You may not have noticed it, but the biblical authors have a lot to say about the weather. In addition, weather of various kinds has figurative meaning in both the Old Testament and the New. The following is merely a brief outline of this sizable subject, classified according to different weather phenomena.
When He thunders, the waters in the heavens roar;
He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.
He sends lightning with the rain
And brings out the wind from His storehouses.
The quest for water
Because ancient Palestine, as today, was a semiarid place, water management was always on everyone’s mind. The Israelites, only having recently arrived from Egypt, learned from the Canaanites about the storm god Baal. Images of him have survived to our day. He often brandishes a bolt of lightning as his spear. Israel’s prophets claimed that the Lord was the real provider of rain and fertility.
This conflict between the Lord and Baal reached a climax when the prophet Elijah confronted 350 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:30–39). For 3-1/2 years before this confrontation, the people had suffered from a drought because Elijah had announced to King Ahab, “as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1; Luke 4:25; James 5:17).
Elijah proposed a test between the rival gods: the people should serve whichever god was able to light the fire for a sacrifice offered to him. Baal’s prophets were unable to elicit from their god any response, though they prayed for hours, cried out to their God loudly, and even cut themselves with knives. In response to Elijah’s simple prayer, however, God lit the wood of his sacrifice, even though at Elijah’s command it had been doused with water three times. The people were convinced crying out, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord! He is God.” At Elijah’s request, God then sent a torrential downpour, putting an end the drought (1 Kings 18:43-46).
The psalmists celebrate this power of the Lord to strike the earth with lightning and to bless the earth with rain. Thunder, lightning, and dark clouds were prominent in God’s revelation of Himself to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). In Psalm 29, David apparently uses a thunderstorm to declare qualities of the Lord it reveals. In verses 3 through 9, he speaks seven times of “the voice of the Lord”:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters,
the God of glory thunders.
The Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
Sirion like a young ox.
The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning,
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
The Lord shakes the desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.
And in His temple all cry, “Glory!”
He concludes in verses 10 and 11 with this faith-declaration:
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
The Lord is enthroned as King forever.
The Lord gives strength to His people;
The Lord blesses His people with peace.
Not only does God boot out Baal the usurper, but He endows His people with greater blessing than Baal ever claimed.
Jesus picks up this same theme, when He declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “He [i.e., your Father in heaven] causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). This is a double-statement of blessing, not blessing in the first clause and cursing in the second. (Urbanites tend to think of rain as a curse rather than the blessing the rural folk perceive.)
The prophets reveal that God uses storms to punish people for their sins, beginning in Scripture with the ultimate storm, the Great Flood (reported and interpreted in Genesis 6-9). In response to the sinful condition of human society, described as: “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5), God “opened the floodgates of the heavens,” causing a 40-day-long rain, combined with the loosing of “the springs of the great deep.” The resulting flood inundated the entire world. “All the mountains under the entire heavens were covered… to a depth of more than 15 cubits” (more than 20 feet) (Genesis 7:11-12, 17-20). Every human being and land animal not in the ark was drowned (verse 21).
Less extensive storms, but perhaps no less fierce, served as instruments of God’s wrath in later times, as in the case of Jonah (Jonah 1:4-15). God showed His favor to the sailors who threw Jonah overboard by calming the storm (verse 15). An anonymous psalmist celebrates other times when the Lord has done the same thing (Psalm 107:23-30).
The “early” and the “latter” rains were crucial components in the agricultural cycle of ancient Israel. The early rains came in September-October, permitting the seeds of the newly planted crop to germinate and become established. The latter rains come in March-April, helping the mature plants to flourish just before harvest. The prophet Joel tells the penitent people to rejoice that God has granted them both the early and the latter rains (Joel 2:23), restoring to them what the drought and the locusts had destroyed.
The storms on the Sea of Galilee recorded in the gospels do not seem to fall in the same category; nothing is mentioned about the sins of the disciples. Rather, Jesus’ ability to calm the storm or to walk on the water despite wind and waves are occasions in which He reveals His divine power, which points to His divine nature (see Mark 4:36-41 and parallels in Matthew 8 and Luke 8, as well as Mark 6:45-51 and parallels in Matthew 14 and John 6).
God also uses hail as an instrument of punishment, including it among the 10 plagues against the Egyptians (Exodus 9:18-19, celebrated in Psalm 17:47-48), and using gigantic, 100-pound hailstones to kill more of the enemy than the swords of the soldiers did (Joshua 10:11; compare Revelation 8:7).
Wind serves God to execute His wrath against the wicked (e.g., Exodus 15:10; Hosea 13:15), but He also uses wind to bless people, as when the wind parted the Red Sea to create an escape route from the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:21-22), when wind brings quail for the Israelites in the wilderness (see Numbers 11:31-32), or when He symbolizes a return from Assyrian exile by a wind drying up the Euphrates (Isaiah 11:15-16). A mighty wind fills the observer with awe, and though God has used its sound to signify the arrival of His Spirit (Acts 2:1-2), He also has demonstrated that He is not always in such a wind (1 Kings 19:11).
Closely associated with the wind, especially wind from the desert, is the condition of drought. God uses it also as a punishment against evildoers:
If… you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit (Leviticus 26:18-20).
Such a drought befell the people of Israel at the time of the prophet Joel (in addition to the locust plague):
The fields are ruined,
the ground is dried up;
the grain is destroyed,
the new wine is dried up,
the oil fails….
The vine is dried up
and the fig tree is withered;
the pomegranate, the palm, and the apple tree—
all the trees of the field—are dried up….
The seeds are shriveled beneath the clods.
The storehouses are in ruins,
the granaries have been broken down,
for the grain has dried up.…
To you, O Lord, I call,
for fire has devoured the open pastures,
and flames have burned up all the trees of the field.
Even the wild animals pant for you;
the streams of water have dried up
and fire has devoured the open pastures (Joel 1:9-10, 12, 17-20).
Of course, the prophet calls on the people to repent (Joel 2:12-17).
The prophet Nahum recognizes God’s way in the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3), and the prophet Hosea employs the whirlwind to symbolize the utmost of futility (Hosea 8:7). Yet on at least one occasion, God uses the whirlwind for blessing, when he caught Elijah up to heaven (2 Kings 2:1, 11).
Only one historical narrative of the Bible mentions snow (2 Samuel 23:20; 1 Chronicles 11:22). Benaiah, one of David’s mighty men, went down into a pit and killed a lion “in a day of snow.” The context is ambiguous whether it was a single ‘day’ in which snow fell or a ‘time’ of snow, a particularly cold winter. Jewish commentators suggests two possible reasons for mentioning the snow: either Benaiah was able to track the lion’s footprints in the snow, or the unusual severity of the weather is what brought the lion close to human habitation.
Despite how seldom it falls, snow has figurative uses. The prophet Isaiah promises the people of Judah repent, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….” (Isaiah 1:18). Skin “white as snow” is a manifestation of leprosy (Exodus 4:6; Numbers 12:10; 2 Kings 5:27). It also serves as a symbol of refreshment (Proverbs 25:13), of cold (Proverbs 31:21), of fertilizing (Isaiah 55:10), and of habit (Jeremiah 18:14). Snow in summer symbolizes what is unfitting (Proverbs 26:1).
Predicting the weather
Jesus laments the irony that people are able to predict the weather based on whether the wind is coming from the sea or from the desert but cannot see what’s ahead spiritually. He says, “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12:54-56). He goes on to mention to recent events–Pilate’s massacre of Galileans in the temple courts and an accident in which a tower crushed and killed 18 people. These victims, Jesus says, are no more guilty than anyone else. Twice he warns, “unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
The difference between ancient and modern people regarding weather
Just as ancient people were more tied to the land than we are today, they were also more dependent on the weather and more helpless to overcome its effects. We can nearly always escape to a place of comfort and safety. This makes us tend to be neglectful of the great weather-Maker. Only in the midst of the greatest of natural phenomena do most of today’s people turn their eyes upward. We cry out only when we are desperate; the rest of the time, when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, we tend to take God for granted.
The Bible reminds us that our God is constantly there and that our minute-by-minute existence depends on his grace. If we should forget, a coming weather event may suddenly return his presence back to our consciousness.
Want to go deeper?
“Palestine, V. Climate,” 4:642-643 in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Revised edition. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 4 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995. Accessed 12/25/2015.
These two articles discuss the climate of ancient Palestine, including the considerable variation in annual rainfall from area to area (Jerusalem, for example, gets 20 inches per year, but Jericho gets only 4 inches, though the two cities are only 15 miles apart!). Even in the more arid areas of the land, the dew falls heavily on the fields. Snowfall only happens about 2 days a year.
Mark S. Smith, “Ugaritic and Biblical Literature,” a page on the Religion: Oxford Research Encyclopedias website. Accessed 12/25/2015.
Smith discusses the Ugaritic literature (over 2,000 tablets found at Ras Shamra in Syria from 1939 to the present). In particular, these tablets reveal a great deal of information about the worship of Baal. Smith compares what they claim for this fertility deity with the biblical teaching about the Lord.