Earthquakes in the Bible

The great earthquake that struck Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan devastated entire villages, caused massive landslides, and killed thousands of people. Many of the survivors were badly hurt, without food, water, and electricity. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and with little hope that aid would be forthcoming in the near future.

The earthquake destroyed schools and hospitals. Doctors had to improvise in order to treat the wounded. Rescue workers worked hard to break through the rubble to rescue men, women, and children who miraculously survived the devastation.

Human affliction, caused by natural disasters, affects people in the depth of their beings. These events in nature cause terror and anguish, fear and anxiety, distress and a sense of impotence. In the face of pain and death, people are inclined to ask, “Where is God?” In this article, I am not dealing with the theological issues raised by natural evil. I have already expressed my views in my article on “God and Hurricane Katrina,” part1 and part 2.

Much has been written about natural evil and the amount of death nature inflicts upon human beings. According to a report released by the Associated Press, in the last 80 years, 23 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or higher killed more than one million people. When people look at these numbers, they believe that earthquakes are a new phenomenon that is increasing in number and intensity. However, this is not true.

Until the nineteenth century, the causes of earthquakes were poorly understood. The rise of the scientific study of earthquakes has demonstrated that earthquakes are the result of the incremental buildup of stresses within the earth over a period of many years. Eventually these stresses are released causing violent movement of the earth in the form of an earthquake.

The people of the Bible were not immune to earthquakes. Several earthquakes are mentioned in the Bible. I have posted on my web page an article on earthquakes I wrote for the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Click here to read the article.

One of the most important earthquakes in the Bible happened in the days of Uzziah, King of Judah around 760 B.C. The call of the prophet Amos to the prophetic ministry is dated from this event: “The words of Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1).

This earthquake probably was very devastating because it remained in the memory of the people of Israel for centuries. Two hundred years later, the prophet Zechariah spoke of that earthquake as a divine judgment upon the sins of Jerusalem: “And you shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yes, you shall flee, like as you fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah” (Zechariah 14:5).

Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentioned an earthquake in the seventh year of the reign of Herod (31 B.C.), an earthquake “such a one as had not happened at any other time, and which earthquake brought a great destruction upon the cattle in that country” (Antiquities XV, v.2). According to Josephus, about ten thousand people perished in the devastation caused by the earthquake

In the Old Testament, the manifestation of the divine presence is called a “theophany.” When God reveals himself, human beings are in awe and nature is in convulsion. Earthquakes were seen as demonstration of the power and the presence of God. The theophany of God to Moses at Mount Sinai is accompanied by fire, smoke, thunder, lighting, and earthquakes (Exodus 19:16-19).

Earthquakes will continue to scare people because of the physical destruction it causes and because of the psychological and emotional stresses it produces in their lives. For those who truly understand the message of the Bible, such a devastation confirms the biblical truth that “the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth” (Romans 8:22).

No one can really understand the mysteries of nature and why it produces so much pain and suffering in the lives of people. However, when we look at the devastation caused by earthquakes, we begin to understand God’s word to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17).

Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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