Miracles have a long and respected place in Judaism and Christianity. Often miracles are seen as evidence of God’s reality and His goodness and justice. After all, miracles are considered to be acts or events where the natural processes are disturbed by divine act. So, if something occurs outside of the natural order of things, and outside of direct human or social action, then we see this as God stepping in miraculously, and we probably assume that this breaking in has significance. Miracles don’t really “prove” God because it is frustratingly difficult to prove causation of… well… pretty much everything. Generally, however, miracles are supposed to be a sign. That is, they are meant to be signs for those already share a theocentric worldview. Generally they have little to tell those whose worldview is more naturalistic.
But let’s wrestle with the second point a bit… miracles point to God’s goodness and justice. I believe this point is sound, but perhaps the point gets taken in wrong directions.
First, miracles may point to God’s goodness and justice, but some miracles may not be “good” from a human perspective. There are numerous cases in the Bible where God miraculously does things that are arguably harmful to man. The Noahic Flood and the Plagues of Egypt were certainly miraculous, but so many people were harmed by them. Sometimes we like to separate between benevolent miracles (commonly called “miracles”) and malevolent miracles (called “curses” or “judgments”), but that is our choice.
Second, while miracles may point to God’s working through a person, it does not necessarily signify God’s total approval of that person. This is actually the main point of this rambling post. A miracle is a sign about God, but NOT NECESSARILY a sign regarding the miracle worker, the tool God uses to carry out the miracle (especially if the miracle is not a benevolent one). Frankly, this should hardly surprise us. Habakkuk had this struggle with God when God informed him that He was going to use the Babylonians (ungodly idolaters) to punish Judah (halfhearted followers of the God of Abraham). Habakkuk struggled with how God could use the ungodly to carry out his work. God appears to make it clear that He will use who or what He chooses to carry out His mission. Even more challenging is Jesus saying that there are many who will carry out (presumably genuine) miracles in His name who God “never knew.” More on this later.
So are there genuine servants of God who sought to use miracles wrongly, and God still empowered them— empowered them to do something wrong? God certainly allows us to use the created world around us and our own talents (all gifts of God’s power) to do wrong. So what about more— showy— demonstrations of God’s power? I would like to suggest there are examples in the Bible that should make us suspect that God will sometimes allow us to do wrong… even in the miraculous.
- A classic example is the case where Moses struck a rock to bring forth water even though He was commanded to speak to the rock (Numbers 20). Many of you know the classic typological argument for why Moses was punished. The rock is supposed to represent Jesus— one time (Exodus 17) the rock is struck to show that Jesus is the redeemer. The second, time one is supposed to just speak to the rock since there is no more need for sacrifice (“being struck”). I suppose it can be looked at this way, but I feel this is more about preachers wanting to be clever. This is a long-standing tradition in the church to allegorize or see pretty much everything in the Hebrew Bible as a type of Christ. That is not to say that none of this has merit. For me, however, what is more interesting is that this is a clear example of God doing a miracle and that miracle DOES NOT demonstrate support for the miracle worker. In fact, the miracle was done because the people were thirsty, and thus it was done IN SPITE OF Moses, rather than because of him. This would be an example of God doing a benevolent miracle for the people, while not rejecting (in the moment at least) the tool He used to initiate the miracle.
- Prophecy is miraculous at least when it involves knowledge that is not knowable without divine revelation. As such, people such as Balaam (Numbers 22) and the “witch” of Endor (I Samuel 28), could be seen as examples of God doing the miraculous despite the one (God) who truly did the miracle not in support of the person. We know elsewhere in Scripture that we are supposed to look on Balaam negatively despite the prophecy. We don’t know much about the witch of Endor, but we know that she was practicing divination, or necromancy. These were strongly prohibited. This may be in line with Judas who did miracles in the Gospels and yet was still described as the “Son of Perdition”— miracle workers that God did not know.
- Elisha on two occasions did miracles where there seems to be a good question whether this is in line with God’s desires. One of those was when Elisha was the new successor of Elijah. He asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (presumably, ability to effect miraculous change). Not long after this, Elisha is verbally accosted by some young men who insulted him, comparing him unfavorably to Elijah. Elisha then called a curse on them and many were mauled by two bears. I have heard many commentators try to explain why what Elisha did was justified. However, taken in the broader context it seems pretty clear that Elisha was in the wrong. The passage seemed to describe an insecure man taking (literally) the mantle of his predecessor. The part of the story before Elijah left suggests this insecurity. The part after really reinforces it. His first miracle was a completely unnecessary one to repeat a miracle that Elijah did just previously. Then when questioned of his ability to replace Elijah, he calls down a curse. To me it is a lesson to those who seek divine favor that (like in Spiderman), where there is great power, there is great responsibility. The other miracle was when he cursed his servant with leprosy. This curse may or many not be appropriate. However, he also placed the curse on the servant’s descendants forever. This is not only extreme, it seems to be in opposition to God’s will and word. The punishment (just act, not simply natural results) of one who does wrong is not to be placed on future generations. Elisha’s miracle appears to be against God’s justice. So what happened? Since we don’t know of any family today with perennial problems with leprosy, I would assume that maybe God did not honor that part of the curse, OR perhaps Elisha calmed down and corrected his error.
- Peter in chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles appears to curse Ananias and Sapphira with death. Again, I have heard many attempts to explain why this was appropriate. However, in the context it is hard to see it. Chapters 1 through 4 of the book shows an idealized church with no problems. Certainly, this was not fully the case. The ideal church still consists of non-ideal humans. However, this story of Ananias and Sapphira is the first recording of the problem and the first recording of the response by the apostles. It seems unlikely that death was God’s preferred response. In fact the passage described how the event engendered fear among the Christians. Immediately after this, is the recording of only benevolent acts by the apostles. And then we move into a new conflict— ethnic strife and gossiping. Instead of placing a curse on them that were at fault, the apostles sought a peaceful, non-miraculous, solution. In Chapter 8, a case somewhat similar to Ananias and Sapphira comes up before Peter. A man named Simon Magus seeks divine empowerment from God and is willing to pay the apostles for that power (another problem with money). Instead of cursing him, Peter told him that he needed to repent.
Peter, like all of the Twelve were new to the power and responsibility they had. And the Apostles had problems with power and responsibility in the past. Shortly before Jesus’ death, Peter tried to kill a man with a sword (only managed to slice his ear). A couple of years before this, James and John asked Jesus if they could call down fire on a village that had failed to show them hospitality. Jesus suggested a better idea… go to a different village.
Sometimes we need to learn responsibility with power by making mistakes. When I was fifteen I had an awesome chemistry set with a lot of chemicals that one cannot find in such sets today. I was often quite cavalier with my safety protocols (and lack thereof). I made a stupid mistake and my set exploded sending chunks of glass and who knows what else into my back, right arm and neck. Obviously, I recovered, but I learned a lot from that lesson. I believe I learned more through the misuse of the power I had than I would have learned if God had simply prevented me from making the mistake that day.
I do think that miracles are always a sign of something. But sometimes it can be the sign of God’s desire to do what is right in spite of, not because of, the miracle worker. And sometimes, it is a sign to the miracle worker to embrace his or her role as God’s servant with greater mercy and gravity.