Abbas - Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs
(They said: pray for us unto your Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is) whether she ploughs the soil or not. (Lo! Cows are much alike to us) we cannot distinguish much between cows; (and lo! If Allah wills, we may be led rightfully) to its fitting description; as it is said that this means: we may be led to the murder of 'Amil.
They said, ‘Pray to your Lord for us, that He make clear to us what she may be: does it graze freely or is it used in labour?; the cows (that is, the species described in the way mentioned), are all alike to us, because there are many of them and we have not been able to find the one sought after; and if God wills, we shall then be guided’ to it. In one hadīth [it is reported]: ‘Had they not uttered the proviso [inshā’a Llāh], it would never have been made clear to them’.
[They said, 'Pray to your Lord for us, that He make clear to us what she may be;] the cows are all alike to us, because of the multiplicity of cows with such descriptions, that is, the multipicity of the kinds of prepared individuals; but not every prepared one is a seeker, for, as they say, not every nature accepts and not every accepting one is a seeker and not every seeker is patient and not every patient one is a finder; and if God wills, we shall then be guided', to the sacrifice of this cow. Their saying 'if God wills' is evidence of their preparedness, knowing as they do that affairs are [always] dependent upon the will of God and facilitated by His granting of success; that is why the Messenger of God said, 'Had they not made it conditional [upon God's will], they would not have found her for all eternity'.
The Stubbornness of the Jews regarding the Cow; Allah made the Matter difficult for Them
Allah mentioned the stubbornness of the Children of Israel and the many unnecessary questions they asked their Messengers. This is why when they were stubborn, Allah made the decisions difficult for them. Had they slaughtered a cow, any cow, it would have been sufficient for them, as Ibn `Abbas and `Ubaydah have said. Instead, they made the matter difficult, and this is why Allah made it even more difficult for them. They said,
ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّنَ لَّنَا مَا هِىَ
(Call upon your Lord for us that He may make plain to us what it is!), meaning, "What is this cow and what is its description'' Musa said,
(He says, `Verily, it is a cow neither too old nor too young'), meaning, that it is neither old nor below the age of breeding. This is the opinion of Abu Al-`Aliyah, As-Suddi, Mujahid, `Ikrimah, `Atiyah Al-`Awfi, `Ata', Al-Khurasani, Wahb bin Munabbih, Ad-Dahhak, Al-Hasan, Qatadah and Ibn `Abbas. Ad-Dahhak reported that Ibn `Abbas said that,
عَوَانٌ بَيْنَ ذلِكَ
(But (it is) between the two conditions) means, "Neither old nor young. Rather, she was at the age when the cow is strongest and fittest.'' In his Tafsir Al-`Awfi reported from Ibn `Abbas that,
(bright in its colour) "A deep yellowish white.''
(pleasing the beholder) meaning, that it pleases those who see it. This is also the opinion of Abu Al-`Aliyah, Qatadah and Ar-Rabi` bin Anas. Furthermore, Wahb bin Munabbih said, "If you look at the cow's skin, you will think that the sun's rays radiate through its skin.'' The modern version of the Tawrah mentions that the cow in the Ayah was red, but this is an error. Or, it might be that the cow was so yellow that it appeared blackish or reddish in color. Allah's knows best.
إِنَّ البَقَرَ تَشَـبَهَ عَلَيْنَا
(Verily, to us all cows are alike) this means, that since cows are plentiful, then describe this cow for us further,
وَإِنَّآ إِن شَآءَ اللَّهُ
(And surely, if Allah wills) and if you further describe it to us,
(He says, `It is a cow neither trained to till the soil nor water the fields') meaning, it is not used in farming, or for watering purposes. Rather, it is honorable and fair looking. `Abdur-Razzaq said that Ma`mar said that Qatadah said that,
(sound) means, "The cow does not suffer from any defects.'' This is also the opinion of Abu Al-`Aliyah and Ar-Rabi`. Mujahid also said that the Ayah means the cow is free from defects. Further, `Ata' Al-Khurasani said that the Ayah means that its legs and body are free of physical defects.
Also, Ad-Dahhak said that Ibn `Abbas said that the Ayah,
فَذَبَحُوهَا وَمَا كَادُواْ يَفْعَلُونَ
(So they slaughtered it though they were near to not doing it) means, "They did not want to slaughter it.''
This means that even after all the questions and answers about the cow's description, the Jews were still reluctant to slaughter the cow. This part of the Qur'an criticized the Jews for their behavior, because their only goal was to be stubborn, and this is why they nearly did not slaughter the cow. Also, `Ubaydah, Mujahid, Wahb bin Munabbih, Abu Al-`Aliyah and `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam said, "The Jews bought the cow with a large amount of money.'' There is a difference of opinion over this.
Maududi - Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi - Tafhim al-Qur'an
The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice a cow in order to rid them of the sanctity and worship of cow which they had adopted from the pagan nations around them. It was a test of their faith: if they really believed in Allah as their only Deity and did not make anyone or anything else the object of their worship, they should break the idol of their former worship with their own hands. But this proved to be a very hard test. They tried to evade and avoid the sacrifice because their belief in One God had not become firm as yet. They went on asking one detail after the other in order to put it off, but the more questions they asked the more they were driven into a tight corner. So much so that at last they were specifically told to sacrifice that very golden-coloured cow, which was being specially chosen for worship at that time. The Bible also mentions this incident, but does not tell how the Israelites tried to put it off by asking a number of unnecessary questions. (Please refer to Numbers, 19: 1-10).
“... a golden cow bright in color gladdening to beholders.” They said “Pray to your Lord for us that He make clear to us what she may be; the cows are all alike to us; and if God wills we shall then be guided.” Just as her [bright] color would have been perceived by the eyes the allusion here is to those of the people of the story ahl al-qiṣṣa whose witnessing overwhelms the hearts [of others] because of that which is clothed with the garment of invincibility jabarūt and made to rise from the witness of the unseen. One notices that someone like this is oblivious to human states and is overtaken by the remembrance of the Real. Thus in the transmitted tradition: The friends of God are those who when they are seen God is remembered.