God’s Providence


Maimonides “Guide for the Perplexed”



Book III, chap. XVII

“My opinion on this principle of Divine Providence I will now explain to you. In the principle, which I now proceed to expound, I do not rely on demonstrative proof, but on my conception of the spirit of the Divine Law, and the writings of the Prophets. The principle which I accept is far less open to objections, and is more reasonable than the opinions mentioned before. It is this: In the lower or sublunary portion of the Universe Divine Providence doe snot extend to the individual members of species except in the case of mankind. It is only in this species that the incidents in the existence of the individual beings, their good and evil fortunes, are the result of justice, in accordance with the words, “For all His ways are judgment.”

But I agree with Aristotle as regards all other living beings, and a fortiori as regards plants and all the rest of earthly creatures. For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment; it is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle.

Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings, which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them. It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding. I have been induced to accept this theory by the circumstance that I have not met in any of the prophetical books with a description of God’s Providence otherwise than in relation to human beings. The prophets even express their surprise that God should take notice of man, who is too little and too unimportant to be worthy of the attention of the Creator: how, then, should other living creatures be considered as proper objects for Divine Providence! Compare, “What is man, that thou takest knowledge of him?” (Ps. cxliv. 3): “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (ibid. viii. 8). It is dearly expressed in many Scriptural passages that God provides for all men, and controls all their deeds -- e.g., “He fashioneth their hearts alike, He considereth all their works” (ibid. xxxiii. 15); “For thine eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men, to give every one according to his ways” (Jer. xxxii. 19). Again: “For his eyes are upon the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings” (job xxxii. 21). In the Law there occur instances of the fact that men are governed by God, and that their actions are examined by him. Comp. In the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them 11 (Exod. xxxii.34) “I will even appoint over you terror” (Lev. xxvi. 16): “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book” (Exod. xxxii. 33): “The same soul will I destroy” (Lev. xxiii. 30): “I will even set my face against that soul” (ibid. xx. 6).

There are many instances of this kind. All that is mentioned of the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a perfect proof that Divine Providence extends to every man individually. But the condition of the individual beings of other living creatures is undoubtedly the same as has been stated by Aristotle. On that account it is allowed, even commanded, to kill animals; we are permitted to use them according to our pleasure. The view that other living beings are only governed by Divine Providence in the way described by Aristotle is supported by the words of the Prophet Habakkuk. When he perceived the victories of Nebuchadnezzar, and saw the multitude of those slain by him, he said, “O God, it is as if men were abandoned, neglected, and unprotected like fish and like worms of the earth.” He thus shows that these classes are abandoned. This is expressed in the following passage: “Andmakest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, tha thave no ruler over them. They take up all of them with the angle” etc. (Hab. i. 14, 15). The prophet then declares that such is not the case; for the events referred to are not the result of abandonment, forsaking, and absence of Providence, but are intended as a punishment for the people, who well deserved all that befell them. He therefore says: “O Lord, Thou hast ordained them for judgment, and O mighty God, Thou hast established them for correction” (ibid. ver. 12). Our opinion is not contradicted by Scriptural passages like the following: “He giveth to the beast his food” (Ps.cxlvii. 9):” The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God” (ibid. CiV. 2 1); “Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing” (ibid. cxlv. 16): or by the saying of our Sages: “He sitteth and feedeth all, from the horns of the unicorns even unto the eggs of insects.” There are many similar sayings extant in the writings of our Sages, but they imply nothing that is contrary to my view. All these passages refer to Providence in relation to species, and not to Providence in relation to individual animals. 

The acts of God are as it were enumerated; how He provides for every species the necessary food and the means of subsistence. This is clear and plain. Aristotle likewise holds that this kind of Providence is necessary, and is in actual existence. Alexander also notices this fact in the name of Aristotle, viz., that every species has its nourishment prepared for its individual members; otherwise the species would undoubtedly have perished. It does not require much consideration to understand this.

There is a rule laid down by our Sages that it is directly prohibited in the Law to cause pain to an animal, and is based on the words: “Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass?” etc. (Num. xxii. 32). But the object of this rule is to make us perfect; that we should not assume cruel habits: and that we should not uselessly cause pain to others: that, on the contrary, we should be prepared to show pity and mercy to all living creatures, except when necessity demands the contrary: “When thy soul longeth to eat flesh,” etc. (Deut. Xii. 20). We should not kill animals for the purpose of practicing cruelty, or for the purpose of play. It cannot be objected to this theory, “Why should God select mankind as the object of His special Providence, and not other living beings?” For he who asks this question must also inquire, “Why has man alone of all species of animals, been endowed with intellect?” The answer to this second question must be, according to the three afore-mentioned theories: It was the Will of God, it is the decree of His Wisdom, or it is in accordance with the laws of Nature. The same answers apply to the first question.

Understand thoroughly my theory, that I do not ascribe to God ignorance of anything or any kind of weakness; I hold that Divine Providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because Providence can only proceed from an intelligent being, from a being that is itself the most perfect Intellect. Those creatures, therefore, which receive part of that intellectual influence will become subject to the action of Providence in the same proportion as they are acted upon by the Intellect. This theory is in accordance with reason and with the teaching of Scripture, whilst the other theories previously mentioned either exaggerate Divine Providence or detract from it. In the former case they lead to confusion and entire nonsense, and cause us to deny reason and to contradict that which is perceived with the senses. The latter case, viz., the theory that Divine Providence does not extend to man, and that there is no difference between man and other animals, implies very bad notions about God; it disturbs all social order, removes and destroys all the moral and intellectual virtues of man.”



Book III, chap. XVIII

“HAVING shown in the preceding chapter that of all living beings mankind alone is directly under the control of Divine Providence, I will now add the following remarks: It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects. This being granted, it must further be admitted that the result of the existing Divine influence, that reaches mankind through the human intellect, is identical with individual intellects really in existence, with which, e.g., Zeid, Amr, Kaled and Bekr, are endowed. Hence it follows, in accordance with what I have mentioned in the preceding chapter, that the greater the share is which a person has obtained of this Divine influence, on account of both his physical predisposition and his training, the greater must also be the effect of Divine Providence upon him, for the action of Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are” like unto the beasts” (Ps. xlix. 21). For this reason it was not only considered a light thing to slay them, but it was even directly commanded for the benefit of mankind. This belief that God provides for every individual human being in accordance with his merits is one of the fundamental principles on which the Law is founded.

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said to Abraham, “I am thy shield” (Gen. xv. 1): to Isaac, “I will be with thee, and I will bless thee” (ibid. xxvi. 3); to Jacob, “I am with thee, and will keep thee” (ibid. xxviii. 15): to [Moses] the chief of the Prophets, “Certainly I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee”(Exod. iii. 12): to Joshua,” As I was with Moses, so I shall be with thee” (Josh. i. 5). It is clear that in all these cases the action of Providence has been proportional to man’s perfection. The following verse describes how Providence protects good and pious men, and abandons fools;” He Will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness: for by strength shall no man prevail” (I Sam. ii. 9). When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them, we must not attribute this to a difference in the properties of their bodies, or in their physical constitution,” for by strength shall no man prevail” : but it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected, and” He will keep the feet of his saints”; but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble. The protection of the pious by Providence is also expressed in the following passages:-”He keepeth all his bones,” etc. (PS. xxxiv. 2 1):” The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous” (ibid. ver. 16):” He shall call upon me and I shall answer him” (ibid. xd. 15). There are in Scripture many more passages expressing the principle that men enjoy Divine protection in proportion to their perfection and piety. The philosophers have likewise discussed this subject. Abu-nasr, in the Introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nikomachean Ethics, says as follows: Those who possess the faculty of raising their souls from virtue to virtue obtain, according to Plato, Divine protection to a higher degree.

Now consider how by this method of reasoning we have arrived at the truth taught by the Prophets, that every person has his individual share of Divine Providence in proportion to his perfection. For philosophical research leads to this conclusion, if we assume, as has been mentioned above, that Divine Providence is in each case proportional to the person’s intellectual development. It is wrong to say that Divine Providence extends only to the species, and not to individual beings, as some of the philosophers teach. For only individual beings have real existence, and individual beings are endowed with Divine Intellect; Divine Providence acts, therefore, upon these individual beings.

Study this chapter as it ought to be studied; you will find in it all the fundamental principles of the Law; you will see that these are in conformity with philosophical speculation, and all difficulties will be removed; you will have a clear idea of Divine Providence.