© 2018 S.H. Parker
James L. Kugel writes:
Not long ago, I saw a book for sale that purported to tell what it called "the real story of the exodus." Written by an eminent British scientist, it provided logical explanations for the various biblical miracles involved, thus demonstrating, apparently, the veracity of the biblical account...
I suppose one ought to be sympathetic to such books, but I confess that whenever I start reading one (this was hardly the first), I find that I myself am engulfed by "a rapidly returning 'bore' wave [the British scientist's explanation given for the parting of the Sea of Reeds]." Why is it that, when the Bible reports on something miraculous - something that, it is at pains to claim, was the result of God's direct intervention into our world, a changing of the natural order - there are always people who try to say, often explicitly in "defense" of the Bible, that what happened really has a perfectly logical explanation? The answer, obviously, is that such people don't believe in miracles [or, as I would put it, are not in fact "people of faith"]. Instead, they hold that this world is a basically orderly place with its own immutable rules of operation, and that if something appears to have happened that contradicts those rules, then the people observing it must have simply failed to discern its real, natural cause, or they must have been the victim of some sort of mass delusion or clever trick or fata morgana. But if that is so, then there is a real problem here: If what the Israelites perceived as God's mighty intervention into human affairs was really just an unusual manifestation of the natural order, then is not their (and the Bible's) whole notion of God based on illusion? Isn't some notion of the miraculous necessary to the belief in a God who actually does things - answers prayers, speaks to prophets, and intervenes in human history? (How To Read The Bible, Free Press, 2007, pp. 221-2 - btw, a highly recommended read)
Nachmonides, the great 13th century exegete, makes acceptance of miracles one of his "Principles of Faith" (and, to his great credit, it must be observed that he has only three). He denies olam habah (the world to come) to deniers.
In fact, what the scientist mentioned does is attempt to show that the 10 Plagues are in a causal chain. The blood (algae, this scientist claims) caused the frogs to migrate out of the Nile and they died. The dead frogs attracted the flies. And so on....
Prof. Kugel quite rightly points out that these attempts to provide scientific explanations of events in the Bible repudiates the core "religious" idea that God is active in human history. And, as I have often observed, no "person of faith" would make such claims.
In fact, the creation stories in Bereishit (Genesis) are entirely about teaching that Elohim is the author of observed order, that Elohim is the master of nature. If God wants light, there will be light. If God wants it to rain, it will rain, until every known sewer system in the world is overwhelmed. If God does not want people to understand each other, they will start babbling different languages. If God wants a jackass to talk, it will talk (and, near as anyone can tell, they continue to do so, ad nauseum).
The Biblical narrative constantly asserts "God is the master of nature." The text constantly reminds us that something was done at the word of God or at the will of God or as a sign from God....
In fact, miracle-believers and miracle-apologizers and, even, miracle-deniers all miss a singular fact. The fact is that נס ("miracle") is used nowhere, I repeat nowhere, in the Torah. In fact, it isn't used in the Prophets or other writings either. נס cannot be found anywhere in the entire Bible.
Is the Bible itself denying (or refusing to acknowledge) miracles?
Far from it.
If God is the master of nature, then the very idea of a נס, a suspension of the "laws of nature," is simply meaningless. The very idea makes no sense and, therefore, has no place in the Torah's scheme of things or its metaphysics.
Just that simple....
If the idea נס is meaningless to Torah, what are we to make of the controversy about miracles?
The obvious conclusion, at least to me, is that the disputants just don't know what they're talking about.
But. Still, I don't know a single person who has not used the word "miracle."
מורימ חיח אומר (my teachers taught): The "laws" of nature are never suspended. None of the events we call "miracles" are unnatural or violations of the laws of nature. The Nile turns red. Frogs die. Flies swarm. Strong winds blow waters back. All of these things happen and there is nothing unnatural ("miraculous") about them.
What, then, is a "miracle?"
מורימ חיח אומר: What is miraculous is not the event. What is miraculous, if we feel the need to use that word at all, is the degree of the event. The Nile regularly turns red, from any of several causes, but never to the extent it did when Moses touches it with his staff. What is miraculous, if we feel the need to use that word at all, is the timing of the event. The Nile regularly turns red, from any of several causes, but precisely at the moment Moses touches it with his staff?
A "miracle" is the unexpected not the unnatural. It is unexpected in its degree (extent) or it is unexpected in its timing. Or it is unexpected in both its degree and its timing. And, if you analyze your own use of the word, you'll find that this is exactly what you mean: "I really, really, really didn't expect that."