One of the themes of my last few posts is that the Qurʾān often interacts with Rabbinic, Biblical and Christian tradition in an informed way. Previously I looked at how the Qurʾān responds to the crucifixion of Jesus in light of Rabbinic texts. This post will give another example of the Qurʾān utilizing a Rabbinic motif to argue against the Prophet’s Jewish opponents.
“Like a donkey carrying books”
A rather harsh metaphor occurs in the Qurʾān for some of the Jewish opponents of the Prophet in Sūrah al-Jumuʿah:
مثل الذين حُمّلوا التورة ثم لم يحملوها كمثل الحمار يحمل اسفارا بئس مثل القوم الذين كذبوا بأياتِ اللهِ وللهُ لا يهدي القوم الظالمين
The example of those who were burdened with the Torah, but then did not carry it, is like an ass carrying books —evil is the example of the people which deny the signs of God, and God does not guide the wrongdoing people. [Qurʾān 62:5]
But why this rather specific polemical label? This mention of a donkey loaded with books is not a coincidence — infact, the Qurʾān is responding to a rather specific Rabbinic idea. In Sifrei Debarim, a midrashic compilation between the 3rd and 5th centuries, we see an peculiar Rabbinic analogy for the Jews and the gentiles:
משל לאחד ששילח את חמורו וכלבו לגורן והטעינו לחמור לתך שלש סאימ .היה החמור מהלך והכלב מלחית. פרק ממנו סאה ונתנו על החמור וכן שני וכן שלישי כך ישראל קבלו את התורה בפירושיה ובדקד וקיה. אף אותם שבע מצות שלא יכלו בני נח לעמוד בהם ופרקום באו ישראל וקבלומ
A man sent his ass and his dog to the granary, where fifteen seʾah [of grain] were loaded atop the ass and three seʾah on the dog. The ass walked and the dog strained to breathe, his tongue lolling. He cast aside one seʾah and placed it atop the ass and then did the same with the second and then the third. This is how Israel accepted the Torah, together with its commentaries and its minutiae. Even those seven commandments that the Noahides could not abide and cast aside, Israel came and accepted. Text and translation from Mazuz, see bibliography.
Here, an ‘ass carrying books’ metaphor has been used by the Rabbis in a way that seems to be a neutral or even positive designation for the Israelites— That they took upon all the commandments, even the most basic ones, that even the gentiles (here analogized through the dog) could not abide by.
The Qurʾān has taken this same Rabbinic metaphor and turned it around completely, changing it from a praise of the Israelites, into a critique of those who were given the Torah (ḥummilū al-tawrāh) but failed to abide by it (wa lam yaḥmilūhā), likening them to a ḥimār (the same word as the Rabbinic text above, ḥamōr). The Qurʾānic verse seems to say that though they were carrying these books, they did not appreciate them.
It is thus quite fitting that verse 62:5 follows a declaration that God has now decided to send a messenger to the ummiyīn (Q62:3)— the gentiles, which the Rabbinic passage explicitly says had failed to uphold God’s most basic commandments.
There are actually multiple instances of this sort of “polemical inversion” of Rabbinic (and other) idioms and ideas in the Qurʾān that, to me, makes it an intriguing text. Perhaps with enough frequency, it hints at iʿjāz. I hope in time I’ll be posting several more. I’d like to thank my friend Sharif for sharing this reference with me!