How Should We Understand Miracles in Scripture?

Image: A donkey with his mouth open, reminiscent of Balaam’s talkative ass. (Numbers 22)

Jonathan Lace wrote an excellent question in reply to Please God, Please Heal Her:” 

My wife and I were discussing this topic just the other day. We both recognize that there is a tradition of the miraculous healing in both Jewish and Christian tradition. But we live in a post-scientific age. So either (1) God does not intervene and miracles in the Bible are just misunderstood natural events, (2) God does intervene, with miracles, some of which could be described in the Bible. But doesn’t the knowledge that science gives us relativize what we can say about whether or not miracles have occurred? 

I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green speak about conflict between science and religion. He said that the forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other against Biblical criticism. Religion lost both battles. He went on to say that if both science and religion are a search for truth, then perhaps it is more useful to consider that they are concerned with different aspects of human experience, and therefore with different truths.  (If you are curious about Rabbi Green’s views, I recommend his book, Radical Judaism.)

Anyone who attempts to use the Torah as a physics or biology text will have to choose between disappointment and delusion. Even when we read the text literally, it hints that it is not talking about the kind of truth one can establish with scientific method. The fact that houses and clothing can “catch” a “disease” in Leviticus 14 points towards the possibility that tzara’at is not a physical disease, for example.

Similarly, all the interesting theories attempting to establish natural causation for the plagues in Exodus are beside the point. It may be that volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean gave rise to experiences for which we have traces in the descriptions of the plagues. But the narrative is about a battle between two powers, Pharaoh and the strangely named god of Israel. Pharaoh rules the kingdom Mitzrayim (Egypt, but it translates nicely as “narrow place” in Hebrew). He keeps slaves and he hates foreigners. And since he is Pharaoh, a god on earth, no one dares argue with him about it. The god of Israel has a name that is four vowels; the deity’s name is a breath, and it is a form of the verb “to be.” The god of Israel wants the people to be free of Mitzrayim, free of Pharaoh. The newcomer god doesn’t keep slaves. This god is a life-affirming deity, insistent that the people called B’nai Israel [the children of Israel] will go out into the midbar, the wilderness, which is the exact opposite of a narrow place. Wonders happen. Things get broken. In the end, people die. The champion of freedom wins in the end, and the people go out into the wilderness, which scares the dickens out of them.

[If I have upset some readers by lower-casing the word “god” understand that I’ve done so to make a point, that in the Exodus narrative as written, Pharaoh is one of the gods of Egypt. A newcomer god fights with him over a bunch of slaves. I’m talking narrative here, not contemporary theology.]

If you read this story as a description of the ultimate values of the Jews, as what theologian Rabbi Michael Goldberg has called their “master narrative,” then the details of the plague are interesting only in the way that the details of special effects are interesting in a 21st century movie blockbuster. If the movie is any good, the special effects are not the point of the film. The plagues are not the point of the Exodus story. The point of the story is that the Jewish People understand themselves to be a people united with a deity who has taken them as partners in a project to heal the world. The values undergirding this project are freedom, loving-kindness, wisdom, goodness, truth, and more.

Yes, it is a chutzpadik [outrageous] idea. Notice, though, that under this master narrative, no one is obligated to buy into the Hebrew/God-of-Israel worldview. No one is blasted for failing to leave Egypt. At Sinai, where the deal is sealed (in another scene with great special effects) everyone enters the covenant freely. There are some midrashim that say otherwise, but notice that they are in effect minority opinions, not in the Torah itself. And in later centuries, while there’s no applause for a Jew who assimilates and simply leaves the project, no one is saying she will “go to hell,” either. She’s free to go, even as it pains us to see her go, because freedom is a key value. (Yes, some families will refuse to have anything to do with an apostate Jew. And others will still love them and have them to dinner.) As any rabbi tells people who inquire about conversion, they don’t have to become Jewish to be acceptable to God in the Jewish narrative.

OK, back to miraculous healings: I prefer to look at all supernatural goings-on in the text as special effects in the narrative. Maybe they are based in an experience someone couldn’t describe in other terms, or maybe they are there to make a particular point via metaphor. But the truth in the text requires me to work. I have to study the text, ask questions about it, dig around in it to find the values that lie underneath. I’m still free to argue with some aspects of those stories, such as the passages that seem to set women as unequal to men. For instance, I find it easier to read the Daughters of Zelophechad narrative than from the Lot’s Daughters narrative. But notice that in the rabbinic literature and since then, Lot’s daughters have come in for more nuanced readings. Many scholars have taken the trouble to look for underlying values in their story, difficult as it is. When I’m struggling with a text, I look to see what others have found in it.

It’s a truism that Judaism is more about doing than about belief.  Science is good at describing and explaining our world in such a way that we are able to manipulate it. I can’t and won’t speak for all religions. Judaism is about making choices about our actions, including those actions made possible by science. Judaism often uses narrative and metaphor to talk about those choices, thus our texts require study.

But really, are the texts of science any different? If you don’t bother to learn, a smartphone is a miracle, is it not?

Published by


Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

4 thoughts on “How Should We Understand Miracles in Scripture?”

  1. While there are many atheist friends of mine who dismiss Scripture as “impossible” because of the miracles described there, I have moved to an understanding of these stories in Scripture as metaphors that express underlying truths about the human condition. One of the reasons why my atheist friends dismiss it is because they insist on a literal interpretation of everything in the Tanakh, which, to me, misses the point.

    I am beginning to think that it’s arrogant for us to believe that we can understand everything. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try, but the fact is, we can’t see the ultraviolet or the infrared and couldn’t until we had the proper tools. When people assume that there is no G-d or that the stories in Scripture are nonsense because there’s no literal, empirical proof of their reality, it makes me think “How arrogant, to think that just because you are unable to see the proof – yet – means that it doesn’t exist.” In fact, science demands that we leave open the possibility that we are wrong, just in case there’s proof out there that we have not yet discovered due to not yet having the tools to find it.

    I think I might need to write a blog post about this issue at some point. You’ve set my brain on a train of thought that it apparently wants to ride to the next station.

      1. Frankly, Rabbi, I wish you were down here in the LA area, or that you had chat/skype sessions for folks who aren’t local. You have a great take on Judaism and just reading your blog has taught me a lot already, as a newcomer.

  2. Thanks for the mention, Rabbi! From a Catholic perspective, while I understand your point about “special effects” in Scripture, there are other episodes in the New Testament (and in the Hebrew Bible, besides Sinai/Horeb) which indicate miraculous events. Regardless of why that tradition is there, the fact is that there is a “miraculous” element in both Judaism and Christianity which claims that God can directly affect creation (without resorting to secondary/natural causes). In my own thinking, I’ve come to this conclusion: if science give us permanent pause in speaking about God’s ability to work miracles, then Catholics can no longer say that event x is miraculous. All we can say is that x could be miraculous or it could be completely natural. But the biblical traditions don’t really seem like they were intended to understood in such a relativized way. Thus, since science does give us pause, but also since I’ve heard of “miraculous” healings in people’s lives, I’m tending more to just rely on one simple idea: ‘We know that for the ones loving God, all things work together for good.” (Rom. 8:28). That’s an affirmation that whatever may come, whatever the true status of miracles, however many “no”s come in response to my prayers, the mere fact of God’s being provides some sort of default destiny for those who are searching for the truth in all things. That’s my definition of “Catholic”, btw: one who searches for the truth in all things. (“catholic” from the Greek kata’holos – “according to the whole). And I’m at peace with that.

    p.s. I take issue with your claim…”The god of Israel wants the people to be free of Mitzrayim, free of Pharaoh. The newcomer god doesn’t keep slaves” in light of Exodus 21, Lev. 25 and other related passages. In those passages, it’s not so much that God wants freedom for all people, but rather that He wants freedom for the Israelites. I think we have to recognize that these discussions were colored by the biases of the writers, and slavery has nothing to do with God whatsoever. So any claims about God and slavery must come from other sources (other texts, our own intuition, etc.).

Leave a Reply