Can we rely on God to perform miracles?

Joshua 8 tells an unusual tale. Joshua assumed leadership of the Israelites upon Moses’ death. He led them across the Jordan River into the promised land of Canaan. He conducted them in several successful conflicts against the Canaanite inhabitants but lost a crucial battle. He was now worried, and was unsure whether he could be successful in future wars.

He has a friendly, and reassuring conversation with God who, like a wise military advisor, details a strategic plan with tactical details of how to defeat the Canaanites in the city Ai. Joshua listens intently but, curiously, modifies the divine plan. Although God promised him a victory, he amasses an enormous fighting force, more than God suggested, and thereby showed that he did not rely on the deity’s assurances. Although he lost his first battle against Ai, with his now larger fighting force, Joshua wins the battle against Ai during the second try. But this story raises many questions, such as:

Since God assured Joshua of victory, why did he go beyond the specific divine order to lay one ambush and, instead, set two ambushes?  Why did he organize an armed force of such a large number of troops, sixty thousand according to a rabbinic tradition? Why couldn’t he simply send a small platoon of soldiers against the city of Ai since God assured him of success no matter how many soldiers he drafted for the battle? If God had decided to aid Joshua in giving him a victory, why was a battle – in which Israelites must have been killed – necessary?

Do Not Rely on Miracles

Commenting on this story, Yehudah Kil[1] states that Joshua increased his fighting force because of the talmudic principle “one should not rely on a miracle.”

The Encyclopedia Talmudit[2] (talmudic encyclopedia) explains that this is a command that the Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1:4, bases on Deuteronomy 6:16, “You should not try the Lord your God.”

At first blush, Kil’s explanation of Joshua’s behavior does not appear to be correct. The examples cited by the Encyclopedia Talmudit are not of situations in which God instructed someone how to act and assured him or her of a result. The talmudic principle states, in essence, that a person should not put him or herself in a dangerous situation and rely on God to save him or her with a miracle. For example, one should not put one’s friend in danger relying on the fact that he is a great and pious man and is worthy of a miracle. Similarly, even though there is another rabbinic principle that a person who is doing a good deed, a mitzvah, will not be harmed, he or she should not do the good deed in a dangerous area expecting to be saved by a miracle.

The principle of “one should not rely on a miracle” does not appear to be relevant to Joshua 8 since Joshua was not relying on a miracle; rather, he was following God’s explicit tactics and assurances.

God Promised Nothing

These difficulties disappear once we accept Maimonides’ interpretation in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48. Maimonides explains that the Bible frequently states that God takes a specific action when it only means that God is the ultimate cause of the occurrence since He created the laws of nature. What the Bible describes as God’s act is in reality something that occurred naturally, through the laws of nature that God had created; God was not involved in the specific incident.

Additionally, Maimonides considered prophecy a higher level of intelligence and not the word of God. As he states in 2:44: when the Bible indicates that a person prophesies it means that he “he finds in himself the cause that moves him to do something good and grand; e.g., to deliver a congregation of good men from the hands of evil-doers” (emphasis added).

Furthermore, Maimonides did not believe that God interferes with the laws of nature and readjusts the world from time to time with miracles. In his Guide 1:11, for example, he states that God is “the stable one who undergoes no manner of change…nor a change in His relation to what is other than Himself” (emphasis added). In 2:29, he states that what people think of as “miracles” are parts of nature that are preprogrammed into the world at the time of creation, not periodic readjustments. In 1:67, he explains that “on the seventh day [of creation] the state of things became lasting and established just as it is at present.” In 2:10, he writes that “angels” who are mentioned in the Bible as participants in some “miracles” are nothing more than normal preexisting forces of nature, not supernatural beings.

Maimonides recognizes that God is good, God’s creation is good, and God is all-knowing. For a person to imagine that God is like an incompetent workman who must repeatedly return to his job to reprogram and readjust his errors is a denial of God’s competence, God’s knowledge, and the goodness of the divine creation. God knew all that could occur and took it into consideration at the time of creation. As J.A. Diamond[3] explains, “In truth, any events befalling man result from his own misadventures and have nothing to do with God’s intervention in human affairs.” People should not rely on miracles because they will not happen.

Explanation of Joshua 8

When we examine the story from this non-miraculous perspective, we see the following: Joshua evaluated the impending battle against the fortified city of Ai, inspected the battle area, and considered the psychology of his enemy. After a careful review, he felt certain (described in the Bible metaphorically as God’s assurance) that he could defeat the Ai forces if he would undertake a deceptive tactic. He knew that he must not rely on a miracle (as stated in the commentary of Sefer Yehoshua and Maimonides). With this in mind, he organized a sufficiently large force, twenty times the number of his first failed attack, set troops in advantageous positions, and used a subterfuge that led the enemy into a trap because of its mistaken belief that the Israelites were retreating in terror as they did during the initial failed assault against their city.

Summary

Joshua 8, like many biblical episodes, describes a war in which Scripture states that God advised Joshua how to act and assured him of victory. If one accepts the story literally, understanding that God interfered with nature and was involved on the Israelite side, many questions are raised. However, understanding that the statement of God’s involvement is only a figurative way of describing the laws of nature which God created, helps the reader realize that it was Joshua who developed the strategy and tactics, and all questions are answered.

 

 

[1] In his commentary to the Book of Joshua, Sefer Yehoshua.

[2] 1:679–681.

[3] Hermeneutics of Concealment, 94.

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