Abraham and the fiery furnace? The Quran and late Jewish mythology

Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated word for word to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. It is written, they say, on eternal heavenly tablets and has no human history. They claim that Muhammad is not its author, but rather only a messenger who memorized it as it was told to him by the angel and who then passed it on to others. The Quran, therefore, cannot be dependant on any historical developments or previous sources, so our Muslim friends tell us.

The problem with this claim is that the Quran often draws on mythical and legendary ancient material that has no basis in actual history but that was well known in Jewish and heretical "Christian" literature at the time the Quran was composed. The author of the Quran mistook this material for legitimate history the way one would expect an Arab merchant of Muhammad's day to do upon hearing such stories from others. This makes sense if a man like Muhammad composed the Quran, but it doesn't make much sense if the Quran is the eternal, unchanging word of an all-knowing God who possessed it word for word in heaven before the world began.

One striking example of this is the story in the Quran where Abraham is thrown into a fire after preaching against idolatry and is miraculously preserved from the flames by Allah. The Passage reads:

"And We had certainly given Abraham his sound judgement before, and We were of him well-knowing when he said to his father and his people, 'What are these statues to which you are devoted?' They said, 'We found our fathers worshippers of them.' He said, 'You were certainly, you and your fathers, in manifest error.' They said, 'Have you come to us with truth, or are you of those who jest?' He said, '[No], rather, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth who created them, and I, to that, am of those who testify. And [I swear] by Allah, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away.' So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it [and question]. They said, 'Who has done this to our gods? Indeed, he is of the wrongdoers.' They said, 'We heard a young man mention them who is called Abraham.' They said, 'Then bring him before the eyes of the people that they may testify.' They said, 'Have you done this to our gods, O Abraham?' He said, 'Rather, this - the largest of them - did it, so ask them, if they should [be able to] speak.' So they returned to [blaming] themselves and said [to each other], 'Indeed, you are the wrongdoers.' Then they reversed themselves, [saying], 'You have already known that these do not speak!' He said, 'Then do you worship instead of Allah that which does not benefit you at all or harm you? Uff to you and to what you worship instead of Allah. Then will you not use reason?' They said, 'Burn him and support your gods - if you are to act.' Allah said, 'O fire, be coolness and safety upon Abraham.' And they intended for him harm, but We made them the greatest losers. And We delivered him and Lot to the land which We had blessed for the worlds," (Surah 21:51-71).1

This is a fascinating story with no biblical basis whatsoever. Where did the author of the Quran get the idea that something like this happened? The Answer is that it is a Jewish Midrashic legend that developed in this form sometime after the period of the New Testament. The most detailed pre-Islamic version of this myth appears in Midrash Rabbah Genesis:

"R. Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. 'How old are you?' Abraham asked him. 'Fifty years,' was the reply. 'Woe to such a man!' he exclaimed, 'you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object?' At this, he became ashamed and departed. On another occasion, a woman came with a plateful of flour and requested him, 'Take this and offer it to them.' So he took a stick, broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, 'What have you done to them?' 'I cannot conceal it from you,' he rejoined. "a woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, "I must eat first." Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick, and broke them.' 'Why do you make sport of me,' he cried out; 'have they any knowledge?' 'Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying?' he retorted. Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. 'Let us worship the fire!' he [Nimrod] proposed. 'Let us rather worship the water, which extinguishes the fire,' replied he. "let us worship the water!' 'Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water.' 'Let us worship the clouds!' 'Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.' 'Then let us worship the wind!' 'Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.' 'You are just bandying with words,' he exclaimed; 'we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.' Now Haran was standing there undecided. If Abram is victorious, I will say that I am of Abram's belief, while if Nimrod is victorious I will say I am on Nimrod's side. When Abram descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, he [Nimrod] asked him, 'of whose belief are you?' 'Of Abram's' he replied. Thereupon he seized and cast him into the fire; his inwards were scorched and he died in his father's presence. Hence it is written, 'and Haran died in the presence of his father Terah'" (Midrash Rabbah 38:13).2

The details are strikingly similar. The Muslim may be tempted to say that the Quran's account is totally independent of such Jewish sources, but that these sources exist because the story is, in fact, true and they represent a stream of Jewish historical memory of the event. The problem is that 1). these stories don't arise until quite late considering how ancient the event is that they are supposed to preserve, 2). The earliest form of this legend starkly contradicts the Quran, and 3). it is actually fairly clear how this legend arose in post-exile Aramaic-speaking Jewish communities.

The earliest form of this legend appears in the apocryphal "Book of Jubilees" probably written sometime during the 4th-2nd centuries B.C. Before that time, there is no hint of this narrative in any Jewish or Israelite writing. The Jubilees legend, however, is not the one recorded in the Quran. This early form reads:

"And in the sixtieth year of the life of Abram, that is, in the fourth week, in the fourth year thereof, Abram arose by night, and burned the house of the idols, and he burned all that was in the house and no man knew it. And they arose in the night and sought to save their gods from the midst of the fire. And Haran hasted to save them, but the fire flamed over him, and he was burnt in the fire, and he died in Ur of the Chaldees before Terah his father," (Book of Jubilees 12:12-14).

Note that in this version, it is Abraham who starts the fire to burn the idols. Abraham himself is not thrown into the fire, and Haran runs into the flames voluntarily, trying to save the idols, and is burned alive. The basic idea that Haran died by fire in Abraham's Chaldean homeland while Abraham was opposing idolatry and destroying the local idols is all there, but the central details of the Midrash Rabbah/Quranic version of the story are not only absent but are actually contradicted.

But where did this idea come from at all? The answer lies in the languages. Hebrew has no vowels, and for most of the history of ancient Hebrew writing, there was no system in use for indicating vowel sounds in words.3 To give an example of what this might be like in English, if you came across a word written "rd," the word could be "red," "rod," "read," "rode," "rodeo" etc. Only through the context could you know which word was intended by the author. In most cases, this is less of a problem than it seems. Generally speaking, the context rules out most or all of your options, and it is quite clear which word the letters represent. Once in a while, however, this led to very interesting interpretations by the ancient Aramaic (and Greek) translators and interpreters. This was especially true when it comes to names of places, which often get mistranslated or creatively reinterpreted as words rather than proper names, sometimes changing the meaning of the sentence entirely. This is what happened when it came to the early story of Abraham. The name of Abraham's original home is "Ur of the Chaldeans." The city name "Ur," however, has the same consonantal structure as a Hebrew word for "light" that in Aramaic means "fire." Thus, when some Aramaic interpreters approached the text, instead of "Ur of the Chaldeans" they interpreted it as "fire of the Chaldeans." For example, the passage in Midrash Rabbah Genesis quoted above is an interpretation of Genesis 11:28. The actual verse reads:

"Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans."

The author of Midrash Rabbah, however, seems to have misunderstood this to mean:

"Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in the fire of the Chaldeans."

We see this same misinterpretation of that verse in the Aramaic "Targum Pseudo-Jonathan," which translates and interpretively expands Genesis 11:27-28 into:

"These are the generations of Terah. Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot. And it was when Nimrod had cast Abram into the furnace of fire because he would not worship his idol, and the fire had no power to burn him, that Haran's heart became doubtful, saying, If Nimrod overcome, I will be on his side: but if Abram overcome, I will be on his side. And when all the people who were there saw that the fire had no power over Abram, they said in their hearts, Is not Haran the brother of Abram full of divinations and charms, and has he not uttered spells over the fire that it should not burn his brother? Immediately (min yad, out of hand) there fell fire from the high heavens and consumed him; and Haran died in the sight of Terah his father, where he was burned in the land of his nativity, in the furnace of fire which the Kasdai [Chaldeans] had made for Abram his brother." (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Genesis 11:27-28).

The details, again, are slightly different from the other versions we have seen. But note what the story was inserted to explain? The Last line is a translation of Genesis 11:28 as "Haran died in the sight of Terah his father, where he was burned in the land of his nativity, in the furnace of fire which the Kasdai [Chaldeans] had made for Abram his brother." It mistranslates "Ur of the Chaldeans" as "fire of the Chaldeans." The story is then invented to explain what this fire was and why it killed Haran.

But why, then, is Abraham said to have been cast into the fire and saved? This stems from the same issue as applied to other passages, as can be concisely seen the Midrash Pirk de-R. Eliezer:

"The second trial [of Abraham] was when he was put into prison for ten years — three years in Kuthi, seven years in Budri. After ten years they sent and brought him forth and cast him into the furnace of fire, and the King of Glory put forth His right hand and delivered him from the furnace of fire, as it is said, "And he said to him, I am the Lord who brought thee out of the furnace of the Chaldees " (Gen. xv. 7). Another verse (says), "Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of the furnace of the Chaldees" (Neh. ix. 7).ii"Gerald Fiedlander, pirk de-R. Eliezer (The Bloch Publishing Company, 1916) 188

Once again, the verses cited here are actually:

"And He said to him, 'I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it,'" (Genesis 15:7).

"You are the Lord God, Who chose Abram And brought him out from Ur of the Chaldeans, And gave him the name Abraham," (Nehemiah 9:7).

The Midrashic author misinterprets "Ur of the Chaldeans" to mean "fire of the Chaldeans" and then must supply a story of God bringing Abraham out of the "fire of the Chaldeans" to make sense of his misreading. So it was the misreading of the Scriptures by Aramaic-speaking Jews that led to the idea that Haran died in the "fire of the Chaldeans" and later led to the idea that Abraham was brought out of that fire. This is why the legend does not appear until post-exilic Judaism where Aramaic is the dominant language. Thus, we know the origin of the legend, and we know that it is an inventive Midrashic interpretation based on a mistranslation rather than true ancient history. The author of the Quran, therefore, repeated a legend common among the Jews of his day which he took to be true and even biblical history, but which was, in fact, a late myth of human invention.

  • 1. Quranic citations in this article, including the bracketed statements, are from the Sahih International version of the Quran
  • 2. http://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp#page/n357/mode/2up (Accessed 9/18/17)
  • 3. Later in history, and on up to today, a series of dots and lines above and below the consonants were used to indicate to the reader which vowel sound should be used in reading the word.