Some Thoughts on Miracles, Prophecy,
and Hester Panim
by `Ammi ben Hoshea`
The Bible speaks often of miracles and of prophecy. The Torah and many of the prophets also tell of hester panim -- God hiding His face.1 For example, Deut. 31: 16-17 reports God telling Moses that
. . . Thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go [to be] among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so they will say in that day, "Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not with us?"
We shall briefly consider several issues: (I) the origins of hester panim; (II) how people react to the reality of hester panim; (III) doctrines of hester panim; and (IV) a Jewish view of hester panim as it relates to miracles and prophecy, as understood by "Students of the Way".2
Clearly, in times of hester panim, God continues to act in daily events; His countenance continues to exist -- but He hides His loving face, His obvious graciousness, from us. Hester panim can, moreover, also be personal, or national or (apparently) world wide. It can be brief, or for long periods of time.
It might seem that hester panim could arise out of a number of situations. Loci for possible explanations for its origin can include: (1) human sin (which might refer to the sins of the fathers, or of the community, or of the individual from whom God hides His face). Or, (2) simply part of God's plan (perhaps to test us, perhaps for the sake of variety or allurement, or for strengthening or perhaps to bring a certain level of maturity).
One can imagine different ways in which men and women might react to hester panim: They might deny God's power, or his existence altogether. They might turn to other gods. Or they might wait on Him faithfully.
Or there is another possibility -- one which comes very close to turning to other gods: Men or women may force themselves into imagining that God is not hiding His face, when He in fact is doing so. They might invent for themselves His miraculous presence; they may imagine signs and wonders which He in fact did not perform. They might turn to, or themselves become, false prophets.3
With all this in mind, let us look at some phenomena gleaned from a study of the history of Christianity and of Judaism.
The Gospels and the Epistles tell of God's miraculous showing of His face, seemingly after a considerable time of hester panim.4 They tell of numerous signs and wonders and revelations and prophecies performed not only by Jesus, but also by his disciples and even by later converts such as Paul.5
But then, a little more than three hundred years later, only a couple generations after many Christian clergymen had embraced the beast that (in the words on John in Rev. 17: 9) sits on seven hills, Augustine of Hippo wrote in his middle work, On the True Religion XXV 47 (composed in 390 C.E., a couple years after his return to North Africa):
We perceive that our ancestors, by that measure of faith by which the ascent is made from temporal things to eternal, obtained visible miracles (for thus only could they do it); and through them it has been brought about that these should no longer be necessary for their descendants. For when the Catholic Church had been diffused and established through the whole world, these miracles were no longer permitted to continue in our time, lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should be chilled by the customariness of the very things whose novelty had inflamed them.
Similarly, in De utilitate credendi XXXIV, having just enumerated Jesus' miracles, Augustine in 392 C.E. asked, "Why do these things no longer take place now?" -- and Augustine answered:
Because they would not move unless they were wonderful, and if they were customary they would not be wonderful. . . Even the marvels of nature, great and wonderful as they are, have ceased to surprise and so to move; and God has dealt wisely with us, therefore, in sending His miracles once for all to convince the world, depending afterward on the authority of the multitudes thus convinced.
But Augustine apparently did not remain satisfied with his proposals. In his later works he claimed the existence of numerous signs and wonders in his own time. According to Benjamin B. Warfield on p. 40 of Counterfeit Miracles,
. . . Augustine's hearty belief in contemporary miracles, illustrated by his teeming list . . . [found e.g. in his late work, The City of God 28, written 413-426 C.E.], was of slow growth. It was not until some years after his return to Africa that [his theological need rendered] it . . . easy to him to acknowledge their occurrence.
At last, near the close of his life and reviewing his previous work in his 427 C.E. book, Retractions, Augustine wrote, in I xiv 5 (I think unconvincingly), that he had not earlier meant to say that no miracles were accomplished in his own days -- but merely that none were performed which were as great as those which Jesus did; and that not all kinds of miracles which Jesus did continue to be accomplished.6 "For," according to Retractions I xiii 7,
Those that are baptised do not now receive the Spirit on the imposition of hands, so as to speak in the tongues of all the peoples; neither are the sick healed by the shadow of the preachers of Christ falling on them as they pass; and other such things as were then done, are manifestly ceased.
Augustine insisted that by his declarations in On the True Religion he did not mean that no miracles at all are still performed in Christ's name, "For I myself," he declared,
when I wrote that book, already knew that a blind man had been given his sight at Milan, by the bodies of the martyrs in that city; and certain other things which were done at that time in numbers sufficient to prevent our knowing them all or our enumerating all we know.
[Augustine taught rhetoric in Milan for about three years in the mid 380s.]
What happened? And why did this happen? -- In short what had happened is that the Roman Empire had declared itself to be Christian, and the church in Rome had allied itself to the Empire.
The upshot of all this was that Augustine rejected a continuing historical role for the Jewish people, and he believed that the [Roman Catholic] Church had replaced national Israel (or rather, had become the 'true Israel'). His great work, The City of God, perpetrated the ('amillennialist') notion that God's kingdom [on earth] has already come even while the bulk of Jews have not embraced their Messiah of the House of David. How then could the age of the Church be a time of "hester panim"? of God hiding His face? Augustine's theological precommitments drove him to believe that Christians in his day and afterwards live in an age little different from that of the Apostles (that is, that they live in a [post] Messianic age -- wide open to the same miracles as in the time of Moses or Jesus [cf. e.g. Joel 2; 28-29, or in Hebrew, Joel 3: 1-2]). -- These misapprehensions left Augustine and many of his successors vulnerable to superstitious [even if churchly] signs and wonders. Medieval Roman Catholics (and some of the pious, and less pious, today) would be infested with notions of miracles wrought for example by the remains of various "saints." As mentioned by Benjamin B. Warfield in Counterfeit Miracles I, pp. 16-20, "Catholic" Christians would seize the pagan wonder tales, "christianize" them, and pass of a new "christian" magic of their own.
The damage to humanity would be immense. Only some of it would be ameliorated with the rise of Protestantism, with its awesome vision of the power and majesty of God, its rediscovery of the Scriptures and their authority, with its sense of community and human commitment, with its great respect for God's creation, and its consequent God-breathed skepticism regarding human knowledge, man-made religion, and mortal institutions.
Meanwhile, the Rabbis typically saw the destruction of their Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and then by Titus as an instance of God hiding His face. A famous passage in Talmud Bavli Yoma' 9b reads:
Why was the first Sanctuary [miqdash ri'shon] destroyed? Because of three evil things which prevailed there: idolatry,7 immorality,8 bloodshed. . . .9 But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause [sina't hinam]. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry. Immorality, and bloodshed together.
Pesiqta' de Rab Kahanah (pisqa XVII 4) perhaps more elaborately cited R. Tanhuma as pronouncing that in Deut. 31: 17:
The words "My anger shall be kindled against them" allude to Babylon's rule of them; the words "I will forsake them" allude to Media's rule of them; the words "I will hide My face from them" allude to Greece's rule of them; and the words "they are being devoured" allude to Edom's [Rome's] rule of them, in keeping with what is said in the verse "Behold [Edom or Rome] the fourth beast . . . devoured, and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet" (Dan. 7: 7).
Nevertheless, the Rabbis, not wholly unlike Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, also faced theological difficulties with the reality of hester panim. If Jews on the whole are rabbinically observant, why were Jews in exile? Why do we not see God's wonders?
One response, among many, to this issue is to propose that Jews are (or were) not sufficiently or properly observant.
In the first half of the twelfth century, proposing that God never changes, Yehudah Ha-Levi wrote in The Kuzari (II 24) that "Divine Providence only gives man as much as he is prepared to receive; if his receptive capacity be small, he obtains little, and much if it be great." He had affirmed (I 95) that
Adam . . . received the soul in its perfection, the intellect in the highest degree possible for human nature, and the divine power after the intellect; I mean the level [of prophecy] by means of which one may have contact with God and the spiritual beings and know truths without learning [them], but by means of the least thought. He was called the son of God by us and he and all those descendants who are similar to him are [called] sons of God. . . . [With the sons of Jacob] . . . is the beginning of the resting of the divine word ['Amr ilahi] on a group after only being found in separate individuals. Then God took charge of preserving them, and paying attention to them in Egypt, just as a tree which has good roots is taken care of until it can produce a perfect fruit. . . .
Yehudah Ha-Levi understood this [supposed] capacity for prophecy to be an inherited or 'biological' capacity,10 and he explained (I 27) that "any Gentile who joins us [Jews] unconditionally shares our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us. . . [T]he Law was given to us [Jews] because . . . we are the pick of mankind."11
What then about Exile? And the suffering of the Jews? What about God hiding His face? Yehudah Ha-Levi declared (II 44) that
The trials which meet us [Jews] are meant to prove our faith, to cleanse us completely, and to remove all taint from us. . . [The] elements gradually evolved metals, plants, animals, man, finally the pure essence of man. The whole evolution took place for the sake of this essence, in order that the Divine influence should inhabit it. That essence, however, came into existence for the sake of the highest essence, viz. the prophets and the pious.
But Yehudah Ha-Levi (II 10-14) affirmed that (aside from the genes of any would-be prophet, and also aside from moral preparation) there is another requirement for the existence of prophecy:
The [Jewish] sage said: Accepting the special quality of a [specific] land with respect to all lands is not difficult. You see places in which certain plants, minerals, and animals aside from others are produced. Their inhabitants are set apart by means of their [external] forms and their moral dispositions from others through the medium of their temperament. For the perfection and imperfection of the soul depend on its temperament.12
The Khazar [king] said: But I have not heard that those who inhabit Palestine are superior to the rest of mankind.
The [Jewish] sage said: Your mountain is the same. You say: `On it a vineyard will flourish.' [But] were grape [vines] not planted and were it not cultured properly, it would not produce grapes. Now [in accord with this metaphor] primary distinction [indeed] belongs to people who are the best part and the choice element.
[But] Second place in accomplishing [that crop belongs] to the land together with the works and the commandments which are connected with it. They are like cultivation with respect to the vineyard. However, this elite may not attach itself to a divine Amr in any place, as it is . . . [impossible] for the vineyard to flourish in another mountain. . .
There [in the Land of Israel] no doubt are the places which deserve to be called the gates of heaven. Do you not see how Jacob did not attribute the visions which he saw to the purity of his soul, not to his faith and the firmness of his certitude; but he ascribed them to the place, as it is said: "And he feared and said, `How full of awe is this place!'" [Gen. 28: 17]. And before [Scripture] said: "And he lighted upon the place" [Genesis 28: 11]; he means 'the special place'.
Yehudah Ha-Levi declared (II 14) that "Whosoever prophesied did so either in the [Holy] Land, or concerning it, viz. Abraham in order to reach it, Ezekiel and Daniel on account of it." And in The Kuzari V 23 he wrote:
The visible Shekhinah [divine presence] has, indeed, disappeared, because it does not reveal itself except to a prophet or a favoured community, and in a distinguished place. . . As regards to the invisible and spiritual Shekhinah, it is with every born Israelite of virtuous life, pure heart, and upright mind before the Lord of Israel. Palestine is especially distinguished by the Lord of Israel, and no function can be perfect except there. Many of the Israelitish laws do not concern those who do not live there; heart and soul are only perfectly pure and immaculate in the place which is believed to be specially selected by God. If this is true in a figurative sense, how much more true in reality, as we have shown. . .
For Yehudah Ha-Levi, in short, "God [has] revealed Himself in history, in choosing a people [the Jews], a land [Israel], a language [Hebrew]."13 It would seem that prophecy must emerge when those three factors are combined, i.e., when Hebrew speaking Jews live in Israel.
In conclusion regarding the present discussion of Yehudah Ha-Levi, it seems to this writer that Yehudah Ha-Levi did not really speak of any really Biblical notion of hester panim, because according to him, God does not really hide His face; rather, Jews fail to put themselves in the right place for receiving His (ever-present, unceasingly emanating) 'Amr. On his account, hester panim in Jerusalem in the 1990's and 2000's would seem to be theologically embarrassing, at best.
Not surprisingly, then, many rabbis (such as many of those embracing the tradition of Moshe ben Maimon) are reluctant to endorse many of Yehudah Ha-Levi's claims. Some fear tendencies to religious fanaticism, or unreasoned political action.
In three of his books, Joy and Responsibility Israel, Modernity, and the Renewal of Judaism and A Living Covenant The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism and Israelis and the Jewish Tradition An Ancient People Debating its Future, [Rabbi] Dr. David Hartman has suggested that God seeks from His people not child dependence, but rather mature and free relationship. Regarding the desired relationship between God and Israel, Dr. Hartman prefers emphasizing the metaphor of husband and wife rather than that of king and subject, or master and slave.
Dr. Hartman wrote on pages 6-7 of A Living Covenant, for example, that
In order to do justice to the way Jews have understood their own covenantal relationship with God, it is essential to go to the Talmud and not only to the Bible. For many centuries, committed halakhic Jews have viewed the oral Torah (the legal tradition recorded in the Talmud) as no less valid than the written Torah (the Five Books of Moses). It was commonly claimed that both the written and the oral traditions were communicated at Mount Sinai. According to the Talmud (Gittin 60b), Rabbi Johanan even maintained that "the Holy One, blessed be He, made a covenant with Israel only for the sake of that which was said by mouth, as it says [literally]: `For by the mouth of these words have I made a covenant with you and with Israel' [Exodus 34: 27]."
How can Rabbi Johanan give greater weight to reasoned halakhic discussions between human beings than to the word of God spoken directly to the prophet? What one finds in studying a page of Talmud, after all, are the arguments between different teachers over the way Jewish law and God should be understood. No rabbinic teacher ever begins his statement with "Thus says the Lord." One does not hear the religious pathos of Jeremiah's "The word of God burns in me, how can I be silent?" Unlike the Bible, the Talmud makes the rarest mention of direct intervention by God in contemporary events. God in the Bible is at the center of the stage on which the drama of the Jewish people takes place. He guides, He punishes, He responds. He speaks to Israel through His chosen elect. In the Talmud, it is the community, through its teachers, that is ostensibly at the center of the drama. Yet, despite the fact that there is no claim to direct revelation,14 the reader who penetrates beneath the surface of talmudic discussions increasingly realizes how deeply God is present and involved in every page of the Talmud.
Halakhic scholars who devote their life to the study of the tradition show the Judaic community how it is to understand what God requires of Israel. The Talmud teaches us thaat one need not be a prophet in order to chart a path in the service of God. One does not have to adopt [Martin] Buber's notion of ongoing revelation in order to make contact with the God of Israel. Revelation finds its continuation in the rabbinic application of human wisdom. The halakhic tradition shows us how finite human beings employing their limited rational capacities, rather than God-inspired prophets, can reliably mediate the eternal demands of the God of Israel.
In other words, one might surmise in Dr. Hartman's writings a call for Jews to grow up; for them to outgrow childlike longings for signs and wonders and prophetic revelations;15 for them to assume mature responsibility within a framework of law and predictable natural order. Hester panim, at least in a sense of an absence of current miracles and contemporary prophecy, might then be seen not as a tragic curse, but as a desired norm.
. . . . . . .
Now it is true that Paul in I Corinthians 12: 31 - 13: 1 ff. exhorted:
. . . [E]arnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. . . .
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for [today's] knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes,16 the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
This passage certainly seems to suggest the passing away of miracles and prophecy, or at least it seems to give them a secondary place.
In my opinion, however, Dr. Hartman's particular summons to maturity (however attractive it may seem to over-stimulated Israelis) incorporates a mistaken naturalization of the messianic hope,17 a naturalization which does not accord with the miraculous character of the coming reign of Messiah ben David as alluded to in many of the prophets.
A central claim of this article (a claim which is based mainly on empirical observation, and a claim which I believe can be well justified18 also by careful reading of the Scriptures) is: Jews and Gentiles are living today in an age of hester panim; and we have been living in such a time since at least around 150 C.E.
Students of the Way are often personally and socially uncomfortable with this fact. (It is proper, in fact, that they do not embrace current affairs as normative.) Nevertheless (unlike those Christians who view their church as the new Israel, or unlike those Jews who think all is well with rabbinic Judaism, they face no theological or philosophical embarrassment. For they first of all believe it is up to God when He will show or hide His face; and secondly it is clear to them that not all is well with this generation.
At the same time, Students of the Way must be quick to acknowledge that we do not know the councils of the Most High; we do not know why He has so long hidden His face; and we shrink back from easy formulae that would dare to rationalize Hitler's holocaust in Europe. And, despite exile, not all of the last two thousand years has been unrelenting horror; indeed, most of us in Israel and in the West live today in greater wealth, comfort, security, and even justice, than did most kings since the fall of Adam.
Similarly, even in the times of great miracles, not everyone received every wish on a magic platter.19 Most of the days of the Exodus were lived in the desert, sometimes without water. Almost the entire generation of Jews died in the wilderness, buried in now-unknown graves. Paul, in another time of great signs and wonders, prayed that his "thorn in the flesh" (II Corinthians 12: 7) be removed, but it was not.
We rejoice in the great mercy that God as shown in raising Israel out of the ashes. But we note also that this great mercy, this startling sign (a sign such as seen by almost no other generation), has been accomplished not sheerly by the might of Israel's armies [where many tried, deliberately, to transform "my Strength" in Jeremiah 16: 19 (or Psalms 28: 7) into a submachine gun (`uzzi)], nor by the great wisdom of her socialist, European-bound leadership; nor again has it come about in the miraculous manner of Jews' exodus from Egypt almost four thousand years ago. Rather than appearing as in the thunder of Sinai, the twentieth-century rebirth of Israel has come about, amidst absurdities, more like the silent and mysterious workings that characterize the book of Esther.
We do not know what immediate future awaits Jews in Israel. Messiah ben David might come today, or maybe he will wait for three hundred more years. Regardless, we must work steadily and faithfully, for as Mordecai told Esther (Esther 4: 14):
. . . [I]f thou remainest silent at this time, enlargement and deliverance will arise for the Jews from elsewhere; but thou and thy father's house will perish.
Isaiah (as in Isaiah 8: 17) wrote more than two thousand years ago: "And I will wait on the LORD, that hideth His face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for Him." For, as God says to Israel in Isaiah 54: 8: "In a little wrath I hid My face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer."
And God through Ezekiel (as in Ezek. 39: 27) has promised:
When I have brought them again from the people, and gathered them out of their enemies' lands, and am sanctified in them in the sight of many nations; Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen: but I have gathered them unto their own land, and have left none of them any more there. Neither will I hide My face from them: for I have poured out My spirit upon the house of Israel, saith the LORD God.
1 I do not see a necessary connection between hester panim and miracles and prophecy. In other words, God in hiding His face might miraculously bring disaster; or He might raise up prophets to explain e.g. why He hides His face. At the same time, my own view is that despite a miraculous inauguration of the Age of the Messiah, that era will indeed feature prophecy (God speaking directly with men), but it will not (need to) feature miracles (unless prophecy be regarded as itself a miracle).
2 The label "Students of the Way" refers back to Paul's term (hodos) in Acts 24: 14 (& cf. Acts 24: 22 & 9: 2). Jewish "Students of the Way" are today often called "messianic Jews," but the name is something of a misnomer, because any orthodox Jew believes, or should believe, in the coming of the Messiah.
3 For Scriptural support for the options proposed in parts I and II, consider e.g. the texts Deut. 31: 16-18; 32: 20; Isaiah 8: 17; (53: 3); 54: 8; 59: 2; 64: 6 (7); Jeremiah 33: 5; Ezekiel 39: 23-24, 29; (Joel 2); Micah 3: 4 (3: 1 - 4: 2); Psalms 10: 11; 13: 2 (1); 22: 25 (24); 27: 9; 30: 8 (7); 44: 25 (24); 51: 11 (9); 69: 18 (17); 88: 15 (14); 102: 3 (2); 104: 29; (119: 19); 143: 7.
4 See e.g. I Maccabees 9: 27.
5 Incidentally, many of the old Rabbinic sources which we have today refer (apparently) to Jesus (usually derogatorily) as a magician or miracle worker. [See e.g. (the end of the often-censored passage in) Talmud Bavli Sotah 47a (or its somewhat different parallel in Sanhedrin 107b) or see e.g. `Avodah Zarah 27b for mention of the healing reputation of Jesus' followers.]
6 At this point, a more detailed paper should elaborate Augustine's mature notions of miracles more carefully, and also perhaps others' notions of signs and wonders.
Regarding Augustine, we might note that in The City of God 21 ix, he wrote that "God Himself has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles as well as the minor marvels, . . . and He has included them all in that unique wonder, the miracle of miracles, the world itself." [Compare Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, or the Rambam) e.g. in The Guide of the Perplexed II 28 (p. 345).] Benedicta Ward (in Miracles and the Medieval Mind I, pp. 3-4) referred to Augustine's De Genesi ad litteram, De Trinitate, De utilitate credendi, and De civitate Dei, and said that for Augustine,
there is [in a sense] only one miracle, that of creation, with its corollary of re-creation by the resurrection of Christ. God, [Augustine] . . . held, created the world out of nothing in six days, and within that initial creation He planted all the possibilities for the future. All creation [is], . . . therefore, both 'natural' and 'miraculous': [and according to Epistle 102, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, ed. A. Goldbacher, p. 549, in J. P. Migne Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Patres Latinae, Vol. XL, p. 372], `all natural things are filled with the miraculous.' `The events of every day, the birth of men, the growth of plants, rainfall', are all `daily miracles', signs of the mysterious creative power of God at work in the universe. But Augustine also held that men [are] . . . so accustomed to these 'daily miracles' that they [are] . . . no longer moved to awe by them and [they have] needed to be provoked to reverence by unusual manifestations of God's power. These, Augustine taught, were events also within the original creation; [for according to Sermon 247, in Pat. Lat., Vol. XXXVIII, p. 115, and according to De Trinitate III vii, as in H. Bettenson, p. 140 and Pat. Lat., Vol. XLII, pp. 875-876, and as discussed in R. M. Grant Miracle and Natural Law, pp. 218-219] God had then [in the beginning] created seminum semina, seminales rationes [seeds] hidden within the nature and appearance of things, which at times caused 'miracles' that seemed to be contrary to nature but were in fact inherent in it. . .
For Augustine [as indicated in The City of God 21 viii], . . . miracles . . . [are] wonderful acts of God shown as events in this world, not in opposition to nature but as a drawing out of the hidden workings of God within a nature that [is] . . . all potentially miraculous. There [are] . . . three levels of wonder:  wonder provoked by the acts of God visible daily and discerned by wise men as signs of God's goodness;  wonder provoked by the acts of God in the ignorant, who [do] . . . not understand the workings of nature and [who] therefore could be amazed by what to the wise man was not unusual; and  wonder provoked by genuine miracles, unusual manifestations of the power of God, not contra naturam but praeter or supra naturam: [Augustine had written in De utilitate credendi XVI 34 (Pat. Lat. XLII, p. 90) that] `I call that miraculous which appears wonderful because it is either hard or impossible, beyond hope or ability.' . . . [In De Cura pro mortuis Gerenda XVI 34, or Pat. Lat. XL, pp. 606-607, Augustine wrote:] `Some things happen naturally, others miraculously; God works in whatever is natural and He is not apart from the wonders of nature.'
It is important to point out that [according to Benedicta Ward's Miracles and the Medieval Mind I, p. 4] Augustine's (later)
emphasis on the wonder caused in men, the psychological understanding of miracle, gave a wide scope for 'miracle,' including monstra and prodiga in its definition, as well as miracula and signa; and the content of [his own and subsequent Roman Catholic] miracle collections . . . continued to illustrate this.
Nevertheless, in for example The City of God 10 ix, Augustine tried to distinguish false 'miracles' from true miracles. He wrote that in both the 'Old' and 'New' Testaments,
Those [genuine] miracles and many others of the same kind . . . were intended to support the worship of the one true God. . . They were achieved by simple faith and devout confidences, not by spells and charms composed according to the rules of criminal superstition, the craft which is called magic, a name of detestation, or by the more honourable title of 'theurgy.'
Augustine insisted moreover that the demons achieve any of their marvels only by deceit, cheating, and lies. According to The City of God 10 ix, ungodly 'miracles' are but "an imposture of malignant spirits. . . It is from the devil that these phantoms come."
But even if this be the case (if men alone judge or determine what is miraculous and what is not), it might seem that the questions about the existence of miracles come to be questions about whether or not there are religious personalities who see everything, or certainly many things, as miraculous signs of God's presence. Such personalities may well exist, but is this what the Bible meant by the signs and wonders which Moses performed in Pharaoh's court, and so on?
Be that as it may, almost 700 years after Augustine (about 1100 C.E.), seeking a more precise and objective (if not easily verifiable) distinction between miracles and 'natural' events or those events willed by men, Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote in De conceptu virginali II 11:
So if we consider carefully everything that is done, we see that [all things] . . . happen either by the will of God alone, or by nature according to the power God has given it, or by the will of a creature. Now, those things which are done neither by created nature nor by the will of the creature but by God alone, are miracles [semper mirandi sint]: so it seems that there are three ways in which things happen, that is, the miraculous, the natural, and the voluntary [mirabilis, naturalis, voluntaris].
Thus, according to Anselm, "The miraculous [power of God] is not subject to the other two or to their laws, but freely rules them."
Soon before his death in 1140, Yehudah Ha-Levi (having distinguished divine effects from natural, accidental, or arbitrary effects) wrote in The Kuzari V 20 (pp. 280-281 in the Schocken edition of Hartwig Hirschfeld's translation) that divine effects
issue forth actively, having no other cause except God's will. The natural ones are derived from intermediate, preparatory causes which bring them to the desired end, as long as no obstacle arises from one of the other three classes. The accidental ones are likewise the result of intermediate causes, but accidentally, not by nature or arrangement, or by will power. . . Free will belongs to the class of intermediary causes which reduce it, chainlike, to the Primary Cause. This course is not compulsory, because the whole thing is potential, and the mind wavers between an opinion and its opposite, being permitted to turn where it chooses. The result is praise or blame for the choice, which is not the case in other classes.
An accidental or natural cause cannot be blamed, although some of them admit a possibility. . . [Nor can] one blame a child or a sleepwalking person for harm done. The opposite was possible just the same, and they cannot be blamed because they lack judgement. . .
If all incidents would be the result of the original will of the Prime Cause, they would, each in its turn, be created anew in every moment. The servant of God would be no better than the wicked, as both would be obedient, and only do that for which they are fated. . .
Yehudah Ha-Levi added (in Ibid. V 20, pp. 281-282) that "The objection made against those who assert that some matters are removed from the bounds of Providence by human free will is refuted by what was said before, viz. that they are completely outside the control of Providence, but are indirectly linked to it." At the same time, Yehudah Ha-Levi saw divine causes to be continuous and changeless emanations as in e.g. Ibid. II 26, pp. 101-102 and the beginning of II 2, p. 83.
Any modern discussions of miracles however must mention David Hume's definitional fiats. Having claimed in Section B (i) that "Beyond the constant conjunction of similar objects (and the consequent inference from one to the other), we have no mention of any necessary connection," Hume wrote for example in Section 10 ("Of Miracles" I) of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding that
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any experience can possibly be imagined. . . . There must . . . be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation [miracle]. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle, nor [by definition] can such a proof be destroyed or the miracle rendered credible but by an opposite proof which is superior. . . .
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of attention) that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish. And even in case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force which remains after deducting the inferior.
But questions of evidence, and the character and constitution of what men proclaim as 'laws' of nature; and the possibility of experiencing miracles (however closely acknowledgement of such events might be linked to men's religious and philosophical conceptions) is a complicated matter (some of the issues of the matter being discussed e.g. in C. S. Lewis' popular and often thoughtful book, Miracles; and see also Yair Zakovich The Concept of Miracle in the Bible).
Accordingly, in order to avoid pantheism, and preserve a notion of the reality of God's creation (or "nature"), Benjamin B. Warfield espoused a description much like Anselm's. Clive S. Lewis similarly wrote (in Miracles II, p. 5 in the 1947 & 1960 copyrighted editions):
I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by supernatural power. Unless there exists, in addition to Nature, something else which we may call the supernatural, there can be no miracles. (Some people believe that nothing exists except Nature, I call these people Naturalists. Others think that, besides Nature, there exists something else: I call them Supernaturalists.)
7 See the Rabbis' application of II Kings 21: 4-7 to Isaiah 28: 20; and note also e.g. Talmud Bavli Shabbath 31a.
8 See Isaiah 3: 16, etc.
9 See II kings 21: 16, etc.
10 In Yehudah Ha-Levi's The Kuzari I 39-42 (having proposed a terrestrial hierarchy of minerals, plants, animals, and men; and having asked whether there are not beings higher than humans) the Jewish Rabbi declared:
I want a level which differentiates its possessors essentially, like the difference of plants from inanimate things and the difference of men from animals. However, the differences of degree are infinite, because they are accidental. They are not really [different] levels.
The Khazar [king] said: There is, then, no level above man among objects of sense perception.
The [Jewish] Rabbi said [concerning Moses the prophet]: Well, if we find a man who enters fire in such a way that it does not cause him pain, delays eating and does not hunger, whose face is illuminated by a light which vision cannot bear, is not sick and does not grow old so that when he reaches his [proper] age he dies a death freely chosen like someone going to his mat to sleep on a certain day and hour, in addition to knowing the unseen with respect to past and future, isn't this a level which is essentially separate from the level of [ordinary] people?
The Khazar said: Rather, this level would be angelic if it exists. It [would] belong to the realm of the divine Amr. It is neither intellectual, psychic, or natural.
Colette Sirat wrote on p. 118 of A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (IV) that "The Arabic expression [for the divine 'Amr], Amr Ilahi, . . . cannot be translated; it conveys the idea of 'word,' but also 'thing' [compare the Greek logos and the Aramaic m'amra']. The Amr ilahi is a central notion in Judah Ha-Levi's thought. . ."
On p. 124 of Ibid., Colette Sirat proposed that Yehudah Ha-Levi's notion of the "divine spark ['Amr Ilahi] . . . [as] transmitted by heredity [is] a Shi'ite concept." Colette Sirat added that "this divine germ offers the possibility of union with Amr ilahi in its second sense, and perhaps it is one with it." [That second sense, she wrote, is: "(2) The divine Word, the divine Action, the divine Will; this meaning seems to be borrowed from Ismaili theology, or from another theology going back in some way to the long recension of the [so-called] Theology of Aristotle."]
I should suggest however a similarity of theme introduced by Avraham bar Hayya, e.g. in Megillath ha-Megalleh (Posnanski & Guttmann, eds.), pp. 72-74. (Compare also Talmud Bavli's story of the serpent's injection of impurity into Eve and all of her descendents, removed only for Israel when she stood at Sinai [Shabbath 145b-146a].)
11 Contrast e.g. Deut. 7: 7-9 & 9: 5-6.
12 Incidentally, and not untypically, some years earlier, the Muslim Toledan judge, abu-al-Qasim Sa`id ibn-Ahmad al-Andalusi (1029-1070 C.E.) had written in Tabaqat al-Umam [Classification of Nations], pp. 8-9 (as in Philip K. Hitti's History of the Arabs [10th ed.], pp. 526-527), concerning Nordic barbarians:
Because the sun does not shed its rays directly over their heads, their climate is cold and [its] atmosphere clouded. Consequently their temperaments have become cold and their humours rude, while their bodies have grown large, their complexion light and their hair long. The lack withal sharpness of wit and penetration of intellect, while stupidity and folly prevail among them.
13 Colette Sirat A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (IV), p. 124. Regarding the primacy of Hebrew, see The Kuzari I 49 (p. 50 in the Schocken edition of Hirschfeld's translation), I 95 (pp. 64-67), II 67-72 (pp. 124-126), IV 25 (pp. 229-230), and V 20 (p. 284). (The Kuzari of course was originally written in Arabic.)
14 Regarding this issue, note e.g. Talmud Bavli Baba' Metzi`a 59a-b:
. . . We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eli`ezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of `Aknai.
Why [the oven of] `Aknai? -- Said Rab Yehudah in Samuel's name: [it means] that they encompass it with arguments as a snake, and prove it unclean.
I has been taught: On that day R. Eli`ezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: "If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" Thereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place -- others affirm, four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they retorted. Again the said to them: "If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse [beyth ha-midrash] prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Yehoshua rebuked them, saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have ye to interfere?" Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Yehoshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eli`ezer, and they are still standing thus inclined. Again, he said to them: "If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice [bat qol] cried out: "Why do ye dispute with R. Eli`ezer, seeing that in all matters the halakhah agrees with him!" But R. Yehoshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven" [Deut. 30: 12].
What did he mean by this? -- Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, "After the majority must one incline" [as in rabbinic readings of Exodus 23: 2].
R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: "What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do in that hour?" "He laughed [with joy]," he replied, "saying: `My sons have defeated Me. My sons have defeated Me.'"
Note Dr. Hartman's discussion of this passage e.g. in Joy and Responsibility, pp. 189 ff.
15 See e.g. the chapter "Two Competing Covenantal Paradigms," pp. 235-236 in A Living Covenant, where Dr. Hartman wrote:
Because the Sinai covenant limits the scope of divine power in history, it also for Maimonides transforms and limits the concept of miracle as the way God relates to man.
Though all miracles change the nature of some individual being, God does not change at all the nature of human individuals by means of miracles. Because of this great principle it says: "O that they had such a heart as this," and so on [Deut. 5: 26]. It is because of this that there are commandments and prohibitions, rewards and punishments. We have already explained this fundamental principle by giving proofs in a number of passages in our compilations. We do not say this because we believe that the changing of the nature of any human individual is difficult for Him, may He be exalted. Rather it is possible and fully within [His] capacity. But according to the foundations of the law, or the Torah, He has never willed to do it, nor shall He ever will it. For if it were His will that the nature of any human individual should be changed because of what He, may He be exalted, will from that individual, sending of prophets and all giving of a law would have been useless. (Guide [of the Perplexed] III 32)
Here Maimonides is careful to distinguish between the claim that God cannot change human nature and the claim that he does not change it. Had he made the former claim, philosophers and theologians would have accused him of denying divine omnipotence. He makes instead the lesser claim that God's gift of the Torah presupposes that God has decided to act in history in ways that leave human nature unchanged. The fact that God gave the Israelite community mitzvot [commandments] and prophets shows that He has decided to give human beings the opportunity to play an autonomous, responsible role in history. To obtain human obedience by miraculously changing someone's nature would be to take back the responsibility conferred upon Jews through the giving of the Torah and the sending of prophets.
Maimonides does not eliminate the category of miracle. As we saw in the opening chapter, he holds that the covenantal election and revelation at Sinai can be made intelligible only in terms of the freedom of God that was manifested in the act of creation. The Sinai covenant of mitzvah [commandment] presupposes a divine miracle, but also implies limitations upon the subsequent of miracles in history. In granting that covenant, God chose to limit His infinite power of intervention in human affairs. Sinai marks a shift away from spontaneous divine miracles in history to an immanent structured communal framework that enables an orderly development of history based on the human freedom to act -- with all the uncertainty that may result. . .
(It is important to be aware, however, that Maimonides' understanding of the covenantal moment of Sinai and his neutralization of miracles did not go unchallenged. Nachmanides [Moshe ben Nahman] argued for an undiminished importance of miracle after Sinai. . .)
Again, Dr. Hartman wrote on p. 250 of the same chapter that "What I am concerned about showing is that there is a tradition of [orthodox Jewish thought that understood divine providence and the implications of the covenantal principle within categories that neutralize the need for unilateral divine action and [that also neutralize the need] for the ongoing biblical mythologization of reality."
[Compare Dr. Hartman's stand concerning miracles, maturity, and "progressive revelation" also with that of the argument of e.g. Cornelis Van Dam's fine book, The Urim and Thummim A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel - an argument made explicit on pp. 271-274. - My own view concerning "progressive revelation" is that both God's covenants and His revelation are personal and communal; and that His revelation and His dealings are adequate and generous both for each community and for each individual. In each case, His dealings and His revelation feature both continuity and variety. As a result, it becomes difficult to speak of temporal "progress" or "regress" in either God's revelation or in His covenants. At the same time, the Scriptures suggest that the whole creation and the sweep of sublunar history will in its conclusion tell a grand tale.]
16 Some, such as my father of blessed memory, have thought this may refer to the completion of the Biblical canon (and that the "imperfect" refers to speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, miracles; and seeing "in a mirror darkly" refers to human beings trusting in God before the canon's completion. I myself imagine (perhaps more conventionally) that "when the perfect comes" refers to the world to come (or `olam ha-ba'), which of course is to be distinguished from the Messianic Age (or millennium).
Be that as it may, Paul's priorities here must be clear. (These priorities accord well with Paul's declaration in Galatians 5: 22-23 that ". . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against which there is no law.")
17 Note e.g. the very naturalized (but in so far as they reach, largely sound) descriptions of King Messiah as found in Moshe ben Maimon's Mishneh Torah, the Book of Judges, Hilkhoth Melakhim u-Milhamoth, Chapters 11 and 12; and see discussion of this e.g. in Gershom Scholem Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Chapter 1, and also e.g. in Dr. David Hartman A Living Covenant, pp. 250-255 (where Dr. Hartman wrote: "The principle of hope that is essential to Maimonides' understanding of Judaism springs from the desire to be loyal to the covenant of Sinai. Hope grows from a commitment to responsibility, not from a yearning for ultimate peace and resolution. There is a heroic impulse in the messianic conception of Maimonides, since he rejected all dreams portraying the messianic era as a time of miraculously guaranteed ease and comfort. Maimonides welcomed all attempts to build toward a messianic reality, provided that those attempts were realistic.")
18 Justification of this claim is problematic, however, because of the complexity of the material (material alluded to in texts which feature highly metaphorical language, difficult-to-fathom time frames, etc.)
19 Recall e.g. the empirical appeal of Malakhi 3: 14-15, or Jeremiah 44: 15-18: "Then all the men who knew that their wives had burned incense to other gods; and all the women standing by (a great multitude, and all the people dwelling in Pathros in the land of Egypt) answered Jeremiah, saying: `We shall not hearken unto thee [regarding] the word that thou hast spoken to us in the name of the LORD. On the contrary, we shall do whatever thing goeth out of our own mouth [or vow], to [burn] incense to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out libations to her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem -- for then we had plenty of bread, we were well, and saw no evil. And since then [when] we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have been lacking, and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.'" [Consider then Jeremiah's reply in verses 20 ff.]