Samaritans and Moses or Muhammad’s Blunder?
In the Bible (Exodus 32) there is a story about Israelites worshiping a calf when Moses went to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. On his return Moses was angered and ordered “everyone to put on his sword and kill his brothers, his friends, and his neighbors” (Ex.32:27). In this story the culprits are the Israelites and Aaron the brother of Moses who let himself to be influenced by them. This incident is reported in the Quran.
He [Allah] said, “We have tempted thy people since thou didst leave them. The Samaritan (in Arabic Samiri) has led them into error.” Then Moses returned … … 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?” …– Quran 20:85-88, 95
In the Quranic version the culprits are the Samaritans who mislead the Jews into worshiping the bull. But in the original story of the Bible there is no mention of any Samaritan. When questioned, Muslims claim that the Bible is corrupted. However, at the time of Moses, Samaria did not exist and there was no one known as Samaritan.
According to 1 King 16:24 Samaria was a hill belonging to Shemer that was purchased by King Omri where he founded the city of Samaria about 870 B.C. 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 after 722 B.C.
Moses lived 1400 years B.C. That is five to seven centuries before anyone could be called Samaritan (Sameri). Therefore, the explanation of the Quran that Samaritans led the Jews to worship a calf cannot be correct. At the time of Moses Samaria did not exist and no one could be the citizen of an inexistent city.
We know that Muhammad was not a learned man. He had heard the stories of the Bible as narrated by the storytellers but from his mistakes it is fair to say that he had not read the book himself. So where did he get the idea of Samaritans leading Israelites to idolatry?
The answer to this confusion can be found in another similar story of calf-worshiping narrated in the (1 King 12:26-33). This episode happened during the time of Jeroboam. This was a time when the Jews were split into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of the Judah; Jerusalem being the major center of the worship for all the Jews was in Judah. Holy towns attract pilgrims, promote commerce and generate income. Jeroboam, who was the king of Israel, thought that not having a holy place of worship in his kingdom is weakening his position. He decided to build a temple in Samaria, the seat of the Northern Kingdom, and adorn it with the statutes of two golden calves to rival Jerusalem as the center of worship.
Biblical Scholars, like Richard Elliot Friedman, believe that the first story of the Jews worshiping the golden calf during the time of Moses, to which the Quran is alluding, actually never happened. Friedman believes that this story was fabricated by the actual writers of the Bible, the high priests and the custodians of the temple of God in Jerusalem, around 700 BC to discredit Jerobeam and his temple in the Northern Kingdom. They invented the story of Moses and the golden calf, claiming that it provoked the wrath and punishment of God during the time of Moses. This did certainly send a strong message to the Jews that the temple erected by Jerobeam is unacceptable by God. Most probably, the calves adorning the temple of Israel were symbolic and were not intended to be worshiped. Yet the fabricated story of the calf-worshiping-Jews at the time of Moses, provoking the wrath of God had its intended effect. Emergence of a new temple in the North would not have only undermined the importance of Jerusalem as the sole religious center for all the Jews, but it would have also separated them religiously, a nation already split politically.
Hosea echoed his disapproval of the northern temple in the following terms.
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
This is a warning to the Jews of 700 B.C. living in Samaria. It has nothing to do with the story of Moses and the Golden calf. Muhammad must have heard these two stories. But he confused the two and placed the Samaritans in a wrong context. The Quran continues:
“Moses said: “Get thee gone! but thy (punishment) in this life will be that thou wilt say, ‘touch me not’; and moreover (for a future penalty) thou hast a promise that will not fail: Now look at thy god, of whom thou hast become a devoted worshipper: We will certainly (melt) it in a blazing fire and scatter it broadcast” (Qur’an 20:97)
It is interesting to note that in this verse the Quran alludes to the fact that the Samaritans were regarded as untouchables (thou wilt say, ‘touch me not’). In fact the Israelites looked down at Samarians and considered them “untouchable” (Najis) because of their idolatry. However, this stigma was not placed on them by Moses. There were no Samaritans in the time of Moses. They earned this designation by the Jews centuries later.
This is another proof that Muhammad’s knowledge of the Bible was second hand and based on hearsay. Had he read the Bible once, he would not have made such a gross mistakes.