The Nature of the Miraculous
Tanakh is replete with stories of Divine intervention into the lives of mankind. It speaks of miraculously talking serpents and donkeys, the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea, and the stopping of the sun by Yehoshua. There are many more mundane miracles, as well, such as those wrought by Elisha for lay individuals rather than the nation as a whole. These include the retrieving of a lost ax, the curing of a bitter stew, and the nourishing of a hundred men with but one loaf of bread. Other acts of Divine intervention might not even merit the name miracle, as Hashem aids the nation in battle or the like, without appearing to affect nature at all.
When does Hashem intervene in the world by suspending the natural order and when does He leave it intact? Is one method preferred over the other? Are supernatural miracles inherently different than ones which employ the forces of nature? Finally, what is the line between the natural and supernatural anyway?
The Mutability of Nature
It would seem that supernatural events, by definition, violate the laws of nature. This, though, begs the question: how mutable is nature? Once Hashem established the natural order, how fixed must it remain? On one hand, since Hashem is the one who created natural law, it might seem obvious that He, of course, can override it. On the other hand, if Hashem in unchanging and perfect, perhaps the laws He established must be unchanging and perfect as well. In addition, if natural law is subject to change, would that not undermine the entire order of the world?
The existence of miracles testifies to Hashem's providence over and interaction with the world. How encompassing, though, is this providence? Is every action of every individual guided from above? Or, did Hashem create the world, and leave it to basically run itself? How often does He actively intervene and perform miracles to either protect or punish? Does He do so in the same manner for every individual, or do different people merit different amounts of providence? The manner in which one answers these questions will affect how one understands the working of supernatural phenomena.
There are several additional issues which relate to the questions discussed above:
- Purpose of miracles – What is the purpose of miracles? What prompts Hashem to intervene and override the natural order? Is He always responding to a human need? Must that need be a physical one, or might the goal of the intervention be simply recognition of Hashem's powers?1
- Human agency – The vast majority of miracles in Tanakh are brought via the agency of a prophet. Why does Hashem not simply perform the miracles on His own? What role does the prophet play? At times, a prophet even declares a miracle on his own, apparently expecting nature to be overturned at his word.2 What does this suggest about the nature of miracles?
- Miracles and magic – Does Hashem's ability to effect supernatural miracles suggest anything about human abilities to do the same? Do the Torah's descriptions of individuals (such as Paroh's magicians or the witch of Ein Dor) performing so-called magic, reflect an ability to contravene nature? Or, should they be understood as working within the natural order?