I just received a wonderfully welcome gift—a warm and wooly winter coat. With winter wheezing its cold breath over most of the northern hemisphere it couldn’t be more timely. In my neighborhood, it’s time to think of snow. Put snow tires on the cars; get ready to shovel snow from the sidewalk, and make sure we have boots high enough to keep snow out of our socks. For the benefit of all you happy warriors and favored friends reading this Thought Tool in Ghana, Australia, and Florida, snow is a cold white substance somewhere between rain and hail that makes life a little difficult in urban environments subject to its presence. (Yes, I know that you smug Vermonters think it’s beautiful. If my office window looked out over white fields, I’d agree.)
Though it is apparently a controversial assertion, I do believe that in languages like Inuit, Yupik, Swedish and Icelandic more words exist to describe subtle nuances in snow than are found in English. There is no reason to find this surprising. People in those far northern latitudes see so much more of the white stuff than we do. What is more, many details of their day-to-day existence revolve around being able to tell the difference between snow suitable for sledding and snow suitable for building igloos.
From the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanach, it is easy to see that many more words exist in the Lord’s language, Hebrew, for love than are found in English. There are so many Biblical mentions of love; between people and God, God towards people, between friends, between lovers, and many others. It is not surprising that in a Biblical culture built around love, there should be many nuances of love each requiring its own Hebrew word.
But why do we find four different words for rain in Scripture? The English language distinguishes between drizzle, downpour, and drencher, which to me makes sense. It always seems to be raining in the homeland of the English language. But why would the language of Scripture have more than one word for rain?
The best-known word for rain is GeSHeM: ג ש ם
And the rain [GeSheM] was on the land for forty days and forty nights.
Then we have the word MaTaR: מ ט ר
…because the Lord God had not sent rain [MaTaR] upon the earth
and there was no man to till the soil…
Here are two more words for rain, YoReH and MaLKoSH: י ו ר ה + מ ל ק ו ש
I will grant the rain [MaTaR] for your land in season,
the early rain [YoReH] and the late rain [MaLKoSH]…(Deuteronomy 11:14)
King Solomon alluded to the water cycle, describing how rivers flow into the sea, which never fills. The wonders of evaporation, clouds and rain keep the rivers full and make human life possible.
All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full;
To the place [from] which they flow The streams flow back again.
My mother used to try to fill me with a sense of wonder about rain. We would take a walk outside as soon as the rain let up, finding excitement in newly arrived mushrooms, fresh shoots on trees and new grass sprouting out of the rich soil.
However, it is possible to view rain as a prosaic meteorological phenomenon. Water evaporates and forms clouds. Then, wind and temperature changes cause the clouds to move inland and discharge their precious load. That’s all there is to it says King Solomon in the gloomy opening verses of Ecclesiastes.
Then all of a sudden we realize that in the Lord’s language there are four words for rain. GeSHeM means the plain materialistic phenomenon. MaTaR means rain in the context of God’s love for His world and its inhabitants. YoReH and MaLKoSH mean rain precisely timed in order to yield maximum growth and benefit along with minimum harm to humans.
Similarly, when imparting gifts to others, it is important that we pay attention to timing. Whether our gift is a tangible expression of our warm feelings or whether it is the gift of a friendly and empathetic word, timing matters. Had my coat arrived in spring, I might have considered the possibility that my benefactor was cleaning up accumulated clutter and came across an unused coat. But arriving last week, it made me feel cherished.