Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Magical Realm of the Bible

Let me put it out there now in the simplest terms possible. Forget complex and unending discussions on the possibility of the existence of God. Step away from the arguments about the historical bases and origins of events in the Bible and even the Bible itself. Let's take the Bible on its own terms and let me hear the raucous sounds of supporting voices for it.

If you take the Biblical events as being historically true you should realize that it isn't just arguments about the "days" of Genesis, or the likelihood of a global flood, or even explaining the ridiculously long lives of ancient people. You should note that the Bible reads like a fantasy novel. Read the "Lord of the Rings" and you'll see the same types of actors stepping to play.

The Biblical world is a world full of actual mages and wizards and witches with supernatural powers, personified angels, giants, huge monsters like the behemoth, evil spirits like Lilith, talking animals, flying flaming horses and chariots, naked miracles like sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, and people living inside of whales. If you read Judges, you even see the classic Hero character repeated again and again. Looking objectively, is Samson so different from Achilles?

Now, if you're an Orthodox Jew (or fundamentalist Christian) who believes the Bible's reports are accurate history then you must agree that all those wild and fantastic things truly occurred as written. But my question is then, how do you explain why the world today is nothing like that?

Are all the real witches hiding? Did God simply choose to stop doing miracles? Did all the giants die out? Doesn't it all seem odd that the entire way the world works is completely different in the legend and myth world of the Bible when compared with secular historical records and even our daily experiences of the modern world? It's as if the entire way of the world switched over from magical to rational at some unknown point in the past.

Sure, that could have been God's decision. The Rabbis say that the "Age of Prophecy" is over, but come on, doesn't that strike you as such a pat answer. Doesn't it make more sense to simply see the world as it is, see that it's much easier to claim miracles than to perform them, and place the Bible as literature and not history?

This way of seeing the world only works if you already see the world rationally, of course. If you're one of those people who believe miracles do happen all the time, then in you're view the world hasn't changed at all. That talking fish in New Square was legit and that statue of Jesus really did blink an eye. I can't respond to those kind of people except to go to the regular skeptic's abode and say, "Prove it, please." But for those people who do see the modern world rationally and eschew the claims of modern miracles (and I know you're out there!) I ask how you can explain the disparity between the world we live in and the magical realm of the Biblical past.


lamedzayin said...

Part of the answer is to minimize the difference, ala the Rambam. To my mind the only differences are the prohpetic sort, not the demons/witches/random miracles sort. And while that still leaves a big open question - if God once talked to man and on rare occasion intervened openly in the course of events, why not now - it's still a big difference. I don't believe literal giants roamed the Earth, and neither did the Ibn Ezra. I don't believe that the wise men of Egypt had access to supernatural abilities - and neither did Radak. I don't believe most of the supernatural stories in the Talmud are meant to be taken literally - and even if they were meant that way I dont believe they all should be anyways.

As for the hero types, I think that's somewhat of a red herring. There's nothing particularly unbelievable about a heroic leader, and if you look at the Talmud Samson doesn't come off all that well anyways. Also, don't be silly and forget that Tolkien and such very consciously mimic biblical tropes to lend poetic gravitas to their work (the comparison to Achilles is more reasonable, if still ultimately unimportant).

So why would there be an end to "prophecy" and open miracles? Short rationalist Orthodox answer is that it's a punishment of sorts and temporary - eventually prophecy will come back as will some miraculous events. I realize this will convince no one who isn't already convinced, but I'm just explaining why I and those like me don't see a major dissidence between what we observe and what the Bible describes, since my theology says that a) biblical times weren't all that different, except for rare occurences and b) those differences are on temporary hiatus.

Orthoprax said...


"Part of the answer is to minimize the difference, ala the Rambam. To my mind the only differences are the prohpetic sort, not the demons/witches/random miracles sort."

Is this an honest minimization? Or is it an effort to make the whole easier to swallow? The Rambam came to the Torah and basically said, "That simply cannot be true, so it must be metaphorical, or a dream, or whatever." Imagine what he would say include today in "what simply cannot be true."

I find it highly unlikely that the previous hundreds of generations before Rambam and the rest of the rational Rishonim were as skeptical as they were.

"As for the hero types, I think that's somewhat of a red herring. There's nothing particularly unbelievable about a heroic leader..."

No, you misunderstand. It's not just "heroic character" it's the Hero character which is a person with practically superhuman abilities but still below the divine. Samson had super strength and killed thousands with his bare hands or with simple rudiments like the jawbone of an ass. The stories surrounding his life sound exactly like a mythic Hero would be, but with an Israelite twist.

"I realize this will convince no one who isn't already convinced..."

So I'm asking you now why you buy into it if you recognize the weakness of the concept. It's pure apologetics.

And I think you know that too.

onionsoupmix said...

But my question is then, how do you explain why the world today is nothing like that?

This seems to be the crux of your argument. I found it to be a bit weak. Civilizations change. If you asked the people who lived two-three hundred years ago about the possibility of living with airplanes, cars, tv, internet, etc, they would also laugh at you for your fantastical and wild stories. So I don't really see why, if society can change rapidly in terms of technology, why it can't change just as dramatically in other areas, such as spirituality etc.

Orthoprax said...


It's not just about civilization changing, but basic assumptions about reality. Magic suddenly becoming no longer effective is like the force of gravity suddenly being twice as strong.

These are basic fundamental characteristics of our world.

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