The Meaning of Miracle Stories in the Bible by Wendy Cotter

God’s protective love and compassion are at the heart of all miracle stories found in the Bible. Impossible situations of danger or death, suffering or oppression, become opportunities to flourish, thanks to the merciful use of God’s power to save.

In the ancient Hebrew Bible, miracles sometimes are used in contests where a prophet pits God’s power against pagan leaders’ boasts about their idols. So Moses’s amazing miracles of God surpass the tricks of Pharaoh’s magicians, and Elijah’s calling on God to bring down fire from heaven outdoes the Philistines, whose god Baal fails to answer. These manifestations of God’s supreme power over all nature are meant to impress the people as to which deity they can trust.

Other miracles show God as a protective warrior against bullies and tyrants, as when God rescues the helpless Israelites to escape from Pharaoh’s army by holding back waters of the Red Sea until the people can cross to the other side before causing the waters to return, covering and drowning the pursuing Egyptians. God’s miracles are also personal, as seen in the story of Tobit, the holy man whose sight was restored when God sent the angel Raphael to show Tobias, the man’s son, how to mix and apply a miraculously healing salve. This story depicts a God who cares about individuals and shows that those empowered by God can be holy messengers.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ miracle stories can be read to reflect the mercy and compassion of God. The Gospels make it plain that the reason Jesus could work such miracles is that he, as the Son of God, was filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is distinct from the heroes and prophets of the Hebrew Bible in that, unlike them, he does not pray for miracles to occur but rather is empowered himself to heal people, expel evil spirits, and, most powerfully, to raise the dead. The revelation of Jesus’ authority over the earth as Lord is seen in his miracle of stilling the storm, where the elements—the wind and the sea—recognize Jesus and obey him instantly. Jesus uses this power to calm his frightened disciples, who fear that they will drown. 

In all Jesus’ miracles depicted in the Gospels, people from every walk of life step forward as petitioners, and Jesus treats them with respect and understanding. The New Testament authors intended these stories to teach their audiences: even if the would-be Christian is unable to perform miracles, he or she could reach out and show mercy and compassion, like Jesus, to others.  

 

Wendy Cotter, "Meaning of Miracle Stories in the Bible", n.p. [cited 28 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/related-articles/meaning-of-miracle-stories-in-the-bible

Contributors

Wendy Cotter

Wendy Cotter
Professor, Loyola University

Wendy Cotter, CSJ, is a Sister of St. Joseph and a full professor of New Testament at Loyola University, Chicago. Her special areas of research include the Gospel of Mark, Q studies and, pregospel traditions—in particular, miracle stories.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

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