a very old man." So he watered (their flocks) for them; then he turned back to the shade, and said: "O my Lord! truly am I in (desperate) need of any good that Thou dost send me!" Afterwards one of the (damsels) came (back) to him, walking bashfully. She said: "My father invites thee that he may reward thee for having watered (our flocks) for us." So when he came to him and narrated the story, he said: "Fear thou not: (well) hast thou escaped from unjust people." Said one of the (damsels): "O my (dear) father! engage him on wages: truly the best of men for thee to employ is the (man) who is strong and trusty".... He said: "I intend to wed one of these my daughters to thee, on condition that thou serve me for eight years; but if thou complete ten years, it will be (grace) from thee. But I intend not to place thee under a difficulty: thou wilt find me, indeed, if Allah wills, one of the righteous." He said: "Be that (the agreement) between me and thee: whichever of the two terms I fulfil, let there be no ill-will to me. Be Allah a witness to what we say." Sura 28:23-28

The stories clearly refer to the same incident, but plenty of differences exist between them. Two aspects are particularly striking: In Exodus, Moses meets seven women at the well, all seven being daughters of one man. In the Qur'an it is said explicitly that they were two women, also daughters of the same man. In both cases, their father offers Moses one of the daughters for marriage. However, in the Qur'an, the father asks a payment for marrying his daughter. The condition is that Moses has to work for him for eight or ten years. Note that there are two terms of service mentioned, although they are alternative numbers. In the Qur'an we have two women and two terms, contrary to the biblical account.

Where are these particular details coming from? They are also found in the Bible, in the story of Jacob meeting and marrying his wives:

Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. There he saw a well in the field, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well's mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well. Jacob asked the shepherds, "My brothers, where are you from?" "We're from Haran," they replied. He said to them, "Do you know Laban, Nahor's grandson?" "Yes, we know him," they answered. Then Jacob asked them, "Is he well?" "Yes, he is," they said, "and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep." "Look," he said, "the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture." "We can't," they replied, "until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep." While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep, for she was a shepherdess. When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother's brother, and Laban's sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle's sheep. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father. As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister's son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, "You are my own flesh and blood."

After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, Laban said to him, "Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be." Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, "I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel." Laban said, "It's better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me." So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her." So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant. When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?" Laban replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter's bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work." And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years. Genesis 29:1-30

This is the story of the two daughters, and of Jacob working two terms for the woman he loves. If this is not yet convincing enough to identify the source of these misplaced details in the story of Moses, look at the next verse in the Qur'an:

Now when Moses had fulfilled the term, and was travelling with his family, he perceived a fire in the direction of Mount Tur. He said to his family: "Tarry ye; I perceive a fire; I hope to bring you from there some information, or a burning firebrand, that ye may warm yourselves." Sura 28:29; cf. 27:7

After Moses had served his term as payment for marrying his wife, he (leaves his father-in-law) and travels with his family. Why? Where is he going to? According to the Bible, Moses was not travelling with his family but was occupied by his daily work of tending the flocks when he encountered the burning bush:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up." When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." Exodus 3:1-4

This particular element of the "travel with his family" (on which he encounters God) is the third detail that Muhammad took from the account of Jacob in the Bible and injected into the story of Moses. It is Jacob who takes his family and leaves Laban after he had finished his terms and actually even stayed some years longer (Genesis 30:25-31:55) – which may also be reflected in S. 28:27 by the strange condition of "eight years ... ten years". In any case, Jacob left Laban and travelled back to his home land for two clear reasons: (1) Laban had deceived him several times (Genesis 31:41) and (2) for the purpose of reconciling with his brother Esau (Genesis 32-33). On this journey, he encounters God (Genesis 32:22-30).

All these details make it quite obvious that the author of the Qur'an confused the story of Jacob with the story of Moses. Taking several details from the story of Jacob, he mixed them into his own version of the story of Moses.

It is rather hard to believe that this confusion was inspired by God. On the contrary, together with dozens and dozens of other errors, contradictions and confusions (*), it is evidence that the Qur'an was composed by an ignorant and fallible human author.

Given the accounts of the Torah, it is easy to see how the version of the Qur'an is due to Muhammad's ignorance and confusion, since he was not able to examine the text of the Hebrew Scriptures himself, but had to construct his stories based on hearsay and his own faulty memory. This is an entirely coherent and natural explanation for anyone who does not make the divine origin of the Qur'an his first assumption. It is even more credible because this is not an isolated case. The Qur'an contains many stories which are a confused mixture of elements taken from two or more stories in the Bible, see the links under the heading Historical Compressions.

On the other hand, I see no way how Muslims could provide a convincing explanation how the version of the Torah developed if it really happened like it is written in the Qur'an. Simply claiming that "the Torah is corrupted" is too easy. Every crime, and also the crime of corrupting a holy text, needs to have a motive, a purpose. What reason could anyone have for changing "two women" to "seven women"? [Apart from the logistic impossibility of doing this in every copy of the Torah without anyone realizing this change.] This detail has no theological significance. It does not serve any special interest of the Jews or the Christians. Moreover, Muslims do not need to explain only this one difference between the Qur'an and the Bible, but need to provide a coherent and credible explanation that there are dozens of similar confusions and errors and changes in many stories that are found in both the Qur'an and the Bible. Many of those changes without any theological relevance, i.e. Jews would not have any benefit from those changes.

The explanation that the confusion of the Qur'an is due to Muhammad's ignorance of the earlier scriptures is straight-forward, natural and credible. The Muslims have so far not provided a similarly natural and satisfactory explanation which could make the version of the Qur'an credible and rescue their belief in the divine origin of the Qur'an.

Jochen Katz

Further reading

Contradictions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page