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Did Maimonides believe that God produces miracles?

I was requested to write on the question “Did Maimonides believe that God produces miracles?” This question has been debated for centuries. I will give the ideas held by those who state that Maimonides contended that God does not perform miracles. To understand this view, one needs to understand three things.

Maimonides’ writing style.

In his introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides tells us that he mixed his book with two contradictory styles. He made statements for the general population that do not reflect his true views, ideas they learnt as children but are unable to discard while they are adults, generally because they did not learn the secular subjects, the sciences, philosophy, and logic. Belief in these ideas, such as miracles and that God becomes angry when people misbehave will calm their fears and control their behavior. At the same time, he will include ideas that he considers true, ideas accepted or should be accepted by learned and intellectual people. He warned his readers to examine his book carefully to not be misled. Unfortunately, many people do misread his book, and they are convinced that what he said for the general public are his true opinions.

His view that prophets do not receive communications from God.

Maimonides was convinced that God created the world out of nothing or formed it out of preexisting and eternal matter, set the laws of nature in it, and then stopped being involved in the earth and its people. God is transcendent. God is not engaged in what is occurring on earth, and is not involved in the affairs and history of people. This raises the question: Doesn’t the Bible seem to say the opposite? Doesn’t it seem to say that God communicated with Moses and other people, that there were prophets who informed the Israelites what God disclosed to them?

Maimonides addressed this question in chapter 48 of book 2 in his masterpiece Guide of the Perplexed. He wrote that whenever the Bible states that God said or did something, the reader must understand that this is figurative language; God did not say or do what the Bible says he did. What happened did so because of the laws of nature.

Why then does the Bible describe God making the statement or performing the act? For two reasons. First, because people need to think that God is involved. Second, because the statement is, in a sense true: while God did not directly say or do what the Bible mentions, God is the ultimate cause of it because what occurred did so because of the laws of nature, and God created the laws of nature. God is not the direct but the ultimate cause.

Thus, God never communicated with prophets. Maimonides tells us that a prophet is an individual with a higher than average intelligence, who understands matters better than other people, with a strong moral sense that prompts the prophet to tell his understanding to the people, and a highly developed imagination that helps him or her to  communicate clearly. The prophets may have thought that their insights came from God or, more likely, because of their intelligence, realized the true human origin of their understanding, but said the ideas came from God because, as Maimonides explained, God is the ultimate, but not direct, source of everything.

This explains why there are no prophets today. There are people with better understandings of events, morale drives, and imagination today, but they recognize that what they know is the result of their thinking and not a divine communication.

Thus, also, there never were miracles in the sense of God interfering with and changing the laws of nature. I elaborated on Maimonides’ view of prophecy and miracles, with many examples, in my book, Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets. I explained, for example, why the ten plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the falling of the walls for Joshua at Jericho, and the sun standing still for him during the battle at Gibeon, and much more were natural occurrences.

His view of Divine providence.

In Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed 3:17 and 18, he discusses five different approaches to what is “divine providence.” Most people understand that God knows the details of what is happening to people and helps people when they need help by changing the laws of nature and performing what is generally called a miracle. This is called by many Jews and non-Jews “divine providence.” The divine behavior is similar in this respect to a parent who watches over his or her child and steps in to assist the child when the child need help.

This is not the way that Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-c.1167) understood this concept. He was convinced that God knows the laws of nature that God created or formed, but God does not know the details of life on earth. By rejecting the idea that God watches humans and helps them when they need help, he insisted that people need to use their intelligence when they face a problem and solve it themselves without relying on God. In essence, he rebuffed the idea of miracles. In his commentary to Genesis 18:21, ibn Ezra writes: “for it is the truth that the All [namely, God] knows every particular [only] in a general manner, but not in a particular manner.” In other words, God knows the laws of nature that God created or formed, but does not know how humans and animals are using it.[1]

This is also the view of Abraham ibn Daud in HaEmunah HaRamah 97-98 (1110-1180), and Gersonides[2] (1288-1344). They understood that divine providence exists, but it doesn’t work the way most people think it works. Divine providence is the use of the human intellect that God gave to humans.

This is apparently also the view of Maimonides. Maimonides states that God does not help people.[3] “I hold that divine providence is related and closely connected with the [human] intellect, because [what we call providence] can only proceed from an intelligent being.” This is also the view of Aristotle.[4] In a word, people cannot depend on divine help. God created humans with intelligence. Intelligence is the divine providence. People should help themselves by using their intelligence. The smarter a person is and the more that people use their brains the better the chances they will be able to help themselves.

In summary

Once we recognize that we must not accept the ideas Maimonides wrote for the general public because Maimonides wrote them to ease the life and fears of fellow Jews – they were not real truths, only “essential truths,”[5] that he was convinced that every instance in the Bible that indicates that God said or did something was not said or done by God but was the result of natural law, and was equally convinced that divine providence does not mean that God helps people but that people need to use their intelligence and solve their problems themselves, we see that he felt that God does not perform miracles.

[1] See also his commentary to Exodus 23:25, 26

[2] S. Feldman, The War of the Lord, JPS, 1987, vol. II, pp. 139-209, and Gersonides’ Commentary on Job, chapters 11 and 42.

[3]  In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:17.

[4] This is not the view of Nachmanides, Yehudah Halevi, and others such others as Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (circa 1225-1291), who maintained the traditional view that providence extends to human individuals. See R. Jospe, Torah and Sophia, Hebrew Union College Press, 1988, pp. 164-171.

[5] Plato called them Noble Lies.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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