Spring has been taking its time to arrive here in the northeast. Just when things seem to have set on a course of identifiable progress, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the rain sets in again. It’s been great weather for toadstools. There are bright patches, however. I read on the bus, but one day last week as we were trundling toward New York City I glanced out the window. The sky was mostly clear and a sundog shone brightly to the north like my own personal star of Bethlehem. Sundogs feel like good omens. I’ve read enough about meteorology to know that they are merely a refraction of sunlight due to ice crystals high in the atmosphere. Depending on your angle of view, they might appear as a halo all the way around the sun, at which point they’re no longer dogs, or, at certain times of day they may appear as a solid beam coming down to earth in the form of a sun-pillar. It’s only ice and light.
Those of us who stare long at the sky know that the weather is merely a metaphor. The earth spins. It revolves. It rotates. It’s cold at the tips and warm in the middle. The laws of physics—unbreakable they tell us—state that all bodies seek equilibrium. A constant California temperature. If humans should survive long enough we might find our globe of uniform temperature, smooth as a billiard ball, and utterly lifeless. We need the variations of our weather. The chill of a spring that just won’t warm up. The heat of a summer that wilts down to the roots. Ice and light.
I’m heading into a large city. It’s a quotidian trip that some might suppose to be void of meaning. The sundog follows us for a while until it’s lost in the skyscrapers of human devising. Towers that over-reach but which the gods have to bend down to see. Nobody knows the origin of the term “sundog.” My favorite explanation is from Norse mythology where wolves pursue the sun and moon to consume them. This feels so appropriate to me as I enter the artificial canyons of hubris, glass, and concrete. As the day progresses the sundogs appear to disappear. Towers continue to grow. Beyond them, high in the sky, ice and light will continue their play, even if the dogs never do reach the sun. Refraction of light may cause things to manifest as other than they truly are.
Over the long weekend, our furnace kicked off two days in a row. This January has been chillier than some, and we’ve been sitting around with blankets on our laps waiting for the air temperature to reach a tolerable level. We keep our place cool, in any case, partly from environmental concern, and partly because we can’t afford to do it any other way. So I was interested to see an article from the Guardian that my wife forwarded to me about the weather. I’ve been interested enough in the weather to write a book about it (Weathering the Psalms—available now!) and since I stand outside every morning waiting for a frequently tardy bus, I do tend to notice when it’s cold, raining, or snowing. The article, “I don’t care what the weatherman says when it’s just hysteria,” by Martin Kettle, makes a good point. The weather used to be information on the news, now it is entertainment. We dramatize and give names to storms as if each is a miniature apocalypse. As Kettle notes, most of us have been around long enough to know how to survive a cold snap or two. But an apocalypse?
We’ve become accustomed to the controlled environment. Many of us define our “work” as sitting in front of computers all day, tapping out virtual ideas that other people will see, indoors, and we probably don’t even have to step outside to get the message delivered. The weather might make it difficult to get to work. We might lose a day of productivity. That snow that was fun as a child has become an impairment to those adults driving to work to get inside so we don’t have to be made uncomfortable any longer than is strictly necessary. Snow never makes it into the forecast, but a storm personified with a name and with destructive intent. No wonder the biblical world saw weather as a divine weapon.
That which Kettle terms “[t]he debauching of the weather” is a sign of the times. We seem to be deemed unable to process facts. We must be entertained. How many mornings have I sat worried in the dark, wondering if I’ll make it in to work or if I’ll spend a good portion of the day trapped on a bus frozen on the Parkway? How much energy do I expend trying to decide whether I should spend extra money to take the train, even though I’ve already paid for a month of bus service? Will the weather throw itself on us all and prevent us from another day’s work? In the Psalms, the response was often one of wonder and praise. These were things only the deity could do. Now, however, we are in the realm of the media meteorologist. If they don’t entertain us, we might just turn off the television or computer and go outside to check for ourselves. If only we would we might discover one of the true wonders of nature that doesn’t require comment. It might be the ability to judge for ourselves.
As April showers linger into May, I am reminded of April’s issue of Discover magazine. I picked up a copy on my way to Santa Barbara, and although much of it is beyond me, the article about microbes causing rain seems apt on days like today. Although I move in small circles, I hear many people commenting on how weird the weather has been this year. Mornings cold enough as to require a winter jacket, and evenings where a light sweater is almost too much. And the rain. Now, I realize that weather is always a decidedly local phenomenon, but apart from the rare reader in Antarctica or the Atacama Desert, we all know rain. In the biblical world the rain, as with so many inexplicable things before the birth of science, was in the provenance of providence. God sent the rain as a kind of blessing to a parched land. Thunder and hail, however, we sure signs of his displeasure. Discover suggests that maybe the answer lies in some being that is tiny rather than astronomically large.
The question that has frequently eluded answer among meteorologists is why some rain clouds rain while others don’t. No one really knows what the trigger might be—thus cloud seeding has often been a hit-or-miss proposition. Douglas Fox explores the possibility that, in his words, “The Clouds Are Alive.” Scientists can now measure the microbial life that survives in the sub-frigid temperatures high in the atmosphere above us. Amazingly we continue to discover that where we once thought conditions were too hostile, life manages to thrive. When I was a child scientific orthodoxy declared deep ocean trenches near volcanic vents far too acidic for anything to survive. Now we look at the clouds and see life. Not exactly the angels some theologians expected to find hovering above, but life nonetheless. And if the microbes are there, they might survive on a world as chilly as Mars (which, I hear, is even chillier than our apartment in winter).
One of the favorite gaps for the famous God-of-the, is the weather. As a symbol of what is beyond human control, indeed, the largest perceptible environment in inner space, the sky remains aloof from our tampering. Even so we’ve found ways to pollute our firmament. And now we’re discovering we’re not alone up there. The idea that the clouds are full of microbes sounds more like a Stephen King plot than an intelligent design. Actually, it is good old evolution in action. Life is surprising in its ubiquity. We’d once convinced ourselves that it was rare and could only thrive in environments similar to ours. Now we know that even on a terrestrial scale of survival, we are wimps. Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. Little did they suspect that the light might be shining off of microscopic life.
All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.
Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.
I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.
Baal has been on my mind lately, despite the limited time I’m able to dedicate to research. You see, Baal and I share a common interest in weather. One of those people whose moods synchronize with the atmosphere, I have always felt what the sky projects. So when a colleague asked me to lecture his class on the Baal Cycle, I felt it was a kind of catharsis after all the gray skies and snow we’ve had this year. Baal, or properly Hadad, was doyen of the skies. In modern perspective it is often difficult to realize that the seasons and climate of ancient Aram were quite distinct from our own. Whatever came from the sky came from Baal.
In the documentation we have on this god, we find him particularly associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. These were more common in the Mediterranean basin than the snows of the higher elevations. It stands to reason, however, that Baal meted out the weather to the denizens of Ugarit, no matter how wet or cold. Even his daughters’ names reflect their meteorological roles. Thunder and lightning may be the most dramatic expressions of divine power, but nothing makes you shiver like a good snow.
It is difficult not to take the weather personally when my long commute days are permeated with ice and snow. Continuing a pattern initiated last spring semester, my lengthy drive to Montclair has been accompanied by snow each class session I’ve been assigned so far this semester. Even the students have begun to notice. One co-ed asked why it always snows when I’m teaching. Meteorologists may have their naturalistic explanations, but somewhere deep down, I’m afraid that Baal has it in for me. It’s time to go and shovel the front steps again.