What is there about the Land of Israel in particular for it to be made the homeland of the chosen people? The Bible sings the praises of the land's abundance and its beauty, but there is nothing religious in that. A theological dimension appears in Deuteronomy, where a point is made about the difference between Egypt, which drinks river water, and the land of Israel, which drinks rainwater.

Rainfall is a symbol of divine providence. Furthermore, according to the biblical stories, in the great riverine countries a nation's sense of ownership of its land and mastery of its destiny is reinforced, leading to the development of tyrannical regimes and slavery. In land that drink rainwater, on the other hand, man constantly senses his dependence on God and for that reason such a land will sustain a regime of justice, free of subjugation.

Rainfall is perceived in the Bible as a means for the edification of the people. This is most pronounced in the early prophets, and above all in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. We learn from that story that the dependence on rain is a form of trial. There is a great temptation to use pagan magic to ensure that rain falls, but that defiles the land and it then vomits up its inhabitants; it was, in fact, the source of the Canaanites' sin. The people of Israel must learn that only by observing God's commandments can they dwell in their land and enjoy its bounty. (The story of Elijah and the prophets follows.) [*]

A summary of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (I Kings Chapters 17-18):

The Israelite prophet Elijah was active in Israel during the reigns of Ahab and Ahaziah (9th century BCE). Elijah's central struggle was against the worship of the Baal cult, which was condoned by the royal court. Ahab, while loyal to the faith of his people, saw no harm in showing tolerance toward the religion of the people of Tyre and in establishing a place of worship in Samaria for the circles close to Queen Jezebel (who worshipped Baal and Asherah).

Elijah first meets with King Ahab in the house of Hiel, the commander-in-chief of the Israelite army, whom he was visiting to condole with him for the loss of his sons. When King Ahab says mockingly, "Was not Moses greater than Joshua, and did he not say that God would let no rain descend upon the earth, if Israel served and worshipped idols? There is not an idol to which I do not pay homage, yet we enjoy all that is goodly and desirable..." Elijah rejoins: "As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." In pursuance of His promises, God could not but execute the words of Elijah, and neither dew nor rain watered the land.

A famine ensues, and Ahab seeks to wreak his vengeance upon the prophet. To escape the king's persecutions, Elijah hides himself.... God, who has compassion even upon the impious, tried to induce the prophet to release Him from His promise. To influence him, He has the brook run dry whence Elijah drew water for his thirst. As this failed to soften the inflexible prophet, God resorts to the expedient of causing him pain through the death of the son of the widow with whom Elijah was abiding, and by whom he had been received with great honor. When her son died... Elijah supplicates God to revive the child. Now God has the prophet in His power. He can give heed unto Elijah's prayer only provided the prophet release Him from the promise about a drought, for resuscitation from death is brought about by means of dew, and this remedy was precluded so long as Elijah kept God to His word withholding dew and rain from the earth.

Elijah sees there is nothing to do but yield. However, he first turns to Ahab with the purpose of overcoming the obduracy of the people, upon whom the famine has made no impression; manifest wonders displayed before their eyes are to teach them wisdom. The confrontation takes place on Mt. Carmel where Ahab, in response to Elijah's demands, assembles all of Israel and 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah. A series of miracles are demonstrated and the story climaxes with the killing of the prophets of Baal at Elijah's command.

This drama is interwoven with the story of the drought. Shortly after the events on Mount Carmel, the sky becomes black with clouds and heavy rain begins to fall. This is seen by Elijah and his followers as a sign that God has forgiven the repentant people their sin of Baal-worship which had been the cause of the drought. (The story carries on, however, with continued pagan worship, and with Jezebel's fury over the massacre of the prophets of Baal and her pursuit of Elijah and his followers.)

[1] In the later prophets we find a somewhat different variant of this theme. The land is located between the great river powers (Egypt, Babylonia) and between the desert and the sea. It is a middle land. It attracts all nations and is a pawn in the hands of the powers who fight for world dominion. Those who live in the land are tempted to take part in the struggle between the powers as a way to aggrandize power for themselves. But the only way to live in the land peacefully and to bring a vision of peace to the world is by refraining from participation on those pagan power struggles and by living a life of justice and truth in accordance with the Torah. [back]

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