God and Rain

by Joseph G. Rosenstein

October 1997

This week, we will start the Torah cycle once again with Bereishit, the initial chapters of the book of Genesis. Each year, as we review the Biblical accounts of the beginning of the world and of the human species, we must find metaphors for ourselves which embrace both the Biblical narrative and the facts of science. Fortunately, that is not hard to do.

However, in our review of Bereishit, we generally fail to realize that our ancestors were less puzzled by the origins of the universe and the origins of the species than by the origins of another phenomenon -- rain. Where did that rain come from?

Today we understand that the water in the sky gets there by the process of evaporation, but that explanation was not available to our ancestors. So, like other ancient peoples, they developed an exquisitely simple explanation for the rain. They said that the source of the rain was a pool of water somewhere up in the heavens. Since we couldn't see that source, it had to be located above the visible skies. Why then didn't all the water come tumbling down? There had to be a solid barrier above the sky which kept the water from falling. So how did it rain? It rained through small openings in the barrier.

This construction is described very explicitly in Genesis 1:6-7 as being God's major effort on the second day of creation. "And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so." The metaphor of a firmament retaining large quantities of water is soon afterwards used to explain the rapid accumulation of the waters of the flood, where the Bible notes, very dramatically, that "the windows of the heavens were opened". The rain was so voluminous that small openings would not account for it. So in addition to the small holes through which rain normally flowed, there were also larger holes ("windows of the heaven") which when opened would account for the voluminous rain that led to the flood.

This account of how things work unfortunately cannot be reconciled with the facts that we know. As with the ancients, rain is more present in our everyday life than questions of origins, and each drop of rain negates the account of Genesis. There are no waters above the firmament; indeed there is no firmament.

This does not pose a problem for those of us who understand the Torah as a document written by human hands, albeit with divine inspiration. For those who see the Torah as written by God, however, the text must be problematic. Even the Rabbinic category of "the Torah is written in human terms -- bil'shon b'nei adam" doesn't apply here, since that refers to simplifications, not to elaborate constructions.

A more serious problem is that the Bible's metaphor clearly takes rain out of the realm of natural phenomena and places it under God's daily control. If the waters above the firmament are to be released, someone must release them; if they are to be withheld, someone must withhold them. When angry, God can produce floods or droughts.

In our understanding, it rains when specific atmospheric conditions apply. As we have become more adept at describing those conditions, we have also become more adept at predicting rain, and at explaining the absence of rain. We no longer see rain as dependent on God's will, we no longer believe that God signs off on each rainfall.

Still more problematic is that if rain is subject to God's will, then, since God does not act whimsically or arbitrarily, the presence or absence of rain must be a consequence of our actions. Thus, our ancestors believed, out of cosmological necessity, in a retributive God, in a God who punishes. Nowhere is this view more clearly expressed than in the verses of Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which is the second of the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma, recited each morning and evening by observant Jews. The reward for following the commandments is that the "rain will come at the proper season" and, consequently, "you will have an ample harvest". On the other hand, if God's commandments are ignored, "God will hold back the heavens, and there will be no rain"; as a result, "the earth will not yield its produce" and "you will soon disappear from the good land which God is giving you."

Since for our ancestors, "nature" included the firmament and the waters above the firmament, it was "natural" for them to believe in a God who held the keys to rain, and who used rain for reward and punishment. It is no longer "natural" for us to do so.

How then can we understand the second paragraph of the Sh'ma? An alternative approach is to replace the language of "punishment" with the languange of "consequences". This is the subject of another discussion, but here for example is how we might read the verses in Deuteronomy:

If you listen to My commandments and do them, then the rain which falls on your fields will also fall in your lives, enabling everything to grow. Your fields will be fruitful and your animals will be fruitful, and you will be fruitful in body and in spirit.

But if you turn away from My commandments, then you will also turn away from My rain. You will no longer be aware of this blessing and its source, so that, for you, the rain will no longer exist. Your fields will no longer be fruitful and your lives will no longer bear fruit.

Listen to My commandments, be mindful of My blessings, and inherit the promises I made to your ancestors: Of fields rich with My bounty, of lives rich with My presence.

Copyright 1997 -- Joseph G. Rosenstein

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This article appeared in The Jewish State -- The Weekly Newspaper for Central New Jersey's Jewish Communities.