One of the most overlooked revelations of Maimonides, one that profoundly affects how the Bible should be interpreted, is the clarification that he gives in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48. This important insight is contained in the last chapter of the second of his three books of the Guide. Just as he describes the ultimate responsibility of men and women to develop and use their intelligence in the last chapter of Book Three, so, too, he places his very significant explanation of how the Bible should be read in the same prominent location at the end of Book Two. People who fully understand and accept his view must reevaluate all they previously thought they understood about the Bible, rethinking what they read from an entirely different perspective.
- What did Maimonides say in 2:48?
- Is God involved in human affairs?
- What does the Bible mean when it states that God did or said something?
- How did Maimonides interpret various scriptural episodes?
The Guide of the Perplexed 2:48
Simply stated, Maimonides maintains that God created or formed the world, arranged it to function throughout eternity according to the laws of nature, and had no further need to be involved in earthly affairs. God, all-knowing and all-powerful, has both the knowledge and the power to create a world that is, as the Bible states, “very good,” a world in which all necessary preconditions to being “very good” are considered and implemented, and nothing needs to be changed. According to Maimonides, to imagine that God needs to be involved in human affairs from time to time to take corrective actions is to believe that God lacks the intelligence and ability to create correctly.
Maimonides was also convinced that the Torah “speaks in human language.” Among other things, this phrase means that the Bible had to be written in a fashion that would enable its readers to understand and accept it. For example, the Israelites who received the Torah believed in a corporeal deity, a God who had human features, acted like a human and even had human emotions. The Bible therefore had to describe God in human terms, helping the people to understand what was being said. Maimonides teaches that God is not corporeal and that all biblical statements that indicate otherwise must be read figuratively. Thus, although the Bible states that God stretched out his hand against Egypt, the statement should be understood to read that the Egyptians were defeated with strength.
Moreover, because God is not involved in changing anything in this world, God cannot be seen, according to Maimonides, to have caused the aforementioned Egyptian defeat. The phrase “God stretched out his hand” does not mean that God took action; the meaning of the phrase is that the Egyptians were defeated by acts of strength that conformed to the laws of nature that God had created.
This, in short, is Maimonides’ profound insight into the Bible. Whenever Scripture states that God took action, that statement should be understood to mean that God was not directly involved in what occurred. The Bible is stating that the described event occurred according to the laws of nature that God fashioned when He created or formed the world.
There are many examples of this. God did not split the Red Sea. The sea divided by a natural act. God did not cause the sun to stand still for Joshua. It was a natural occurrence: Joshua thought that the day lasted longer than usual. God did not instruct Abraham to leave his home and journey to Canaan. Abraham made the choice himself, perhaps as part of his search to understand and come close to God. God did not tell Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This was a natural internal struggle; Abraham may have been debating within himself to what lengths he must go to show his love to God. Abraham did not have a conversation with God after his circumcision. As Maimonides explains, this conversation was a dream.
Maimonides’ Own Words
“It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause has again a cause, and so on, until the first cause, that is, the will and decree of God is reached. The prophets therefore omit sometimes the intermediate causes, and ascribe the production of an individual thing directly to God, saying that God has made it….
After having heard this remark, listen to what I will explain in this chapter; direct your special attention to it more than you have done to the other chapters in this part. It is this: as regards the immediate causes of things produced, it makes no difference whether these causes consist in substances, physical properties, free will or chance – by free will I mean that of man – or even in the will of another living being. The prophets [omit mentioning the immediate cause and] ascribe the production directly to God and use such phrases as God has done it, commanded it, or said it….
Note this, and apply it everywhere according to the context. Many difficulties will thereby be removed, and passages apparently containing things far from the truth will prove to be true.”
Here Maimonides is stating that everything that occurs in this world has an immediate cause, which, in turn, is caused by something else, and so on back to the first cause, God who created or formed the universe. The prophets – and in using this word, Maimonides includes the Torah – frequently neglect to mention the immediate cause (for example, I asked my wife for a cup of coffee) and speak instead of the ultimate cause (God gave me a cup of coffee).
Maimonides emphasizes that one should pay “special attention” to this idea, as it is key. When the Bible ascribes an event to God it makes no difference whether the passage concerns a substance, an act, or even an action that God is said to have made a human perform. Although the prophet may have ascribed the act to God, he did not intend to say that God caused it: the immediate cause was something entirely natural.
Maimonides cites many examples of natural events being ascribed to God. For example, he asserts that God did not speak to the fish to command that it vomit Jonah out (Jonah 2:1) even though the Bible clearly reports that God did so. He did not send locusts in the days of the prophet Joel (Joel 2:11). God did not “send the divine word and melt them [snow]” (Psalms 147:18).
Maimonides also notes many types of events often attributed to God that are in fact set in motion by human free will without any divine interference. These include war, one nation dominating another or one person hurting or insulting another. God, for example, was not involved in freeing Joseph from prison (Psalms 105:20), cause the Persians to defeat the Chaldeans (Jeremiah 51:20), or make a woman feed Elijah (I Kings 17:9), even though Scripture states explicitly that God performed the acts.
Maimonides also cites examples of incidents that occurred purely by chance, despite the fact that the biblical style describes God carrying out the act. For example, Joseph tells his brothers “God sent me before you” (Genesis 45:7) even though God had no hand in the matter.
In Guide 2:48, Maimonides presents one of his most radical theories, the idea that the Bible should not be understood literally when it states that God acted in a certain way. Statements that indicate that God was involved in an act are nothing more than biblical style, written to remind the reader that God is the ultimate cause of everything that occurs in the world, because God created or formed the laws of nature. The meaning is not that God directly caused the particular event ascribed to God. The episode was a result of a natural occurrence or human free will.
Many people will find it hard to accept this revolutionary concept. Its acceptance requires of people that they recognize that they cannot rely on God to become involved in the world, interfering with laws of nature that God created and amending those laws for the sake of an individual or group. God, being all-knowing and all-powerful, already considered all that will occur and took into account all possibilities when God fashioned the laws of nature. The world God created is, as the Bible states, “very good;” therefore there is no need for Him to adjust or alter it. According to Maimonides, people must stop depending on God to support them personally in a supernatural manner. God has already created everything that is necessary for a good life; people must therefore undertake the effort to find the way to improve their lives on their own.