Science Ch.26 - Miracles That Employ Nature

God doesn’t materialize things like a fictional wizard might. He tends to enhance or speed up nature when working miracles, as if he likes using the natural world that he has created.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed something odd about miracles in the Bible. I suppose all miracles might be said to be odd, so perhaps the word I’m looking for is different. In contrast to wonders performed by fictional genies or wizards, the biblical miracles are just … more ... natural.

       Take, for example, when one of Elisha’s disciples was using a borrowed axe and the head flew off and landed in a deep river (see 2 Kgs 6:5-6). A genie or a wizard might have retrieved it by snapping their fingers so that it flew out of the water and landed on the riverbank or perhaps materialized on the end of the axe handle. God’s method was to tell Elisha to chop down a branch from a tree, then find out from his disciple where in the river the ax-head had fallen in and throw the branch in at that exact place. When Elisha did that, the ax-head floated up to the surface, balancing on the branch, and they were able to lean over and pick it up.

       When I read this, I ask myself: Why did Elisha have to cut a branch instead of throwing in something that was already available, such as a pebble or a twig? The answer is, presumably, that an ax-head can float on a large piece of wood naturally. But why did he need to lean over and pick it up? Presumably, it’s because ax-heads don’t naturally jump off logs onto a riverbank. And why did he need to inquire where the ax-head had fallen in? Perhaps it was to give him a better chance of thrusting the branch into the river in exactly the right place. Of course, even when he knew roughly where it was, it is still an impossibly small likelihood that the branch would hit the ax-head exactly the right way so that it flipped onto the branch then balanced there while they floated to the surface naturally. In fact, it is certainly miraculous. But this miracle involves nothing that actually goes against nature.

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More from little

Even the biblical miracles that are impossible naturally are less contrary to nature than we might expect. For example, a genie granting the wish of a woman who was starving and had lots of debts would snap those clever fingers again, and dishes of food and bags full of money would materialize in front of her. However, when Elisha met a starving widow, he asked her what assets she had – only a small drop of oil left in her jar. He then told her to borrow as many empty jars as she could from friends and neighbors and to pour oil from her jar into them. Miraculously, the oil kept flowing into the other jars until the last was filled – and then it stopped. The widow sold the oil to pay her debts, with enough left over to live on (2 Kgs 4:1-7).

       Again, this miracle leaves me asking questions. Why did Elisha need to ask the widow what assets she had? Presumably, it was because he didn’t know supernaturally. Why did she have to go and borrow jars? Presumably, it was to save doing an extra miracle to create new ones. And why didn’t Elisha just give the widow miraculous money instead of her having to sell the miraculous oil? Perhaps it was because creating oil helped the whole community, whereas generating more money would simply devalue all the existing money (something governments should know by now). Or maybe it was because God is in the business of making natural things such as food rather than manufactured things such as coins.

       This miracle of multiplying had a deliberate limitation: after the last jar was filled, the oil stopped pouring out. A similar limitation happened when Elijah fed the widow at Zarephath: the food stopped being replenished when the drought ended (1 Kgs 17:9-16). Similarly, the manna and quail that God provided the Israelites was temporary (Exod 16). And I assume that when Jesus fed the thousands with bread and fish, the food stopped multiplying at some point; otherwise no one would ever have baked bread or gone fishing again. This suggests that God restricts miracles to fulfill a need.

       Another interesting point in all these cases is that the meals were multiplied out of food that already existed. Fictional genies or fairy godmothers traditionally materialize things from nothing or from something quite disparate – like Cinderella’s coach from a pumpkin. But God produced oil from oil, quail from flocks of quail, bread from bread, and fish from fish.

       This kind of consistency in Bible miracles in different books – which were recorded by believers separated from each other by different centuries and cultures – is pretty impressive. None of them describe miracles of materialization or limitless growth. Skeptics might think this shows that God can’t actually do big miracles, but it would be hard for them to argue that these accounts were merely made up, because made-up miracles would be so much bigger and better.

Using creation

Let’s take the text seriously and ask what it is teaching us. Why do most miracles in the Bible occur in this natural and somewhat limited way? Perhaps it’s because it’s better for us that way. After all, powerful miracles could be dangerous. If you wanted to get rid of an annoying fly in the room, you could chase after it and swipe at it with a heavy shoe until you eventually squashed it, but you may well end up smashing up the room in the process. On the other hand, you could open all the windows and doors and wave something at it to help it find its way out. It may be that using more natural mechanisms (such as encouraging the fly to exit through the window) is less dangerous to the delicate mechanism of nature.

       Or perhaps God simply prefers to do miracles this way. After all, he created nature, so he probably likes to use his creation. We often do the same: artisans like to use tools they have made themselves, programmers like to use their own algorithms, and teachers like to use their own lesson plans. God made wood that floats and iron that sinks, and so he enjoys using those qualities. He made food to grow for us, so he multiplies oil and fish, but not money or oil jars. God isn’t limited, but he does have his favorite methods.

       His main method for getting his will done is to use his creation – the plants, the soil, and especially his people. Usually he can rely on us to see what needs doing naturally. But when we can’t see it (or when we don’t want to see it), he gives us a prompt. If we are listening, he could prompt us by his Spirit. But even when prompting us, God tends to use the most “natural” means (i.e., he uses the creation he made) by getting other people to point out what needs to be done or by letting us discover it for ourselves.

       Miracles are something that we can celebrate and give thanks for, but Scripture hints that they are actually God’s least favorite option; he uses a miracle when all else fails. God’s favorite means for carrying out his purposes, according to the accounts in the Bible, is to use people. When it comes to getting things done, we are in the top drawer of his toolbox.


• Bible miracles usually use natural processes or sped-up growth, rather than unnatural methods such as instantaneous movement or materialization.
• Bible miracles have built-in limitations to prevent unwanted side effects such as unending multiplication of food.
• Proposal: God prefers to use his creation (especially humans) to do his will, and when he has to employ a miracle he usually likes to use natural processes.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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