Did Jews Kill Their Own Prophets? – OpEd


When Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, many people blamed Islam or Muslims in general; but when a white Christian, like Dylann Roof,  a self-avowed white supremacist who, in June 2015, killed nine black worshippers during a Church Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, nobody blamed Christianity or white Christians in general. 

We have a lot to learn from the Qur’an’s use, and some tafsir scholars misuse, of the accusation that “The Jews Killed The Prophets”.

A good insight provided by the Islamic tradition is the statement found in the Hadith collections of Musnad Ahmad and Tabarani that God sent 124,000 prophets to humanity. This very large number comes from the Islamic tradition; which is based on only one man–Prophet Muhammad, who transmitted only one Sacred Scripture– the Qur’an.

The “124.000 prophets” number flows from the Qur’an’s teaching that God sent one or more prophets to every human society in the world, from smallest to largest, to teach them in their own language: “We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them. (Qur’an 14:4)

Since there are over 7.000 languages currently spoken, and another 10,000+ that were spoken over the previous 6,000 years and are now extinct, all human societies have been taught the way God wants each of them to conduct their Divine worship (21:25), and the behavioral rules they should observe (16:90-92).

And since only a few on-going monotheistic religions are known to us, the vast majority of Allah’s prophets were either ignored, rejected or killed by their own people. Even if only 1% of the prophets were actually killed by their countrymen; that would mean 1240 prophets were killed.

The only time in Jewish history of mass persecution of God’s Prophets occurred was in the  lifetime of Prophet Elijah (I Kings 19:14) who told God: “I have been very jealous for the LORD; for [many of]  the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I, only I am left; and they seek to take my life away.”

Since the Jews were well known to have received over 50 different prophets we should not be surprised that the Qur’an states nine times that even the Jews killed prophets. For example “And when it is said to them (Jews), “Believe in what Allah has sent down,” they say, “We believe in what was sent down to us [the Torah].” And they disbelieve in that which came after it [Gospel and Qur’an], while it is the truth confirming what is with them [the Torah]. Say (O Muhammad to them): “Why then have you killed the Prophets of Allah afore time, if you indeed were believers?” (2:9, also see 2:61, 3:112, 3:31 and 3:183)

The statement that Jews killed the prophets also appears three times in the New Testament: Jesus  said “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.”  (Luke 13:34);  Paul writes that the Jews “killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets…” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); and the Book of Acts reports Stephen as declaring, just before his martyrdom: “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One [Jesus].” (Acts 7:52)

And of course there was the actual example in the Gospels of the Jewish King Herod as a Prophet killer. The Herodians had already done away with Jesus’ cousin Prophet John when he criticized their personal family affairs (Mark 6:17-29). Now “King Herod heard [reports about Jesus’ healing and teaching] for Jesus’ name had become [well] known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers work in him [Jesus].” But others said, “It is Elijah.”  And others said, “It is a prophet like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has returned to life.” (Mark 6:14-16)

Over the centuries these verses have been used, frequently by many Christians and occasionally by some Muslims who hated Jews, to incite and justify attacks on the local Jewish communities of their own days. So it is important to explain both the Christian and the Islamic verses. I will also explain four additional verses that make a similar charge that come from the Hebrew Bible itself.

There are two narratives in the Hebrew Bible that relate how a Jewish king killed a specific prophet: The first is in 2 Chronicles and involves Zechariah son of Jehoiada the high priest who lived in the days of King Joash of Judah (ruled 835-796): “The spirit of God then invested Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood up before the people and said, ‘God says this, “Why transgress God’s commands to your certain ruin? For if you abandon God, he will abandon you.” They then plotted against him and, at the king’s order, stoned him in the courtyard  of the Temple of God.” (2 Chronicles 24:20-21).

The second narrative appears in the Book of Prophet Jeremiah, during the reign of King Jehoiakim (ruled 609-598): “There was another man, who used to prophesy in God’s name, Uriah son of Shemaiah, from Kiriath-Jearim. He prophesied exactly the same things against this city and this country as Jeremiah. When King Jehoiakim with all his officers and all the chief men heard what he said, the king decided to put him to death. “On hearing this, Uriah took flight and escaped to Egypt. King Jehoiakim, however, sent Elnathan son of Achbor to Egypt with others, who brought Uriah back from Egypt and took him to King Jehoiakim, who had him put to the sword and his body thrown into the common burial ground.” (Jeremiah 26:20- 23).

Then there is the actual source of the exaggerated slander that ‘the Jews killed prophets’ found in the Biblical Book of Nehemiah which tells the story of Nehemiah’s role in the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the return of the Babylonian exiles. After rebuilding the city’s walls, Nehemiah gathers the Israelites  together and commands them to obey the Torah law.  A group of Levites [priests] then leads the people in a public confession. 

In describing the past sins of Israel the Levites declare, among other things: “They grew disobedient, rebelled against you [God] and thrust your Torah behind their backs; and they slaughtered your prophets who had reprove them to bring them back to you, and committed monstrous impieties” (Nehemiah 5:26).

Thus, these Levite priests dramatically and slanderously blamed Jews in general, for the specific sins of two Jewish Kings and their advisors and agents. Many religious leaders in various different religions are outraged by the sins and evils that powerful people can do; and in their anguish spread the blame much too broadly.

The worst time of attacks on God’s prophets was the time of Prophet Elijah. Prophet Elijah tells God (I Kings 19:14): “I have been very jealous for the LORD; for [many of]  the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and slain your  prophets with the sword; and I, only I am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

Almost all Rabbis, Priests, and Imams would agree with this expressed aspirational judgement from the Talmud: “Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of his family and fails to do so is punished for the family’s wrongdoings.  Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of her fellow citizens and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the people of the city. Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of the world and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the world.” (Shabbat 54b)

But this principle should not be taken literally; or applied to others while not being applied to ourselves; which would  be called Collective Blame Hypocrisy; and as the Qur’an warns us hypocrites are among the worst of sinners. Also in non-democratic societies it is a cruel slander to blame the masses of the people for not openly opposing the evil actions of people of great wealth and power. Finally, while it is true that family members do often suffer for the sins of one family member, no individual person in the world suffers for the sins of all the world’s wrong-doers.

Perhaps Avtalion, a first century B.C.E. rabbi had this over-exaggerated slander in mind when he said: “Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and are called to a place where the waters of learning are impure, and the disciples that come after you drink of them and die; and the Heavenly Name is consequently profaned (Pirkei Avot 1:11)  

A generation after Avtalion there was a third example of a Jewish King: Herod, as a killer. For the Herodians killed Jesus’ cousin John, when he criticized their personal family affairs. (Mark 6:17-29).

So this trope had reappeared  in the New Testament charges; and later in the Qur’an. Yet we know that the actions of the polytheist assassins in Mecca who tried to kill Prophet Muhammad, are never blamed on the Arabs in general, or even on the Meccans or the Quraysh in general.

Islamic historians explain that the Meccan leaders decided Prophet Muhammad should be killed. They agreed that one man should be chosen out of every tribal clan, and each man should strike a blow at Prophet Muhammad with his sword, so that blood-guilt would rest equally on all the tribes. Thus the Bani Hashim, Muhammad’s own clan, would not be able to take revenge for their kinsman’s death.

A number of noble youths were selected for the bloody deed. At night the assassins posted themselves at the Prophet’s dwelling. They watched all night long, waiting to murder Prophet Muhammad when he should leave his house at the early dawn. But the Prophet had been warned of the danger, and he directed ‘Ali to lie down in Prophet Muhammad’s place and wrap himself up in his green cloak, which ‘Ali did. The Prophet then escaped through a window and went to the house of Abu Bakr, unperceived by the conspirators assembled at the Prophet’s door.

The assassins looked through a crevice and seeing ‘Ali, whom they mistook for Muhammad himself, asleep, continued watching until morning. When ‘Ali arose, they found themselves deceived. The news that the would-be assassins had returned unsuccessful, and that Muhammad had escaped, aroused widespread anger. A price of a hundred camels was set upon Prophet Muhammad’s head. (Tabaqatul Kubra, vol. I, pp. 227-228 and Seerah Ibn Hisham, vol. I, pp. 480-482.)

Now the Qur’an does not say the Arabs in Mecca should be blamed for attempting to kill Prophet Muhammad but states simply: “And [remember, O Muhammad], when those who disbelieved plotted against you to restrain you, or kill you, or evict you [from Mecca]. But they plan, and Allah plans. And Allah is the best of planners. (8:30)

People should learn from this verse in the Qur’an; that it is a terrible slander to blame a whole people or religion for the horrible sins of some political leaders, or even the sins of lots of individual people. As the Qur’an states: “Why, when you heard it, did you not say: ‘It is not for us to speak of this. Exalted are You; this is a great slander?'” [Quran 24:16] For slander is worse than adultery, because slander ruins the basis of unity, compassion, intimacy and good opinion in society, which damages our human society severely.  

As the rabbis say: “Slander is worse than the three cardinal sins of murder, forbidden sexual relationships and idol worship.” (Talmud Arakhin 15b) So “Whoever slanders has no place in the world to come.” (Pirkei Derabi Eliezer 53, 127a) Thus the following prayer from the Talmud (Berakhot 17a) is recited  three times a day, all year long: “O Lord, Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile.”

The Qur’an itself states the wide-spread rejection of Allah’s Prophets: “The people of Noah denied [the Prophets sent] before them, and the companions of the well, and Thamud,  and ‘Aad, and Pharaoh; and the brothers of Lot, the companions of the thicket, and the people of Tubba’. All denied the messengers, [sent to them] so My threat was justly fulfilled [and they were destroyed]” (50:12-14)

And Islamic traditions contain many details of these and other rejections alluded to in the Qur’an. For example: Hayat Al-Qulub, in his first volume of  “Stories of the Prophets” writes that; Ibn Babawayh, al-Qutb al-Rawandi and Thalabi in his book ‘Arais’ have recorded from Imam al-Ka¨im that the People of Al-Ras consisted of two groups. They inhabited a village and possessed a large number of sheep.

Prophet Salih sent a Prophet towards them. The people of Al-Ras murdered him. Another Prophet was sent in his place and he too was killed. A third Prophet also met with the same fate. Then a Prophet was sent along with an assistant (wali) When they also put to death this Prophet, the wali exhausted all proofs on them and [failing to convert them] called out to the fish that was worshipped by those people. The fish emerged from the sea and came to the land and lay beside the wali. The Ras people still denied him. So Allah sent a whirl-wind towards them that lifted up all the people and their sheep and tossed them into the sea. Thus the generations of this nation became extinct. The above incident has been mentioned in the account of Salih.”  

Although the Al-Ras people killed four different prophet they are never used as an example of a people who killed  the prophets. And although the Qur’an contains more verses than the Gospels that refer to the ‘Jews killed the Prophets’ theme which produced many incidents in Europe when Jew hating priests used the Easter season to preach violence against the local Jewish community; I do not know of any similar anti-Jewish activities that were stimulated by the ‘Jews killed the Prophets’ theme in Muslim lands.

When later generations of rabbis realized that charging the Jewish People with ‘killing the prophets’ was being used by Jew-haters to incite non-Jews to attack Jews, they started explaining the on going oppression, and current persecutions of Jewish communities, by blaming their Jewish ancestors for a different past event; the incident of the golden calf. As the Talmud states: “There is not a misfortune that [the People of] Israel has suffered which is not partly a retribution for the sin of the [golden] calf” (Sanhedrin 102a).

 All of this focus on the few cases of Jewish rulers persecuting and sometimes even killing Jewish Prophets ignores the larger truth that history shows that the great majority of Israel’s prophets were not rejected [although most prophets were ignored by most people]; and even more amazing preserved the teachings of their very critical prophets. This is why more than 15 prophetic books have been preserved to this day. Indeed, an even more amazing example of a prophet’s critic of a very powerful man is preserved in the Book of Prophet Samuel; which relates how and why many people later believed King David could become Prophet David.

“The Lord sent (Prophet) Nathan to (King) David. When [Prophet Nathan] came to King David, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one little lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man did not take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

King David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die because he did such a thing; and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. …I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? 

“You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own… “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you…You did it in secret, but I will do this thing [to you] in broad daylight before all Israel.'”

Then King David admitted [publicly before the whole court] to Prophet Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:1-25)  

The name Jedidiah means God’s beloved, and this indicated that God had not only forgiven David; but because David was the only ruling king [in Israel, and perhaps in the entire world] to be publicly rebuked by a prophet, who humbly confessed “I have sinned against the Lord”. And thus King David became Prophet David.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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