It is rare to find evidence supporting the biblical narrative. Thousands of years after the event, the causes of destruction can be hard to pinpoint. War or quake are just two possibilities that spring to mind when evidence of heavy destruction is found.
While earthquakes in the Middle East and Levant are as common as flies, the ancient annals did not tend to mention them – with one glaring exception. The books of Amos, Zechariah and Ezekiel explicitly note an earthquake, which scholars agree would have been in roughly 760 B.C.E. Much later, the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus wrote in his typical hair-raising style about the same temblor and its supposed origin in the prideful King Uzziah.
Indeed, support for the biblical narrative had been found in archaeological discoveries of catastrophic destruction throughout ancient northern Israel, dating to the eighth century B.C.E. (these discoveries were made over decades by a host of researchers).
No question about it, much damage was caused by the Assyrians conquering the land and quashing fractious locals. But Israeli scientists report detecting paleo-geological signals clearly supporting the archaeological evidence.
Their conclusion is that the descriptions of earthquake in Amos and Zechariah, and elsewhere in the Bible, were true. Geology, however, had a surprise in store.
"The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen 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).
The book of Amos, which is believed to have been written in the eighth century B.C.E. with some later additions, begins with God delivering a mighty blast from Jerusalem that would wither the top of Mount Carmel 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the east and continue onto Syria, whose unhappy people “shall go into captivity unto Kir.”
Gaza was also wrecked by the deity’s wrath, said the herdsman-prophet. So was everyone else in the vicinity, including the Moabites, the Philistines, not least in Gath, and the Kingdom of Judah, punished for its usual faithlessness:
“Because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after which their fathers have walked: But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem” (Amos 2:4-5).
And Israel fared no better: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).
Thus the wrath of the Lord was felt up and down the land, and to its left and right too – which in and of itself supports the postulation that if some hell befell the region, it was a major earthquake. Or, in fact, two.
King Uzziah waxes proud
The Bible isn’t taken literally by most people anymore, certainly not in the case of far-out tales like Jonah being swallowed whole by a sea-creature and surviving the trauma.
But parts of the biblical narrative seem to be based on memories of traumatic events. Amos was written contemporarily with the events. Zechariah was written later, somewhere between the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.E. He also mentions a temblor in the time of King Uzziah, who is thought to have ruled from 787 to 736 B.C.E.
While Amos and Zechariah focused on aspects of evil, as usual Josephus delved into startling detail, starting with Uzziah waxing extremely successful, which made him cocky. One day the king went to the Temple – the first one, Solomon’s Temple – and insisted on offering incense to God himself, rather than via the priests, who begged him to desist. He threatened to kill them, and then:
“a great earthquake shook the ground, and a rent was made in the temple, and the bright rays of the sun shone through it; and fell upon the King’s face; insomuch that the leprosy seized upon him immediately. And before the city, at a place called Eroge, half the mountain broke off from the rest on the west” – Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews, Book IX 10:4
OK. Prof. Wolfgang Zwickel of the University of Mainz helpfully points out a key archaeological clue to quake versus enemy action. In the case of war, Zwickel says, destruction layers wouldn’t necessarily be everywhere. Cities that submissively opened their gates to the marauder would be spared. But if all the cities in a large area evince destruction levels, the likelihood is quake.
Evidence of catastrophe in eighth-century B.C.E. northern Israel is legion. A destruction layer at Hazor was dated by Israel Finkelstein and Yigal Yadin to 760 B.C.E., the right time frame for Amos. At Lachish, David Ussishkin found a destruction level from the same time. Acre also has a similar layer dating to the mid-eighth century B.C.E. that, Zwickel points out, could have been courtesy of the Assyrians or quake.
Moving onto Megiddo (which the Christians call Armageddon), the archaeologists describe “tilted walls and pillars, bent and warped walls, fractured building stones, dipping floors, liquefied sand, mudbrick collapse and burnt remains” (Shmuel Marco and Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, with Amotz Agnon of Hebrew University and Ussishkin).
Tel Abu Hawam, in Haifa Bay, had been settled from the Bronze Age, if not earlier, and a powerful town had arisen there some 3,000 years ago. But it was destroyed after the quake and not rebuilt. Damage found at Tel Dan also fits the timeline of the biblical quake.
What about the Assyrians? Hebrew University’s Agnon explains that some of the damage the archaeologists found could not possibly have been achieved with the primitive tools of the Bronze Age or even the early Iron Age.
Tel Shafi, for instance (formerly the Philistine city of Gath), had a 4-meter-thick (13-foot) wall that fell onto its side in the eighth century B.C.E. It would have taken a hand of god, not a donkey with headgear, to push that thing over. “That damage couldn’t have been man-made,” Agnon says.
In fact, geological analyses of archaeological evidence by Kate Raphael and Agnon, constrained by Agnon's revision of student work on Dead Sea sediments, found 11 quakes in the Bronze and Iron ages in Israel.
The fact that geologists found two quakes in the eighth century B.C.E., not one, doesn’t seem to bother today’s scientists. Zwickel for one suggests that memories can get foggy after centuries, or that Amos was referring to the stronger quake.
At the bottom of the Dead Sea
Where the quakes originated, we do not know. Israel is riddled with faults, but there’s one major one – the Dead Sea Transform – which is the source of catastrophic quakes. The seabed is like a tape recorder of geological events in the land: Deposits falling to the floor of the Dead Sea lie in flat layers, unless disrupted and deformed by quakes.
By radio-carbon dating organic matter in the layers, science can roughly time the disturbances to the layers. To validate the method, geologists identified known major quakes, like in 1927 and 1834/7, by deformations in the Dead Sea cores.
Publishing in Tectonophysics, Marco and Agnon,, and Elisa Kagan, present paleoseismic evidence from the Dead Sea area: Cores taken at Ein Gedi and evidence from layered sediment at Ein Feshkha and Nahal Tze’elim (next to Masada).
Using carbon-14 dating of organic matter in the deformed layers, Kagan dated one quake to 861-705 B.C.E. and the second to 824-667 B.C.E.
Agnon explains why the margin of error seems so enormous. “The organic material [Kagan] dated using C14 didn’t die in the quake. It came from plants that stopped living before the quake and reached the site through flooding,” Agnon says. That widened the margin.
At the end of the day, what we have is evidence of two strong quakes in the eighth century B.C.E., which support the biblical account in Amos, and Zechariah too. Not that he knew of what he spake, writing so long after the event, but still.
One final thing. Some scholars believe they can locate the epicenter of the “Amos quake” to Lebanon and estimate that its magnitude was a hellish 8. Agnon shrugs: There just isn’t enough evidence to reach any such determinations, he says.
In any case, despite the evidence of divine displeasure, the locals seem to have set about briskly rebuilding, Zwickel says: “Even more interesting than destroyed sites are sites evidently built up directly after the earthquake/s. Evidently, King Jeroboam II used the troubles in the destroyed area to establish new trade connections to the north and to strengthen the infrastructure for trade connections in Israel.”