As the thunderstorms break out overhead yet once again, I am naturally reminded of tornadoes. I grew up in a part of the country relatively free from natural disasters. In my little corner of western Pennsylvania we felt secure from the earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, mudslides, and hurricanes that seemed to plague other parts of the continent. Then one night a tornado came. I happened to be a few hundred miles from home working a summer job when the cheery newscaster announced that a tornado had swept through my hometown during the severe thunderstorms we’d had the night before. I had always believed our unrelenting hills made us somewhat resistant to the tornadoes that plagued our next-door neighbor Ohio. It was probably then that my fascination with severe weather, especially the tornado, began.
One of the reasons for the entirely understandable fear accompanying tornadoes is that they have all the hallmarks of an ideal divine weapon. In an article soon coming out in Maarav, I argue that an obscure Hebrew word should probably be associated with whirlwinds rather than tumbleweeds. Although violent tornadoes are rare in Israel, the story of Elijah seems to imply that a weighty prophet may be hefted skyward by a whirlwind, and that sounds tornadic to me! There are passages where whirling winds are referenced as harbingers of divine wrath, an association that clings to tornadoes even today. I ended up writing an entire book on weather terminology in the Bible that had been fueled on by this ambiguous fascination. Publishers, it seems, alas, do not share my enthusiasm for the topic.
The popular media, however, shows a glimmer of understanding. The second half of the 1990s (when I finished my draft of my book/doorstop) was a bonanza of American storm fascination; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (1997) was shortly followed by Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (1999) and both tailed the much-touted movie Twister (1996). Being somewhat of a connoisseur of tornadoes, I was disappointed by Twister, but one scene remained scoured into my memory. A layman asks one of our overly-folksy, lovable storm-chasers what an F-5 tornado (the F-, or Fujita-scale is the measure of a tornado’s intensity based on the level of damage it leaves behind — 5 is the highest number on the scale) would be like. One of our jocular heroes becomes suddenly serious and replies, “The finger of God!” Despite the cornball, this is an accurate explanation of the awe that surrounds a storm as random as a tornado. Adjacent houses can suffer entirely different fates in a tornado, or, in a poignant story I’ve never forgotten, a Wisconsin tornado killed one of a set of young twins in the same house during the storm. Finger of God, indeed. If Moses had lived in Iowa I’m sure he would have made liberal use of the tornado for precisely that image.