The Torah is one of the oldest texts known to mankind. Contained within are certain historical and scientific statements. The factual nature of these statements has been subject to much debate over the centuries, and continues to be a source of discussion amongst theologians. “Concordism” is the idea that the Torah is well aware of scientific truths and conveys these truths and ideas to the mindful reader. Conversely, there are those who disagree with this sentiment and do not subscribe to Concordism, arguing that the Torah does not ever try to convey scientific truths, and any attempt at squaring it with science is a waste of time. This debate is perhaps most pronounced in regards to the Torah’s account of the creation of the world as recounted in the opening chapters of Genesis. Is the Torah conveying a scientific truth as to the beginning of the world, or is it describing something else entirely?
Seemingly, the view of staunch Concordists is intrinsically limited as there are times when the Torah will relate events that are miraculous in nature. By definition, these miracles — the splitting of the sea, for instance — are supernatural and cannot be explained scientifically. Because of this fact, regardless of which side of the Concordism debate one falls on, presumably all would admit that, at least in these scenarios, the Torah does not always restrict itself to what science says is possible. After all, miracles are supposed to be miraculous.
Yet, there are those who argue that even in cases when the Torah describes events as being supernatural, this is not really the case, and the Torah is actually describing a fully natural occurrence. In this essay, I would like to examine the viewpoint of those who maintain this belief.
The “How” Of Miracle Concordism
James Kugel, in How To Read The Bible (pg. 221-222), relates that he once happened upon a religious book that explained all the miracles the Jews experienced while leaving Egypt as mere natural coincidences. Each miracle was explained by way of some rare — but possible — scientific or natural phenomenon, and, as such, argued that the Exodus was not “miraculous” in the colloquial usage of the term. Kugel finds great difficulty with this book, and other books of similar persuasion. Why would anyone explain what is clearly stated as a miraculous event as being a natural occurrence?
Kugel argues that those who take this approach obviously must not believe in miracles. Rather, they must attribute any supernatural event recorded in the Torah to the failure, on behalf of the observer, to properly attribute the events that they perceived to their true scientific sources. Biblical miracles are nothing more than some sort of mass delusion. Kugel then states his main issue with this stance: If what the Jews perceived as a Godly intervention was nothing more than a natural coincidence — albeit a very lucky coincidence — what does that say about the true existence of God? If these “Miracle Concordists,” if you will, diminish the magnitude of God’s involvement in this world, are they not, by extension, diminishing God’s very existence? Is God not capable of miracles that we must scientifically explain them away?
Of course, for an individual who does not ascribe any religious significance to the Torah — and who does not believe in God — Kugel’s problem here is easily ignored. However, for those that believe in God — and thus that miraculous events are certainly possible and well within God’s capabilities — why explain away what are seemingly clearly supernatural events as nothing more than wacky natural coincidences?
To begin to understand this, we must recognize that Kugel assumes that by relegating miracles to natural coincidences one is replacing God with nature, thereby negating God’s reality in this world. However, just because miracles can be explained by way of science does not necessarily change their Godly nature, nor does this have to reduce the spiritual life of a Miracle Concordist. Instead of attributing the fantastical nature of a miraculous event to God, the Miracle Concordist would attribute the coincidental nature of the event to God, while explaining that the event itself is indeed a fully natural occurrence. While some would focus, say, on the miraculous nature of the splitting of the sea, the Miracle Concordist would argue that such a thing is actually naturally possible — just highly unlikely — and would focus instead on the highly improbable, and extremely beneficial, timing of this occurrence. While God might not have broken any rules of nature per se, He surely organized these strokes of good fortune to fall out in a wonderfully advantageous way for the Jewish people. This is the miracle for the Miracle Concordist. Thus, though objectively taking the miraculous out of miracles, Miracle Concordists are by no means diminishing the role of God in this world.
This, in fact, is the view of Rambam (Peirush HaMishnayos to Avos 5:5) who suggests that all miracles have been set aside from the time of creation; when God was creating the world He “programmed” miracles into the very rules of nature. The only difference between what we call “nature” and what we call “miraculous” is the frequency of occurrence, where nature is a daily occurrence and miracles happen only once. Nonetheless, at their core, both are essentially the same. Rambam, then, explains how one can easily take the side of Miracle Concordism without diminishing God at all.
The “Why” Of Miracle Concordism
The question that remains is why anybody would choose to take the position of Miracle Concordism. Though we have clarified the logistical possibility of entertaining such a perspective, we still need to find out why someone would choose this outlook instead of opting for what would seem to be the more simple theological position — that miracles are supernatural occurrences caused on rare occasion by God, and, as such, by definition do not need to conform to the rules of science.
Of course, for one who does not believe in a God, the reason to explain the miracles of the Bible as merely scientific coincidences is simple: a miracle would point to God’s existence. Thus, an Atheist reading the Bible would do his or her best to eliminate any reason to believe in God. Without wanting to reject the veracity of the Biblical account in its entirety — but still needing to explain it — the miracles attested to therein are best explained as mere natural coincidences interpreted by their observers as miracles.
Naturally, such a line of reasoning would not work for Rambam. Why, then, would Rambam opt for his seemingly more contrived approach that all miracles are pre-programmed into nature since Creation? For one who believe in God, why not simply explain miracles in what would seem to be the most obvious and straightforward way possible — that they are supernatural occurrences caused by God? Put somewhat differently: for the religious person, why is there any attempt at Miracle Concordism made at all?
Perhaps, as is hinted to in the statement of Rambam quoted above, there is difficulty in suggesting that God sometimes breaks His own rules. If God set up a system which dictates how the world runs — namely, nature — then He should logically act in accordance with His own laws. To suggest that at times God needs to intervene and violate His own laws of nature implies an imperfection in God’s original Creation. To solve this problem we can suggest, like Rambam, that miracles are not truly violations of nature at all — rather, they are extremely rare natural events that God created the possibility to occur at precisely the ideal time since Creation.
Due to a theological discomfort with God breaking His own rules we find a way to make sense of miracles seemingly violating the rules of nature while still maintaining that God does indeed play by His own rules. There may even be a religious advantage to confining miracles to the scientific realm: Ramban (Exodus 13:16) writes that one of the major advantages of large scale miracles is that through them we can come to recognize the minor miracles. Despite the fact that Ramban was writing on different terms1, we can still use his theory to inculcate a level of spirituality into the view of the Miracle Concordists. When we explain a miracle by way of science, we are, in a sense, declaring that God is the driving force behind all of nature. If miracles would exist on their own plane, outside of the rules of science, then a miracle does not necessarily reveal anything as to God’s role in the day-to-day mechanisms of the world. Once we clarify that miracles are merely well-timed natural events programed by God into the very fabric of our universe, the natural progression is that God also dictates the more usual aspects of nature, like the rising and setting of the sun.
While at first glance it seems that for religious people to spend their time trying to scientifically explain Biblical miracles are wasting their time, we have shown that Miracle Concordism is not necessarily a counter-intuitive pursuit that damages religious enthusiasm. Nevertheless, despite its potential benefits, it still seems to this author that miracles should remain in the supernatural realm. Those who make no attempt at Miracle Concordism have a much easier time reading the plain sense of the text of the Torah, and have far fewer theological hoops to jump through in establishing their position.
1. Ramban would strongly disagree with much of the following sentiment. In his full comment, Ramban takes the approach that the very fact that miracles are miraculous proves that nature itself is miraculous as well.↩