“Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe. As signs, though, they serve just the opposite function. Death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspensions of God’s Laws; miracles are the early glimpses of restoration. ”-Philip Yancey, ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’
The stories in the book of Exodus are perhaps the most widely known stories in the Bible, save those found in the Gospels. Much of the appeal of these stories lies in the intertwining of the supernatural with the story of an oppressed people seeking their freedom from Egyptian rule. The potency of this combination gives these stories a unique ability to engross both the heart and the imagination in a way that few other stories can. As I read over these stories- stories of a people fleeing through the Red Sea, stories of natural disasters that happen with a divine purpose, stories of food miraculously delivered precisely when it is needed- these stories bring out a whole range of thoughts, feelings, and questions. Did this really happen? If I would have been there, what would I have observed? Why do I, despite my misgivings, long for the miraculous? Why don’t these sort of things still happen today? Or do they and I am simply unable to recognize them? What meaning should we as humans take from these divine encounters? These questions and more come to my mind as I ponder the miraculous events depicted in Exodus.
Much of the discussion about miracles in the Western world, inspired by scientific skepticism and Enlightenment philosophy, has revolved around the definition of a miracle, whether miracles can even happen, and if a miracle is proof of the existence of God (See this reference article for background). Since the Enlightenment, science and faith have been pitted, at least in many people’s eyes, as entirely incompatible sources of knowledge. ‘Reason’ was suppose to be able to replace religion in providing satisfying explanations of natural phenomena, but without the seemingly unnecessary need to call on the supernatural. According to this line of thinking, miracles were ways of explaining the natural world invented by people ignorant of scientific knowledge. On other hand, people of religious faith, including traditional Christians, regarded miracles as indispensable and inseparable aspects of their faith. To deny the reality of the miraculous was relegate the divine to something distant from and uninterested in human existence, if it was even there at all. To complicate our understanding of miracles, the word miracle is used in different ways in our everyday conversation. Some people talk of ‘everyday miracles’ as if a miracle were a routine occurrence. If one searches WordPress blogs for the word miracle, a whole variety of applications of the word can be found, many of which I have a hard time finding anything miraculous about (at least as I understand the word miracle). Other people use the word in a more carefully delineated manner. Miriam-Webster defines a miracle as,
“an unusual or wonderful event that is believed to be caused by the power of God”.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines a miracle in the following manner:
“A miracle (from the Latin mirari, to wonder), at a first and very rough approximation, is an event that is not explicable by natural causes alone. A reported miracle excites wonder because it appears to require, as its cause, something beyond the reach of human action and natural causes.”
A theological definition of a miracle, attributed to British philosopher Samuel Clarke, is presented on the Stanford website as well:
“the true Definition of a Miracle, in the Theological Sense of the Word, is this; that it is a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular Method of Providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superiour to Man, for the Proof or Evidence of some particular Doctrine, or in attestation to the Authority of some particular Person.”
My own pondering of the miraculous takes on different shapes; sometimes philosophical, sometimes scientific, and sometimes simply as a human who deeply longs to be connected with the divine. As I read the passages in Exodus, I yearn to somehow be there to see them, yet I also find myself wondering if they really happened as described. Why is that we as as humans long for the miraculous, even through our doubts?
Evidence of this longing is found almost everywhere. From ancient mythology to modern religious websites to the seemingly endless comic book movies whose heroes often have ‘miraculous’ superpowers, humanity has a nearly endless hunger to believe that maybe, just maybe, there really is more to our reality than what it appears on the surface. We find ourselves wishing these stories to be true even if we do not believe them. To find an explanation I go back the story as it begins in Genesis, a story of a humanity deeply and harmoniously connected to both God, each other, and nature. That harmony is quickly broken as the first humans -Adam and Eve- make a fateful choice that sunders those relationships. We are now living in the aftermath of that decision; wandering in a spiritual desert with rumors of a time when the world was not so barren. This belief in the ‘The Fall’ is not unique to Christianity; a few years ago I came across a book (Memories and Visions of Paradise by Richard Heinberg) detailing how nearly every culture in every part of the world has a similar story; a story of a Golden Age or a Paradise that was lost do to human disobedience to the Creator. In nearly all these stories, the consequences are similar:
“Whatever the causes of the Fall, its effects are described similarly in almost all traditions. With disobedience, attachment, and forgetting, come loss of contact with the sacred Source; death and the necessity for reproduction, such as the loss of luminosity and the abilities to fly and to communicate with the animals. Human beings must now labor to obtain what they need to survive, must invent technologies to compensate for the diminution of their natural abilities, and must wander through life unaware of their real nature, purpose, and collective past. Of all the results of the Fall, the most grievous was the loss of the divine presence.”Richard Heinburg
While not every aspect described above is found in the Biblical account, the universality of these stories provides a backdrop for our longing to see the miraculous. Somewhere in the deepest part of our being we long to reconnect with the divine in tangible ways; to once again walk with God in the Garden. The apostle Paul expressed it beautifully in his letter to the Corinthians “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully; even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13: 12)
It is with this backdrop in mind that we can turn back to the miracle accounts in Exodus. Why do I believe these miracle accounts? Not because I believe in the power of an omnipotent God (though I do believe that), but because I believe in a God who is so motivated by love that He will choose whatever method necessary to convey that love to a lost humanity. There are different meanings that can be found in miracles, but I see miracles primarily as a form of communication from God to humanity; a form of communication in which the method of communication often overshadows the message being conveyed.
We can look at the plagues described in Exodus chapters 5-10 as an example. The ten plagues have often been interpreted as being directed towards particular gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The goal of each plague was to communicate the reality of the God of Israel (Yahweh) as compared to the false gods of the Egyptians, showing the supremacy of Yahweh over the Egyptian gods. Other scholars see a broader meaning to what was being communicated by the plagues – but regardless the key point is that the miracles recorded were not the random acts of a God who disregarded the natural laws of His own creation but of a God who, as creator, was attempting to communicate with his created beings through channels that they, at that particular point in history and with their particular culture, would be able to understand. Thus God communicated with people who were living in an era where spirits were thought to inhabit rivers, trees, and celestial objects through those very objects to ‘say’ something about Himself in the way that people of that era would understand best. In their wandering of this spiritual desert people then -as today- were chasing many mirages of false spirituality. In order communicate the reality of who He was God ‘spoke’ to them through the language of miracle.
I said earlier that miracle was a form of communication in which the method -the miracle- often overshadows the message. This can be illustrated by the opening lines of Psalm 78:
“My people, hear my teaching, listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth and with a parable, I will utter hidden things, things from old- things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their decendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them., even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.”
This passage is significant because it connects the ‘deeds’ and ‘wonders’ God performed to the Israelites ancestors (and the miracles of Exodus being prime among those ‘deeds’ and ‘wonders’) with two things: trusting and then obeying God. Anyone who has read through the Bible knows that the entire Old Testament is witness to how often human beings are far more excited with seeing a miracle then we are with learning to trust and obey God. Seeing is not always believing, and even less often does seeing lead to obedience. In the New Testament Jesus responded to a request by religious leaders to perform a sign by calling them “a wicked and adulterous generation”. The religious leaders were focused on signs while Jesus wanted them to see and obey the Father. The ‘signs’ or miracles in the Bible can perhaps be thought of like a telescope or pair of binoculars; the value is found by looking through them to see a planet or bird that otherwise might not be seen. Our tendency as humans is to get distracted with the miracle itself and fail to see the God behind the miracle.
Over the years I have often heard Christians read the stories of miracles in the Bible, especially from the book of Acts, and lament the lack of miracles observed in present day America. The problem is often diagnosed as a lack of faith due to living in our secular, scientific Western culture, and usually is brought up with respect to medical healing. I have often wondered if we have, in our desire to see miracles, perhaps missed out on what miracles are designed to accomplish? And that we may in our desire to see miracles, miss out on the ways God is communicating with our culture today? If we see miracles as an expression of God’s love to a lost and broken humanity; if we see in them a promise that God is not absent and that one day this barren land will once again be a lush garden; then perhaps our desires have not run astray. But if we forget that ultimate goal of miracles is to produce trust in God leading to obedience, then we have missed the main point. We will also miss that God is speaking to us through the less dramatic but far more transformative methods of Bible reading, prayer, and spiritual friendship. These are far more likely to lead us to trust and obey God than any miracle, now matter how dramatic.
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