Numbers 16:1 to 18:13
Again this week we read about a miracle from God. The earth swallows Korah and his followers. Did it really happen? Biblical scholars through the ages have commented on the meaning behind Biblical Miracles.
In this week’s parsha, the complaining that has been observed over the past weeks continues. Now, takes the form of two challenges to Moses’ leadership. The first is by Korah who desires a leadership role. He asks: “If all of the community is holy, why do you – Moses – raise yourself above all God’s congregation.” Then, a second challenge comes from Dathan and Abiram. They did not want to continue the journey through the wilderness. They looked back at Egypt and felt that that was a better life. (Num. 16:1-4, 12-14)
The Eternal was angered by these men and caused the earth to open and swallow them, their families, and all their possessions…This was followed by a “fire that went forth from the Eternal” and consumed another two hundred and fifty men. (Num. 16:30-35)
This is not the first time that the Torah has told us that the Eternal had caused events that defy the laws of nature. There was the great flood of Noah’s time, the Burning Bush that was never consumed, the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the events at Sinai as the commandments were given to Moses, and when the Israelites needed water and food… water flowed from rocks and manna fell from the sky. All are considered either miracles by the Israelites or magic by non-Israelites.
How did these events happen? The two easy answers are first: The reader has faith. The Torah says it happened … These are the words of God … So it happened.
Second, it’s just a story … a story with a message. These extraordinary events are placed to emphasize and add importance to the lessons being taught.
Harvey Fields in his A Torah Commentary For Our Times, (Vol. 3 pp. 51-4), explores different ideas explaining these seemingly impossible events that we call miracles.
Early rabbis facing this question suggested that all these events were not opposed to nature… but planned, or programmed, by God to occur at a precise time… Therefore, they are considered natural events.
Moses Maimonides (12th Century) claimed that God has power over nature. These incidents in Torah prove that claim.
Baruch Spinoza (17th Century) states that nothing can violate the laws of nature. He believes that these “miracles” are a distorted retelling of history or fabricated opinions that have become part of the stories to prove the power of the Eternal.
Modern philosopher Martin Buber disagrees with Spinoza. Buber sees “miracles” as great turning points in religious history when an individual or group experiences a wondrous event. This point of “astonishment” comes in the realization that the person or group grasps the cause of the event and understands the forces at work…. In this – the earth opening to swallow Korah and his followers – this is a “miracle” in which one sees and understands the certainty of God’s existence and power.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the philosopher who inspired the creation of the 20th Century Reconstructionist Movement, disagrees with Buber and rejects most traditional explanations of biblical miracles. He believes that technological advances have given man a greater control over nature and made the belief in the uniformities of natural law stronger. Thus, a belief in miracles that oppose natural law have become psychologically impossible for most people. Kaplan has written that today’s science challenges “the credibility of miracles” repudiating them as factually inaccurate.
Pinchas Peli, a modern Israeli rabbi and philosopher, sees the miracles as calling attention to important lessons in the Torah. The earth may not have opened and consumed Korah… but, the telling of this event in Torah serves as a warning to people. It is meant to call our attention to the difference between authentic, responsible leadership and illusory, appealing rhetoric.
To sum up, it is apparent that these miracles are observed from differing points of view, from belief that the Torah is stating historical truths, to a skeptical belief that what we are reading has symbolic and spiritual meanings, to total non-belief where the miracles are just figments of primitive imaginations and unworthy of contemporary consideration. Nehama Leibowitz, 20th Century Israeli scholar, comments that “miracles cannot change human minds and hearts. They can always be explained away.” However, no one can argue that these miracles always attract our attention. They underscore the stories and teachings. And, they continue to create discussion and thought throughout the ages.