Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(properly רָעָב, raab', λιμός, hunger, whether of individuals or of nations). "In the whole of Syria and Arabia, the fruits of the earth must ever be dependent on rain; the watersheds having few large springs, and the small rivers not being sufficient for the irrigation of even the level lands. If, therefore; the heavy rains of November and December fail, the sustenance of the people is cut off in the parching drought of harvest-time, when the country is almost devoid of moisture. Further, the pastoral tribes rely on the scanty herbage of the desert-plains and valleys, for their flocks and herds; for the desert is interspersed in spring-time with spontaneous vegetation, which is the product of the preceding rain-fall, and fails almost totally without it. It is therefore not difficult to conceive the frequent occurrence and severity of famines: in ancient times, when the scattered population, rather of a pastoral than an agricultural country, was dependent on natural phenomena which, however regular in, their season, occasionally failed, and with them the sustenance of man and beast.
"Egypt, again, owes all its fertility — a fertility that gained for it the striking comparison with the 'garden' of the Lord' — to its mighty river, whose annual rise inundates nearly the whole land, and renders its cultivation an easy certainty. But this very bounty of nature has not unfrequently exposed the country to the opposite extreme of drought. With scarcely any rain, and that only on the Mediterranean coast, and with wells only supplied by filtration from the river through a nitrous soil, a failure in the rise of the Nile almost certainly entails a degree of scarcity, although if followed by cool weather, and if only the occurrence of a single year, the labor of the people may in a great measure avert the calamity. The causes of dearth and famine in Egypt are occasioned by defective inundation, preceded, and accompanied, and followed by prevalent easterly and southerly winds. Both these winds dry up the earth, and the latter, keeping back the rain-clouds from the north, are perhaps the chief cause of the defective inundation, as they are also by their accelerating the current of the river — the northerly winds producing the contrary effects. Famines in Egypt and Palestine seem to be affected by drought extending from northern Syria, through the meridian .of Egypt, as far as the highlands of Abyssinia.
"It may be said of the ancient world generally that it was subject to periodical returns of dearth, often amounting in particular districts to famine, greatly beyond what is usually experienced in modern times. Various causes of a merely natural and economical kind contributed to this, apart from strictly moral considerations. Among these causes may more especially be mentioned the imperfect knowledge of agriculture which prevailed, in consequence of which men had few resources to stimulate, or in unfavorable seasons and localities to aid, the productive powers of nature; the defective means of transit, rendering it often impossible to relieve the wants of one region, even when plenty existed at no great distance in another; the despotic governments, which to so great an extent checked the free development of human energy and skill; and the frequent wars and desolations, in a great degree also the result of those despotic governments, which both interrupted the labors of the field and afterwards wasted its fruits. Depending, as every returning harvest does, upon the meeting of many conditions in the soil and climate, which necessarily vary from season to season, it was inevitable that times of scarcity should be ever and anon occurring in particular regions of the world; and from the disadvantages now referred to, under which the world in more remote times labored, it was equally inevitable that such times should often result in all the horrors of famine."
The Scriptures record several famines in Palestine and the neighboring countries. The first occurs in Genesis 12:10, which is described as so grievous as to compel Abraham to quit Canaan for Egypt (Genesis 26:1). Another occurred in the days of Isaac, which was the cause of his removal from Canaan to Gerar (Genesis 26:17). The most remarkable one was that of .seven years in Egypt, while Joseph was governor. It was distinguished for its duration, extent, and severity, particularly as Egypt is one of the countries least subject to such a calamity, by reason of its general fertility. The ordinary cause of famine in Egypt is connected with the annual overflow of the Nile. But it would appear that more than local causes were in operation in the case noticed in Genesis 41:30, for it is said that "the famine was sore in all lands," that "the famine was over all the face of the earth." By the foresight and wisdom of Joseph, however, provision had been made in Egypt during the seven preceding years of plenty, so that the people of other parts sought and received supplies in Egypt — "all countries came into Egypt to buy corn." Among other lands, Canaan suffered from the famine, which was the immediate occasion of Jacob sending his sons down into Egypt, and of the settlement in that land of the descendants of Abraham; an event of the highest consequence in the sequel, and serving to illustrate the benignity and wisdom of divine Providence in bringing there a band of shepherds to prepare and qualify them for becoming ultimately the founders of the Hebrew nation.
The fruitfulness of Egypt depends upon the inundations of the Nile; but these are occasioned by the tropical rains which fall upon the Abyssinian mountains. These rains depend upon climatic laws of wide extent and great regularity. Yet there is scarcely a land on the earth in which famine has raged so often and so terribly as in Egypt, or a land that so very much needs the measures which Joseph adopted for the preservation of the people. The swelling of the Nile a few feet above or below what is necessary proves alike destructive. Particular instances of famine which history has handed down to us are truly horrible, and the accounts of them are worthy of notice also, inasmuch as they present the services of Joseph in behalf of Egypt in their true light. Abdollatif relates thus: "In the year 596 (A.D. 1199), the height of the flood was small almost without example. The consequence was a terrible famine, accompanied by indescribable enormities. Parents consumed their children; human flesh was, in fact, a very common article of food; they contrived various ways of preparing it. They spoke of it and heard it spoken of as an indifferent affair. Men-catching became a regular business. The greater part of the population were swept away by death. In the following year, also, the inundation did not reach the proper height, and only the lowlands were overflowed. Also much of that which was inundated could not be sown for want of laborers and seed; much was destroyed by worms which devoured the seed-corn; also of the seed which escaped this destruction, a great part produced only meagre shoots which perished." (See the account of this famine translated in the Am. Bibl. Repos. 1832, page 659 sq.) Compare with this account the "thin ears and blasted with the east wind" (Genesis 41:6). "Of the horrors in this second year's famine, the year of the Flight, 597 (A.D. 1200), Abdollatif, who was an eye-witness, likewise gives a most interesting account, stating that the people throughout the country were driven to the last extremities, eating offal, and even their own dead, and mentions, as an instance of the dire straits to which they were driven, that persons who were burnt alive for eating human flesh were themselves, thus ready roasted, eaten by others. Multitudes fled the country, only to perish in the desert-road to Palestine.
"But the most remaikable famine was that of the reign of the Fatimi Khalifeh, El-Mustansir billah, which is the only instance on record of one of seven years' duration in Egypt since the time of Joseph (A.H. 457-464, A.D. 1064-1071). This famine exceeded in severity all others of modern times, and was aggravated by the anarchy which then ravaged the country. Vehement drought and pestilence (says Es-Suyuti, in his Hosn el- Mohdarah, MS.) continued for seven consecutive years, so that they [the people] ate corpses, and animals that died of themselves; the cattle perished; a dog was sold for 5 dinars, and a cat for 3 dinars ... and an ardebb (about 5 bushels) of wheat for 100 dinars, and then it failed altogether. He adds that all the horses of the Khalifeh, save three, perished, and gives numerous instances of the straits to which the wretched inhabitants were driven, and of the organized bands of kidnappers who infested Cairo, and caught passengers in the streets by ropes furnished with hooks and let down from the houses. This account is confirmed by El- Makrizi (in his Khitat; Quatremere has translated the account of this famine in the life of El-Mustansir, contained in his Memoires Geographiques et Historiques sur 'Egypte), from whom we further learn that the family, and even the women of the Khalifeh fled, by the way of Syria on foot, to escape the peril that threatened all ranks of the population. The whole narrative is worthy of attention, since it contains a parallel to the duration of the famine of Joseph, and at the same time enables us to form an idea of the character of famines in the East. The famine of Samaria resembled it in many particulars; and that very briefly recorded in 2 Kings 8:1-2, affords another instance of one of seven years: "Then spake Elisha unto the woman whose son he had restored to life, saying, Arise, and go thou and thy household, and sojourn wheresoever thou canst sojourn: for the Lord hath called for a famine; and it shall also come upon the land seven years. And the woman arose, and did after the saying of the man of God: and she went with her household, and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years." Bunsen (Egypt's Place, etc., 2:334) quotes the record of a famine in the reign of Sesertesen 1, which he supposes to be that of Joseph; but it must be observed that the instance in point is expressly stated not to have extended over the whole land, and is at least equally likely, apart from chronological reasons, to have been that of Abraham.
"In Arabia, famines are of frequent occurrence. The Arabs, in such cases, when they could not afford to slaughter their camels, used to bleed them and drink the blood, or mix it With the shorn fur, making a kind of. black pudding. They ate also various plants and grains, which at other times were not used as articles of food. Thus the tribe of Hanifeb were taunted with having in a famine eaten their god, which consisted of a dish of dates mashed up with clarified butter asnd a preparation of dried curds of milk (Sihah, MS.)."
Famine is likewise a natural result, in the East, when caterpillars, locusts, or other insects destroy the produce of the earth. The prophet Joel compares locusts to a numerous and terrible army ravaging the land (chapter 1). Famine was also an effect of God's anger (2 Kings 8:1-2). The prophets frequently threaten Israel with the sword of famine, or with war and famine, evils that frequently go together. Amos threaten.s another sort of famine: "I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11). In ancient times, owing to the imperfect modes of warfare in use, besieged cities were more frequently reduced by famine than by any other means, and the persons shut up were often reduced to the necessity of devouring not only unclean animals, but also human flesh (compare Deuteronomy 28:22-24; 2 Samuel 21; 2 Kings 6:25-28; 2 Kings 15:3, Jeremiah 14:15; Jeremiah 19:9; Jeremiah 42:17; Ezekiel 5:10-12; Ezekiel 5:16; Ezekiel 6:12; Ezekiel 7:15).
The famine predicted by Agabus (Acts 11:28) was the same with that which is related by Josephus (Ant. 20:2, 6) as having taken place in the fourth year of Claudius, and affected especially the province of Judaea. (See Kuinol, Comment. proleg.) (See DEARTH).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Famine'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/f/famine.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.