For 2,000 years, the biblical stories in which God changes the course of nature were called miracles. Indeed, that is the very definition of a miracle. And miracles were the defining feature of the deity, the ineluctable proof of God's existence and power. Yet since the rise of the Enlightenment in 18th century, with its commitment to scientific inquiry and its opposition to superstition, the nature of biblical miracles has been called into question. Events that were scientifically impossible were deemed ... impossible. Yet at the same time, for millions of people the Bible retained and retains its position as a repository of truth, both abstract (moral, ethical) and literal (historical).
The conjunction of modern scientific inquiry and allegiance to the Bible has led to an interesting turn of events. We see an ongoing attempt to find a rational basis for some of the more unbelievable biblical events, to "explain" them scientifically. Examples of this abound. The flood of Genesis 6-9, in which the whole world is covered with water? That was the result of a massive comet or meteor crashing into the ocean, creating a worldwide tsunami and killing almost everyone on earth.
The plagues in Egypt of Exodus 7-10? They were a natural chain of events instigated by a very modern culprit: global warming.
The splitting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14? A coincidence of a very low tide and a very strong wind.
The manna with which the Israelites were fed in the wilderness? Nothing more than a naturally-occurring desert lichen, or perhaps the sap of the tamarisk tree, or, least appetizingly, perhaps the excretion of the tiny bugs that feed on tamarisk sap. The list could go on.
For the skeptical modern, these sorts of theories, produced by scholars and glossed with the veneer of rigorous scientific research, are attractive because they prove the idiom (ironically enough from the Bible itself, from the great skeptic who wrote Ecclesiastes) that there is nothing new under the sun. Science explains all. At the same time, these theories speak also to the biblical literalist: science, that great enemy of faith, does not undermine but in fact confirms the Bible's truth. The two camps converge in a rare moment of harmony: What the Bible says is actually what happened.
The problem, however, is that none of these theories about what happened are, in fact, what the Bible says happened. The Bible doesn't say that a comet struck the ocean, or that there was global warming, or that it was low tide or that the Israelites ate lichen (or worse). It says that there were miracles, originating entirely with God, to punish or protect, to destroy or to save. Miracles cannot, by definition, be natural occurrences, no matter how rare or remarkable. It is not that the Bible reflects the state of knowledge in an earlier, pre-scientific culture, and that we who are more enlightened have the capacity to understand the events in the Bible more accurately. The Bible is not a record of ancient observations; it is a grand theological statement about God's interaction with humanity and the world. Rationalizing its stories does not "explain" the Bible. Rationalizing, in fact, obscures it.
And that is because these theories do not illuminate the biblical text in any meaningful way. Even if it were proved that a comet did cause a massive flood event at some point in the past, our understanding of the biblical story of the flood would remain unchanged: it was God's punishment for the wickedness and violence of humanity. Even if there are various edible substances in the desert, the biblical story of the manna is still a story of divine providence at a time of intense need. Attempts to find some middle ground are precarious at best. For example, the great Orthodox Jewish biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) suggested that the splitting of the sea was indeed an explainable coincidence of tide and wind, but the miracle was that these occurred precisely when the Israelites needed to cross. This is neither a literal reading nor a scientific one, despite its attempts to be both. The power of the Bible comes not from its scientific veracity, but from precisely the opposite.
We cannot have it both ways. The Bible cannot both be a foundation of faith and conform to modern notions of scientific rationality. Nor should it. For true believers, naturalistic rationalizations undercut a central message of the Scriptures, that God intervenes in human affairs. Skeptics must wonder why any attempt is being made in the first place to prove that biblical events really happened. The Bible may be couched as historical narrative, but the claims it makes are claims of faith, which no amount of positive or negative data can alter.
In this holiday season, we may consider the two stories at the heart of Hanukkah and Christmas (although Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday, but the point still stands). According to Jewish tradition, the miracle of Hanukkah is that after the Temple in Jerusalem was sacked by the Syrian king Antiochus in the second century B.C.E., the tiny amount of unprofaned oil remaining, enough to last only one day, lasted instead for eight days. According to Christian tradition, the miracle of Christmas is of course the birth of Jesus to the virgin mother Mary. If we could prove that somehow one day's worth of oil could last for eight by some hitherto unknown natural property of oil -- or if we could prove that somehow it is medically possible for a virgin to give birth -- who would benefit from such an explanation?
Miracles are articles of faith, for true believers today and for the Bible as well. Whether they actually happened or not is debatable. But to chalk them up to freak occurrences of nature is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of the Bible and of belief in it.
Follow Joel S. Baden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JoelBaden