God’s Promise: Rain, Grain, and Grass
Rain for Crops
Deuteronomy 11:14 promises that if the Israelites hearken to God’s word, God will cause the rain to fall and the crops to grow:
דברים יא:יד וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ:
Deut 11:14 And I will give the rain (for) your land in its season, the early-rain and the latter-rain; and you shall collect your grain, and your new-wine, and your fine-oil.
The verse opens with three words for rain:
- מָטָר matar, a generic term for rain (the word occurs 55x in the Bible)
- יוֹרֶה yoreh, refering to the rains which occur early in the rainy season (beginning around November until around February);
- מַלְקוֹש malqosh, a term for the rains which continue to soak the land later in the season (approximately March and even into April).
This detailed description of the rains, here in Deuteronomy 11:14 and in other biblical passages, reflects their importance in ancient Israel. Unlike the riverine cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where irrigation channels provided water to the fields, in the land of Canaan, agriculture was totally dependent on the seasonal rains.
Psalm 72 expands upon matar with two additional related terms, revivim and zarzif:
תהלים עב:ו יֵ֭רֵד כְּמָטָ֣ר עַל־גֵּ֑ז
כִּ֝רְבִיבִ֗ים זַרְזִ֥יף אָֽרֶץ:
Ps 72:6 Let him be like rain that falls on a mown-field, like droplets of a downpour on the ground 
Zechariah 10 uses the terms matar and malqosh from Deuteronomy 11:14, plus two more, ḥaziz and geshem:
זכריה י:א שַׁאֲל֨וּ מֵיְ־הֹוָ֤ה מָטָר֙ בְּעֵ֣ת מַלְק֔וֹשׁ
יְ־הֹוָ֖ה עֹשֶׂ֣ה חֲזִיזִ֑ים
וּמְטַר־גֶּ֙שֶׁם֙ יִתֵּ֣ן לָהֶ֔ם
לְאִ֖ישׁ עֵ֥שֶׂב בַּשָּׂדֶֽה:
Zech 10:1 Ask YHWH for rain in the season of latter-rain.
It is YHWH who causes storms;
And He will provide rainstorms for them,
Grass in the fields for everyone.
As in Deuteronomy 11:15 (see below), YHWH provides the rain which allows the “grass in the fields” to grow.
Grain, Wine, and Olive Oil for the Crop Farmers
The second part of verse 14 mentions the three key agricultural products of the land. However, instead of using the prosaic words לֶחֶם leḥem “bread,” יַיִן yayin “wine,” and שֶׁמֶן shemen “[olive] oil,” when speaking of YHWH’s providing food for his people, the author of Deuteronomy prefers what appears to be the loftier language of דָּגָן dagan “grain,” תִּירוֹשׁ tirosh “new-wine,” and יִצְהָר yitzhar “fine olive oil” – a trio of nouns which occurs 20x in the Bible, including 6x in the book of Deuteronomy.
The Order of the Three Food Terms
The ordering of the three terms—דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ degankha wə-tiroshkha wə-yitzharekha “your grain, and your new-wine, and your fine-oil”—reflects a norm in world languages: when a series of two or three items are collocated, the ordering is from shorter to longer. Clear examples of this in English in two-terms phrases are: “pins and needles,” “neat and tidy,” and “nook and cranny.” The same principle applies to three-item phrases: “hook, line, and sinker”, “lock, stock, and barrel,” and “faith, hope, and charity.”
Throughout the Bible, the three items are ordered as dagan / tirosh / yitzhar. All three words are comprised of two syllables, but dagan contains three consonants and two short vowels; tirosh contains three consonants and two long vowels; and yitzhar contains four consonants, thereby making the word automatically longer, regardless of its short vowels.
The Israelite Diet and the Mediterranean Triad
The basic meal consumed by the ancient Israelites (and their neighbors) was comprised of bread dipped in olive oil, with wine as drink. The olive oil could be seasoned with various local herbs (like zaʿatar) or with a bit of vinegar (see Ruth 2:14), but the oil itself was the primary item. Other foods—such as pulses (peas, lentils, chickpeas) or fruit (figs, dates, pomegranates)—could accompany the meal, but bread, oil, and wine constituted the basic repast. These three staples comprise what scholars—both those who research the history of food and those who advocate for healthful eating—now call “the Mediterranean triad.”
There is also something special, perhaps even numinous to the ancients (though hopefully to moderns as well) about the three foodstuffs. A fig or a date or a pomegranate could be plucked from the tree and eaten immediately. Vegetables such as lettuces can be snipped, and roots such as garlic and onions can be uprooted, and then eaten immediately. By contrast, bread, wine, and olive oil derive from major transformations of their raw materials—grain, grapes, and olives—transformations that are conducted by humans.
Grass for the Pastoralists
The next verse continues with a promise that the Israelites will have sufficient food:
דברים יא:טו וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ:
Deut 11:15 And I will give you grass in your field for your cattle; and you shall eat and you shall be sated.
The final two words, “you shall eat and be sated” are the expected conclusion from the previous verse that YHWH will make grain, grapes, and olives grow, but, between the rain and human eating, the author adds the growth of grass, which serves as fodder for the livestock. This, the verse implies, is connected to how humans eat and are sated – especially those people who engaged in animal husbandry and who would have easy access to animal-derived foodstuffs, especially dairy products.
Though not as self-evident as in the case of agrarian foodstuffs, animal products are equally dependent on rainfall. The rains allow the grasses to grow, which in turn provide for healthy herds and flocks, which in turn provide humans with a steady supply of milk and, if an animal is slaughtered, meat.
Most striking in this regard is the parallel between the biblical passage and the opinion expressed by contemporary farmer Joel Salatin, brought to public attention by Michael Pollan in his best-selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan writes:
But if you ask Joel Salatin what he does for a living (Is he foremost a cattle rancher? A chicken farmer?) he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms, “I’m a grass farmer.” The first time I heard this designation I didn’t get it at all—hay seemed the least (and least edible) of his many crops, and brought none of it to market. But undergirding the “farm of many faces,” as he calls it, is a single plant—or rather the whole community of plants for which the word “grass” is shorthand. “Grass,” so understood, is the foundation of the intricate food chain Salatin has assembled at Polyface, where a half dozen different animal species are raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis. Salatin is the choreographer and the grasses are his verdurous stage; the dance has made Polyface one of the most productive and influential alternative farms in America.
To the majority of modern westerners, who no longer live on the land (and off the land), the words of Deuteronomy 11:15 pass without full appreciation, but the meaning of this verse was likely obvious to anyone in ancient Israel where, perhaps 90‒95% of the people were engaged in food production in one way or the other—the growing of crops, animal husbandry, viticulture, olive oil production, the various stages required to transform grain into flour (threshing, winnowing, sifting, grinding, etc.), and so on. (The remaining 5‒10% would have included potters, masons, weavers, smiths, scribes, etc.)
If I may be permitted a personal note: despite having recited the three paragraphs of the Shema prayer innumerable times during my lifetime, only upon reading the above passage from Pollan’s book did I realize what the biblical verse was asserting.
Rain: A Message for Farmers and Shepherds
Deuteronomy 11:14–15 thus speaks to both the farming and pastoral communities that produced food in ancient Israel. Verse 14 addresses those who grew crops, while verse 15 speaks to those who tended flocks and herds. For the former, the connection between rain and food was immediate. For the latter, the connection between rain and food required the additional middle step. Grass was (and remains) the key.
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July 28, 2021
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Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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