Miracles in the Bible in the Eyes of out Thinkers

In the Bible, extraordinary, miraculous occurrences — called wonders and signs — are performed by God in times of great crisis. In the ancient world, it was popular and accepted thinking that one's deity intervened in the ordinary course of events as an expression of that's deity's will and purpose. Writes Alan Arkush, in the introduction to his article "Miracles":

"The Bible reports the wondrous ways in which God redeemed Israel from slavery, gave it a law and a land, and guided its subsequent life as a nation. It tells us, on occasion, how the Israelites reacted when God performed signs and wonders for their sake. Observing the Egyptians dead upon the seashore, for instance, "Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord, and in His servant Moses".[1] The "wilderness generation" saw and believed. Later generations are expected to believe without having seen. It is true, of course, that "in every generation a man is obligated to see himself as if he had gone forth from Egypt," [2] but that is an obligation he can shoulder only if he already has faith in the veracity of the biblical reports…"[3]

Abraham laughing
Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split .[2]

The biblical miracles are unquestionably accepted by the sages of the Talmud; that they contradict the natural order of nature is explained by the fact that they were preordained and provided for — even as unnatural acts — in the act of creation. Later commentators begin to question this thinking, interpreting biblical miracles as natural phenomena, as figurative manners of speech, or by redefining the conception of "miracle" altogether.

In medieval times, rationalists Jewish philosophers like Maimonides (1135-1204; Spain, Egypt; most of his life in Egypt) and Gersonides (1288-1344, France) proposed a new definition of the miracle, according to which the essence of the miracle does not lie in its being contradictory to nature, but in its having a particular significance in history. Moses Maimonides sought to explain biblical wonders, to the extent possible, in accordance with the natural order, but was prepared to invoke God's supernatural power where naturalistic explanations seemed hopelessly irreconcilable with the biblical text. Gersonides (1288-1344) stated that miracles cannot be of regular occurrence for that would signify a defect in the natural order. Nahmanides (Ramban; 1194-1270, Spain), on the other hand, disputed Maimonides' rationalist conception of miracles, viewing miracles from a kabbalistic viewpoint as an immutable supernatural reality; according to Nahmanides, no man can share in the Torah of Moses unless he believes that all our history consists of miracles.

Later Jewish thinkers offered variant approaches. Spinoza (1632-1677; Holland), on the other hand, abandoned totally the idea of a God who could contravene nature; he rejected the credibility of the biblical miracles as he viewed natural law as inviolable.

S. D. Luzzatto (1800-1865, Italy) attacked the rational approach of the Jewish philosophers of his day, affirming the historicity of the miracles in the Bible. Samuel Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) in his Die Religionsphilosophie der Juden (1842) also upheld the historicity of the miracles recorded in the Bible, while stressing that it was the moral and educational value and not the miraculous incident which was of significance. In the biblical period, he wrote, God revealed Himself to Israel by means of miracles in order to demonstrate that He was above nature and that nature was not omnipotent. Moses Mendelssohn maintained that the truth of any religion can be proved only if it can be upheld by reason; without rejecting the possibility of miracles, Mendelssohn stressed that Judaism did not appeal for belief to the authority of miracles but to that of direct revelation witnessed by the entire people.

Among modern Jewish thinkers, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel returned to the biblical notion that miracles signify God's presence. Rosenzweig (1886-1929; Germany) believed, as did Maimonides, that the miracles of the Bible were built into the scheme of things from creation, hence, they were part of the natural order; they were miraculous because of the significant role they played in history. Buber (1878-1965; Austria, Israel), too, stressed that no miracle is contrary to nature, and that the essential element in the miracle is "our receptivity to the eternal revelation." Heschel (1907-1972; Poland, U.S.) stressed the same points, speaking of "the legacy of wonder"[4] or "radical amazement" to describe the sense of mystery and awe that he attributed to biblical figures.

Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983; Lithuania, US) differed from his contemporaries in his rationalist approach, moving beyond the the medieval philosophers by denying any validity to the miracle, insofar as it supposedly goes against natural law (as explained by modern physics). While rejecting the literalness of the miracle, Kaplan saw in the concept that God performs miracles for the sake of the righteous an important idea that has value for modern man, namely, the idea of responsibility and loyalty to what is right.


[1] Exodus 14:31 [back]
[2] Passover Haggada [back]
[3] Allan Arkush, "Miracle" in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, editors, Contemporary Jewish Religous Thought (New York; The Free Press, 1987) p. 621. [back]
[4] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959), p. 43. [back]


Encyclopedia Judaica, Vols. 11-12 (Keter Publications, 1973)

Philip Birnbaum, Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1998)

Allan Arkush, "Miracles," in: Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Medes-Flores, editors, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original essays on Critical concepts, movements, and beliefs (New York: The Free Press, 1987), pp. 621-625.



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