The Torah is a revolutionary document. I did not realize this while studying the Book of Genesis in yeshiva-day school. But by the time I was in college majoring in Comparative Religion and History, I realized the contrast between the Torah’s cosmology and that of the other religions in the Middle East 3,500 years ago.
The contrast between our God of Creation in Genesis and the Babylonian gods could not be greater. The Babylonian Creation Epic the Enuma Elish describes how the world began with the mingling of the waters of the rivers (the god Apsu) with those of the sea (the goddess Tiamat). From their union land emerged and so the horizon and the sky itself, among the first of a series of births that in the epic culminates with the birth of the storm-God Marduk and his emergence as king of the gods and creator of human beings. This is a summation of the Enuma Elish found in The Oxford History of the Biblical World (1998) and composed by editor of the volume Michael D. Coogan.
The Torah revolution
How revolutionary is Genesis. In the Torah, God is a creator of the world of nature, including human beings as the apex of this creation. But God is not nature. While the Divine leaves an imprint on everything He has created, this is not pantheism (that nature and natural law is God). God is above nature and can manipulate it at His will. This is the precise definition of a miracle. The miracle is God’s manipulation of the regular order of the universe. Whether the Ten Plagues or the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea), there is no better description of God dominating nature to display that either the idolatry of nature is bogus or that God is a stronger force than the other gods of Israel’s enemies.
In the modern world, a troubling attempt to rationalize miracles has emerged. Instead of taking the words of the Bible text at face value and avoid the embarrassment of God’s power over nature, some pseudo-scholars have totally warped the meaning of miracles. Instead of Moses raising his staff and God turning the Nile to blood, this miracle is explained away as the natural penetration of silt along the river bank turning the Nile red.
The miracles continue with frogs abandoning the toxic Nile for dry land, causing the Egyptians to be inflicted with lice (although that is not how the Torah describes the origins of lice). So on and so on, those who try to rationalize the miracles explain the Ten Plagues as a series of causations, one plague responsible for the next.
Yet, the rationalizers run into a brick wall with the 10th, final and most devastating plague. After explaining the ninth plague of darkness as a sandstorm – they can’t explain why the Egyptians are in the dark and the Hebrews are not – those who try to explain miracles as rational phenomena have no explanation how: “Toward midnight, I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle.” There is no rational explanation of this plague and the exemption of the Hebrew who spread lamb’s blood on the houses and would be spared. There is no way the 10th plague could be a natural phenomenon that was solely manipulated by the timing of God in assaulting Egypt with this plague.
ANOTHER MIRACLE that is an embarrassment to those who try to remove the supernatural nature of God’s work is the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. This miracle allowed the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptians and lead to their defeat when God caused the Egyptians to drown.
The Torah text in Exodus is clear: “The waters were split and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” This was not low tide that enables the Israelites to cross the sea. It was a wall all on either side. In other words, it was a miracle, God’s manipulation of nature. It was not high tide that destroyed the pursuing Egyptians. They drowned when the miraculous wall of water engulfed them.
Whether you believe in miracles or not, if you a materialist and a pantheist who does not believe in a God who manipulates the nature he created, please refrain from updating the miracles. The Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea represent the power of a God who took on an empire, defeating them and their god, liberated a slave people and redeemed them. The Nile was a god. God defeated the Nile. The sun was a god – God’s darkness defeated that Egyptian god. Finally, the semi-divine Pharaoh suffered death in his palace. His superior troops and chariots drowned in the sea.
The attempt to jibe science with the Torah in the case of miracles is a pathetic attempt to legitimize the Torah by explaining God’s power as science. Believe in the Creator God of Genesis or not. You can believe that God can manipulate nature or not. Believe in miracles or not but don’t dilute the Redemption of our ancestors by trying to jam the text of the Torah into a scientific tract.
The Creation, Redemption and Sinai Revelation represent the revolutionary nature of the Torah. The Ten Plagues and the Miracle of the Sea are the work of a God who judges the tormentors of His people, proves His strength over other gods who were deemed invincible and proved to the Israelites that although they had been ground down as slaves, the God of their Ancestors was a force that would save them. Science is science.
Whether one accepts the Hebrew Bible as Holy Writ or not, the Torah is the foundation of our civilization and diluting it by not taking it at its word weakens the power of the Israelite revolution.
The writer is a rabbi, essayist and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida. He took verses translated from the Etz Chayim Chumash (2001 edition).