Children of Israel, remember God’s favors that He had blessed you with, including the favor where He had made you excel among the nations. (If you take that for granted, then) you should protect yourself against the day (Day of Judgment) when no soul can assist another soul in the least, when no intervention will be allowed, when no compensation will be accepted, and when no one will be helped (i.e., every person is on his own!). Remember when God saved you from the Pharaoh who severely tormented you, killing your sons and sparing your women. This was a serious trial from God. Remember further when God parted the sea so as to save you while drowning the people of the Pharaoh as you looked on. And then God called to Moses (to instruct) for forty nights, and you took to a calf (as an object of worship) while he was away—you were unjust (and ungrateful)! Even after that God forgave so that you could be thankful. Then God gave Moses the Book (Torah) along with criteria to be guided by. (On his return) Moses said to his people, “My people, you have made a serious error in judgment in making the calf an object of worship. Therefore, turn to your Sustainer in repentance and correct yourself. This is the best for you with your Creator.” God forgave them, since He is ever forgiving and merciful.
God had favored Jewish people in many different ways, by saving them from the torment of the Pharaoh, providing provision in abundance from Heaven, assigning Moses and Aaron at the same time as prophets, and assigning many other prophets over time. Instead of being grateful to God, they consistently violated His rules and guidance, even in the presence of the prophets (e.g., their active animosity toward Jesus), and made unreasonable demands of God. The Jewish concept of “The Chosen People” and the Christian concept of “Total Redemption” are negated in these verses.
The story of making the calf an object of worship is also corroborated in Exodus, Chapter 32. The one difference between these two Books of revelation, and a significant one at that, is that the Bible puts the blame for the calf worship on Aaron, who himself was a Prophet. This assertion is not acceptable in Islam, as the Qur’an blames several of the leadership of the then-Jewish tribes, particularly a man named Samiri being the ring leader, for the calf worship.
The Torah (Old Testament) given to Moses is referred to here as the Book of criteria, which helps guide the Jewish people. It is part of the Muslim faith to accept the Torah as a Book of revelation, even though the accuracy of its content today may be questionable. Just like Jews have failed to follow their book, so have present-day Muslim masses and their leaders.
Too many Muslims have fallen into the mind-set of thinking they are the chosen or favored people of God, whereas God said consistently to all people—Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—that accountability will be based on our faith and good deeds and not purely on our individual affiliation with one of the religions and that there is no prior commitment to salvation or Heaven without accountability. As it has been stated in two different places in the Qur’an, calling ourselves Muslims, Jews, Christians, or followers of any other religion is not the determining factor for God’s mercy and forgiveness, but sincere faith in God and doing good things for our fellow men are.
As God reminds us so eloquently of, and in simple terms, that we all need to figure out how we will protect ourselves on the Day of Judgment, when we will be alone and nothing will be able to save us except for our sincere faith and good deeds, we must remember to place equal emphasis on both responsibilities. Good deeds, in effect, will provide proof of our faith. Unfortunately, with the rise of fundamentalism, orthodoxy, evangelical sentiments, and religious rights in all religions, there is an overemphasis on rituals and an arrogant demand for success and righteousness within the narrow definition of one’s religious faith.