Gersonides’ Use of Aristotle’s Meteorology in… some Biblical Miracles-Sara Klein-Braslavy

A new 75 page article on miracles in Gersonides. Very well done, working out all the naturalistic details.

Gersonides’ Use of Aristotle’s Meteorology in his Accounts of some Biblical Miracles Sara Klein-Braslavy
Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism Jul 2010, Vol. 10, No. 2: 240–313.

Abstract (Summary)

In his theological-philosophical treatise the Wars of the Lord and in his biblical exegesis Gersonides shows himself to be a believer bound by what he understood to be the fundamental tenets of the Jewish religion, but also a scientist and philosopher who sought to interpret these beliefs in keeping with the philosophy and science he knew from the Aristotelian corpus, especially Ibn Rushd’s commentaries, or as part of the theories developed through his own inquiries based on Aristotelian principles. In his exegesis of miracles he preserves their miraculous character but brings them very close to natural occurrences, introducing a rational and scientific element to his interpretation. Of the explanations based on scientific theories, those that draw on meteorology are the most common. Seven biblical miracles that Gersonides explains on the basis of Aristotle’s Meteorology are examined, along with three events that he interprets as natural meteorological phenomena rather than as miracles. It is shown that he anchored his explanations in the meteorological theories of several phenomena: the stratification of the air; the doctrine of exhalations; earthquakes; the splitting of the earth by an earthquake; the creation of minerals; the saltiness of the earth; the generation of lightning; the formation of rain and the formation of rivers; the nature of the wind; and principles of optical meteorology

In his theological-philosophical treatise the Wars of the Lord and in his biblical exegesis Gersonides shows himself to be a believer bound by what he understood to be the fundamental tenets of the Jewish religion, but also a scientist and philosopher who sought to interpret these beliefs in keeping with the philosophy and science he knew from the Aristotelian corpus, especially Ibn Rushd’s commentaries, or as part of the theories developed through his own inquiries based on Aristotelian principles. Gersonides can be distiguished from earlier Jewish Aristotelians in the extent to which he also expounded various conservative Jewish ideas,2 including his theories of the immortality of the intellect, divine providence, and the creation of the universe.

1. Natural law cannot be abrogated. Gersonides did not accept the “hard” definition of miracles; namely, the idea that a miracle is a total abrogation of the laws of nature. Instead, he applied the principle that “it is impossible for nature to change its ways.”10 He formulated this principle in another way, too, arguing that miracles cannot contradict the laws of nature. They must be “possible” within the framework of natural law, even if similar phenomena are not found in nature.11

2. Miracles are produced by the “most appropriate causes.” This is the most important principle that guided Gersonides in his explanation of biblical miracles. According to it, miracles are not effected by direct divine intervention in the natural order. Rather, God employs natural means, “causes” that can be found in nature as well. These causes are very similar to the causes that would engender, in nature, phenomena similar to the miracles; they differ in that they were not themselves produced by preceding natural causes but by God, employing miraculous means.

3. Miracles cannot take place in the heavenly bodies. This principle, necessary to make miracles compatible with his worldview, required Gersonides to interpret miracles that seem to involve the heavenly bodies as actually taking place in the sublunar world rather than in the celestial domain.

What happened in Sodom and Gomorrah is that a rain of sulfur or of some other mineral of a similar composition fell from heaven. According to Gersonides this sulfur was formed in the air. He draws on his knowledge of meteorology to explain its formation

“Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt”
The pillar of salt refers not to Lot’s wife but to “the land of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Nor is the meaning that this region actually turned into a pillar of salt, but rather that, after it was ravaged by an earthquake, it was full of salt and sulfur. The Bible likens the sulfur and salt that appeared where the cities had formerly stood to a pillar of salt; the land, that is the region around Sodom and Gomorrah, was like a pillar of salt.

In Exodus 13:21-22 we read about the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness:
According to his explanation, then, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud are simply air that has become smoky exhalation. Although in nature smoky exhalation is formed in the bowels of the earth, in the case of the two pillars it was formed above the surface of the earth, from air itself. Here matter took on a particular form in conditions other than the natural ones:

The Bible recounts the miracle of the shadow that moved backward on the shadow clock worked by Isaiah for Hezekiah, in two places: 2 Kings 20:8-11 and Isaiah 38:8
According to the Meteorology, a cloud is not the only dense body that can serve as a natural mirror…Gersonides assumes that Hezekiah was familiar with the meteorological phenomena in question and understood their cause.172 He looked at the cloud in the sky then and saw that it was moving rapidly westward. Thanks to his knowledge of meteorological phenomena he knew that the shadow could readily climb higher on the western steps, because the cloud bearing the image of the sun was rapidly moving westward.

[Conclusion]

He employs the information he drew from the meteorological literature in different ways in different commentaries. Our analysis has shown that he applies it in several ways:

1. To account for a miracle he sometimes makes explicit use of an explanation or description of meteorological phenomena in the Meteorology or of a theory advanced there. In these cases Gersonides almost always refers his readers to the Meteorology: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the pillar of salt, the opening of the earth to swallow up Korah and his faction, the pillar of fire and cloud that confounded the Egyptians when they crossed the Red Sea, and some elements of the flood.

2. He argues that miracles cannot contradict the laws of nature and that miraculous phenomena are compatible with the principles of the natural phenomena described and explained in the Meteorology. To support this argument he explains the natural law that underlies the miracle, according to the Meteorology: the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness.

3. He uses knowledge acquired from reading the Meteorology in order to reject the idea that a phenomenon described in the Bible is natural and not a miracle (the manna).

4. He comes up with an original explanation for meteorological phenomena not mentioned in the Meteorology in order to use it to explain a miracle. His new theory draws on similar meteorological phenomena that he learned from the Meteorology: the retrograde shadow.

5. In his explanation of miraculous phenomena, Gersonides employs the terminology used by the Meteorology to describe natural phenomena in order to explain the natural causes created by God in order to effect the miracles. Here he does not explicitly cite the Meteorology to explain the miracle but uses its terminology to show that he understood these things in accordance with the ideas expounded there, and that his readers should do likewise: certain elements of the flood and perhaps also of the splitting of the sea.

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