Earthquakes in scripture

The sky was a weird greyish colour, because of the dust blowing over from the Sahara. I was tired after travelling all day (two flights and a bus ride) to L’Aquila, Italy, and I began the 20 minute walk to a B&B. Signs of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake were still apparent. Many buildings showed extensive damage, and were out of use. As I approached where I expected to find the B&B, the number of damaged unoccupied buildings increased and the roads became rougher and narrower. I became a bit worried that I was lost. I wondered if my map app didn’t have up-to-date maps of L’Aquila. It didn’t, L’Aquila has many roads temporarily closed due to construction. After wandering around a bit, I did eventually find the B&B. It was in a nice new building surrounded by many damaged ones. The view from the balcony featured about 15 cranes, and the sounds of construction began at 7:30 the next morning.

The L’Aquila earthquake occurred recently enough that we have a wealth on readily accessible information on it. For instance, it was a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that originated 9.46 km deep, at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009. We also have a modern scientific understanding of earthquake processes. We understand the earthquake to have occurred as a vast amount energy, stored elastically in the earth, was suddenly released as kinetic energy along the Paganica Fault. Seismic waves transferred energy away, breaking ground, rock, causing movement along other faults, and damaging buildings, and other infrastructure. Hundreds died, and tens of thousands became homeless. Seismologists soon installed a network of seismometers, recording thousands of aftershocks in detail. We live in a world where we accurately record and share data and information.

Earthquakes and Myth

As generations of ancient people passed on knowledge of natural hazards to the next generations, there were no seismographs or Richter scale. Instead, the knowledge was communicated through oral traditions, songs, folktales, and rituals. Some of these eventually developed into myths. Many ancient people understood there to be a connection between storms, earthquakes, and Gods. The Sumerians understood the vibration of thunder to be connected with the shaking of the ground in earthquakes. In some Zoroastrian texts, a storm-monster causes earthquakes. In Hindu scripture, the mountains’ roots were loosened by the gods (of wind and storms etc.), causing earthquakes. In ancient Iranian myths, earthquakes occur when an evil spirits attack, and mountain belts are formed. Ancient myths, while not presented through the lens of modern science, do communicate some observations and connections, such as mountains forming as a result of earthquakes.

Myth and Scripture

Sometimes people dismiss the mythical genre as being purely fictional. This is because in English, the word myth has multiple meanings. The primary definition of myth is a traditional story, especially if the story concerns the early history of a group of people or explains some kind of natural or social phenomenon. Such myths typically involve the supernatural. I suspect few latter-day saints would object to this description of some of our scripture. Unfortunately, another definition for myth is more used: a false belief or idea (e.g. as used in the tv program MythBusters). I expect many latter-day saints would object to describing scripture or its teachings this way. In this post, please consider the first definition.

Jehovah and earthquakes

Our ancient scripture was created with a mythical understanding of earthquakes present in the background. In the oldest biblical literature, Jehovah is understood to be something of a loving-loyal-fierce-warrior God. He was understood to be the origin of all things, filling the explanatory role that other gods played in myths regarding a range of things, such as earthquakes. These days, if people were asked which God they know of uses lighting as a weapon, they might say Zeus. Jehovah was understood to be a storm God too, though, with lightening, thunder, storms, and earthquakes being understood to be His weapons. Consider these excerpts from Psalm 18 where the mythical understanding of natural phenomena, rather than scientific, permeates the passage.

… I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice… Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth… he did fly upon the wings of the wind… his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skiesThe Lord also thundered in the heavens… he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them… With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright; For thou wilt save the afflicted people; but wilt bring down high looks

Psalm 18

The idea that a disaster is communication and correction from God can have advantages; It’s understandable, could motivate people to improve themselves, and indicates that we are of consequence to God, enough for Him to intervene in the world. Having some kind of explanation for a persons hardships helps people to feel some sense of understanding and closure psychologically, but it may have the downside of people being reluctant to help others through search-and-rescue, reconstruction, etc., because ‘they deserved it’ or ‘needed it’. I’ve heard faithful latter-day saints say that recent earthquakes may have occurred because of the wickedness of the people. People may also feel guilty about the possibility of the bad thing being their responsibility. However, to me, it doesn’t seem to be a revealed principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that God uses earthquakes to punish the wicked. Rather it seems like scriptures teaching this were simply referring to common knowledge at the time. Understanding this gives these scriptures a bit of a different flavour and feeling. When I read them thinking this way, it feels much more aligned with the less war-like, less-violent, God that I have encountered through personal experience. It also lets me ponder these earthquake scriptures in a different way, and consider them more symbolically.

Building and Destroying

As well as mountain building occurring during earthquakes, mountains can also be broken. Many landslides and rockslides occur during earthquakes. In some ancient Persian texts, mountain flattening represents a cosmic restoration, i.e. the oppressive high/mighty restored to a state of equality. This concept persists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. God is sometimes understood to dish out justice in His righteous anger, He brings down the high and mighty, violently restoring equality.

… And the mean man boweth down, and the great man humbleth himself… The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low: And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan, And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up

Isaiah 2 (emphasis mine)

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain…

Isaiah 40 (emphasis mine)

Understanding these verses symbolically reveals a beautiful and hopeful future restoration. It teaches about equality and justice, and that God does not want us to be proud, use our blessings for only our own benefit, or use our power to oppress. It teaches that our oppression and greed will not serve us well in the long run, that it’s better to use our power to bless, share, and begin the restoration now. Some of this might even happen during or shortly after earthquakes, especially if we don’t think that we are interfering in our violent God’s work of justice. Especially if we see the earthquakes in scripture as symbolising God’s heartbreak, creative ability to build beautiful things like mountains, and immense power to restore justice and equality in the world.

Epilogue

Not all of l’Aquila was as damaged as the area I first stayed. There is ongoing construction in many places though. Rebuilding after an earthquake can take longer than you might guess. I had a great time in l’Aquila that week, and even returned for longer, during which I finished writing this post. L’Aquila is surrounded by beautiful mountains with breath taking views. Also, the hike up is breath-taking too, if you are as unfit as me.

Further Material

Earthquakes and Coseismic Surface Faulting on the Iranian Plateau: A Historical, Social and Physical Approach – Developments in Earth Surface Processes, Volume 17, 2014

Fireside with Blair Hodges – Ep. 2—End Times (Adam Miller) in which Adam Miller discusses many things, one of which is what justice is. Miller suggests that justice may not mean doing evil to those that do evil, but doing what will bless everyone best, what will help everyone forward from here. An earthquake could still do that, but it seems less punitive.