The first mentioned in Scripture was so grievous as to compel Abraham to go down to the land of Egypt (Gen. 26:1). Another is mentioned as having occurred in the days of Isaac, causing him to go to Gerar (Gen. 26:1, 17). But the most remarkable of all was that which arose in Egypt in the days of Joseph, which lasted for seven years (Gen. 41-45). Famines were sent as an effect of God's anger against a guilty people (2 Kings 8:1, 2; Amos 8:11; Deut. 28:22-42; 2 Sam. 21:1; 2 Kings 6:25-28; 25:3; Jer. 14:15; 19:9; 42:17, etc.). A famine was predicted by Agabus (Acts 11:28). Josephus makes mention of the famine which occurred A.D. 45. Helena, queen of Adiabene, being at Jerusalem at that time, procured corn from Alexandria and figs from Cyprus for its poor inhabitants.
In the whole of Syria and Arabia, the fruits of the earth must ever be dependent on rain; the watersheds having few large springs, and the small rivers not being sufficient for the irrigation of even the level lands. If therefore the heavy rains of November and December fail, the sustenance of the people is cut off in the parching drought of harvest-time, when the country is almost devoid of moisture. Egypt, again, owes all its fertility to its mighty river, whose annual rise inundates nearly the whole land. The causes of dearth and famine in Egypt are defective inundation, preceded, accompanied and followed by prevalent easterly and southerly winds. Famine is likewise a natural result in the East when caterpillars, locusts or other insects destroy the products of the earth. The first famine recorded in the Bible is that of Abraham after he had pitched his tent on the east of Bethel, (Genesis 12:10) the second in the days of Isaac, (Genesis 26:1) seq. We hear no more of times of scarcity until the great famine of Egypt, which "was over all the face of the earth." (Genesis 41:53-57) The modern history of Egypt throws some curious light on these ancient records of famines; and instances of their recurrence may be cited to assist us in understanding their course and extent. The most remarkable famine was that of the reign of the Fatimee Khaleefeh, El-Mustansir billah, which is the only instance on record of one of seven years duration in Egypt since the time of Joseph (A.H. 457-464, A.D. 1064-1071). Vehement drought and pestilence continued for seven consecutive years, so that the people ate corpses, and animals that died of themselves. The famine of Samaria resembled it in many particulars; and that very briefly recorded in (2 Kings 8:1,2) affords another instance of one of seven years. In Arabia famines are of frequent occurrence.
Smith's Bible Dictionary (1884) , by William Smith.