The narrative parts of the Hebrew Bible attest a variety of wonders wrought by God. Such so-called miracle stories cluster around the person of Moses—who led the exodus from Egypt and received the gifts of water, meat, and bread for the Israelites in the wilderness—and the persons of Elijah and Elisha, who performed wonders of healing, feeding, and raising the dead. In the book of Genesis such wonders include the birth of children to women who are “known” to be barren. (The text offers a patriarchal assumption that it is the women who could not produce.) These acts tell of God’s power breaking in upon business as usual in ways that generate new possibility for life.
The term “miracle” is not much used in the translation of these narratives; these divine intrusions are variously termed “wonders” or “marvelous deeds.” Martin Buber has characterized such transformations as events that have “abiding astonishment.” The community of readers continues to remember, recall, celebrate, and be dazzled by such wonders as evidence that the world, for all of its failures, is open to new possibility from God. That such evidence was remembered in story form indicates that these are one-time occurrences that need not follow systemic logic. All sorts of things can happen in a story that are not possible in a scientific system.
Such astonishment at remembered events is not scrutinized within the narratives, as modern readers might prefer, nor do the stories evoke any curiosity from the characters that might require explanation. We tend today to think of a world without miracles as normal; “miracles” are seen to be problematic and in need of explanation. In this ancient text, however, the wonders of faith that impinge upon life are taken as treasured first-hand evidence of the power of God and treated as normal for a world open to reality beyond human management. Thus the Elijah and Elisha stories tell of a world that is modified by these human beings, who carry a power for life that is beyond the reach of royal authority.
As in the narratives, so too Israel’s songs of praise “tell the story” in verse. Ps 136 recites one full inventory of such “wonders,” running from the wonder of creation to the “historical” memories of Israel concerning deliverance from Egypt, sustenance in the wilderness, and reception of the land, all taken as acts and signs of divine “steadfast love.” The entire recital of plagues wrought by God in Egypt constitutes a curriculum of “signs” to be taught to the grandchildren concerning God’s power and governance (Exod 10:1-2).
In both narrative and hymn, the miracle stories assume a basic way of thinking about knowledge—how we know what we know—that is alien in a modern context. In the end, the oddness of that alternative way of knowing does not concern miracles as such, but rather concerns the God who is said to enact such wonders, sometimes directly and sometimes through designated, empowered human agents.
Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. He has recently authored The Practice of Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 2012), Journey to the Common Good (Westminster John Knox, 2010), and Truth-Telling as Subversive Obedience (Wipf & Stock, 2011).
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.
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
A song or poem that is religious in nature.
A written, spoken, or recorded story.
A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.
An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.
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