Saul and Gideon: revelation or error?

An analysis of Sura 2:249

James M. Arlandson

What happens when a passage in the Quran is erroneous, which can be compared with another sacred text? How do you clarify the mistake? Do you retreat to revelations no matter what? (The Quran comes down from Allah, so that settles everything!) Or will you listen to reasonable evidence, using Ockham’s razor that cuts out needless and convoluted explanations?

The Quran seems to confuse an episode in Saul’s life with one in Gideon’s life, who lived about three hundred before Saul. Normally, one should show generosity for an occasional mix-up in a strictly literary book or even a history book from the ancient world. But Islamic theology asserts that the Quran is no ordinary book.

Revelation and inspiration of the Quran

In Islamic theology, it is believed that the Quran existed in heaven, and the angel Gabriel came down and over time spoke it to Muhammad, which then became a physical book. Sometimes a comparison is made between the Quran’s "inlibration" (from the root "libr" or "book") with Christ’s "incarnation" (from the root "carn" or "flesh"). That is, as the heavenly Son of God was "made flesh," so the heavenly Quran was "made book."

However, this is an exceptionally high view of inspiration. The following passages illustrate the extremely high standard of Quranic inspiration.

While Muhammad was living in Mecca before his Hijrah (Emigration) to Medina in 622, the Meccans disputed the divine origin of the Quran and wanted Muhammad to change it, but Allah tells Muhammad how to answer them in this verse:

10:15 When Our clear revelations are recited to them, those who do not expect to meet Us say, "Bring [us] a different Quran, or change it." [Prophet], say, "It is not for me to change it of my own accord; I only follow what is revealed to me, for I fear the torment of an awesome Day, if I were to disobey my Lord." (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004. This translation is used in the rest of the article, unless otherwise noted)

This promise of torment as a penalty for changing the Book applies not only to Muhammad, but also to all later followers. The most important aspect of this verse is its revelation. The prophet follows only what "is revealed" to him. Muhammad gets this information only from Allah himself. These short verses in the Meccan suras also show the super-high standard of inspiration:

39:28 An Arabic Quran free from any distortion—so that people may be mindful.

55:1 It is the Lord of Mercy 2 who taught the Quran.

75:17 We shall make sure of its [the Quran’s] safe collection and recitation. 18 When We have recited it, repeat the recitation 19 and We shall make it clear.

26:192 Truly, this Quran has been sent down by the Lord of the worlds: 193 the Trustworthy Spirit brought it down 194 to your heart [Prophet], so that you could bring warning 195 in a clear Arabic tongue. (Insertion is Haleem’s)

When Muhammad was feeling inspired, he sometimes heard a bell ringing, (see the hadith below this one) or he would sweat, or his face would change color. He seems to have fallen into some kind of trance, at times. This doctrine of inspiration and these verses land polemicists in interpretive problems, because every word must be taken as they are written, when the passages are clear—not, for example, when a passage is an illustration. However, the following passages in this article are not merely illustrations, but are clear and straightforward.

Will this doctrine of inspiration trump an ordinary explanation about confusion or an error?

Gideon and Saul

Most of Sura (Chapter) 2 is usually regarded as one of the first ones (if not the first one) to be revealed after Muhammad’s Hijrah (Emigration) from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. The long sura deals with several topics, but it has many passages about Jews and the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). At this early stage, Muhammad wanted the Jews to accept him, but they correctly rebuffed him because he was a gentile and because he was confused about their sacred text.

Here is one piece of evidence of this error.

In the context of Saul being chosen as king to lead ancient Israel into battle against their enemies the Amalekites and the Philistines, Talut (Saul) tests his soldiers with drinking at an unnamed river.

The Quran in Sura 2:249 says:

2:249 When Talut [Saul] set out with his forces, he said to them, "God will test you with a river. Anyone who drinks from it will not belong with me, but anyone who refrains from tasting it will belong with me; if he scoops up just one handful [he will be excused]." But they all drank [deep] from it, except a few . . . (first insertion is mine; the last two are Haleem’s).

The passage goes on to recount David’s victory over Goliath, and the Israelis over the Philistines.

Besides the illogical and unwise announcement to the soldiers of a test before it is enacted, Allah’s inspiration seems to mislead the prophet about the chronology and the characters. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the Bible knows that this Quranic episode conflates an event in Gideon’s life.

The Bible in Judges 7:4-5 says:

7:4 The Lord said to Gideon, "There are still too many men [in the army]. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there . . . 5 So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink. Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their hands and knees. (New International Version; my insertion)

Though some of the small details differ, the Quran and the Bible share remarkable similarities in at least five ways.

First, the large context of a military campaign occurs in both.

Second, both passages share the same drink test by water. The Bible says the spring of Haran was the place of testing, whereas the Quran says that the location was an unnamed river. But the element is the same—water. That is, it is not the case that the Bible says that drinking water is the test, whereas the Quran says that throwing a spear the farthest or ingesting food a certain way is the test.

Third, the method of drinking is similar. In the Quran, even if the men take a scoopful of water, they will be excused from fighting. How much more will they be exempt if they drink deep? This parallels the Biblical text. Either the men lap the water up from their hand as they stand (= scooping in the Quran), or they kneel down and drink (= drinking deeply in the Quran).

Fourth, the immediate purpose of the test is the same. Both are designed to separate or sift men from the army.

Fifth, the overall purpose in the Biblical passage is to prevent Israel from boasting in his own strength (7:2). Instead, Israel should boast in God’s deliverance. The Quran says or implies the same in the rest of Sura 2:249.

So how should we account for this error or confusion of Saul with Gideon?

Two explanations

Two options confront us. The first one holds on to revelations no matter what. Allah spoke, and that trumps everything. The second one says that Muhammad got things confused in an ordinary way that all humans do, or perhaps he deliberately reshaped the Bible for his own benefit, at least in part, or a mixture of both.

Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi (d. 1979), a highly regarded conservative scholar, chooses the first option. He writes:

As the same test was applied by Gideon before Saul, Palmer and Rodwell [two earlier scholars and translators] come to the strange conclusion that Gideon and Saul are here (v. 249) confused . . . This objection is absurd on its face. If two similar events had happened and only one of these is mentioned in the Bible, it does not prove that the other did not happen just because it was not mentioned in it. Moreover, it has never been claimed that the Bible contains the complete history of the Israelites with its full details. The very fact that the Talmud contains many incidents which are not mentioned in the Bible is a proof thereof. (The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 1, p. 181)

It is difficult to know where to begin with this strange belief. Maududi’s assertion is the one that is "absurd on its face" (his words). He states that many events that happened in Biblical history are not recorded in the Bible. That’s fair enough. Neither the Bible nor Biblical history says one word about Saul’s drinking test. Then Maududi throws out hints about the Talmud as containing more about the Bible than the Bible does about itself. But he does not cite a reference. But even if he did, that would only mean that Muhammad’s source is non-Biblical and postdates the events by 1,600-1,900 years. So where do Maududi and his prophet get this information about Saul’s test? Ancient inscriptions? Canaanite records? The answer is obvious: Allah told Muhammad many centuries after the facts, and the prophet transmits this message to us as revelations.

Maybe for Muslims like Maududi, who have been steeped in their religion, this answer is adequate, but for the rest of us, it is fanciful.

The second option is more plausible. Muhammad was simply committing a human error. This is not surprising since he lived so long after the events. After all, we should not imagine him poring over a dusty copy of the Bible, which would raise his accuracy about such things. He was not a scholar. Rather, he picked up this Biblical story as he did all the others: from various sources here and there, as they were retold by ordinary folks and storytellers. Or perhaps he may have misread or confused the stories told by the Jews of Medina and elsewhere. But firm evidence of this needs to be researched.

Next, though this is difficult to contemplate for some people, in addition to ordinary human confusion and errors, the prophet may have deliberately reshaped the Bible for his own advantage. Thus, he is like Saul who fought against a larger enemy and whose army obeyed him. Therefore, his fledgling Muslim community should obey him too. Sura 2:246 confirms this reshaping. Saul (Talut) looks a lot like Muhammad, but not completely like the true Saul of the Bible:

2:246 Have you not considered the chiefs of the children of Israel after Musa [Moses], when they said to a prophet [Samuel] of theirs: Raise up for us a king, (that) we may fight in the way of Allah. He said: May it not be that you would not fight if fighting is ordained for you? They said: And what reason have we that we should not fight in the way of Allah, and we have indeed been compelled to abandon our homes and our children. But when fighting was ordained for them, they turned back, except a few of them, and Allah knows the unjust. (Shakir; insertions in brackets are mine)

This passage says that the ancient Israelites have been chased out of their homes and have been compelled to abandon their children, just as Muhammad and some Muslims were chased out of Mecca. Also, this verse says that only a few did not turn back, once the call to fight was ordained. In the same (but not identical) manner, when the call to fight was issued in the Bible, Gideon allowed the fearful to return home, and 22,000 did. That left 10,000 soldiers (Judges 7:3). The parallels, though not exact down to the smallest details, are obvious for anyone with an open mind. Muhammad is like Saul, but not identical to him.

Whatever the source of the Quran’s error or conflation of Gideon and Saul, deliberate or not, Ockham’s razor cuts out convoluted explanations, so the second option is leaner and cleaner than the first: the prophet was simply making a mistake in the Quran.


The purpose of this article is not to put down a holy book. Rather, it is intended to make us think critically about its implications. How do we apply an old seventh-century text to today’s world?

However, what this second option spells out for hard line Muslims is unacceptable to them, so they, like Maududi, will go blithely along their way, wanting us to believe their version of the facts and in their holy book, no matter what.

This path would not be so bad on a practical level if it remained only in the realm of abstract theology or pertained only to Bible characters, but it does not. This against-all-odds belief gets applied to other verses that are violent and domineering—even over the whole world.

And this is too dangerous to remain unchallenged.

Supplemental material

This article is more thorough than the present one, putting Sura 2:249 in a wider context in the Quran. It cites more Biblical texts, explaining why Muhammad reshaped the Bible for his own advantage. The article also cites a sectarian explanation that Talut may be Gideon, but this does not resolve the anachronism, since the Quran mentions David and Goliath in the same context as the drinking test. Ockham’s razor cuts away mistakes that get piled on and do not improve matters.

This article tackles the larger issue of the Bible’s and the Quran’s disagreements on Bible characters. For Gideon, scroll down to "There are differences between the Bible and Quran."

This is a chapter by a highly respected scholar specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. It discusses Jewish sources in the Quran, including the Gideon episode.

For problems inhering in Islam’s doctrine of inspiration, see this article, which discusses Gabriel’s role.

By comparison, basic Christian theology of Scriptural inspiration does not come even close. It says God inspired the New Testament writers, true, but he did not through Gabriel dictate to them or recite Scripture into their ears. This is clear even from a casual reading of the New Testament. Paul, for example, writes his epistles mainly to solve problems (1 and 2 Corinthians) or to explain his theology systematically (Epistle to Romans), and the reader can see his mind sorting out his answers to the problems or his theology based on his thorough knowledge of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures (Romans 14:5, 22; 1 Corinthians 1:13-17; 7:6, 10, 12, 17). Also, the Gospels Matthew and Luke borrow from Mark and each other, and Luke says outright that he researched other accounts before he wrote his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). Thus, basic Christian theology of inspiration is much more "organic" and human-cooperative than the claimed inspiration of the Quran.

This article brings out the paradox of Islamic belief in the Oneness of Allah and the uncreatedness of the Quran.

As the Quran was being formed over the early decades, it did undergo changes, as this webpage shows.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

Articles by James Arlandson
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