Rain – מָטַר (matar), גֶּ֫שֶׁם (geshem),
שְׂעִירִים (seirim), יוֹרֶה (yoreh), מַלְקוֹשׁ (malqosh), רְבִיבִים (revivim), βροχή (brochē), ὑετός (huetos)
We are now half way through the Wildlife Trusts ‘30 Days Wild‘ challenge and so, to keep things fresh, today we will be exploring something different.
Three or four years ago I would have been tempted to start this post with something like a wry reference to the typical rain-swept summer we’ve been enjoying, which would have made the subject of rain very apt. However, changes in climate and weather systems has meant that the last couple of summers have been uncharacteristically dry and this one seems to follow that new pattern – even in March (2019), in central England,, the water butt we use for the hens’ water, was running perilously close to empty! Since then, the first half of June has proved to extremely wet with some areas receiving more than a month’s worth of rain in a single day!
Nevertheless, rain is a really important part of not just our ecology but our experiences of living in it. As the writer Cynthia Barnett (2015) suggests:
[Rain] is one of the last untamed encounters with nature that we experience routinely, able to turn the suburbs and even the city wild.”Barnett (2015:12)
Whether you are attempting to avoid it or are scanning the sky for the promise of an overdue shower, rain is as much a part of the modern world as it was in the ancient one. The following post comprises a few short sections from some research that I am currently writing on rain as theology within biblical and post-biblical antiquity.
So many words for rain
Classical Hebrew includes at least six different words for rain or liquid precipitation; geshem, matar, yoreh, malkosh, revivim, se’irim. This, as Benstein (2006:85) asserts, strongly suggests how important rain was to the the writers of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, or within Christian tradition the Old Testament). There is even a word, זַרְזִיף (zarziph), appearing in Psalm 72, that captures the action of life-giving droplets falling upon soil.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,Psalm 72:6
like showers that water [zarziph] the earth.
The proliferation of terms is because rain was a precious resource. The ancient writers knew that their lives literally depended on it. Rain permeates the sacred text rooting itself deeply within the conceptual and theological language of ancient Israel. Benstein (2006:84) argues that it is this close relationship with the land and its climate that explains why the “people’s spiritual language [was] so anchored in meteorology.” The reasons for this lie in the geology and climate of Israel. The terrain itself encompasses many different ecological domains (see Hillel, 2006), and each, to a greater of lesser extent, is dependent on rain.
Although, on average, Jerusalem receives more rain than London, it also experiences far higher levels of evaporation and a precipitation type that is driven by cold rather than warm front convection which causes heavier rainfalls, with its consequent problems of erosion and run-off (Goldreich, 2003; Hillel, 2006). These create the greater challenges for water resource management and security (Goldreich, 2003). This is exacerbated, by roughly two-third of Israel’s rain falling in just three months (its ‘rainy’ or winter season), so that Israel experiences approximately only 50 rainy days against London’s 151 days (Goldreich, 2003:55).
The rainy season is characterised by two principal precipitation systems. The first (the yoreh ‘former’/’early rains’) falls at the beginning in October-November and is essential for drenching the dry soil for planting. The gentler latter rains (malqosh), which arrive in April at the end of the season, are crucial for crop growth and maturation (see Hillel, 2006:14-146 and 157-159).
For the ground to be viable for crop exploitation and to support caprine (sheep and goat) livestock, Hillel (2006:146) estimates state that a “marginal threshold for annual cropping is about 12 inches (300 mm); less rain than that would generally result in crop failure.” This absolute dependency of the land and its people on rain finds expression in the way that the climate frames the language of the sacred, and molds their theology.
Rain not rivers
Biblical Israel emerged along the central highlands, terrain in which the soil was often scarce and was entirely dependent upon rain for watering. A number of factors influenced the writings that were produced at this time. The two main power-bases to the north-west (Mesopotamia) and south-east (Egypt) were riverine ecologies that had then been enhanced, particularly in Mesopotamia, by the development of irrigation systems. Despite this, both, within relatively recent history had suffered crippling droughts (see, Hillel, 2006; Weiss et.al. 1993; Cline, 2014). The fragility of the top soil to the ravages of heavy rain – as well as the damage it could do to their early attempts at terrain modification in the form of terraces – bore heavily on the way rain was presented in their literature. Too much would cause devastating erosion, too little and their would be no harvest. It is, therefore, not surprising that their first theological writings would closely equate their God, YHWH, with rain and storm (see Psalm 29*).
The Mesopotamian culture proudly flaunted its achievements in ‘taming’ wild nature through its use of irrigation. Its creation accounts (for example, the Akkadian Enuma Elish) recorded that, although irrigation was a gift of the gods, it was achieved through the sweat and blood of humans. Farmers were even referred to as the ‘men of dykes and canals’ (Hillel, 1992:79).
The Sumerian account of creation, the Eridu Genesis (1600 BCE), begins with the depiction of an arid sterile world, because, we are told:
In those days no canals were opened,Eridu Genesis (cited in Hiebert, 1996:36)
No dredging was done at dikes and ditches on dike tops.
A strikingly similar scene is set by the writer of one of our earliest textual layers of biblical literature, the ‘Yahwist’ or J. Here too the earth is described as parched and unable to produce or sustain life. However, the reason J gives is not because there are no irrigation channels to feed the parched fields, but because:
Genesis 2:5 (NRSV)
5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God [yahweh elohim] had not caused it to rain [matar] upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground
Even before creation has been described, the narrator sets up a dyadic relationship between Yahweh and humans, and their specific roles (sending rain and arable cultivation), and which is necessary for the production, and maintenance of life. Hiebert (1996) argues that:
Divine activity in J’s epic is associated particularly closely with the two natural phenomena most crucial to agricultural production, rain fall and fertile soil.Hiebert (1996:72)
It is this paralleled relationship between Yahweh and humans and importantly Yahweh’s activity and human activity on the land that forms the heart of the J-stratum narrative. The event of rain, as with the event of tilling the land (Gen 2), becomes a profoundly theological act and statement – an attitude that continues into the New Testament writings (see, for example, Acts 14:17 and Matthew 5:45).
Right from the beginning we are told by the setting of this story is totally different to the stories the other nations around tell. This is a story of a very different people with a very different set of dependencies.
Stopping the rivers
Unlike the neighbouring river dependent empires, the land of the Hebrew Bible was almost entirely reliant upon its seasonal cycles of rain. As vulnerable as this might appear to make Israel, the Deuteronomistic writer of Joshua provides a spectacular ‘spin’ on their situation; turning a negative into a positive. The account describes how the Israelites cross the river Jordan to enter the land that Yahweh had promised to them:
Joshua 3:14-17 (NRSV – italics added for emphasis)
14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing towards the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
This is, almost undoubtedly, meant to parallel the dividing of the Red Sea at the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity under Moses’ leadership. However, if we can take the scholarly consensus that Joshua (in this form) was written at the time of the Assyrian/Babylonian exile, as with the best biblical texts, this text resonates on a number of levels. In the story, the Israelites are nearing the completion of their deliverance from Egypt. The account is written under the powerful domination of Babylon. Both empires grew out of riverine ecologies and therefore were dependent on river-fed economies. The power of this image of a dry Jordan, is more than just a neat symbol that marks the transition from one type of ecology (riverine) to another (rain fed) – even if that did mean anything to those at the time. For this small group of people, their God would staunch the flow of the Jordan river. See how easily this God, Yahweh, יִשְׂרָאֵֽל אֱלֹהֵי Elohim ‘Yisrael, can stop the aquatic artery that pulses life into the heart of your empires. This people would not be subservient to the silt and flow of river, but live under the skies from which Yahweh will shower life, freely, abundantly in pluvial festivals and galas of life.
A lesson for all estate agents
As if that is not enough, the Deuteronomist ramps up the rhetoric. On the face of it, presenting the land of biblical Israel (particularly the central highlands) as an agrarian farmer’s paradise compared to the land of Egypt would appear to be a pretty hard sell. However the writer of Deuteronomy is undaunted and squarely addresses the issue.
Deuteronomy 11:10-12 (NRSV)
10For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. 11But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, 12a land that the Lord your God looks after. The eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.
Ellen Davis (2009:27) describes this is a “brilliant piece of agrarian rhetoric,” as the Israelites are urged by the author to “reimagine their land as blessed precisely in the fragility that necessitates and therefore guarantees God’s unwavering attention.”
If the comparison between Egypt’s irrigated fields and Israel’s rainy hillsides, is rather unconvincing to our ears, that is because our English versions are unable to convey the contemptuous undertones of the Hebrew. The irrigation depicted here is not from the waters of the Nile, in the Deuteronomist’s depiction the land is ‘watered by foot’, a term translated elsewhere as a euphemism for ‘urine’ (Belser, 2015:53-54). How could the sewage soaked land of Egypt compare with land of milk and honey (Deut 11:9), tended for them by their God, which is watered and nourished with the very rains of heaven?
Lessons ancient and modern
This close association between God’s protection of the people and his provision of the rain is further sealed within the Shema, the oldest fixed prayer in Judaism and is recited each morning and evening, embeds the Deuteronomic attitude to rain into the heart of the Jewish faith and cosmology. It is largely drawn from passages within Deuteronomy (although a section does include text from Numbers). The second part of the prayer cites Deuteronomy 11:
Deuteronomy 11:13-17 (NRSV)
13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then he will give the rain [matar] for your land in its season, the early rain [yoreh] and the later rain [malqosh], and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. 16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshipping them, 17 for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain [matar] and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly from the good land that the Lord is giving you.
The use of this text has recently received scrutiny (and criticism) from some reformed Jewish groups who argue that, in the light of our scientific understanding of rain, statements that appear to link supernatural (for some, superstitious) causes for rain/drought are inappropriate in the modern world; see for example, Ellen Cohn’s sensitive reflection (Cohn, 1998:127-132). Although it is possible to read the text in this way, there appears to also be much in its underlying attitude to ecology, rain, and its heightened awareness of the fragile balance of an biosphere from which the modern world can learn.
*This is considered by many commentators to have been one of the earliest texts, possibly pre-dating Israel and relating to an Ugaritic hymn to the storm god, Baal-Hadad. This was first suggested in the 1950s by Frank Cross. See also the discussion by Habel and Avent (2000:42-50)
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Cohn, E. (1998) ‘Rain and Calendar’. In. Bernstein, E. (ed.) Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where nature and the sacred meet. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing. pp.127-132.
Cross, F.M. (1950) ‘Notes on a Canaanite Psalm in the Old Testament’. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 117(Feb). pp.19-21.
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