It was generally accepted belief in ancient Israel that drought was visited upon the land as divine punishment for the nation's collective evildoings And conversely, plentiful rainfall was construed as an indication that the people were fulfilling God's commandments.

This theme is spelled out in strong terms in the book of Deuteronomy: the people will succeed in conquering the land and remain in it, if they abide by God's commandments. Moses elaborates on the theme in Chapter 11, arguing for obedience on the grounds that the promised land, unlike Egypt, depends on rain for irrigation, without which Israel would perish from the land. Since the rain is dispensed by God, only if Israel is loyal and obedient, Israel should make constant efforts to remember these teachings and teach them to their children so that they, too, may obey them and live in the land forever.

In Egypt, the Israelites had to bring water to the fields on their own,[1] by a method normally used only in vegetable gardens, for which rainfall is insufficient. Since little rain falls in Egypt, irrigation depends completely on the annual flooding of the Nile, which is caused by melting snow and spring rains at its Ethiopian source. The river floods in the summer and fall, and its water flows into a system of canals and reservoirs, from which it is directly into the fields. Once it begins to sink below the level of the fields that are above river level, it is raised from the canals by artificial means so as to continue irrigating crops in the fields "A single crop requires the lifting of 1,6000 to 2,000 tons of water per acre in a hundred days."[2]

The Egyptian system of irrigating is translated here as "by your own labors"; the literal reading of the phrase is "by your foot." This may refer to the use of the foot for opening and closing sluice gates, or to the more primitive method of making and breaking down ridges of dirt to control the flow of water in the irrigation channels in gardens and fields, as has been observed in Egypt and Israel. The phrase could also be translated "on your foot" (or feet) and refer to carrying water (in containers) to fields or gardens.[3]

The promised land, teaches us the text, is unlike Egypt. It is a land of hills and valleys which can not be irrigated by human effort, but only by God - by means of rain. The Egyptians were apparently also aware of the difference between the sources of their irrigation and that of foreign lands. An Egyptian hymn speaks of the rain as a Nile in the sky:[4]

For thou [the sun god] has set a Nile in heaven,
That it may descend for [distant foreign countries]
and make waves upon the mountains,
Like the great green sea,
To water their fields in their towns.

A view similar to that of our chapter is attributed by Herodotus to Egyptian priests who, "on hearing that the whole land of Greece is watered by rain from heaven, and not, like their own, inundated by rivers," observed: "If God shall some day see fit not to grant the Greeks rain, but shall afflict them with a long drought, the Greeks will be swept away by a famine, since they have nothing to rely on but rain from Zeus, and have no other resources for water."[5]

The conclusion Moses draws from the verse above (11:10-12) is laid out in verses 13-21. Since the land is watered by God, rainfall is conditional upon obedience to Him. These verses express the effect of the commandments so clearly and concisely that they were later prescribed as part of the daily recitation of the Shema, expressing "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments."


[1] Exodus 1:14 [back]
[2] J. Breasted, A History of Egypt (New York: Bantam, 1964), 5-6 [back]
[3] Rashi; P. Montet, Everyday Life in Egypt (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 104-105; J. Felks, Agriculture in Palestine in the Period of the Mishnah and Talmud (Jerusalem: Magnes Press; Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1963), pp. 318, 339 [back]
[4] ANET, 371 [back]
[5] Herodotus 2:13; cf. ANET, 275c [back]
 From the JPS Translation and Commentary of the Bible, 1996.

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