What Makes Something a Miracle?
What is a Miracle?
Although commonly perceived as playing an integral part of the biblical narrative, the question of how to define a miracle was and still is a matter of debate. There is no fixed term for “miracle” in the Tanach. In fact, the word נס (nes), which is the common word for miracles in later Hebrew, in the Tanach bears the meaning of “a flag” rather than “miracle.” Any reader wishing to prepare a list of all the miracles in the Hebrew Bible will not be able to do so by using the concordance. He or she will have to first define what a miracle is and then, according to this definition, try to locate the various miracles.
According to biblical scholar Yair Zakovitch (Hebrew University), a miracle is “an extraordinary occurrence, attributable to God’s hand, which leaves a marked impression in the text.” Such miracles may, at times, disrupt the order of creation. Recognizing that this definition contains subjective terms such as “extraordinary” and “marked,” Zakovitch adds to his definition a number of “control mechanisms,” such as:
- An advance announcement by a messenger of YHWH;
- The extraordinary nature of the miraculous action, with regard both to its duration and place;
- The subsequent restoration of the status quo ante;
- The specification of the miracle’s theological objective; and
- When a miracle encompasses only a certain well-defined group and bypasses another.
Biblical scholar Rimon Kasher (Bar-Ilan University) is less interested in defining miracles than in cataloguing different types of miracles:
- Miracles announced in advance and worked solely by the human agent, (i.e. the miracle worker only announces, but does not perform the miracle);
- Miracles performed by the human miracle-worker in accordance with precise instructions by God;
- The initiative for the miracle comes from a human agent but its implementation is ascribed to God;
- Both the initiative and the implementation are assigned exclusively to the miracle-worker.
Integrating the results of the above-mentioned studies may help us to understand properly the miracle narratives in Exodus and in the Hebrew Bible as a whole.
Miracles in Beshalach
Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13–17) contains several well-known stories that many commentators consider miracles, including:
- The splitting of the Red Sea (Exod 14–15);
- The manna from heaven (and the quail) (Exod 16);
- The victory in the battle against Amalek (Exod 17).
These join other miracles performed by Moses and Aaron in Egypt.
Some scholars have tried to understand the first two miracle stories as embellishments of natural phenomena. They call attention to the reference in the account of the parting of the sea to a strong wind that may have caused the corridor of dry land (14:21). The manna (ch. 16) has been “identified” by various scholars of this school of thought as a host of different “desert foods” such as tamarisk resin, the honeydew of scale insects, the thali of lichens, etc.
I am interested in the stories as they are told, however, not in exploring their theoretical historical underpinnings. From the presentation of these stories in the Bible, Zakovitch’s definition, noted above, seems to suit the first two “miracle stories” in Exodus 13–17 well. They are both extraordinary occurrences attributable to God’s hand. In addition, the story of the splitting of the Red Sea vividly describes the impression that the miracle left on its recipients:
שׁמות יד:לא וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ־הוָה בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּי־הוָה וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ.
Exod 14:31 And when Israel saw the wondrous power which YHWH had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared YHWH; they had faith in YHWH and His servant Moses.
Insofar as Zakovitch’s control mechanisms for identifying miraculous occurrences, a number of them come to play in these stories as well.
Advance announcement (#1) – Both the splitting of the Sea (14:16) and the manna are announced beforehand by Moses (16:6–8).
Extraordinary in their time and place (#2) – Dry land appears in the middle of the sea at the exact moment the Israelites need to cross (14:21–22), and manna appears in the desert only as long as Israel wanders in it. (The end of this story appears in Josh 5:12; upon Israel’s entry into the Promised Land and their celebration of the first Pesach, the manna stops falling.)
Restoration of the status quo ante (#3) – When Israel finishes crossing the sea, the dry land disappears, returning the spot to its previous state (14:26–28); the same occurs with the manna, which stops falling once Israel leaves the desert.
Specified theological objective (#4) – God tells Moses specifically (14:18) that the miracle of the sea will occur so Egypt will know that He is YHWH. Similarly, Moses and Aaron announce to the people that, with the falling of the manna, they will know that YHWH took them out of Egypt and they will see YHWH’s glory (16:6–7).
Encompasses only a defined group (#5) – In the splitting of the sea, once the Israelites pass, even though the Egyptians are using the land-bridge, the bridge disappears, drowning the Egyptian army (14:28–29).
Finally, turning to Kasher’s catalogue, we can see that both miracles follow the second model. Moses announces the miracles, but he does not do anything without God’s command and follows exactly God’s instructions.
Was the Defeat of Amalek Miraculous?
In short, the splitting of the sea and the manna stories are clearly miracle stories. What is less clear, however, is whether the story of the battle between Israel and Amalek (Exod 17:8–16), narrates a miracle. In that battle Joshua leads the army to victory. At the same time, Moses, accompanied by Aaron and Hur, climbs up a mountain and Moses lifts his arms:
שׁמות יז:יא וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר יָרִים מֹשֶׁה יָדוֹ וְגָבַר יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכַאֲשֶׁר יָנִיחַ יָדוֹ וְגָבַר עֲמָלֵק.
Exod 17:11 Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.
As Moses’ arms tire, Aaron and Hur begin to hold them up, and they remain raised throughout the battle (v. 12). Presumably, this is somehow connected to the defeat of Amalek.
When analyzing the details of the story, certain aspects remain unclear: Who won the war against Amalek? Was it Joshua and the army? Was it Moses inspiring the people? Was it God, whom Moses represents with his outstretched arms on the mountain? The story does end with God promising to wipe Amalek off the face of the earth and to battle with them for eternity, so perhaps we are to attribute this initial victory to God as well. On the other hand, the text also explicitly states that Joshua defeated Amalek by the sword and that Moses picked the troops and that his hands remained “steady” (the text uses the surprising word – אמונה [emunah], literally “faithful”) throughout the battle.
All in all, the text seems rather ambiguous regarding who to credit for the defeat of Amalek. God? Joshua? Moses? Some combination of all three? Finally, although it would not be unusual for the miracle to be a combination of God and a human agent, here there seems to be two human agents doing different things: Moses with his hands in the air and Joshua leading the battle. There is no reason per se that a miracle cannot be performed by two different human agents, but it would be unusual, perhaps unique, in the biblical narrative.
The Battle with Amalek: A Blend of Models
The story probably preserves a blend of models with regard to the question of the identity of the miracle-worker. Modern scholars, well aware of this problem, suggest that this blend is the result of a combination of different sources (J or E) or different traditions that were incorporated into Exodus 17. The Rabbis, however, also seem aware of the problem but take a different approach. The Mechilta, for instance, appears to be grappling with this very problem:
וכי ידיו של משה מגברות את ישראל או ידיו שוברות את עמלק? אלא כל זמן שהיה משה מגביה את ידיו כלפי מעלה היו ישראל מסתכלין בו ומאמינין במי שפיקד את משה לעשות כן והקב”ה עושה להם נסים וגבורות.
Now could Moses’ hands make Israel victorious, or could his hands break Amalek? It merely means this: When Moses raised his hands toward heaven, the Israelites would look at him and believe in Him who had commanded Moses to do so; then God would perform for them miracles and mighty deeds ” (Mechilta Amalek 1 on Exod 17:11).
This midrash connects the prayer to God with human initiative. Thus, in this reading, God – rather than Moses – is the savior of Israel in response to their prayers. The rabbis understand the word emunah as prayer, thus relating the miracle completely to God. If we were to ask them who the performer of the miracle is, they would answer that is it solely God. The role of Moses in this miracle is merely to pray to God.
Who Split the Sea?
Interestingly, even the stories that clearly fit into the rubric of miracle stories contain problematic ambiguities relating to their miraculous nature. Looking again at the account of the splitting of the sea (Exod 14), a somewhat different problem emerges. It is Moses who splits the sea with the miraculous rod, in consonance with God’s command—Kasher’s model two. However, in the Song of Sea (Exod 15), Moses is not even alluded to (other than as the singer)! In that version, it is God alone who splits the sea and kills the Egyptians, it is God’s hand, not that of Moses, that stretches out over the sea. God acts alone, without a human agent. Kasher doesn’t even list such an option, but here it is.
Scholars explain this inconsistency between chapters 14 and 15 in various ways. One approach is to argue that the Song of the Sea in chapter 15 is original and ancient while chapter 14 is a later version. In other words, these scholars believe that there was an early tradition about God drowning the Egyptians in the sea which knew nothing about Moses, and that this ancient song was included in the text of the Torah, even though the Torah’s narrative clearly identifies Moses as the key player in the story.
I would like to suggest the opposite. I suggest that the basic “original” or early story is that which was told in Exodus 14, and that Moses is an integral part of it. In Exodus 15, however, we find the first step in the process of denying the miraculous acts from Moses and assigning them completely to God.
The next step in the process of divesting Moses of his miracles is found in the Book of Psalms. In several psalms which retell the Egypt story (66; 78; 136), there is no mention of Moses. Again, the miracles are assigned solely to God. The final step can be found in the Passover Haggadah. In this book, Moses’ name is not mentioned at all, even while the entire work is dedicated to the story of the exodus.
The Multivocality of Miracles
The narratives in Exodus 14–17 detail (at least) three miracles. Although some scholars have tried to understand these stories as embellishments of natural phenomena, I try to take a phenomenological approach. In other words, to me the issue is what in the narrative (not what in history) makes a story a miracle story? What was the significance of these miracles for the biblical narrators and their readers?
In surveying only the three miracles of the sea, the manna and Amalek, we found that the biblical text contains a variety of theological views regarding the identity and role of miracle-workers and the interrelationship between God and humanity. Some texts emphasize the role of Moses; others limit it significantly; others still ignore it altogether. Some of the traditions emphasize God’s role in Israel’s history while others emphasize the part of man. The Torah, in its multivocality, includes all of these perspectives, placing them side by side with each other in the same book, sometimes even in the same story.
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January 6, 2014
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Prof. Michael Avioz is Associate Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan University. Avioz’s books include Nathan’s Oracle (2 Samuel 7) and Its Interpreters, I Sat Alone: Jeremiah among the Prophets, and Josephus’ Interpretation of the Books of Samuel. His forthcoming book is Legal Exegesis of Scripture in the Works of Josephus (Bloomsbury).
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