Former Rain, Latter Rain, Harvest Cycles

The pattern of the harvest season is pervasive in the Old Testament (OT) and throughout the sayings of Jesus. However, it is a difficult area to study for a new Christian because of the few and scattered references to it in the scriptures, and the apparent unwillingness to attempt serious Old Testament teaching at most Christian churches. Reading the entire bible repeatedly, cover to cover, gives a Christian the best perspective from which to begin. Once the pieces are assembled, patterns emerge which are the most rewarding discoveries when studying the scriptures.

What is the harvest season? It is the basic pattern of planting or sowing seed and reaping what comes from that as well as what is derived from trees in ancient Israel. Most of Jesus’ parables were derived from observations about agriculture.

The scriptures separates the two types of crops neatly (which correlates to the Spring/Summer harvests and the Fall harvests):

[Exo 23:16 ESV] 16 You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor.

[Lev 26:3-4 ESV] 3 “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, 4 then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

[Lev 27:30 ESV] 30 “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.

[Eze 34:27 ESV] 27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.

Notes:

1) The land refers to the spring harvests, primarily barley and wheat.
2) The trees refers to the Summer and Autumn harvests, primarily grapes (although yielded from a vine, still in this general grouping), olives, and figs.
3) Land harvests required that seed be sown annually just after the Autumn harvests.
4) Trees & vines require different types of maintenance cycles (such as watchtowers for vineyards or pruning tree limbs) but do not require yearly sowing.

So, crops are distinguished by when they are harvested and from where they come (sown, comes from the earth, or from trees). This bears a similarity to God’s words to Abraham that his seed would be as the sand and as stars. One is earthly and the other heavenly, referring to the remnant of the Hebrews and the gentiles. It seems clear the gentiles received heavenly rather than earthly promises. Likewise, that which is planted in the earth is harvested from above, and that which comes from trees is harvested from below.

The Seven Feasts of Israel

The 7 major festivals/feasts mentioned by the OT mention the correlation of certain crops with performance of their ceremonies or their celebration. A quick overview of the feasts is as follows:

Calendars

Notes:

  1. The transition between Passover and unleavened bread is immediate. Passover occurs between the two evenings of the 14th and the 15th (6pm 14th – 6pm 15th). Unleavened bread begins on the 15th in the morning.
  2. The Passover period is a sabbath, but it is not the same as a weekly sabbath. The sheaf of firstfruits specifically occurs the day after a weekly sabbath, not the Passover sabbath. This is crucial to the resurrection narrative.
  3. Sowing of seeds for Spring harvests occurred after/during the former rains. Barley matured faster, and was most likely the sheaf used in the sheaf of the firstfruits given barley’s hardiness.
  4. The Civil Calendar was in place until Exodus 12, when God changed the calendar halfway through a year (6 months) and established the religious calendar beginning 14 days before Passover. Half years carry potential significance given the split of Daniel’s 70th week into 42 months and 42 months (3.5 years each), Jesus’ ministry being considered 3.5 years…

 

The Relevance of the Rainy Seasons

On the issue of rain, God told Israel to rely on the rain rather than creating their own tributaries/irrigation (which was impossible anyway for most of Israel’s landscape, despite the Jordan’s overflow) from the Nile, which was Egypt’s primary source of water for crops:

[Deu 11:10-12 ESV] 10 For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. 11 But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, 12 a land that the LORD your God cares for. The eyes of the LORD your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

So Israel was highly dependent on the rain cycles, and God emphasized that their adherence to his covenant would dictate whether the rains fell in their seasons or not.

In verses discussing the “former rain” and “latter rain”, some have chosen to merge the two into one set of rains. This doesn’t make sense from the very terms employed by the scriptures to describe the rains. “former” or “early” refers to prior to something, and “latter” or “later” refers to after something. There must be something separating these rains.

There are three separate rain cycles between the 7th month Fall feasts and the Passover/Unleavened Bread/Sheaf of Firstfruits Spring feasts:

No rain falls in the land from May to September. The former rain, spoken of in scripture, falls in the latter part of October or the first part of November usually. It is this rain that is the signal for the farmer to begin his ploughing and plant his seed. The Bible also speaks of the latter rain, which ordinarily falls in March and April, and it is this rain that is of so much value in the maturing the barley and wheat crops. The heavy winter rains come the latter part of December and during January and February. The prophecy of Joel mentions all three of these kinds of rain. (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Fred H. Wight, 1953)

Those three cycles are covered here:

[Joe 2:23 ESV] 23 “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before.

Others take the immediate meaning of “former and latter” and assume that corresponds to only one calendar – that “former” means the rains earlier in the year, and “latter” means the rains later in the year. As mentioned before, these could just be carryovers from the civil calendar used prior to Exodus 12, and the “former” rains are actually stronger than the latter rains.

Many have correlated the latter and former rains with God pouring out his spirit. I do not think this is warranted. Joel describes a fairly clear progression:

[Joe 2:23-30 ESV] 23 “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before. 24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. 26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.

So a sequence of events is described in which early and latter rains are restored to the children of Zion, fullness of harvest occurs, and the Lord restores years that Israel was destroyed. Afterward, his spirit is poured upon all flesh. The fact that Peter references Acts 2 must be wrestled with; Peter appears to indicate that the pouring out of his spirit on all flesh occurred at that time and all that remains is the signs and wonders up to the day of the Lord. He does not explicitly say so, so there is no need to invoke a narrow interpretation until more options are considered.

One must also ask to which Harvest is being referred:

[Amo 4:7 ESV] 7 “I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither;

Qatsir (קָּצִיר), or “harvest” in Amos 4:7 above, is the same word used in “Feast of the Harvest” in Lev 23:16 which refers to Pentecost. However, the word used for “ingathering” twice in the OT is acif(אָסִיף), which can also be translated as harvest, but has reference to a root meaning “assemble” or “gathering”. Paul referenced this concept as well:

[2Th 2:1 ESV] 1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers,

So two main harvest periods are given in Lev 23:16 – One in the Spring/Summer, and the final one in The Fall. The early harvest period is just Barley/Wheat. The latter is all types of fruit. However, the same commandment was given regarding both harvests:

[Lev 23:22 ESV] 22 “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”

[Deu 24:19-21 ESV] 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

This concept of “the gleanings” is interesting as it is another stage of the harvest relevant to interpreting revelation. More on that at another time.

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