Monday, May 23, 2005

Of All God's Miracles Large and Small

... the most miraculous one of all/
is the one I thought could never be/
God has given a brain to me...

I was thinking about miracles as reported in the Tanach and the Midrash. It's certainly easy to brush off a miracle as an impossibility - after all, doing things that are outside the normal operating procedures of nature seems to be the very definition of a miracle. So, while one may say "the sea splitting? How could you believe such nonsense?!," others simply view it as a miracle that happened - God caused the sea to split to let the Jews escape from the Egyptians.

There are numerous miracles mentioned in Tanach - the sea splitting, the flood, the manna falling from the heaven, the sun stopping for Joshua, Elisha's raising of the dead. That is by no means a complete list. There are plenty of miracles that are mentioned outright in Tanach. Let's call those "primary miracles."

In order to support those primary miracles, however, one must also accept the premise of "secondary miracles" - miracles not mentioned directly in Tanach, but which have become associated with the prime miracle, and, in some cases, must be accepted if the prime miracle is to make sense at all.

The Mabul (flood) is a primary miracle that seems to be rife with secondary miracles. Problems with spatial dimensions, logistical problems concerning feeding, waste disposal and disease, gathering up all the animals (and then returning them to their proper habitats afterwards!), are all matters that one must ascribe to "secondary miracles" if one is to believe the primary miracle.

In some cases, believing in the secondary miracle makes some sense - for example the miracle of the manna falling. The Midrash teaches several miraculous qualities that the manna possessed (it's taste could be altered, it did not possess waste material, etc.). Personally, I'm inclined to accept these since as long as we're positing God miraculously bringing food to millions of people daily (talk about a delivery service!) then it's not too much more of a stretch to say that the food itself was miraculous.

Other secondary miracles, however, strain the credulaty of the story. I suppose the Mabul (Noah's flood) is one of the main stories that feature these types of "secondary miracles." The water itself, I suppose would be the primary miracle - there simply isn't that much water in the world - so God created it to destroy the world. Fine, there's the primary miracle.

The secondary miracles, however, abound like rabbits. Spatial problems, logistical miracles concerning feeding, ventilation, waste disposal and disease, the problem of gathering animals from far away locations (and returning them there once the flood was over!), and many others are "secondary miracles" that are attributed to the flood.

Some of these secondary miracles make sense to the average reader - after all without them the story could not happen. So, how did Noah get all those animals in the ark to fit? It was a miracle. How did the carnivores survive for a year on vegetable matter? It was a miracle. How did disease not spread with the bottom level of the ark containing waste for an entire year? It was a miracle. How did animals from specialized environments survive out of their environment for an entire year? It was a miracle. You get the picture. In order to accept the flood story at face value, you have to accept many, many other miracles along with the main story.

Some of these "secondary miracles" however, don't make any sense. How did the animals from the Americas and Australia get to the ark in the first place? I suppose they came on their own (miracle?), as the Torah seems to indicate. But the Torah gives no indication of how they got back to where they came from. How did the llamas get back to South America? How did the kangaroos get back to Austrailia? Did the penguins fly back to Antarctica? What about the dodo - how did it get back to Mauritius? The Torah makes no mention of this, and, oddly, neither does the Midrash (to the best of my knowledge - if someone knows differently, please feel free to let me know). The way the story seems to read is that Noah simply opened the doors of the ark and let everything out to migrate back to it's proper location. (We'll leave off how they would survive in their proper location if it was devestated by the flood - that's another question for another time). And I'm still not aware of any reason why God would erase geological evidence of a world wide flood.

Another example of incredible "secondary miracles" surrounds Og, king of Bashan. Here is a creature which the Torah describes as a giant. OK, well, giant means different things to different people. The Midrash takes this to an extraordinary degree. The Midrash pegs Og's height at thirty amos (cubits) tall - at the ankle!

Well, surely the existence of such a creature is surely a miracle. No creature on earth is that tall or massive. Not even the blue whale, the largest animal creature to ever exist on earth can compare to that. But what about all the secondary miracles needed to explain Og?

Such a creature, under normal circumstances, should not have been able to move. It should have collapsed under it's own weight - even taking into account the added muscle that it surely must have had (remember, while area doubles by the square, volume doubles by the cube - Og would have much more weight bearing down on each square inch of his feet than you or I would).

In addition, one has to account for the fact that a creature of that size would need to consume a great deal of food to survive - possibly more than the region could produce and sustain the nation living upon it. Could the area have supported such a creature? And if so, was it a miracle?

Of course, one of the most vexing issues that I have with Og's reported height is the complete lack of him in any extra-Biblical or extra-Midrashic text. A creature that size would have been a legend for hundreds of miles around. In addition, assuming that Og was able to move (the Midrash reports him as being able to lift a mountain over his head!) I'm surprised that Bashan wasn't the superpower of the region. After all, what ancient nation, possessing a weapon as formidable as Og would not conquer it's surrounding nations? So, then, how do you explain the absence of Og from any extra-Biblical or extra-Midrashic literature? I suppose one could attribute it to a miracle, but then one must also ask "why?" What purpose would there be in God deleting Og from all places except Torah literature? It just doesn't make sense.

Assuming, of course, that one accepts "primary miracles" as having happened (more or less) as reported, how does one treat the secondary miracles? Certainly some of them are believeable and perfectly within the "scope" of the story. But some of them are just way out there and I find them very difficult, if not impossible, to believe.

The Wolf

32 comments:

Larry said...

To me, the most difficult secondary miracle with respect to the flood is the miraculous clearing up of all the geological evidence a world-wide flood would create. All the secondary miracles that are required for the flood (transport to/from Australia etc.) don't bother me as they necessary for the story to occur at all. But there is no 'story reason' for all the evidence to be cleared up afterward.

KT

Larry

The Hedyot said...

Nice presentation of the issues.

> Assuming, of course, that one accepts "primary miracles" as having happened (more or less) as reported, how does one treat the secondary miracles?

But if you're accepting the "primary miracle" as possible, why not also accept the "secondary" ones the same way? Why distinguish the plausiblity of one type over the other? In fact, the primary one is usually the more incredulous of the two, so why accept the harder-to-believe one, yet expect some sort of explanation for the easier-to-beleive ones?

I'm not advocating that one should take this appraoch. Just trying to better understand your thought process.

Mis-nagid said...

Wolf, Try reading the Torah as an atheist. All the problem go away, and it just makes sense. People wrote the Noach story for the reasons people write all such stories.

The Torah is exactly what it looks like: Iron Age sacred literature. Try appreciating it for what it really is, and you won't have to selectively turn your brain off.

BrooklynWolf said...

Mis-nagid,

Reading the Torah as an atheist is all fine and well, but it doesn't really solve anything if you really do believe that God exists.

The key here is not to disregard everything in toto but to try to separate the literal from the allegorical from the false.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Hedyot,

The differences between the "primary" and "secondary" miracles is really very simple - the primary miracles have a better Source.

In other words, if you believe the flood story (assuming you believe a literal, global flood), then by necessity, you must believe that God warped dimensions in the ark. On the other hand, you do not *have* to believe that the animals were miraculously transported to their present-day environments. You don't have to believe that Noah had magical stones in the Ark that could tell day from night. You don't have to believe that Og held on for dear life to the end of the Ark.

I suppose a good dividing line might be "did God have a reason to do this?" Did God have a reason to gather the animals into the ark? Yes. Did He have a reason to destroy evidence of the flood? Not that I can see or fathom.

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mis-nagid said...

Reading the Torah as an atheist is all fine and well, but it doesn't really solve anything if you really do believe that God exists.

False dilemma. What does the Torah have to do with God's existence? Even if you believe a God exists, it says nothing about the work known as the Torah.

Like most frum people, you think the "opposite" of frumkeit is atheism. What about all the other religions, towards whose gods you're an atheist? There aren't only two options.

BrooklynWolf said...

Technically speaking, Mis-nagid, you are correct. However, I kind of thought that everyone here understood that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. were really beyond the scope of this conversation.

I certainly know enough to know that non-observant != atheist. But, for the purposes of our discussion, I thought it was obvious that we were discussing God as described in the Torah. My apologies if that wasn't clear.

The Wolf

Lone Bochur said...

Why do you feel compelled to take the midrashic accounts of Og as being 100% literal?

BrooklynWolf said...

LB,

I personally don't. I'm more than willing to concede that the midrash is allegorical.

But every now and again I run across someone who says "it's in the Gemara in Berachos, so it's got to be true (literally)."

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

You missed the point. I'm not suggesting you become a Muslim. I'm suggesting you disassociate the Torah from god-belief, as they're not mutually dependant. I suggested you read the Torah as an atheist, and you said you believe in God. That you didn't see the flaw in the reply is what I was pointing out.

So try it. Try reading the Torah as you would the Koran -- as a book. See if anything in it compels you to believe it's in any way divine. It can be very difficult to see it with fresh eyes, to forget all the cruft that you've been taught about it. If you pull it off, you'll realize how understandable the Torah is as a human work, even more so than as a supernatural work. Your whole post becomes irrelevant without missing a thing.

daat y said...

misnagid=
and how about you really trying to read Gods Torah.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"But every now and again I run across someone who says "it's in the Gemara in Berachos, so it's got to be true (literally)."

Me too. But isn't that their problem?

Anonymous said...

Rashba explains how the Og stuff is all allegorical.

DarkBlueHat said...

I was taught as a kid that it meant Og was as invincible in battle as a giant, and that Klal Yisroel only beat him by a nes. Otherwise the questions are endless, as my father would remind me. For example, the Midrash says Og wanted to marry Sarah - and do what with her?

BTW, do you have a list of all the Slifkin Bloggers? I figure it best to link to them...

http://darkbluehat.blogspot.com/

BrooklynWolf said...

Well, I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in the frum world in not taking everything Chazal say 100% literally.

As for Mis-nagid's point:

One can certainly read the Torah as one would any other book. But you're forgetting that (ISTM) we seem to come from two different starting points: whether or not the Torah is divinely inspired (or dictated). If we can't agree on that first premise, then we will simply have to agree to disagree. I can certainly see your point that IF you don't posit a God-given Torah, then all the questions go away. But I do posit it, and so the questions remain for me to work out as best as I can.

The Wolf

bluke said...

Regarding Og and the gemara in Berachos, see the Maharsha there we he says that the story is weird (זר הוא) and not to be taken literally. The Rashba also understands it allegorically.

I never really thought about the flood until now, there is no question it is difficult.

hayim said...

The Flood *cannot* possibly be understood literally, for many reasons, some of which were mentioned here. Mis-Nagid had a good series of 5 posts on the topic (a 6th post was promised before he resigned), from the point of view of Biblical Criticism.

Understanding it metaphorically is not precisely an easy task either. Why should G.d pick up a myth that was used earlier in other cultures ? What's the message ?

if anybody has an intelligent view on the topic, besides saying that it is sacred litterature from the Iron Age, I would be interested to hear it.

BrooklynWolf said...

Hayim,

There is an alternative, of course... that of a limited (local) flood. Surely a limited flood would linger in the memory of surrounding cultures as well.

The Wolf

hayim said...

A limited flood ?

Granted, you have some traditional sources to support you, and that takes care of a few issues.

But do you solve all the problems raised in your post ? I don't think so.

> So, how did Noah get all those animals in the ark to fit? It was a miracle. How did the carnivores survive for a year on vegetable matter? It was a miracle. How did disease not spread with the bottom level of the ark containing waste for an entire year? It was a miracle. How did animals from specialized environments survive out of their environment for an entire year? It was a miracle. You get the picture. In order to accept the flood story at face value, you have to accept many, many other miracles along with the main story.

Right. Plus the plants / trees surviving one year, lack of geological evidence, even local, etc.

It's gonna take some time before I can wolf down that theory. Thanks anyway.

BrooklynWolf said...

Hayim,

I agree with you that it doesn't solve *ALL* the problems. Admittedly, at some point, you're probably going to have to posit some "secondary miracles" to get the story of Noah to work.

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"Understanding it metaphorically is not precisely an easy task either. Why should G.d pick up a myth that was used earlier in other cultures ? What's the message ?"

I think that's a rather easy one. Compare the mabul to the other flood myths and contrast them.

You find that the other flood myths have the God's creating man by expectorating into the ground and using the dirt; contrast that w-Hashem's creating betzelem elokim. In the myths the gods destroy the world because man is noisy and that bothers them. In the Torah it is because man is violent towards one another. In the myths, the Noah figure offers a sacrifice to the gods and that sacrifice causes further anger and conflic among the gods; in the Torah it is the start of a covenant between God and man et cetera.

A point by point comparison is beyond the scope here, but the flood myths and the mabbul differ in important ways. And in some sense we only can appreciate what is in the story of the mabbul if we understand how the world at that time viewed the ancient story of the flood. The Torah gives God's version. Whether or not it happened, or is based on something or didn't happen at all -- it is clear why it is in the Torah. There is so much about the Torah's ethic in that story.

Avi said...

How about taking the torah as a story, that was divinely inspired by God but not written by God or Moshe. Maybe several people were involved in writting the torah at different times, with Hashem guiding their thoughts.

BrooklynWolf said...

Avi,

Thanks for you reply, but I'm not quite sure I see the distinction here.

If you're going to hold that the Torah is divinely inspired (even if not written by God Himself or by Moshe) then it still must, at some level, be true. It is still subject to many of the same questions that arise with Divine or Mosaic authorship. How is your scenario different?

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"How about taking the torah as a story, that was divinely inspired by God but not written by God or Moshe. Maybe several people were involved in writting the torah at different times, with Hashem guiding their thoughts."

That's standard liberal Jewish theology. But it isn't Orthodox Judaism's view (or shall we say views, as there isn't quite a monolithic Orthodox view on this either).

The Hedyot said...

Regarding the "primary" and "secondary" types of miracles, If I understand you correctly, there's a finer distinction you're making in your comment than how you put it in your post:

> In other words, if you believe the flood story (assuming you believe
> a literal, global flood), then by necessity, you must believe that God warped
> dimensions in the ark. On the other hand, you do not *have* to believe that the
> animals were miraculously transported to their present-day environments...

Here you seem to be distinguishing between 3 different types of miracles:

1) miracle that is directly mentioned in the text (e.g. flood, all the animals being in the ark, etc.)
2) miracle that (1) must necessarily lead to (e.g. ark expanding, animals surviving outside of natural habitat, Noah being able to take care of all the animals, etc.) Obviously, if these miracles hadn’t occurred, none of it all would have worked out.
3) miracle not mentioned in primary source and not necessitated by any outside ideas (e.g. Og hanging on to ark). Whether or not this is true has no bearing on the main story, so dismissing it has very little effect on the main ideas.

In the post, I thought you were saying that type 1 is a “primary” kind of miracle, and the others are “secondary” (and therefore my question of, Why distinguish between the two?). But this distinction actually seems to put 1 and 2 as primary because they are necessitated by the “facts” of the primary text. Whereas type 3 is a secondary because it really is not essential to the details of the story.

Is this an accurate assessment? If it is, I think your original formulation might need a bit of polishing.

BrooklynWolf said...

You put it better than I did Hedyot - there should be a distinction.

How about if we group them this way:

1. Primary miracles (e.g. - it rained for 40 days and 40 nights.

2. Secondary miracles - miracles that one must assume happened (even though they aren't explicitly mentioned in the text) if the story is to be believable to any extent. (e.g. all those animals fitting into the ark)

3. Tertiary miracles - those that are associated with the primary miracle (or secondary miracle) but are completely absent from the primary text and the primary text can be read unchanged without it (e.g. - Og hanging off the ark).

Most of the tertiary miracles can be dismissed as factually having happened (I don't want to dismiss them outright because I believe that there was *some* purpose in teaching them to begin with).

Likewise, one could conceiveably dispense with many of the secondary miracles if one assumes the primary miracle can be reinterpreted. For instance, if one maintains that the flood was a local flood, then the problem of Noah fitting all the animals into the ark becomes much easier to address.

Likewise, some secondary miracles that must be ascribed to the flood simply make no sense. For example, if one posits a world-wide flood, why would God destroy the geological evidence of such a flood? Of course, then, one is left with two possible choices: (a) God (for whatever reason) chose to hide the evidence of the flood or (b) the primary miracle must again be reinterpreted.

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

"Primary miracles (e.g. - it rained for 40 days and 40 nights."

Only in J. P's version has the flood lasting about a year.

Anonymous said...

If I am not mistaken, there is a Gemara which deals with Og in Niddah and the Maharsha explains the allegory behind his "dimensions."

I can look into it if you are interested.

BrooklynWolf said...

Anon -I'd be very interested. Thank you.

Mis-nagid - I don't see why this has to attributed to two different authors. It's fairly consistent to say that it only rained for forty days, but that the earth remained flooded for a longer period of time.

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

"I don't see why this has to attributed to two different authors."

That's pretty funny coming from a guy who feels it "has to" have been written by a supernatural being.

The evidence for the Flood story being a chimera is really very good. Your question shows that you're not very well versed in real biblical scholarship. I'll email you the series I wrote on Noach.

Tuvia said...

Wolf:

I wonder -- does the "pshat" of a Torah verse imply that something actually occurred, or is it just as possible that it just implies something has a "surface meaning" that we should read carefully and know?

More generally, if God gave the Torah, does it all mean that the narrative must have "really happened" from our point of view? Is it possible to hold the idea that the Torah is God given, but the pshat of the narrative is not historical?