Religion and the Rain Dance

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is an emphasis on agriculture. Obey God, and he will send you rain and crops; disobey, and you will experience drought and famine. Several Jewish holidays (e.g., Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc.) center around agriculture, specifically the Israelites’ desire for God to send rain, which is so necessary for the production of food. In the Elijah story, the main question revolves around who could bless the Israelites with rain: the storm god Baal (boo!) or the LORD God of Israel (horray!).

I detect that there are many in modern times who look down on this sort of religion. I don’t have any quotes to back my claim up, but it’s just a feeling that I have, based upon the various books, articles, and lectures I’ve encountered over the years. For such moderns, the Israelites were a rag-tag gang of primitive tribespeople who feared the unpredictable natural world. They worshipped their god to give themselves a sense of security, predictability, and control in a world that made sense. They needed rain to survive, so they appealed to their tribal god to control the weather for their benefit. Whenever drought came, they didn’t feel hopeless, for they concluded that God was withholding rain because of their sin. And there was a solution: If they repented, then God would send the rain. The Israelites were not alone in holding to this kind of religion, for pagans were also concerned about the agricultural cycle, as were Native Americans, who had special rain dances to bring about a bountiful harvest.

For a lot of moderns, such a religion sounds superstitious and un-scientific. It is grounded in fear of the unknown, plus modern science has supposedly shown that prayers and rain dances have no effect on the weather, which is random (except for global warming, which many scientists now blame on humans). Some of the people who make such points are atheists, while others are Christians or Jews who treat the Israelite preoccupation with rain as a primitive and immature stage of the Jewish religion, in contrast with the ethical sensitivity that developed later.

Such moderns take for granted the abundance of food in the Western world. They act as if all the food they eat originated in their local supermarket, when actually there was an entire agricultural process that went into its production. We depend on rain just as much as our “primitive” ancestors.

At the same time, I can see the point that religion should be about more than satisfying our physical needs. Deuteronomy 8:3 says that man does not live on bread alone. We shouldn’t just be good so that God will give us food instead of drought. We should also have an appreciation of righteousness, one that recognizes its inherent beauty.

But people are concerned about life’s necessities, which is why they are included in most religions. What puzzles me, however, is that they don’t seem to be a major feature of eastern religions. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on Buddhism and Taoism, but their emphasis seems to be on psychological outlook, not the provision of basic needs. The Buddhists encourage detachment from the world so that people won’t suffer so much, and Taoists focus on going through life with a relaxed attitude. I don’t remember reading or hearing anything about them appealing to a deity for rain or other necessities. Theravada Buddhists don’t even believe in a deity!

Maybe they do touch on this issue in some way and I’ve missed it. Or perhaps they don’t and there is a reason. They may be elites who are detached from agricultural production. Possibly their adherents gravitate towards isolated communities that take for granted the food that they eat. These are just guesses. A religion that focuses on something other than day-to-day survival may seem sophisticated and mature, but is it out of touch with the lives of most people?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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