by reverend Charles M. Bidwell, PhD
March, 2005

You tell me that Jesus walked on water. How nice for Jesus, but it doesn't do me any good. You tell me that with a stroke of his walking stick, Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea and the Israelites walked through on dry land. You tell me that Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb after three days of not breathing and certain decay in that hot country.

I cannot bring myself to believe in any miracle that goes against the laws of nature -- the physical forces that maintain the solar systems and physical, chemical, gravitational, electromagnetic, and other forces maintaining the functions of Earth. I cannot believe them because they seem to have ceased to occur since Jesus died and because I believe that the divine force at work in the universe is, in part, those natural forces and life processes. In my mind, miracles are those unexpected occurrences that work to our benefit. Unexpected occurrences that do not bring benefit to us we do not call miracles but disasters. In that light, let us revisit the miracles mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures from a non-theistic perspective.

In some cases, I believe that the Hebrew tradition of amplifying a story (midrash) in order to impress the event upon the memories of the hearers in that oral tradition can account for some of the miracles in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Passage Through the Red Sea
I don't image walls of water towering above the heads of the motley crew of rag-tag groups of people jumping at the chance to escape from servitude under Pharaoh. That's for Hollywood's dramatic presentation of the story. No, for me, I imagine the reality was that Moses scouted around and knew (was led by God?) that there was an area of the Red Sea that was marshy and one could walk through it to the other side. I think he led the flock of escapees to that area and even though the people were carrying their meagre possessions, they were able to get across without drowning. The Egyptians however, used horses and chariots and these were too heavy to pursue without getting stuck in the mud of that marshy area of the Red Sea. Now once on the other side the diverse groups of people were so delighted to be free of their overbearing overseers that they sang and danced and laughed to see far off in the distance the proud Egyptians mired and floundering and perhaps having a devil of a job to get their horses free and their chariot wheels turning home again.

Later they would tell each other and anyone else they encountered on their long journey to the land and cities they would overtake, that they were led by Moses across the Red Sea so easily that you could almost have felt that you were walking on dry land, it was that simple. Well, telling someone that the trip “felt like you were walking on dry land” can very easily lead to them telling others that they did indeed walk on dry land and thus a miracle is born, when the real miracle was that they trusted Moses and followed him and escaped whether they were slogging along up to their knees in marsh water or not. You don't need to believe in actual, factual walls of water to convey the miracle; the real and greater miracle was that they trusted someone and followed and so reached freedom - that's the unexpected occurrence. In the same way, the Jewish tradition of amplifying the details of a story can account for some of the miracles in the Christian Scriptures; after all Jesus was a Jewish sage and his audience and followers and later writers were Jewish.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand
Here is an example of people being shamed into sharing. Peasant folks do not go on a day's journey without carrying some food and drink with them (there were no fast food restaurants in the Holy Land in Jesus' time). They packed something meagre no doubt to chase after the wandering sage and hear his talks. When it came time to eat, they each probably kept what little they had hidden from those around them; they did not feel that they had food enough to share, they didn't see anyone else offering what they had, and there was the compounding fear that someone else's food would not be Kosher.

Then Jesus probably said to his close followers something like, “It's noon and we should eat something. What have you brought?” The followers probably said, “Certainly not enough for all these people too.” Then a boy overheard the problem and offered his bread and fish. Jesus probably announced something like. “People, we don't have enough food to feed you all, but this lad has offered his fish and bread to share and so we'll start by passing them around and see how far it will go. And then he gave thanks to God for the food, as all Jews do at every meal, and started passing the bread and fish around.

I can imagine the first folks saying, “It's okay, we have enough,” and in fact they may have added something to the basket going around. The basket went on from family to couple to single person to the next and each may have taken something and/or added something. By the time all had eaten, there was food left over.

I can now imagine folks telling the story to friends later and saying, “There must have been hundreds of people there, maybe even thousands.” Who was counting the crowd? Then they would go on to say, “It was a miracle that with all those people and no food in sight we were able to eat to our full and have baskets of food left over.”

If there had been a scientist present (psychologist, critical observer, crowd attendance estimator, etc.) and writing down the factual details, we might have never had such a miracle story. The real miracle is the power of example and the bounty to come from sharing unselfishly. I don't believe that Jesus was a magician manufacturing tons of food out of thin air to feed a population of five thousand people. I do believe that when we step up to a challenge with open hands and hearts, miracles as unexpected occurrences can happen.