Midrash Numbers Rabbah & Haman in The Qur’an

1. Introduction

The Qur’anic association of Haman with the Pharaoh of Egypt has invited a great deal of criticism among certain Western scholars and Christian apologists. According to them, Haman belongs to Persian history as depicted in the book of Esther in the Old Testament, long after the time of Moses.

Thus, it is believed by these scholars and apologists that the mention of Haman during the time of Moses is an anachronism in the Qur’an.[1] 

Consequently, they claim that Prophet Muhammad copied and in some cases altered the Biblical material when composing the Qur’an. A substantial part of their argument rests on the unproven premise that since the Bible has been in existence longer than the Qur’an, the Biblical account is intrinsically correct, as opposed to the Qur’anic account, which is necessarily inaccurate and false.

The charge of a Qur’anic anachronism concerning the mention of Haman during the time of Moses has been refuted elsewhere and it was shown that the biblical book of Esther is historically unreliable to make the charge stick.

In this paper, we will deal with the claim that the Prophet Muhammad’s error of making Haman contemporary with Korah (Qarun in the Qur’an) may have come from the Midrash Numbers Rabbah (also called Bemidbar Rabbah) where Haman is mentioned alongside Korah as having been a rich man.

The earliest scholars to make such a claim were Abraham Geiger [2] and Josef Horovitz.[3] Subsequently, this claim was repeated by N. A. Newman.[4]

2. Dating Midrash Numbers Rabbah

Let us first begin by quoting the relevant material from Midrash Numbers Rabbah which was allegedly the “source” of the Prophet’s “confusion” resulting in his mention of Haman alongside with Korah. The midrash says:

So also, two rich men arose in the world, one in Israel and one among the nations of the world – Korah in Israel and Haman among the nations of the world – and both of them were destroyed from the world.[5]

Midrash Numbers Rabbah mentions Haman alongside Korah but it is equally clear that they belong to different nations of the world. Furthermore, the midrash writer does not even hint that they were both contemporaries! As to who exactly is in error here is obvious; it is simply a misreading on the part of Horovitz and Newman which resulted in them making erroneous claims.

Even more devastating for their argument is the dating of Midrash Numbers Rabbah. This midrash consists of twenty-three chapters. The first fourteen are essentially different from the following nine. The two parts may have been connected probably at the beginning of the 13th century CE.

This dichotomy has resulted in scholars concluding that they are composed to two different authors.[6] Our concern here is with one of the chapters from last nine, i.e., the second part of the midrash. This part of Midrash Numbers Rabbah is essentially the Midrash Tanhuma, as shown by Benveniste in 1565 CE.[7]

What about the dating of this midrash? Zunz pointed out that Midrash Numbers Rabbah is hardly older than 12th century CE.[8] As for the second part of Midrash Numbers Rabbah, the Encyclopaedia Judaica states:

The view accepted by the majority of critical scholars is that Numbers Rabbah II, which is apparently the second half of a complete Midrash whose first half, which served as original basis, was lost, was compiled in the ninth century, like most of the Tanhuma Yelammedenu Midrashim.[9]

A detailed discussion about the dating of Midrash Tanhuma, accessing a broad range of Judaeo-Christian textual scholarship including specific reference to the nature of the manuscript evidence, is given elsewhere. It is sufficient to state that this midrash is dated to the 9th century CE as noted earlier.[10] 

Unless the above-named critics are proposing a new theory of redaction criticism [11] whereby a post-edited writing(s) can become the source of a text that antedates it, it is difficult to imagine (not to mention impossible) a post-Islamic source that has undergone redaction to be the alleged source of “Muhammad’s confusion”, that of placing Haman contemporary with Korah.

Interestingly, the earliest manuscripts of the Midrash Numbers Rabbah date only from the 15th century CE.

3. Conclusions

It was claimed by Horovitz that Muhammad’s alleged error of making Haman contemporary with Korah may have come from the Midrash Numbers Rabbah where Haman is mentioned alongside Korah as having been a rich man. Upon investigation, it was seen that such a position was untenable. Firstly, although Midrash Numbers Rabbah mentions Haman alongside Korah, it clearly states that Haman and Korah belong to two different nations of the world. It would be difficult for anyone to conclude that they were contemporaries in Egypt. Secondly, the second part of Midrash Numbers Rabbah is based on Midrash Tanhuma that dates from the 9th century CE. This post-Islamic dating refutes the position that Midrash Numbers Rabbah was the “source” of Prophet’s alleged error.

Allah knows best!