thinkers depended heavily upon Aristotle's philosophical systems of physics,
metaphysics, logic, astronomy, ethics, etc., and the Jewish thinker Rabbi
Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag; 1288-1344), known as Gersonides, was no exception.
In addition to commentaries on Aristotle and Averroes, he wrote works on
mathematics and astronomy, and commentaries on the bible, Talmud and liturgy.
Gersonides' Sefer Milhamot Adonai (The Book of the Wars of the Lord)
addresses the question of how miracles occur.
Because he has never witnessed a miracle, Gersonides bases his observations
on the biblical accounts. Adhering to Aristotle's thought, Gersonides
presents some basic assumptions, such as (1) God cannot intervene in nature,
(2) God cannot change His will, (3) Nature behaves in accordance with
laws. According to Gersonides, miracles cannot be a regular occurrence
since natural phenomena and laws regularly changing through miracles would
signify a defect in the natural order. Furthermore, an event that has
already taken place cannot be reversed miraculously as if it has not taken
place. Gersonides concludes that while God is the source of miracles,
miracles follow the laws of nature. If they seem magical to human beings
it is because these exceptional phenomena exist on a higher level of nature
than the level with which human beings are familiar and comfortable.
Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, 'Produce
your marvel,' you shall say to Aaron: Take your staff and throw it down
before Pharaoh: Let it become a serpent. Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh,
they did thus as God had commanded. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh
and before his servants, And it became a serpent.
For example, Gersonides
writes that the miracle of Moses' staff turning into a snake is just a
speeding up of what would happen to the staff in the normal course of
nature. Given enough time, the staff would have changed its properties
and turned into a snake anyway. The miracle is the instantaneous aspect
of the event,
". . . the turning
of a stick into a snake can be accomplished by natural processes over an extraordinarily
long period of time by the stick acquiring its form [i.e., of the snake] and
relinquishing [its own] form until it becomes a snake. The miracle is thus in
its being generated [i.e., the snake] without intermediary steps which normally
occur in the course of nature. . . . Nothing can be generated miraculously if
it cannot also be generated by natural process over an extended period of time."
that a prophet is always present when biblical miracles take place. The
prophet is able to predict the miracle, or else he brings it about through
prayer. Sometimes he performs the miracle himself, and sometimes it occurs
for his benefit. The prophet's perfected intellect allows him to commune
with the higher laws of nature that normal humans don't understand and
observes that the biblical miracles always have a purpose that forwards
a good cause or avoids a bad one, although the Exodus miracles puzzle
him: the Egyptians, although they witnessed the same miracles as the Israelites,
derived no good from them. Further, the Israelites did not seem to derive
as much good from the miracles as they should have: they remained a "stiff-necked
There are some restrictions
on the scope of miracles in God's creation: only the laws of nature are
affected by miracles, not logic or mathematics. And celestial bodies not
involved in miracles, thus the sun didn't really stand still as recorded
in Joshua 10.
Robert. Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People: A
study in Medieval Jewish Philosophy and Biblical Commentary (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1995).
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