Thursday, July 4, 2019

IV. The converse case--tectonic quiescence and religious character

IV. The converse case--tectonic quiescence and religious character

Having established that 1) initiation of religions tends to occur along seismically active loci, 2) reform of religion is typically catalyzed by seismic events, and 3) continuing evolution of religion can be strongly shaped by active tectonic environments, religion tending to become more complex and even manipulative in these environments, it’s time to look at converse cases.  The most important such case is the character of religions in tectonically quiescent environments. 
A first glance at the distribution of pre-colonial endemic religions in tectonically quiescent continents suggests that religions there are indeed very different from those along plate-tectonic boundaries.  These are (or were) preferentially the sites of comparatively simple religions in the huge quiescent parts of Africa, Australia, and the Americas.  Perhaps this section should be short.
Of course religious simplicity can be in the eyes of the (pith-helmeted?) observer, and most world religions can be seen as simple in comparison to those with such elaborations as original sin, etc.  The literature on “primitive” religions actually reveals a large number of variables.  Animism for example has been considered primitive, but modern attitudes embrace some forms of animism. 
However, the disparity apparent with distribution of tectonic vs. quiescent religions is too great to be explained by relativistic arguments.  It’s obvious, which is fortunate as I’m not qualified to make subtle distinctions. 
What is the meaning of simple(r) religion?  Stasis is probably part of the answer, and of course stasis of any sort is difficult to maintain along tectonically active loci. Stasis for many simple religions in tectonically quiescent locales can be demonstrated archaeologically, though migration can complicate the picture. In many cases migration may change religious forms without obviously changing complexity.
It is true that many of the simple(r) religions are in simpler cultures, and cultural stasis is known to be associated with cultural simplicity (Force 2015 including chapter 13).  In this regard the exceptions and outliers of my continent-scale observation are interesting, as they reveal divergences between religious and other cultural responses to tectonic activity vs. quiescence.  They can be used to test my stasis hypothesis.
The outliers (not exceptions per se) are tectonically-active loci with simpler religions, some in complex cultures.  Perhaps the most obvious example is Shintoism in Japan, traditionally said to be animistic.  However, one of the roots of Shinto “animism” regards volcanoes; such veneration goes back to the Kofun period (ca. AD 500; Barnes, in press) when ritual offerings to volcanoes are known.  Clearly Shintoism differs from other “simple” religions in reflecting its tectonic environment.  In tectonically active Mesoamerica (Plunkett and Urunuela 2005) and many other tectonically active localities both ancient and modern, complex and “simple” (Balmuth et al. 2005, Grattan and Torrence 2007), volcano veneration is a part of traditional religions.  But the Shinto outlier shows that apparent religious simplicity in a complex culture can be profound in relation to tectonic environment.
Another very different type of outlier is exemplified by California Indians.  I have no explanation either in cultural or religious terms.  Somewhat similar outliers are numerous all over the SW Pacific (e.g. Chester and Duncan 2007).  Remember, however, that my hypothesis does not claim that simple religions are RESTRICTED to quiescent tectonic environments, hence these examples are outliers, however educational.
True exceptions take the form of complex religions in tectonically quiescent locales. Proper documentation would seem to involve original areas of evolution, since the simpler religions tend to be endemic.  Thus an apparent example of such a true exception is ancient Egypt.   I will not claim that Egypt’s religion was simple, but certainly once established it became static.  Only once was its stasis interrupted, and stasis was soon restored. 
The modern world is full of examples of complex religions in tectonically quiescent terranes, but most of these are post-colonial.  When these examples are subtracted, exceptions still remain; possibly the most obvious is northern Europe--Christian but quiescent.  However, Christianity has its roots in tectonically-active SW Asia and spread into Europe via tectonically-active routes, only then spreading into quiescent terrane.  At this point Christianity became theologically static for over a thousand years.  So stasis may result where big religions spread away from tectonically active origins.
Our exploration of converse cases thus far shows few (but revealing) exceptions to the generalization that tectonically quiescent areas tend to have simpler and/or static endemic religions.  Religious stasis seems a sufficient reason that quiescent areas generally lack(ed) complex religions, as stasis has prevented evolution.  As we have seen in previous sections, tectonic activity has not permitted religious stasis.  But religions that originate in tectonically active terrains may become static when they spread beyond those terrains.
Comments to or this site are welcome!


Balmuth, M. S. et al., eds. 2005. Cultural Responses to the Volcanic Landscape: the Mediterranean and Beyond.  Boston:Archaeological Institute of America, Colloquia and Conference papers #8.

Barnes, G. L., in press, Ritualized beadstone in Kofun-period society: East Asia Journal, accessed at

Chester, D. K. and Duncan, A. M. 2007. Geomythology, theodicy, and the continuing relevance of religious worldviews in response to volcanic eruptions. In Living Under the Shadow, edited by J. Grattan and R. Torrence, p. 203-224:  Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press.

Force, E. R., 2015, Impact of tectonic activity on ancient civilizations—recurrent shakeups, tenacity, resilience, and change: Lexington

Grattan, J., and Torrence, R., eds., 2007, Living Under the Shadow: Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press.

Plunkett, P. and Urunuela, g. 2005, Cultural responses to risk and disaster: an example from the slopes of Popocatapetl volcano in central Mexico, in Balmuth et al., eds., p. 109-126.

Friday, April 5, 2019

III. The whole Bible acquired a direction from its "earthquake theophany"

III. The whole Bible acquired a direction from its “earthquake theophany”

Eric R. Force

         Many readers may be puzzled at my title, so:   Theophany is defined as God’s appearance to humans.  His appearance in conjunction with earthquakes is not my conclusion, but I explore and extend the concept; biblical scholars, archaeologists, and geophysicists have documented almost all the parts of this relationship in their technical journals.
         I’m considering this subject in a tectonic context.  The “Holy Land” is astride the junction between two big tectonic plates moving nearly-horizontally past each other (e.g. Yeats et al. 1997).  Seismic activity has been high all through its history (Ben Menahem 1991).  If tectonic activity plays a part in religious developments, it should be evident here.
This is the third of my posts on the tectonic environments of the evolution of religions. (on Tectonic Environments of Ancient Cultures,  at  )  The Bible is by far the most detailed narrative with which to track the influence of tectonism on any such evolution of a religion.  Other approaches— archaeological (e.g. Stewart and Piccardi 2017) or statistical/probabilistic (Bentzen in press, and my post of 12/24/18) -- need to be fleshed out with examples that reveal detail, motivation, and dynamics. 
From the point of view of response to earthquakes, the Bible including the New Testament shows a continuum that gathers strength through time.  For chronologic order I’ll divide the discussion into books that cover creation through Moses and Israel’s kings to ca. 587 B.C., i.e. the Torah and “Deuteronomistic” books, and the prophetic tradition, which continues into the New Testament.

The Torah and “Deuteronomistic” books

         Earthquakes accompany several important turning points in early Jewish religious history, indeed God begins his habit of appearing in earthquakes in some of these events, the others being merely miraculous.  Some of the events are described in text fragments of great antiquity, for example:
In Exodus 19:18ff,  Moses encounters Jehovah on Sinai, which seems to be a volcanic eruption as noted by Cross (1997), but shaking is also recorded as sometimes happens with eruptions.  This passage is part of the ancient J-document component of the Torah (R. E. Friedman 1987, p. 251).  This would appear to be an example of “earthquake theophany” as discussed below.
In Numbers 16:30ff, Moses predicts an opening of the earth in a hostile test of his connection with God, and is successful. God does not appear but causes the miracle to support Moses.  That is, the text is not theophanic but it does begin a related prophetic tradition.    R. E. Friedman (1987, pp. 193-196, 253) shows that this too is an ancient J document, in this case overprinted by a later priestly addition. The earth is not described as shaking, but the “clave asunder”(KJV) and its immediate closure would appear to require active tectonism and are accepted as an earthquake by Friedman. 
The Torah as it currently appears is a composite of different documents derived from different regions and with different biases.  Final assembly was quite late, but some of the constituent documents including the two earthquakes described above are as ancient as 800 B.C. or before.  Some of these may have originated as oral traditions.
The first few following books—through II Kings—called Deuteronomistic, were completed after the fall of Judah in 587 B.C. but present a chronology of events in the formation of the state of Israel relative to its religious practices, focusing on the era of King David, ca. 1000 B.C. Some traditional components of this literature are thought to have originated in that era.  For example, Psalm 18 (and its repetition in II Samuel 22) is thought to be of great antiquity, and David’s pleas to God for help do produce an earthquake in verse 7.  The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, also thought to be of great antiquity (e.g. Coogan 2011, p. 214), mentions earthquakes as God emerges in battle for Israel.  In I Samuel 14:15, King Saul prevails over his enemies with an earthquake provided by God (verse 23).  These examples range from theophany to simple miracles but certainly get the attention of his God-fearing people.
Psalms 29:8, 46:3, and 68:8 also feature earthquakes but more in the spirit of God’s wondrous power, and some of these psalms are thought to be later. We get a glimpse of the recording of oral tradition in Proverbs 25:1 where oral proverbs nominally originating with Solomon were copied down by Hezekiah (715-687 B.C.).
An interesting window into one mindset that produced these books is provided by I Kings 19:11, where an earthquake and storm occurred “as the Lord passed by.”   However, “the Lord was not in the earthquake”, building up to  “a still small voice” addressing Elijah (all KJV).  The intentional anticlimax is puzzling.
Archaeoseismologists have discovered evidence of some earthquakes from this period that are not attributed as such in the Bible.  The best case in my opinion can be made for earthquakes in conjunction with the fall of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-16).  There is buried evidence of earthquake in a time frame that would include Joshua (Kenyon and Tushingham 1953, Kenyon 1979).  The method of construction of Jericho’s walls made earthquake reconstruction easier but resulted in repeated damage. Jericho is of course located right on the active faults forming the boundary between Arabian and African tectonic plates.

The prophetic tradition

Religious fascinaton with earthquakes kicked into a higher gear with the onset of the main prophetic tradition.  This tradition begins with one particular earthquake of about 760-750 B.C. (Dever 1992, Ogden 1992, D. N. Freedman and Welch 1994, Austin et al. 2010).  Its apparent prediction by the prophet Amos set the pattern for subsequent prophets for almost a millennium (indeed recognizable in present-day preaching).
The book of Amos begins “ . . . two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1, KJV) with his prophesy of that earthquake—or at least taken to be of that earthquake once it occurred.  An extremely severe earthquake did occur; the archaeological record of this earthquake has been documented over quite a large area of Israel, southern Lebanon, and SW Syria (Dever 1992, Austin et al. 2010).  Amos basically says that God will both cause and appear in the earthquake, and subsequent prophets accepted that, making this earthquake theophanic (D. N. Freedman and Welch 1994).
Some readers will find it remarkable (as it once was to me) that the seemingly obscure book of Amos, inserted among other “minor prophets” toward the end of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), is quite ancient, from the Middle Iron Age (Iron IIb).  Actually there is a huge literature on Amos; he is not obscure to Biblical scholars.  Amos is the oldest of the prophetic-tradition books; indeed, Amos is probably among the older extensive works of literature in paleo-Hebrew), based on references to rulers, neighboring states, writing style, and the archaeological evidence  (e.g. Anderson and D.N. Freedman 1989, D. N. Freedman and Welch 1994).  We have seen that Biblical books that treat pre-Amos events include many components that were composed before Amos, but which were compiled into the composite Biblical books as we read them after Amos’ time (e.g. R. E. Friedman 1987).
Subsequent prophets (Isaiah 5:25, Zechariah 14:5) mention the impact of that particular earthquake.  But most interesting is the tradition of earthquake prediction--and threats--that followed through the entire prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, so that Amos’s earthquake became a foundation of Judaic religious patterns.  Eight (out of 14) of these prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Nahum, Haggai, and Zechariah, see attribution in table 1) threatened earthquakes (the “earthquake theophany” of Austin et al. 2010) for manipulation of the laity and to underscore their predictions relative to matters of faith, politics, and future deliverance.  These range in age from Amos to about 400 B.C. (Coogan 2011).  So this prophetic tradition in the Old Testament spans about 350 years after Amos.
 Of course this strategy would not work unless earthquakes were occurring.  We have insufficient records of earthquakes in this period to link prophets with individual events, but the average interval between earthquakes in this region is on the order of 60 years (Ben Menahem 1991, Ambraseys 2009), based in part on seismically disturbed layers in Dead Sea sediments (Migowski et al. 2004).  So there is reason to suppose that earthquakes were kept in people’s minds. 
          Earthquakes are destructive, and a theophany based largely on earthquakes would have God’s appearances dreaded.  The prophets generally mentioned earthquakes in the context of retribution for the people’s failings.  Earthquake prediction must have been a “trump card” in the prophet’s options, though probably few had the good fortune of Amos to see their predictions vindicated within two years (e.g. D. N. Freedman and Welch 1994). Which of the people’s transgressions were to be punished by earthquake seem to evolve through the prophetic literature. It includes polytheism in the pre-Exilic period, toward failing to rebuild the Temple after it, for example.  Throughout, it is an essential ingredient in the relentless monotheism we associate with the Old Testament.
Of special interest to geologists is Zechariah 14, which seems to describe particular fault transport directions for a predicted event in this region (“ . . . and half of the mountain shall remove to the north, and half of it toward the south” in KJV), directions that fit the relative motion of the African and Arabian plates along the Jordan Valley, as noted by Yeats et al. (1997).
The prophetic tradition continues into the New Testament with sayings of Jesus quoted in three gospels—Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8, and Luke 21:11—invoking earthquakes in a pre-end-times context.  Earthquakes occurred at the end of Jesus’ life (Matthew 27:51-54) convincing a centurion of Jesus’ divinity, and at his resurrection (Matthew 28:2-4) with the appearance of an angel, a sort of semi-theophany.  Being only three days later in the same place, the Easter quake would appear to be an aftershock.  However, neither is attested historically or archaeologically.
In Acts 16:26ff, Paul and Silas were liberated from prison by an earthquake that converted their jailer, and which is quoted by some Christians as a miracle to this day.  And of course the book of Revelations (6:12-17, 8:5, 11:13-19, 16:17-21) is “over the top” with earthquake predictions having a threatening edge.  Its use of Armageddon, by the way, may hark back to an earthquake of the 10th century BC at Megiddo (Cline 2011). The prophetic drumbeat for over 800 years gave Judeo-Christian culture much of its character, and that character was molded by threat of earthquakes.

Table 1.—Books of the Old Testament listed as in King James Version, with era being described, and type of mention of earthquakes.  Causation: T theophanic, S semi-theophanic, M miraculous, N not theophanic

Era described (century B.C.
Earthquakes mentioned
Earthquake causation

19:18 (incl volc), 20:18, (only volc)

Deuteronomy 1
5:23 (volc only)

Deuteronomy 2
4:11 (volc only)

Deuteronomy 3


5:4 (incl. volc, similar to Ex19:18)

1 Samuel
2 Samuel
22:8 (same as Psalm 18)

1 Kings
2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles





Psalms 1
18:7, 68:8
Psalms 2
104:32, 144:5



Song of Solomon

Isaiah 1
13:13, 24:18-20, 29:6

Isaiah 2

Isaiah 3







1:1, 9:1-5


Micah 1

Micah 2





Zechariah 1

Zechariah 2



Earthquakes accompany God’s appearance to men quite a few times in the Bible, and God causes earthquakes in merely miraculous contexts in a great many more.  The theophanic link with earthquakes begins with Moses and extends into the New Testament.  The link is particularly heavy-handed in the prophetic tradition beginning with the book of Amos, known to correspond with an earthquake of ca. 760-750 B.C. The prophetic literature after Amos used the threat of earthquake for at least 400 years with no abatement.  The New Testament continues this tradition for several hundred more years, thus giving all Judeo-Christian thought patterns one of God-fearing.  Earthquakes were a significant tool in the creation of this pattern.
         For the purpose of my series of weblog posts, it seems safe to say that tectonic activity did indeed channel the course of religion in this example, which supplies desired detail, motivation, and dynamics.  A key takeaway in my opinion is that tectonic activity can be traced as it became an essential part of the fabric of Judaic religion, and we can still see prominent traces of tectonism in its descendant Christianity, making the Bible a legitimate example of direct relation between tectonism and religion.  There are parallels in some respects, though inevitably less well-documented, in other ancient cultures (e.g. Stewart and Piccardi 2017).  A collection of anecdotes and glimpses of such links between tectonic and religious activity elsewhere is planned for a future post.


I’ve been aided so far by comments from two anonymous authorities and by Matt Winter.  I’m seeking additional comments for future revisions (


Ambraseys, N., 2009, Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: a multidisciplinary study of seismicity up to 1900: Cambridge Press

Austin, S. A., Franz, G W. and Frost, E. G., 2000, Amos’s earthquake: an extraordinary Middle East seismic event of 750 B.C.:  International Geology Review v. 42(7), p. 657-671.

Ben Menahem, A., 1991, Four thousand years of seismicity along the Dead Sea Rift:  Journal of Geophysical Research v. 96, p. 195-216.

Bentzen, J. S., in press, , Acts of God?  Religiousity and natural disasters across subnational world districts: The Economic Journal (

Cline, E. H., 2011, “Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on” -- the possible destruction by earthquake of stratum VIA at Megiddo, in the Fires Signals of Lachish, Finkelstein and Naamen, eds.: Eisenbrauns.

Coogan, M. D., 2011, The Old Testament: a historical and literary introduction to the Hebrew scriptures:  Oxford

Cross, F. M., 1997, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays on the History of the Religion of Israel:  Cambridge, Harvard Press

Dever , W. G., 1992, A case-study in Biblical archaeology—the earthquake of ca. 760 BCE:  Eretz-Israel v. 23, p. 27-35.

Freedman, D. N., and Welch, A., 1994, Amos’s earthquake and Israelite prophesy, in Scripture and other Artifacts, edited by M. D. Coogan, J. C. Exum, and L. E. Stager:  Louisville, Westminster John Knox

Friedman, R. E., 1987, Who Wrote the Bible?  Prentice-Hall

Kenyon, K. M., 1979, Archaeology in the Holy Land:  London, E. Benn

Kenyon, K. M., and Tushingham, A. D., 1953, Jericho gives up its secrets:  National Geographic  v. 104, 853-870.

Migowski, C., Agnon, A., Bookman, R., Negendank, J.F.W. and Stein, M., 2004, Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea transform revealed by varve-counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 222, p. 301-314.

Neev, D., and Emery, K. O., 1995, The destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho—geological, climatological, and archaeological background:  Oxford

Nur, A., 2008, Apocalypse—earthquakes, archaeology, and the “wrath of God”:  Princeton.

Ogden, K., 1992, The earthquake motif in the book of Amos, in Goldene apfel in silbernen schalen, edited by Schunck, K., and Augustin, M.:  Peter Land, Frankfurt

Stewart, I. S., and Piccardi, L., 2017, Seismic faults and sacred sanctuaries in Aegean antiquity:  Proceedings of the Geologists Association v. 128, p 711-721.

Yeats, R. S., 1997, The geology of earthquakes:  Oxford, New York.