‘Hand of God in Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea,’ wall painting from the Dura-Europas synagogue in Syria.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What are we to make of miracles? Baruch Spinoza denied the existence of miracles. The father of modern philosophy was a pantheist who did not believe in a God of Revelation. For Spinoza, the immutable, unchanging and perfect laws of nature were divine. There could be no interference in nature.
And that is precisely what a miracle is – God interfering in the laws of nature to aid a Chosen People established through Revelation. Spinoza broke with thousands of years of history of Jewish thought by equating Nature with God.
Then there are those Jews who want to explain miracles such as the Ten Plagues as the result of natural phenomena. For example, the Nile turned red in the first plague because silt from the banks of the river eroded and changed the color of the river, which in turn led to frogs escaping for land because of the aquatic disaster which in turn led to an infestation of vermin. The later plague of darkness is explained as a severe sandstorm. But those who want to rob miracles of their supernatural origins run into a problem with the last plague. There is simply no way to explain the striking down of the Egyptian first-born as a natural phenomenon. It is simply a miracle and there is no way to deny that except through the denial of the reality of miracles.
There is the same issue with the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds. The miracle that saved the Israelites and destroyed the Egyptians pursuing them has been explained away as a natural act.
According to those who try to dismiss the supernatural aspect of this miracle, the Israelites crossed the sea at low tide and the pursuing Egyptians were drowned when the tide rose. This explanation should please no one. Obviously, it is an example of the reader of the Bible trying to salvage the integrity of the Scripture without resorting to belief in the reality of God and miracles.
But it fails to do justice to the Jewish notion of God as a God of History.
Whether one accepts miracles or not, a miracle is a confirmation of a living God who creates Nature and exists above Nature and can interfere in the natural order. Miracles are one component in explaining how the ancient Israelites understood their God. The attempt to strip miracles of their divine origin is pointless.
It simply converts the Bible into a secular text and a science manual – not holy teachings. The explanation of miracles as natural phenomena destroys the whole point of the miracles in the first place.
The God of Israel and the Bible is a God of History. While there are books in the biblical canon that focus on the universal aspects of the divine relationship with all people – the Book of Jonah is a prime example – the Bible’s narrative is a history of Israelite fidelity to the covenant forged at Sinai. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers. The God of Aristotle is a “prime mover” who sets the world in motion but has nothing to do with human concerns.
The Jewish understanding of God is of a being concerned with human conduct, a revealer who can interfere in the laws of nature, and a God of Covenant with a Chosen People. God chooses the Israelites as his people precisely because they a are a small, insignificant and enslaved nation. God hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt. God is concerned and redeems these slaves out of compassion and justice. The Ten Plagues and the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds were less a punishment of the Egyptians and more a divine demonstration for an Israelite nation that was demoralized and humiliated through years of enslavement. These miracles were the epitome of God acting as a God of History and concern, not a God equated with a cold, impersonal and indifferent Nature. The God of Israel is a God of relationship and empathy.
Believing in Spinoza’s God of Nature is a form of refuge that avoids troubling questions. If the God of the Jews is a God of empathy and concern, how do we explain the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the ages. How do we reconcile our belief in a God of History with a divine being who did not interfere with the mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Shoah? How do we explain the suffering of the righteous and the success of those who are evil? There are no answers but we must not be afraid to approach these questions and confront them and confront God. Once we sever Jewish destiny from the covenant we are no longer in the realm of Jewish faith and Jewish theology. Spinoza’s pantheism disqualifies him as a Jewish philosopher. So central is a God of History to Judaism that this concept cannot be simply discarded.
Miracles, whether you believe in them or not, are central to our understanding of God. Miracles are not natural but a violation of nature.
Without this interference in the natural order, all we are left with a God who is a cold and inert postulate.