Causes and Effects of Famines. Drought, destructive hailstorms (Ex 9:23-25), pests, scorching and mildew of crops, as well as war, were among the common causes of famine in Bible times. (Am 4:7-10; Hag 2:17) Locusts, sometimes coming in huge hordes, were especially devastating to crops. (Ex 10:15) Sometimes the problem was not lack of rain, but rain at the wrong season, as during the wheat or barley harvest.
Temporary hunger is a natural sensation, but prolonged hunger, as by famine, is very detrimental to mental and physical health. Marked lethargy sets in, the emotions are dulled, and there is mental apathy. The mind is dominated by a desire for food. (Compare Ex 16:3.) Moral standards fall. (Compare Isa 8:21.) Actual starvation may have a dehumanizing effect, resulting in theft, murder, and even cannibalism. Famine is often accompanied by sickness and epidemics because of the weakened condition of those affected.
Ancient Famines. The first truly historical famine is the one that forced Abram (Abraham) to leave Canaan and take up alien residence in Egypt. (Ge 12:10) In Isaac’s day another famine occurred, but Jehovah told him not to go to Egypt. (Ge 26:1, 2) The seven-year famine that came upon Egypt while Joseph served as prime minister and food administrator evidently reached far beyond the boundaries of Egypt, for “people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy [food] from Joseph.”
While the Egyptian inscriptions scrupulously avoid any reference to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, there are ancient Egyptian texts that describe periods of famine due to insufficient rising of the Nile River. One text describes a period of seven years of low Nile risings and the resulting famine. According to the account, certain portions of land were granted to the priesthood when relief from the famine came. Although the question is raised as to whether the document is “a priestly forgery of some late period, justifying their claim to territorial privileges,” at least we see reflected a tradition of a period of seven lean years.
Before Israel entered the Promised Land, Jehovah, through Moses, assured them that they would have an abundance of food if they continued serving Him in faithfulness. (De 28:11, 12) However, famine would be one of the fearful results to come upon Israel for unfaithfulness. (De 28:23, 38-42) A famine in the days of the Judges prompted Naomi’s husband Elimelech of Bethlehem to reside with his family as an alien in Moab. (Ru 1:1, 2) Jehovah brought a three-year famine upon the land of Israel in David’s day because of bloodguilt resting on the house of Saul in connection with the Gibeonites. (2Sa 21:1-6) A three-and-a-half-year drought resulting in severe famine came upon unfaithful Israel in answer to Elijah’s prayer. (Jas 5:17; 1Ki 17) In addition to general famines in Elisha’s day, there was the famine produced by the Syrian siege of Samaria, during which one case of cannibalism was reported.
Although God’s prophets warned that apostasy would bring death by famine, pestilence, and the sword, the unfaithful Judeans preferred to listen to their false prophets, who assured them that no such calamity would come. (Jer 14:11-18; Eze 5:12-17) Yet the words of God’s prophets proved true. So severe was the famine in Jerusalem during the siege by the Babylonians (609-607 B.C.E.) that women boiled and ate their own children.
Through the prophet Joel, Jehovah forewarned Israel of a tremendous plague of insects that would devastate the land and bring about severe famine prior to the coming of “the day of Jehovah.”
Centuries later, food shortages were foretold by Jesus as being among the characteristics marking the conclusion of “the system of things.” (Mt 24:3, 7; compare Re 6:5, 6.) As announced in advance by Agabus, a Christian prophet, a great famine did occur in the time of Emperor Claudius (41-54 C.E.). (Ac 11:28) A few years earlier, in the year 42 C.E., a severe famine had hit Egypt, where many Jews resided. And “great necessity” came on Judea and Jerusalem when the Roman armies under General Titus besieged Jerusalem and finally destroyed it in 70 C.E. (Lu 21:23) Josephus recounts the terrible starvation conditions in the city, in which people resorted to the eating of leather, grass, and hay, and in one instance, a mother even roasted and ate her son. (The Jewish War, VI, 193-213 [iii, 3, 4]) When foretelling such food shortages, however, Jesus indicated that he had in mind not only events preceding Jerusalem’s destruction but also what would occur when the time arrived for the Son of man to return in the glory of his Kingdom.
Freedom From Famine. Christ Jesus gives assurance that the prayer of faithful servants for their daily bread would be answered by God and that those putting God’s Kingdom first would be cared for. (Mt 6:11, 33; compare Ps 33:19; 37:19, 25.) However, because of opposition and persecution, Jesus showed that his servants might suffer hunger at times. (Mt 25:35, 37, 40) The apostle Paul in particular recounts his suffering both hunger and thirst many times while engaged in the ministry under difficult circumstances. (1Co 4:11-13; 2Co 11:27; Php 4:12) Yet he expressed confidence that physical hunger would never be able to separate God’s faithful servants from the sustaining strength of God’s love.
Those who have a proper hunger and thirst for righteousness and truth will always be spiritually filled. (Mt 5:6; Joh 6:35) This includes those of the “great crowd” who have hope of surviving “the great tribulation” and of whom it is written that “they will hunger no more nor thirst anymore.” (Re 7:9, 13-17) And under the rule of God’s Kingdom there will also come to be an abundance to satisfy the physical hunger of all mankind.