Humanity has a long history of living on this Earth. During the days and years, our world continuously changed. We grew up in the shadows of the approaching ice ages. We left Africa when the changing sea opened up a road to Asia, and followed an ever-changing coast line to the far East. And throughout our journey, we have been subject to the shakings and explosions of the Earth. Our footprints stand in the volcanic ash of the rift valley of East Africa. The massive Toba eruption left us a genetic deficit. The Minoan civilization suffered from Santorini, allowing Greece to begin its path to cultural dominance. And Santorini left us with the enduring legend of Atlantis. The restless Earth always was a powerful master of our fate.
The oldest depiction of an eruption is found in Turkey, in the ruins of Catalhöyük, showing the 9000 year old eruption of Hasan Dag, the twin-peaked mountain shown in the mural below. But art is not always easy to interpret, and there is an on-going discussion whether this image depicts a volcano or a giraffe. It would have helped to have a written explanation of what the artist intended. And that is the topic of this story, since we do in fact have a written document covering 2000 years of ancient history. And even if it was never written as a natural history, the stories in it contain echoes of the Earth. Hidden behind the pages is the miracle of plate tectonics.
Before we changed the world to suit us, people depended on the favours of nature. A good year meant life, a bad year could kill. Naturally, they saw gods in action in everything around them, and those gods were not benevolent. Sun gods especially abounded, but the Moon, planets and even trees also took part in the pantheon. Thor even took on the job of god of thunder. Human leaders would portray themselves as one of those gods, or at least as close relatives. Rameses provides an example: ‘meses’ is ‘son of’ and ‘Ra’ was the sun god. Secular France once had a sun king. It does make you wonder whether anything has really changed, seeing how France has seemingly acquired a new sun king. (Nowadays, the gods of business rank well above the gods of politics, of course. South Africa may not be the last country suffering state capture by the gods of business.)
Where volcanoes were obvious, they too became deified, the prime example being Pele, Hawaii’s goddess of fire. But there are not many volcano gods known around the world. The reason is that volcanoes are common only in a few parts of the world, and where they do exist, eruptions are often too far apart to leave a reputation. Even the Greeks, who have no lack of volcanoes in their own backyard, went abroad, to Etna, to find a home for the Greek volcano god.
In this landscape of the supernatural, there was one outlier. It also happens to be the one we know most about. The Jews started out within a world riddled with the supernatural. But over time, they became distinct from their neighbours, and began to ignore the gods of nature. They grew monotheistic, but more importantly, nowhere in their tradition is that single god associated with a heavenly or terrestrial body or location. It stood above the fray. It seems strange that this advanced philosophy developed in what for the most part was a fairly backward people, at times little more than slaves. They had no science, and little technology, apart from a brief period in their history early in the iron age. Their neighbours invariably were stronger and more advanced. But their way of thinking became superior.
And they left us some of the oldest story writings we know about. They are not the oldest known oral stories: the aborigines of Australia beat them to that by thousands of years, and even the fairy tales of Central Europe seem to date to 5000 years or more ago. Neither are they the oldest writings: the clay tablets of Mesopotamia are far older. But the bible gives us a uniquely human window into an ancient world between 4000 and 2000 years ago. It also contains the oldest written evidence of climate change, when in the 6th century BC Jeremiah asks: “Does the snow of Lebanon ever vanish from its rocky slopes?” Nowadays, there is little or no perennial snow on the Lebanese mountains.
But the plethora of stories are mainly about human lives. Right at the start is the ancient conflict of the Neolithic in the murderous relation between a farmer and a hunter gatherer, Cain and Abel. As the stories develop, we see how nomadic families become organised into tribes, and move from tents to houses. It tells of their attitudes, how the nomads of the semi-desert looked in envy and fear at the rich lands of agriculture, but without much understanding of their more advanced lives: all they hoped for was an abundance of milk and honey. Later the tribes become nations, and finally empires. The new city dwellers are shown to look down on the conservative pastoral people, whilst the farmers and herders of the countryside feel envious but uneasy about city life with its forgotten traditions and compromised morals. The stories are full of little details which otherwise we would know nothing about: people walking between parts of an animal sacrifice to seal a contract, or the strife of the herders to keep their flocks of sheep safe from lions. Some of the legends in Genesis are known to us also from Babylonian sources. Comparing the writings, the stories and characters are far more skilfully developed in the bible. The story of the bible gives us the human side, not the boastings of the Babylonian kings and the Egyptian pharaohs. It contains not just the successes, but also the failings of the main characters: the arrogance of Josef, the anger of Moses, the infidelity of David. No other ancient writing breathes so much life into its world.
Here, I want to look at one particular detail: how did the natural world of volcanoes and earthquakes shape the world described in the bible? It is not something the writers intended to talk about. But it is there, between the lines and behind the pages.
The story plays out in a vast area stretching from the Persian Gulf to Egypt, following what is now known as the Fertile Crescent. The eastern part of this may not look that fertile these days, with the desert landscapes of Iraq a common picture on our social media. Our news replays old conflicts: here lies ancient Babylon, in ruins, and the battles of Mosul raged where once was mighty Nineveh.
The fertile crescent follows the availability of water. The main rivers flow from Turkey, around Syria and into Iraq. The Mediterranean coast has rain, and it also has the Jordan river. Egypt has the Nile. The story of the bible moves between these habitable areas, avoiding the desert areas in between. But it also avoids the coast which was dominated by seafaring people.
The northern arc of the Fertile Crescent is one of the regions where agriculture developed. There are seven such regions in the world, but the majority of our crops originated in this one. This plays a role in the bible right from the beginning: the first story of the bible takes place in a garden, somewhere in the flood plain of the Euphrates and the Tigris.
The story of Abraham’s travel shows him traveling up from the ancient city of Ur to Haran. Ur at the time was a coastal city, on the Persian Gulf. Haran is near Turkey. Both cities are on the Euphrates river. After Haran, the traveller turns south, along the Jordan valley, eventually reaching Egypt. It is notable that he stayed away from the Mediterranean coast, and went around the dry Arabian interior. The travel followed the Fertile Crescent accurately.
So how does this journey look in terms of the geology of the Middle East? The geological heritage is a rich one. And the tectonics is not bad either. Every type of plate boundary is present here. The Arabian peninsula is part of an ancient craton. The Red Sea is an oceanic spreading ridge which split this craton in two, starting from the triple point in Afar. It is pushing Arabia north, while at the same causing some rotation. The Dead Sea fault is a 900-km long transform fault, caused by this movement; parts have sunk to form a deep graben, hundreds of meters below sea level. (It is not a spreading fault, in spite of this sinking.) In the north, it connects to the Anatolian fault, which is a transform fault that runs through Turkey. Southwest of Turkey, in the sea, is a subduction zone, which has formed a volcanic arc in the Aegean Sea. To the east, the push from Arabia has caused a suture zone where continents collide: these are the Zagros and Bitlis sutures, a thrust-fold zone. The Zagros mountains also contain arc volcanoes, indicating this used to be a subduction zone, from an ocean that no longer exists. A forearc region has developed above the subduction zone: the subsidence formed the Persian Gulf and the lowland of Mesopotamia. Abraham followed this forearc, before turning south into the Dead Sea fault.
The Middle East has its fair share of earthquakes. The hot spots are in Turkey and Greece, but there also significant events along the Dead Sea fault. Flavius Josephus writes about a massive earthquake in 33 B.C., which he said (probably exaggerating) killed 50,000 people. Other devastating earthquakes happened in 363 (Galilee), 749 (Jordan Valley), 847 (Damascus), 1033 (Jericho), and 1202 (Southwest Syria). Since that time, things have been relative quiet, at least as far as large earthquakes are concerned. Medium-sized earthquakes (M6) have continued to happen, in 1837 in Lebanon, 1927 north of the Dead Sea, and in 1995 south of Aqaba. Although these were damaging, they were not as large as could have been. A major earthquake along the Israel/Jordan border seems long overdue.
There are other faults off the coast underneath the Mediterranean. In 551 AD, an M7.5 earthquake happened off the coast of Lebanon: the ensuing tsunami destroyed Tripoli, Beirut, and various other coastal cities. The 100-km thrust fault that was responsible has only recently been identified: each time it gave way, the coast rose up by 1 meter. The recurrence time appears to be around 1600 years. This fault is not ‘overdue’ yet but may becoming loaded. It is one to keep an eye on.
Other damaging tsunamis along the Mediterranean coast of Israel and Lebanon happened in 590 BC, 525 BC, 140 BC and 92 BC; 17 more tsunamis have occurred since, the most recent one in 1856 in Haifa.
The Levant is an area of tectonic complexity. The stories of the bible are set in this world. It would not be unexpected if the stirrings of the Earth are part of the backdrop. Let’s look, and not just at the tectonics but also volcanics. What is there – and what isn’t?
Earthquakes in the bible
There are quite a few places in the bible which refer directly to earthquakes or which use the image of shaking ground. Clearly the concept was well known. The earthquake rate in Israel means that people would have felt something every few years, but significant damage would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The large majority of events are in the Dead Sea area. There is another cluster in Lebanon.
There are four places in the bible where a specific earthquake is described, two of which refer to the same event.
By far the most memorable event was an earthquake which happened after Israel had split into two separate kingdoms. It happened during the reign of Uzziah in Jerusalem, and Jeroboam of the northern kingdom, in the period 781–742BC. (Uzziah is also known under a different name, Azariah.) The prophet Amos is said to have started his work ‘two years before the earthquake’ (Amos 1): this dates the earthquake to around 752BC. More than two centuries later, shortly after 520 BC, Zechariah writes (Zech 14) ‘you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah’ – the memory of that event ran deep! Even Flavius Josephus writes about, 800 years later, stating that it cracked the structure of Solomon’s temple and caused a landslide at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
There is archaeological evidence for the Amos earthquake, in the form of collapsed and dislodged walls and buildings. The debris is in a layer just below that of the extensive destruction done by the Assyrians after 730 BC which brought an end to the Northern Kingdom. The earthquake damage is most severe in excavation sites to the north. Hazor, in the north of Israel, shows the worst damage. Mud brick constructions at Deir ‘Alla (weaker than the stone walls of Hazor) showed a general collapse. The book of Amos also talks about severe damage to the buildings at Samaria and Bethel. In Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple cracked (Josephus), and the population panicked and fled (Zechariah). At Gezer, northwest of the Dead Sea, heavy stones were displaced from their foundations. West of the Dead Sea there was significant rebuilding to four southern cities (Tel ‘Erany, Lachish, Tell Judeideh, and Tel Sheva). South of the Dead Sea at ‘En Haseva, damage was not as severe. The pattern indicates an epicentre in the north of Israel or southern Lebanon. The size is of course not well known, but it has been claimed to be as high as M7.8, well in excess of the quake of 1202 in this area. Austin even argues that it exceeded M8, because of the widespread damage, but this seems over the top.
The earthquake had an immense impact on Israel. The book of Amos is full of references to earthquake damage, from the shaking earth to the cracked altar. Some 20 years later, the first Isaiah uses similar language and from that point the image of a shaking earth becomes a common feature in the writings of the prophets. The memory of this massive earthquake remained vivid for a long time. But it was worse than that. Before the earthquake, the northern kingdom was at the height of its powers. 30 years after the event, it was gone. Only the weaker southern kingdom, further from the epicentre, survived. Did the earthquake ruin the northern kingdom change history? That is certainly possible: Portugal was economically ruined by the Lisbon quake and never fully recovered. History tends to read like a collection of accidents, and this was one of those accidents. We will never know what could have happened.
Two other earthquakes are specifically mentioned in the bible. I Samuel 14 tells a story of a battle between Israel’s tribes led by Saul and the Philistines, the rather more powerful people living at the coast whom the Egyptians called ‘the Sea Peoples’. This will have been around 1040 BC. An earthquake caused panic in both armies, although it does not appear that it did much damage. Tents are not as susceptible to earthquakes as houses are: as civilizations develop, they become more fragile.
The final earthquake happens late in the bible, in Acts 16, when Paul is in prison in Philippi, and the prison was badly damaged in an earthquake. Philippi is a coastal city in Macedonia, just north of Greece. This is a zone of frequent earthquakes, and the city became partly destroyed by them in the 7th century. Paul’s earthquake around 50 AD does not appear out of the ordinary: even last week there were two M4’s in the area.
There are other generic references involving earthquakes, many in the psalms. The most notable one is when Elijah flees into the desert: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out.” This is a typical Jewish story, which make the point that, unlike the neighbours, their god is not a god of earth or fire.
The Jordan River
There is one story that does not mention an earthquake, but implies one. It is when Joshua first enters the new land by crossing the Jordan river. The Jordan river was perhaps half a mile wide at that time, and difficult to ford during the rainy season. Nowadays, the Jordan has lost 90% of its water and is only a shadow of itself. The river would have been a far more difficult barrier than it appears at the moment, at least in flood. The text in Joshua states: “Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.”
There is a geological background to the strange-sounding story. The steep western escarpment of the Jordan valley is prone to collapses, normally earthquake-induced. These happen mainly opposite the Zarqa River (called the ‘Jabbok in the bible), some 50 km north of the Dead Sea. This is approximately where the town called ‘Adam’ is thought to have been (the name still occurs in that vicinity, as Tell Damiyeh.) After such a collapse, the Jordan tends to become dammed by the land slides. These events are not uncommon: there are at least six references to the Jordan River being dammed since the 12th century AD, sometimes for several days, due to landslides caused by earthquakes; in 1160, 1267, 1534 or 1546/47 (for two days), 1834, 1906 (for ten hours) and 1927 (twenty hours). The text about the Jordan crossing refers to such an event, and the detail in the description shows that the narrator was familiar with the cause.
Shortly after the crossing, the narrative moves on to the destruction of Jericho, with its collapsing walls. It depicts a politician’s paradise, where Joshua only needs to walk around the city seven times and play some music before the city falls. In other words, skirt the issue seven times, make some noise, and it will go away. Jericho is an archaeological quagmire. It is a very ancient city, with various ups and downs. Whether one of those downs coincide with Joshua’s conquest is disputed. The biblical chronology puts the conquest of Canaan at around 1400 BC. There is evidence for a destruction of Jericho at that time. But cultural and archaeological evidence puts the conquest of Canaan later, around 1200 BC, and Jericho was unscathed at that time. The story of Joshua’s conquest in fact only lists places in a very small, mountainous region, and it may therefore represent an initial incursion, with the main expansion happening much later. This is the most obvious way to reconcile the chronology and the archaeology. Relevant for us is that Jericho was in an earthquake zone and its walls were always in danger. But the narrative does not mention an earthquake. One can speculate that an earthquake had happened earlier and had left the city defenceless, but that is not part of the written story.
The Jordan rift valley is prone to major earthquakes. The casual way they are described shows that people were familiar with them, but they still could cause panic and chaos.
To disappoint the reader, there are no direct mentions of tsunamis in the bible. This may seem surprising, in view of the frequency of tsunamis in the region. But the Jews lived mainly in-land, in the more mountainous regions. Even Abraham, traveling far and wide in the area, followed the Jordan Valley and avoided the coast. Other peoples lived on the coast. The shortage of biblical tsunamis stems from this location.
There are two stories worth looking at. The first is Moses crossing the Reed Sea, where water first goes out to create a place to ford, and on return drowns a following army. Various proposals have been made that it was caused by a volcano-induced tsunami (Ian Stewart) or an undersea landslide (Abril and Periáñez). But the story itself attributes the disappearing water to wind. The precise location is bimodal: various translations give it as the ‘Red Sea’ or as the ‘Reed Sea’: these two are on opposite ends of the Sinai and on different oceans.
The water was driven out by an easterly wind, according to the narrator. This argues against the Red Sea, as there an easterly wind would sweep the water in, not out. It could work around the Reed Sea, in the Nile delta. Carl Drews ran simulation and found that that a coastal lagoon near Port Said could have been evacuated by such a easterly storm-force wind. No tsunami or volcano is needed.
The second story is that of Noah and the great flood. This is not originally a Jewish story: it closely follows the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and it takes place not in Israel but in Mesopotamia. The biblical narrative seems to be based on two separate sources which differ in some details: the two have been skilfully merged but the differences have been left in. An interesting detail is the role of wine and vineyards: wine growing originated around Georgia, south of the Caucasus, as early as 6000 BC. This agrees with a Mesopotamian origin. The Gilgamesh dates from 2000 to 3000 BC: the flood story has ancient roots. However, there is no clear single event that can be identified as the source.
Floods are very destructive and leave long memories. For instance, the Australian Aborigines have stories about the coastal plains, which were flooded 10,000 years ago as the sea levels rose after the ice age. The Mesopotamian story could similarly relate to an actual extreme flood along the river plains. A major flood happened around 3000 BC when the Tigris had become dammed by a dune field, and finally broke through. Highly controversially is the suggestion that the story relates to a flooding of the Black Sea. The story could even relate to the flooding of the Persian Gulf after the ice age, which caused significant relocation of settlements around 5000 BC.
Amidst all these possibilities, tsunamis play no role in either story. The Israelites had little experience with tsunamis, living neither on the coast nor along flood-prone rivers. their neighbours suffered more, but they did not leave records. We only have the in-land record of the bible.
So far for earthquakes and tsunamis in the world of the bible. Part II will consider its volcanoes.
Albert Zijlstra, April 2018