'For a famine had gripped the whole world' Gen. 41:57

by Sr. Marion Moeser
Fri, Feb 14th 2020 01:00 pm

As I write this reflection, wildfires ravage Australia, attributed to record high temperatures and record low rainfall.  Famine threatens lives in several countries of Africa accompanied by mass migrations (e.g., Zambia); again attributed to drought. 

Concerns about the lack of rain and famine are often expressed in the Old Testament.  Moreover, the worship of false gods, particularly Baal the Canaanite god of the weather, was often condemned.  Since rain was needed for crops, animals could not survive, hence no food for humans.  Which god would provide rain? The story of Elijah's contest with  the prophets of Baal illustrates this (1 Kings 18).  The narrative begins by noting a famine in Samaria. Elijah warns the people about "straddling" the issue, that is, praying to the LORD (Yahweh) and to Baal. A contest ensues and the prophets of Baal cannot produce fire to begin a sacrifice to this Baal, but Elijah succeeds with fire for his sacrifice to Yahweh and "a heavy rain" ensues. This narrative was no doubt meant as a call to worship Yahweh alone. Psalm 68:11 thanks the LORD for rain, "given to the poor in their need," clearly expressing a lived reality or a community memory. What would cause a lack of rain and a deadly famine?

Recent scientific studies shed light on this question as well as the disappearance of highly developed empires in ancient Greece, Turkey, Canaan, and Egypt during the Bronze Age  (1500-1200 BC). Leslie J. Hoppe, OFM, an Old Testament scholar who studies the archaeology of the biblical lands has written about the climate change which took place during this time.  He reports on scientific studies of boring samples containing pollen taken from sediment deep beneath the Sea of Galilee.  Pollen would be deposited in the sea by winds blowing over the surrounding regions. These samples show that vegetation changed from that found in a temperate climate, trees and grains, to vegetation from arid lands, e.g., shrubs; this occurred during the Bronze Age.  Former thriving agriculture would disappear along with animals.  Inhabitants would migrate in search of food and water.  Recall that the patriarch Jacob sent his ten sons south to Egypt to purchase food supplies because of a severe famine (Gen. 42:1-2).   Moreover, the pollen samples indicate that eventually temperate vegetation began to return; other peoples moved into the lands, including the Israelites. These pollen studies show that a famine did indeed occur and this could account for the demise of great nations.

The question remains: What caused this climate change?  For this Hoppe turns to scientific studies of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The research shows that temperatures in Greenland rose around 1200 BC and the glacier began to melt, releasing cold water into the Atlantic and eventually into the Mediterranean Ocean.  This led to a decrease in evaporation from the sea and therefore less rainfall, a situation lasting almost 200 years.

Hoppe concludes his writing thus:  "Since it seems that climate change and migrations contributed to the collapse of the Bronze Age world, one might reasonably ask whether the same will happen again to our world? It is by no means clear, of course, that we will go the way of the ... (ancient cultures) ... , but there are more similarities than one might expect between our world today and theirs back then."

In his encyclical,  On Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis, while acknowledging the current debate on the topic of climate change, nonetheless writes: "But we need only to take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair" (61).  

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