Miracles in the Old Testament

Antti Laato. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

The aim of this chapter is to orient the modern reader on how to read the Old Testament (OT), and understand the miracles that are recounted in those ancient Hebrew scriptures. I shall describe ancient Near Eastern speculative thought and the way the semantic fields of the Hebrew terms for miracles were connected with it. Then I shall discuss how certain explanations in modern science are useful models for the so-called miracles, but also how scientific methods are limited.

Speculative Thought of Ancient Man

There is a fundamental difference between our modern culture and its scientific preconditions on the one hand, and the intellectual and speculative thought of ancient man, on the other. Therefore, we can understand miracle stories in the OT only if we have an idea about this distinction. In fact the concept of miracle should be regarded as a post-OT idea. There are no good equivalents of the concept of miracle in OT Hebrew. Nevertheless, we have different Hebrew terms that have been used to characterize certain extraordinary features in the OT stories. How can we explain this lack of the term miracle in Hebrew?

Frankfort and Frankfort edited an interesting study on the speculative thought of ancient man. Their study “attempts to underpin the chaos of experience so that it may reveal the features of a structure: order, coherence, and meaning” (3). They argued that ancient man had only one mode of expression: personal. They understood reality as personal but other, the you out there; and “the gods, as personifications of power among other things, fulfill early man’s need for reasons that explain the phenomenal world” (17). The distinction between an ancient and modern man could be demonstrated, for example, by the reaction of each to the collapse of a house in which people are killed. The modern man seeks causal reasons for this accident. He could come to the conclusion that termites have destroyed the wood and finally led to the fatal accident. The ancient man was less interested in these causal reasons. He wanted to know why the people living in the house died. His interest was less in cause and effect and more in meaning and purpose. Why do gods or divine powers want to kill such people?

The expression of reality as personal other (you) led to various myths that tried to explain what was going on in nature and human life. Everything that happened in reality was an action and a reflection of the personal other. The language of myth was an attempt to capture the actions of the personal other in an understandable form. The language of myth opened the mind of the ancient man to miracles. The myth of divine powers behind the mysterious otherness of things helped explain the extraordinary events that are beyond human control. This explains well why the boundary between miracle and ordinary natural event was not very opaque, indeed, it was permeable. Rain was always an expression of the mysterious other. The myth of Baal, for example, was an attempt to explain how the storm god, Baal, is responsible for this event. If the rain did not come in time, this mysterious other had some personal reasons to postpone it.

This being the case, we can say that ancient man lived in miracles. He could see every day how the mysterious other in various natural phenomena appeared and produced events that were beyond human control and comprehension. Such an ancient Near Eastern mythic background is a necessary precondition to understanding the Hebrew concepts used in the OT to speak about miracles or rather extraordinary events.

The Concept of Miracle In the Hebrew Language

The Hebrew language contains five different terms that can be connected with the concept of miracle. These terms are connected with the mighty acts of God in history. One of the most important terms is the feminine plural form of the adjective great: gedolot. The basic meaning of this plural form is mighty acts, or something similar. The adjective greatis often connected with Yahweh and his mighty deeds in the OT. According to Mosis there are two roots for the theological tradition of Yahweh’s greatness: (1) the Zion tradition, which is expressed in Psalms and in such expressions as “Great is Yahweh”; and (2) historical experiences. In particular, historical experiences are important in this connection because the mighty acts of Yahweh are regarded as milestones in the history of Israel, indicating that God will take care of his people even in the unknown future.

A typical example of the mighty acts of God is marvelous events he is described as performing in the Land of Egypt. Therefore we read, for example (Dt 10:21): “[H]e is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wondersthat you saw with your own eyes.” In Psalm 106:21 the people are accused of forgetting the God “who had done great things in Egypt.” The great acts of God indicate that there are no other gods who can be compared with him: “Your righteousness reaches to the skies, O God, you who have done great things. Who, O God, is like you?” (Ps 71:19). Among the great things that God is reported to have done are not only historical events but also natural phenomena. Job 37 describes how God is behind all natural phenomena. In verses 5-6 it is said: “God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. He says to the snow, ‘Fall upon the earth, and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’” This passage of Job corroborates well our introductory remarks of ancient Near Eastern speculative thoughts: God’s mighty acts in nature are beyond human understanding or human efforts. God does not only perform great acts for his people but even his revenge can be great. Ezekiel 25:17 refers to Yahweh’s great revenges against Philistia.

The term, great deeds (gedolot) has also been used for the miracles performed by Elisha. Thus we read (2 Kgs 8:4), “The king was talking to Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, and he had said: ‘Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done.’” Elisha could do great things; and the people could do great sins. Thus, for example, the prophet Ezekiel accused his people of doing “utterly detestable things,” that is, great things of an evil nature. This expression appears three times in Ezekiel 8 (verses 6, 13 and 15) and indicates well how the term, great things emphasizes events and phenomena that are extraordinary in some sense, but do not necessarily fit in well with our category of the miracle.

As indicated above, in Deuteronomy 10:21 and Psalm 106:21, great things is used to describe the great things God performed in Egypt. In the Exodus story itself, as well as in Deuteronomy, the Hebrew term for sign (‘ot) is used frequently to describe those mighty acts and plagues against the Egyptians. According to Exodus 10:1-2, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them, that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.’” In Exodus 7:3 the Hebrew word ‘ot (sign) is used together with another Hebrew word, mopet, portent, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart … though I multiply my signs and portents in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 6:22 connects the adjective great withsign: “Before our eyes the Lord sent miraculous signs and portents—great and terrible—upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household.” It is worth noting that the adjectivegreat is connected with signs and portents in numerous other OT texts speaking about the mighty acts of God.

Words for signs and wonders are often used in parallel and then the reference is to extraordinary things or events, as in Exodus 7:3. But sign can also be prophetic as in 1 Samuel 2:34: “And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day.” In a similar way Samuel predicted some signs to Saul that would take place so that Saul could be sure that God would be with him (1 Sam 10:7, 9). According to Deuteronomy 13:1-2, the false prophet can do signs and wonders and exhort the people to worship other gods than Yahweh: “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or portent, and if the sign or portent of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ gods you have not known, ‘and let us worship them.’ ”

While the terms ‘ot and mopet do not exclude the aspect of wonder or miracle, their basic meaning is sign. Sun and moon are signs for festivals, days, and years (Gen 1:14). Circumcision is a sign for the covenant God established with Abraham (Gen 17:11). The birth of the child can also be a sign (Is 7:11, 14). Sometimes it has been emphasized that the sign in Isaiah 7:14 refers to an extraordinary birth like the virgin birth. Even though such a reading cannot be categorically excluded it is clear that such an interpretation in Isaiah 7:14 is not necessary. The woman referred to in this verse is a young woman (‘almah) who is not necessarily a virgin (translated with parthenos in the Septuagint). For example, in Isaiah 37:30 (cf. 2 Kgs 19:29) the prophet Isaiah gives a sign of salvation to Hezekiah that refers to ordinary events: “This will be the sign for you, O Hezekiah: This year you will eat what grows by itself, and the second year what springs from that. But in the third year sow and reap, plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” On the other hand, in Isaiah 37:7-8 (cf. 2 Kgs 20:8-9) sign refers to an extraordinary natural phenomenon: “ ‘This is the Lord’s sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.’ So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.”

The prophet himself and his symbolic action can also be a sign for the coming event that Yahweh will realize. Therefore Isaiah was exhorted to walk naked: “Then the Lord said, ‘Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame’” (Is 20:3-4). In a similar way both the prophet and his disciples are signs and portents in Israel for the message of Isaiah that will be realized (Is 8:18). Also Ezekiel himself became a sign to the people (Ez 24:24, 27). According to Zechariah 3:8 the high priest Joshua and his colleagues are “men of portent” of the coming of the Messiah, the Branch: “Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.”

Psalm 74 is a lamentation of the people who have experienced the destruction of the enemy. In verse 4 it is noted how the enemy has set up their signs of victory: “Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs.” In this distress the people lament that they have no signs that is, prophetic visions, that could give them hope: “We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be” (Ps 74:9).

The term sign (‘ot) can also be used to denote the covenant between Yahweh and the people. In Ezekiel 20:12 the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant: “Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy” (so also Ez 20:20). Beside signs and wonders we should also mention the Hebrew word nes, often used forstandard, banner, signal, or sign, which could be stood up in the battle or as a pole for the copper snake (Num 21:8-9). But even this word could be used in the OT figuratively and its meaning in that case was similar to signs and wonders.According to Numbers 26:10, “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them along with Korah, whose followers died when the fire devoured the 250 men. And they served as a warning sign.” Even a person can be a banner. In Isaiah 11:10 the reference is made to the Root of Jesse, that is, the Messiah who will stand as banner for the peoples: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.” Specifically, in Isaiah 40-55 the word for banner is used a decisive historical event where the people and the exiles are gathered (Is 49:22; 62:10). In later Hebrew and Aramaic as well as in rabbinical Hebrew, nes (banner) began to denotesign, wonder, and providential event.

Finally there are the Hebrew verb pl’ and the related words pele’ and nifla’ot (only in plural). Concerning the meaning of the verb pl’ Conrad writes that “the texts all deal with extraordinary phenomena, transcending the power of human knowledge and imagination.” Thus these Hebrew words refer to things that are beyond one’s power, difficult, extraordinary, or wonderful. Nifla’ot is used in the OT almost always as substantive wonderful acts or mighty acts. Job experienced (10:16) that God was against him and acted inexplicably against him: “If I hold my head high, you stalk me like a lion and again display your awesome power against me.”

The Hebrew word pele ’ designates an extraordinary thing or event, which has often been translated with the English word, wonder. Typical is the expression about God who “performs wonder(s).” For example, in Exodus 15:11 the reference is made to the Exodus from Egypt and the mighty acts of God in the Reed Sea (so also in Ps 78:12): “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you-majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders.”

The semantic field of pele’ does not restrict it to wonders. For example, Isaiah 29:14 uses the word to describe unpredictable political events that Yah-weh will realize in Judah (cf. Hab 2:5-8): “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” Isaiah 9:6 calls the coming righteous Davidic ruler with various names and one of them is Wonderful Counselor (pele yo’ets). These throne names in Isaiah 9:6 are connected with the Assyrian (and Babylonian) throne titles.

Psalm 119:129-30 calls Yahweh’s instructions wonderful, which can give understanding: “Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” In a corresponding way nifla’ot is used for the Torah: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Ps 119:18); “Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders” (Ps 119:27).

David can express that Jonathan’s love and friendship toward him was extraordinary: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Sam 1:26).

The Hebrew word nifla’ot is used when Yahweh’s deliverance from Egypt is described. Thus we read in Exodus 3:20: “So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them.” In Psalm 106 reference is made to the same event: “When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Reed Sea … They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (Ps 106:7, 22).

The expression do mighty acts appears often in the OT when it speaks about God.12 Another common expression is totell mighty acts of God, which emphasizes often God’s mighty acts in history that the people should commemorate. Psalm 107 is a thanksgiving hymn in which the great acts (nifla’ot) of Yahweh are commemorated. It contains four repetitions of the expression: “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind” (Ps 107:8, 15, 21, 31).

This survey has shown how the mighty acts of God are connected; in particular, the events of the Exodus from Egypt. We have also seen that there are several linguistic and thematic parallels between God’s mighty acts in creation and in history. This gives us reason to study this connection in detail.

Mighty Acts of God In Creation and In History

In the light of our introductory remarks it would be reasonable to assume that ancient speculative thought plays an important role in the description of the historical events in the Hebrew tradition. The divine personal, you or other, is evident both in nature/creation and in historical events.

One of the most influential studies in understanding the history and religious ideas in early Israel is Frank Moore Cross’Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. He argues that the mythical language of the Canaanite myth of Baal’s victory over chaos powers in creation was transformed to describe in early Hebrew epic how Yahweh managed to help his people in history. In the Canaanite myth, gods promised Baal a palace if he could destroy the powers of chaos and establish harmony. Baal struggled against Yammu (Chaos, Sea) and later against Mot (Death) and managed to establish harmony. He was granted the palace “which is his sanctuary where he is worshiped.”14 Exodus 15 follows this same theme by describing the crisis, the political chaos that threatens the existence of Israel, and can be presented as follows:

  • Combat victory and theophany of Divine Warrior (vv 1-12)
  • Salvation of the Israelites (vv 13-16a)
  • Building of the sanctuary and procession (16b-17)
  • Manifestation of Yahweh’s universal reign (18)

Yahweh will appear and struggle against the enemies of Israel and establish his people in the land of Canaan. The sanctuary is established for Yahweh. Cross demonstrates in different ways that this connection functions well in the early poetic texts where the Divine Warrior is described.16 The themes of creation, in which the god struggles against the powers of chaos, were historicized in the early Hebrew epic. They indicate Israelite understanding of God who intervenes in historical events. Cross showed that this mythical pattern of the coming of Yahweh to help his people has lived in Hebrew epic and Israelite theology and has been used also in very late eschatological texts.

Cross’ analysis explains well the theological emphasis in the OT, according to which Yahweh is the Lord of creation and history. In particular, the Book of Isaiah takes up this connection. In his massive commentary on Isaiah 1-39, Hans Wildberger has analyzed some key texts that connect Yahweh’s mighty acts in creation and history. One good example is Isaiah 17:12-14:

Oh, the raging of many nations
they rage like the raging sea!
Oh, the uproar of the peoples
they roar like the roaring of great waters!
Although the peoples roar like the roar of surging waters,
when he rebukes them they flee far away,
driven before the wind like chaff on the hills,
like tumbleweeds before a gale.
In the evening, sudden terror!
before the morning, they are gone!
This is the portion of those who loot us,
the lot of those who plunder us.

Wildberger connects this passage to the Zion tradition, which is presented in Psalms 46, 48, and 76, among others. Nations are compared with raging chaotic waters that threaten the existence of the inhabitants of Jerusalem; but Yah-weh will rebuke these waters and they will suddenly disappear. Similar texts in Isaiah 1-39, in which enemies are compared with chaotic powers attacking Jerusalem, are Isaiah 8:5-10 and 29:1-8, among others. I have contended elsewhere that these texts are closely connected with the story of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah (Is 36-37; cf. 2 Kgs 18-19). Sennacherib attempted to conquer Jerusalem but was stopped by mighty acts of God when the Assyrian army, according to 2 Kings 19:35, was destroyed by the angel of Yahweh.

There is a very useful analysis of how the language of creation is used to describe Yahweh’s salvation acts in history. It is in C. Stuhlmueller’s work Creative Redemption in Deutero-Isaiah. He has shown how the typical Hebrew vocabulary of creation motifs has been used in the texts that describe the redemption of Israel from the Babylonian exile: The “idea of creation served to enhance many features of the prophet’s concept of redemption, transforming it into an exceptionally wondrous redemptive act, performed with personal concern by Yahweh for his chosen people, bringing them unexpectedly out of exile, into a new and unprecedented life of peace and abundance, with repercussions even upon the cosmos and world inhabitants.” A good example is Isaiah 51:9-16. I have quoted this text below and added square brackets some explanations in order to emphasize how creation, Yahweh’s mighty acts in history, and the coming salvation from the Babylonian captivity are connected with each other.

[Yahweh has beaten Rahab, the symbol of the powers of chaos, in creation]

9. Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength,
O arm of the Lord.
Awake, as in days gone by,
as in generations of old.
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?
[Yahweh has saved his people from slavery in Egypt]

10. Was it not you who dried up
the sea, the waters of the great deep.
Who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over?
[Yahweh will redeem his people from Babylonia]11. The ransomed of the Lord will return;
they will enter Zion with singing.
Everlasting joy will crown their heads;
gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
[The Lord of creation comforts the exiles]12. I, even I, am he who comforts you;
who are you that you fear mortal men,
The sons of men, who are but grass,
13. that you forget the Lord your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth,
that you live in constant terror every day
because of the wrath of the oppressor,
who is bent on your destruction;
for where is the wrath of the oppressor?
[The exiles will be set free by the Lord who governs the powers of chaos]14. The cowering prisoners will soon be set free;
they will not die in their dungeon,
nor will they lack bread.15. For I am the Lord your God,
who churns up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord Almighty is his name.16. I have put my words in your mouth
and covered you with the shadow of my hand.
I who set the heavens in place,
who laid the foundations of the earth,
and who says to Zion,
“You are my people.”The cursory reading of Isaiah 40-55 reveals that themes of creation and redemption of Israel are intertwined. The Lord of the creation is the Lord of history. The Lord who could execute mighty acts in creation can perform similar wonderful acts in history. Isaiah 43:9-13 presents us the following scenario.All the nations gather together
and the peoples assemble.
Which of them foretold this
and proclaimed to us the former things?
Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right,
so that others may hear and say, “It is true.”
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the Lord,
and apart from me there is no savior.
I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—
I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?”

The text seems to be dependent on the Babylonian creation-epic, Enuma Elish, according to which the creation was a process in which various gods came into existence. However, the text in Isaiah 43 emphasizes that no other gods have been before Yahweh or appear after him (in the process of creation). Therefore, Yahweh is the only one who can save his people from the Babylonian exile.

The idea of Yahweh’s coming to help his people continued in postbiblical apocalyptic literature. In his study, Dawn of Apocalyptic, Paul Hanson contended that many texts in Trito-Isaiah (Is 56-66) and Deutero-Zechariah are connected with this old idea about Yahweh’s kingship in creation. In the postexilic period this theme was developed further and it was used to describe how Yahweh will help his loyal servants against established and godless government in the land of Judea.23

Historical Credo

Our analysis has shown that Yahwism was deeply rooted in a belief that God acts in history. This explains well the so-called historical credos in the OT. The basic analysis of these credos was made by Gerhard von Rad. His massive work on the theology of the OT is based on this idea. God is no philosophical idea but a God whose mighty acts can be seen in creation and history. The OT contains several historical credos in which Yahweh’s mighty acts in history have been listed. Von Rad began his analysis with the historical credo in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. The one who brings first fruits and tithes to Jerusalem should recite the following credo:

Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first-fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.”

This credo uses typical terms for the mighty acts of God and indicates that Yahweh-belief is belief in God who intervenes in history with mighty and wonderful acts. There are several other texts where similar historical surveys of Israel have been presented. Such historical credos structure the history of Israel and emphasize that Yahweh has governed its course with his mighty acts. Therefore, it is also understandable why the actions of Yah-weh in history are a constitutional element in OT theology. Horst Dietrich Preuss formulated a thesis that Yahweh-belief has always been belief in God who will also act in the future. The constitutional element in Yahwism is openness to the possibility of mighty and wonderful acts. This background helps us to understand the New Testament (NT) stories about the miracles of Jesus. They are not loans from the Hellenistic world but intimately connected with the OT and the Jewish milieu.

Miracle Workers

We have seen that, according to the OT, Yahweh has power to do mighty acts in creation and history. Therefore also a man who is close to God and becomes part of the divine sphere can perform wonders. Moses is capable of wonderful acts in Egypt because God has given this power to him, as we can read in Exodus 7:1: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.’”

Problems of magic became actual in this connection. In the story of Exodus the Egyptian magicians could perform miracles similar to the miracles of Moses. Moses ordered Aaron’s staff to become a snake and Exodus 7:8-13 tells us that even Egyptian magicians could do the same. It is worth noting that the present form of the OT contains critical attitudes toward divination and magic. One reason for the rise of this criticism is that mighty acts of God have become the constitutional basis for the Israelite religion and, therefore, no new magical tricks or wonders can change this basis. We have already seen that Deuteronomy 13:1-3 warns the people that no extraordinary acts would lead it away from its God: “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ gods you have not known, ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.” This warning indicates well how the religious reality was understood in Deuteronomy and subsequently also in the present form of the OT. All kinds of extraordinary acts and events can take place but they cannot change or nullify the mighty acts of God in history, which constitute the existence of Israel and guide the people to live according to instructions of God given through Moses.

Confused Modern Reader

When a modern reader studies the OT he may be readily confused as to how to interpret texts about the mighty power of Yahweh, manifest in producing wonderful acts in history. I have attempted to level the path to understanding this problem in the context of the ancient Near Eastern speculative thought that lies behind the OT. Clearly, it is impossible to choose any restricted scientific approach in studying the narratives that report the biblical miracles. Our choice options are limited and simple. First, we must simply understand the fundamental attitudes toward reality that prevailed at the time the narratives were crafted. Second, we cannot avoid reductionism when we employ scientific methodologies that are bent upon trying to prove whether some extraordinary events have actually taken place.

The use of such compartmentalized methods of verification imply that a scholar wants to seek some natural explanation for the extraordinary act in the text. After all, in terms of scientific philosophy it is impossible to conclude, by methods of scientific verifiability, that a miracle has occurred. If such a result would be achieved then other scholars could replicate the examination and come to the same conclusion. If that were possible the object of examination would not be a miracle.

Therefore, in scientific analysis the fundamental question is not whether a miracle has occurred, but rather whether we can discern a responsible way to approach the story of miracle. If we aim to give a scientific answer then we have simply decided to find relevant natural clarifications to the outcome of the story of miracle. A third option is, of course, that modern scholars consider scientific and verifiable methods as restricted approaches to understanding phenomena that are described as miraculous. In that case scientific analysis can attempt to give useful information about the story of the miracle without proposing to explode the story or afford us a final answer regarding the reality behind the story of the miracle.

When a modern scholar begins to study an OT miracle text he or she usually takes into consideration the following three methodological viewpoints that concern the transmission of the text:

  1. With the aid of textual criticism he studies the Hebrew text and ancient translations in order to establish as accurate and reliable a version as possible. Copyists can have caused various inaccuracies or intentional modifications in the text, though it is always surprising how well the biblical texts have been transmitted over the centuries.
  2. Literary and redaction (editorial) critical analysis is an attempt to discuss in which way the story has been reworked. For example, scholars agree that the Elijah and Elisha stories in the present form of the Deuteronomistic History are based on earlier traditions. By carefully analyzing these stories in 1 and 2 Kings it is possible to detect which parts have been reworked by Deuteronomistic redactor(s) or editors. With the aid of literary and redactional analysis it is possible to come closer to older literary cores behind the present form of the OT text. For example, in the biblical story of the mysterious setback of the Assyrian army at Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18-19 = Is 36-37) I argued that 2 Kings 18:14-16 consists of an independent source that should be separated from 2 Kings 18:13, 17-19:38 (= Is 36-37) because it had been added later by a different editor.
  3. Finally a scholar has the option of dealing with possible oral traditions behind the transmission process of the OT texts. In the case of the Elijah and Elisha stories it is necessary to discuss whether these two story-cycles have been transmitted together or whether they were two separate stories that finally were modified and edited into the Deuteronomistic History.
  4. After having established the transmission process of the biblical text the scholar relates the evidence of different literary strata to other available methods.
  5. Form historical analysis of phrasing, sentences, and sections of the story aims to discuss which kind of text we are reading. For example, the literary form of the letter is different than a novel. Scientific articles with footnotes differ from newspaper articles, and so on. Every literary form in the OT has also its own typical features. For example, 2 Kings 18:14-16 is a typical annalistic account that apparently originates from royal archives of Jerusalem; while 2 Kings 18:13, 17-19:38 (= Is 36-37) is composed of two stories circulated among the people. These considerations help the modern scholar to evaluate his sources when he makes an historical synthesis.
  6. Tradition history is a method used to study the cultural, religious, and ideological background of the text. For example, 2 Kings 18:13, 17-19:38 (= Is 36-37) is possible to connect with Zion theology such as is presented in Psalms 46, 48, and 76, for example. These psalms deal with the attacks of nations against Zion and the way the Lord of creation, Yahweh, will rebuke these enemies and save his city. This same theme is visible also in many texts of Isaiah 1-39 (8:5-10; 17:12-14; 30:27-33; 31:4-9; 33) and gives the scholarly orientation in which the spiritual and theological atmosphere 2 Kings 18:13, 17-19:38 (= Is 36-37) has been composed.
  7. The historical situation or setting of the text aims to detect all available historical information that can be acquired. In the case of 2 Kings 18:13, 17-19:38 it is possible to date the Assyrian invasion in Judah in 701 BC. We have Sennacherib’s own inscriptions related to this event as an independent source outside of the Bible. Sennacherib tells us that he was victorious and humiliated Hezekiah. The Greek historian, Herodotos (Book II, 141), preserved this story as he heard it from Egyptian priests, who recorded in their archives the mystical setback of the Assyrian army. The famous Lachish Reliefs found in the palace of Sennacherib in Niniveh depict how the Assyrian army besieged and overtook the city. Finally, we have also archaeological evidence that shows the total destruction of the cities of Judah in that year, 701.

All these methodological options give the modern scholar a better possibility of evaluating which kind of story we have in the Bible, when the biblical record recounts an extraordinary event or miracle, to use our modern term. If the scholar wants to continue and attempts to explain such an extraordinary event he must find good scientific solutions for the miracle. In case he succeeds, the phenomenon no longer can be characterized as a miracle because natural scientific causes have been discovered to explain it.

Examples of Scientific Attempts to Prove a Miracle

The modern scholar who examines the story of a miracle attempts to find a relevant explanation to it by seeking cause-and-effect relations in it. An illustrative example could be the 10 plagues in Exodus and the way these events have been interpreted in the OT. The modern scholar can illumine the story of the 10 plagues by seeking possible prototypes in the ancient Near East. For example, he finds that even Egyptian sources (The Admonitions of Ipuwer) record that at certain times under certain circumstances the River Nile turned to blood. Assuming that there is some real natural phenomenon behind this transformation of the river to blood, the scholar may present a theory that could explain the order of these plagues. Greta Hort has written an interesting article in which she presents the following natural theory for the plagues. Hort’s theory is very detailed and I shall briefly summarize its main ideas.

Heavy rains in the highlands of Ethiopia caused the tropical red earth in the basin of the Blue Nile and Atbara to be discharged into the river. This turned the water red. The Nile seemed to be turned to blood (first plague in July-August). A consequence was that oxygen decreased and great amounts of fish died. When fish did not eat the tadpoles, many frogs appeared (second plague in September-October). Unusual flooding and dead fish became a good breeding ground for insects, which can explain mosquitoes (third plague in October-November) and bloodsucking flies (fourth plague). The disease of cattle can be explained as having been caused by bacteria that multiplied in the dead fish and in the fly stings on the cattle (fifth plague). The inflammation or anthrax was caused by flies that transmitted this disease to human beings (sixth plague). In this way Hort could explain the six first plagues as natural consequences of the unusual high flooding of the Nile.

The plagues of hailstorms (seventh plague between November and March) and locusts (eighth plague in February-March) can easily be explained as frequent natural events in Egypt. So also the case of darkness (ninth plague in March), which is caused regularly by sandstorms called khamsin. Assuming that this chain of natural catastrophes followed each other in the land of Egypt, we can well imagine that it was understood as divine intervening. In this way the modern scholar may find relevant scientific explanation for the miracles recounted in the Book of Exodus. The result of this kind of scientific analysis is the explosion of the miracle narrative. In point of fact, in such a case, there were no miracles, namely, events contrary to natural laws.

Another example of the way to give a natural explanation to a miracle narrative is that regarding the mysterious destruction of the Assyrian army (2 Kgs 19:35). “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!” After having studied Sennacherib’s inscriptions I conclude that they seem to follow the principle detected also in other Assyrian annals. All setbacks have been played down. Herodotos’ story is another witness to the mysterious setback of the Assyrian army, and is independent of both the biblical narrative and Sennacherib’s reports. Herodotos tells that field mice destroyed the weapons of the Assyrian soldiers. The mice-motif is probably connected to the god, Apollos Smintheus, that was responsible for the bubonic plagues. In a corresponding way the angel motif has been used in the OT as referring to the bubonic plague (2 Sam 24). It is my view of the events of 701 BC in Judah that the Assyrian army was victorious, as indicated in 2 Kings 18:14-16, and Sennacherib’s inscriptions; but that it was forced to stop its military invasion because of the bubonic plague.

These examples give a good indication of how scholars can analyze wisely and accurately some of the biblical stories of miracles. On the other hand, it is clear that scholars do not always want to give a scientific explanation. One reason may be that they do not regard restricted scientific viewpoints to be good enough to solve the problem of some miracles described in the biblical text; or that they see that our present knowledge does not yet allow us to understand completely the dynamics of a given reported miracle. The American philosopher and the “father of semiotics,” Charles Sanders Peirce, formulated this in a nice way:

If, walking in a garden on a dark night, you were suddenly to hear the voice of your sister crying to you to rescue her from a villain, would you stop to reason out the metaphysical question of whether it were possible for one mind to cause material waves of sound and for another mind to perceive them? If you did, the problem might probably occupy the remainder of your days. In the same way, if a man undergoes any religious experience and hears the call of his Savior, for him to halt till he has adjusted a philosophical difficulty would seem to be an analogous sort of thing, whether you call it stupid or whether you call it disgusting. If on the other hand, a man has had no religious experience, then any religion not an affectation is as yet impossible for him; and the only worthy course is to wait quietly till such experience comes. No amount of speculation can take the place of experience.