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The Hanukkah Miracle

by Tim O'Hearn

Hanukkah (December 21-28 in 2011) is commonly considered a celebration of a miracle. What that miracle was may be in dispute. (Is it the miracle of deliverance from a mighty tyrant by a small guerrilla army? Or is it the miracle of replenished oil, as the tradition from two hundred years after the fact would make it?) What is not in dispute is that it is a celebration of something that either was or seemed miraculous.

It seems that miracles themselves are in dispute today. Some are ridiculed for believing in, or celebrating with or without belief, the miracle of Hanukkah. Miracles imply a power higher than nature, and many in todayís world do not want to acknowledge such a power. The miracles of Torah are either ridiculed, minimized, or denied. Those who claim miraculous powers today are considered crackpots or moneygrubbers. It seems that there is no middle ground in the debate over miracles. Either they didnít or donít exist, or denying their existence is tantamount to denying faith in God.

There are three common tendencies today in relation to how we view miracles. The first is that miracles used to occur, but have not done so since biblical times. They had their value once, but today their main value is that they are recorded in scripture. A second is to explain miracles away. There must be some scientific explanationWhen someone avoided an accident because the bicycle chain slipped off the gears, was it miracle, or poor maintenance? for what happened. The other is to call things miracles which are not miraculous. Perhaps that last begs a definition. A miracle in the Bible was an occurrence that was not in the course of natural law. Even though God created the laws of nature, once they were set in motion a miracle would be, by definition, anything not able to be explained by those laws (either then or now). Miracles were often also used as signs to either believers (to confirm faith in God) or unbelievers (to cause faith in God).

When is a miracle not a miracle

By that definition, having a baby is not a miracle. It is a wondrous event, but rarely is it miraculous. A virgin birth would be miraculous. Perhaps a situation in which the baby should have died but it does not is miraculous. If a person is involved in an automobile accident and walks away unhurt it could be because he wore his seatbelt and had functioning air bags; in which case it would not be miraculous. If the same crash would normally kill a person, but this one walked away unscathed, perhaps a miracle happened.

There is a danger in crediting as miracles those things that are not. When we see everything as miraculous we become inured to the truly divine. When everything becomes a miracle, then nothing is miraculous. If what is natural is a miracle, why do we need God? What can he do for us that we cannot do ourselves. We cannot live on an even plain. We need highs and lows. Miracles are the highs; the mundane are the level spots and the lows. When we see miracles in every little thing, we flatten the high spots and remove challenge from our lives.

If miracles happen today, we donít always recognize them. And sometimes they are so subtle we canít even prove it was a miracle. If a bicyclist has his chain slip off the gears so he has to stop and fix it, and then later comes upon an accident that just occurred, did a miracle save him from that accident? Or was it merely poor maintenance? The difference between the miracles of the Bible and some possible miracles today is that the Biblical miracles were obvious and unmistakable. When a widow and her sons pour oil from one jar into many larger jars until they run out of containers, that is clearly a miracle. When a man is revived on an operating room table, that is less clearly a miracle.

Do we need a clear miracle to see God? Why not recognize him in the results of past miracles. The creation is the greatest miracle of all. All we need to recognize Godís power is to look around. ďThe heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.Ē (Ps 19:1) Godís word to man recounts many miracles that were truly miracles. If we believe that the scriptures are Godís word to man, we have the miracles to confirm or cause faith.

Miracles ended

Does that mean that we no longer have miracles today? Not necessarily. Sometimes crediting the ordinary as miraculous hides the miraculous in the extraordinary. Calling the birth of a baby a miracle may actually detract from the miracles that do happen.

The tendency is to believe that miracles had their day, and then stopped when the scriptures stopped. That may be entirely true. It may be true to a certain extent. Or it may be that we are blinded to the miracles that occur today. Could it be that we are like the Pharaoh of Mosesí day. Moses performed miracles before him, but it was not until the third plague that his magicians could not duplicate the miracles. After all, if there are frogs everywhere, who canít pull a frog out of his hat?

Certainly it appears from the scriptures that miracles waxed and waned. There were many miracles around the time of the giving of the Law and the conquest of Canaan. For a while it seemed that miracles stopped happening, or at least happened less frequently. Then we find a number of miracles during the Divided Kingdom, particularly in the North. Elijah and Elisha were noted miracle workers. Hezekiah was miraculously healed. This was a time when people were ignoring God, and God does not like to be ignored. Some miracles occurred particularly toward the end of the Babylonian captivity, when unbelieving nations were about to see that they were Godís tools in the rebuilding of the Temple. And so it seemed to come in cycles.

Have we been in a down cycle for seemingly two millennia? Or have miracles continued during this period of time and we have not recognized them? Since the miraculous revealing of Godís will in scripture closed long ago, we cannot answer that question. But just as it may be dangerous to credit as a miracle that which occurs naturally, so it may also be dangerous to credit as natural that which occurs miraculously.

Pharaoh was easily deceived by his magicians. But are we to aspire to be like Pharaoh, or like Moshe? Maybe God is giving us instruction through miracles, and we just are not listening. ďSon of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a rebellious house.Ē (Ezek 12:2)

Explaining the miracles

Today many people try to explain away the miracles of the Bible by assigning natural processes. The flood (Gen 6-9), it seems, was not universal, but just a local flood that Noah though was universal. (Never mind that it killed all people on earth.) The plague of locusts (Ex 10) was a periodic occurrence, and Moses knew it was coming, but the intelligent Egyptians somehow missed it. The splitting of the Yam Suf (Red Sea) (Ex 14) was due to an unusually high tide in the Arabian Sea, but how that left dry ground on which Israel crossed is anybodyís guess. And the list goes on and on. In our ďenlightenedĒ age, people want scientific explanations even for those things for which there can be no scientific explanation. And if you canít explain it scientifically, then it must not have happened. The six-day creation is an allegory. The battle was so intense that it just seemed to Joshua that the sun stopped in its course. (Josh 10) And Hezekiah must have been delirious with fever when he thought the sun backed up on the steps he used as a sundial. (2 Kgs 20)

This also is a danger. If crediting everything as miraculous threatens belief in God, this does so even more. We live in an age when there is no god but science. Everything can be explained by science, and if it cannot be explained now it will be in the future. Science is god, so God must be scientific or he must not exist.

Although there is a natural tendency to explain away a miracle, we actually need miracles. This is especially true in the spiritual realm. We need a God who is more powerful than anything we know or can know. If there is no such God, then the universe as we know it is everything, and it is a very cold universe. If we donít have a God of power, a lawgiver, then all we have is anarchy. The highest good (and the highest god) is my own existence, and watch out when your own existence threatens mine. On the other hand, a God who can create is a God who can enforce his laws, and punish those who violate them. The miraculousIn our ďenlightenedĒ age, people want scientific explanations even for those things for which there can be no scientific explanation. shows God to be greater than nature, and greater than my nature.

But we also need miracles on a lower level. Maybe that is why we see the miraculous in the day-to-day. We really donít want science to be absolute. Immanuel Velikovsky was the most well-known of the catastrophists. Although mainstream science rejects his theories, nevertheless he popularized the idea that history is a series of catastrophic events. Life, history, and even science, does not continue in a steady stream, but rather, like literature, builds to climaxes and returns to a lower level. Although science in general rejects the catastrophists, people as a whole see that model in their own lives. When the climax comes, we hope for a deus ex machina in the form of a miracle to set things right. We need miracles, and therefore we need God.

Hanukkah is a celebration of the miraculous and the seeming miraculous. Never mind that it was hundreds of years before someone wrote down the miracle of the oil that is celebrated in the Hanukkah lights. Whether the miracle happened or did not happen, in our minds the miracle happened, and that is important. It says that God keeps his light shining in a world of darkness. And even if you reject that miracle, it celebrates a victory by a badly outnumbered and outtrained force in defense of the truth of God. That someone was willing to stand up for God in the face of certain death seems miraculous to us. But it is a miracle that happens every day.