The Sahara: An Act of God?

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (Jan. 22, 2001)
©2001 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

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1. What is an "Act of God"?
2. What Does God Think?
3. What about the Sahara?
Only a few thousand years ago, the Sahara Desert was a fertile savanna teeming with animals and people. Was it an "act of God" that transformed it so dramatically into a barren sea of sand? Just what constitutes an act of God? Was the Sahara the valley of Shum which Enoch saw in vision that would be cursed with much heat and barrenness forever?

The Sahara was once an Eden.
An article entitled "Exit From Eden" in Discover magazine focuses on what has been a mystery to scientists: How could the now totally barren and virtually uninhabitable Sahara Desert have once been like a lush garden of Eden? The article points out that in March of 1999 at Murzuq Sand Sea of southwestern Libya, scientists have

". . . found bones of crocodiles, hippopotamuses, elephants, and gazelles as well as wind-blown ridges of lake-bed chalk­evidence that the region had been dotted with bodies of fresh water. Years ago in the northern Sudan, Pachur found traces of a lake that may have been as large as Erie. In that same region he traced the course of a river that once flowed east into the upper Nile, crossing several hundred miles of what is now utter desert. He has found other rivers that flowed from the Tibesti Mountains 600 miles north to the Mediterranean Sea, through the core of the Sahara. That region now gets less than two-tenths of an inch of rain each year.
"Along those lost rivers, between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago, giraffes munched on acacia trees, elephants sprayed water from their trunks, hippos wallowed in the mud. And people lived there too. They were shepherds and cowherds, hunters and fishers, and they were starting to settle down in small villages and cultivate grains such as sorghum and millet. Pachur believes that Sahara then was an Eden."[1]
The article goes on to point out that there is evidence that the spectacular climatic reversal occurred within "just a few centuries," which until now has defied explanation by meteorological computer simulations. Following this introduction of the problem came the surprising transition sentence, which seemed incongruous in a scientific article:

"Miracle or catastrophe, the birth of the Sahara was not an act of God."
The article then goes on to say that finally the computer models have been fine-tuned enough to show that such a rapid change is within our comprehension after all. It concludes that the most recent calculations can explain the change in terms of astronomical cycles and that the reversal could have predicted it ahead of time.

The sentence that jumped out at me was the inference that this discovery proved that the climatic reversal was not an "act of God." Thinking of a literal interpretation of that phrase, I wondered about the implications. Had the author been afraid that anything that could not be explained by our modern science must indicate that there is a God, and hence felt obligated to announce that atheists need not fear that this is evidence supporting the existence of God? Or was I overreacting, and he was simply using "act of God" as a legal term that is found in my home owner's insurance policy? If the former inhabitants of the Sahara had an insurance policy that included "acts of God," would they have been covered or not when their homes were buried by sand? Just what is an "act of God" anyway?

1. What is an "Act of God"?

There are at least two dictionary definitions of "act of God". Some dictionaries focus on forces of nature which are uncontrollable: "the operation of uncontrollable natural forces"[2] or "a sudden action of natural forces that could not have been prevented, as an earthquake or hurricane."[3] Surely this is not the definition that the author had in mind because man cannot control any of the astronomical cycles which are now thought to have caused the climatic change.

The other definition focuses on natural events which cannot be foreseen: "an extraordinary interruption by a natural cause (as a flood or earthquake) of the usual course of events that experience, prescience, or care cannot reasonably foresee or prevent."[4] This is apparently also the legal definition, which in simple terms is "something which no reasonable man could have expected."[5] But even this definition could raise legal questions as more and more hurricanes and even tornadoes and earthquakes are now being predicted. The book Acts of God points out that Hurricane Andrew of 1992, which caused the loss of the homes of hundreds of thousands, was predicted nearly a year ahead in the Old Farmer's Almanac.[6] Does that disqualify it from being an act of God? Not in the minds of the editors of that book, who included it.

In any case, this latter definition is clearly the one which fits the article about the Sahara. In fact, if the author had simply used the more pedestrian but precise word "unpredictable" instead of "an act of God", we probably all would have been spared my tedious analysis. Probably all that the author was saying is that the birth of the Sahara was not unpredictable, but he certainly hit a nerve with me as I looked for potential science and religion articles.

2. What Does God Think?

But now that we are this far into it, let's pursue these ideas. What does God consider to be an "act of God?" By that I mean a third definition: what does God take credit for doing? Is the sunrise an act of God? What about the rain? The Lord answers these questions, "your Father which is in heaven . . . maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sendeth rain on the just and the unjust" (Mat. 5:45). In fact, he takes credit for many precise destructions by weather:

"And again he saith: If my people shall sow filthiness they shall reap the east wind, which bringeth immediate destruction." (Mosiah 7:31)
"And it shall come to pass that I will send forth hail among them, and it shall smite them; and they shall also be smitten with the east wind; and insects shall pester their land also, and devour their grain." (Mosiah 12:6)
"Behold, a whirlwind of the LORD is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked." (Jeremiah 23:19)
"And they that kill the prophets, and the saints, the depths of the earth shall swallow them up, saith the Lord of Hosts; and mountains shall cover them, and whirlwinds shall carry them away, and buildings shall fall upon them and crush them to pieces and grind them to powder." (2 Nephi 26:5)
Perhaps the best recorded historical example of the destruction of the wicked by a great storm was the extremely precise Nephite account at the crucifixion of the Savior:

"And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land. And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder. And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land. And the city of Zarahemla did take fire. And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned. And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain. And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward. But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth; And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough. And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate. And there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great, and there were many in them who were slain. And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away. And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth. And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land. And it came to pass that when the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the storm, and the tempest, and the quakings of the earth did cease--" (3 Nephi 8:5-19).
Was all of this destruction a case of the elements having gotten out of control? Was it caused by Satan? Was it random, destroying everything and everyone in its path. And were these events "acts of God"? Fortunately we have the answers to all of these questions given by the Lord himself, as a voice heard in the darkness by the survivors of the catastrophe:

"Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof. And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned. And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof, to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them. And behold, the city of Gilgal have I caused to be sunk, and the inhabitants thereof to be buried up in the depths of the earth; Yea, and the city of Onihah and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Mocum and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Jerusalem and the inhabitants thereof; and waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come up any more unto me against them. And behold, the city of Gadiandi, and the city of Gadiomnah, and the city of Jacob, and the city of Gimgimno, all these have I caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the places thereof; and the inhabitants thereof have I buried up in the depths of the earth, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up any more unto me against them. And behold, that great city Jacobugath, which was inhabited by the people of king Jacob, have I caused to be burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness, which was above all the wickedness of the whole earth, because of their secret murders and combinations; for it was they that did destroy the peace of my people and the government of the land; therefore I did cause them to be burned, to destroy them from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up unto me any more against them. And behold, the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof, because of their wickedness in casting out the prophets, and stoning those whom I did send to declare unto them concerning their wickedness and their abominations. And because they did cast them all out, that there were none righteous among them, I did send down fire and destroy them, that their wickedness and abominations might be hid from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints whom I sent among them might not cry unto me from the ground against them. And many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and their abominations. O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?" (Nephi 9:3-13)
Thus, the Lord caused the destructions, and the demise of each city was carefully designed with a purpose to match the sins. Cities that the Lord did not want rebuilt were covered with mountains or sunk in the ocean. And as for the definition of "act of God" based on predictability, all of these events were predicted. Scientists can predict with precision the rising of the sun, and sometimes even get the prediction of rain right, but prophets can predict even rare disasters. After the great Nephite destructions, the Lord pointed out that they had been predicted.

"And now, whoso readeth, let him understand; he that hath the scriptures, let him search them, and see and behold if all these deaths and destructions by fire, and by smoke, and by tempests, and by whirlwinds, and by the opening of the earth to receive them, and all these things are not unto the fulfilling of the prophecies of many of the holy prophets." (3 Nephi 10:14)
The catastrophes had been predicted by Samuel the Lamanite, right down the very day on which they would occur, being the day of the death of the Savior (Friday, April 1, AD 33, Gregorian).

"Yea, at the time that he shall yield up the ghost there shall be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours, and the earth shall shake and tremble; and the rocks which are upon the face of this earth, which are both above the earth and beneath, which ye know at this time are solid, or the more part of it is one solid mass, shall be broken up; Yea, they shall be rent in twain, and shall ever after be found in seams and in cracks, and in broken fragments upon the face of the whole earth, yea, both above the earth and beneath. And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great. And many highways shall be broken up, and many cities shall become desolate." (Helaman 14:21-24)
Thus, being predictable does not disqualify these catastrophes from being "acts of God." Now let us consider the future. The Lord has predicted that some of the greatest disasters are yet to come, targeted especially to the wicked. For example,

" . . . what will ye say when the day cometh when the thunders shall utter their voices from the ends of the earth, speaking to the ears of all that live, saying- Repent, and prepare for the great day of the Lord? Yea, and again, when the lightnings shall streak forth from the east unto the west, and shall utter forth their voices unto all that live, and make the ears of all tingle that hear, saying these words--Repent ye, for the great day of the Lord is come? And again, the Lord shall utter his voice out of heaven, saying: Hearken, O ye nations of the earth, and hear the words of that God who made you. O, ye nations of the earth, how often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not! How oft have I called upon you by the mouth of my servants, and by the ministering of angels, and by mine own voice, and by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind, and by the great sound of a trump, and by the voice of judgment, and by the voice of mercy all the day long, and by the voice of glory and honor and the riches of eternal life, and would have saved you with an everlasting salvation, but ye would not!" (D&C 43:21-25)
And again:

"For not many days hence and the earth shall tremble and reel to and for as a drunken man; and the sun shall hide his face, and shall refuse to give light; and the moon shall be bathed in blood; and the stars shall become exceedingly angry, and shall cast themselves down as a fig that falleth from off a fig-tree. And after your testimony cometh wrath and indignation upon the people. For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes, that shall cause groanings in the midst of her, and men shall fall upon the ground and shall not be able to stand. And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds." (D&C 88:87-90)
These scriptures make it clear that not only are the coming destructions acts of God, but they are meant to be recognized as God preaching his own sermon with the voice of tempests and earthquakes. We are supposed to confess the hand of God in all things (D.C. 59:21).

3. What about the Sahara?

Now let's get back to the Sahara. Was the transformation of savanna to Sahara an act of God or not? The scriptures may answer that very question for us. Enoch had a vision far into the future in which he might have actually seen the valley of Shum be changed into the Sahara Desert. If that identification of Shum is correct, then we are not only told it was an act of God, but also that it was a result of wickedness, which follows the pattern of the other destructions caused by the Lord. Consider the following account:

"And I saw the Lord; and he stood before my face, and he talked with me, even as a man talketh one with another, face to face; and he said unto me: Look, and I will show unto thee the world for the space of many generations.
"And it came to pass that I beheld in the valley of Shum, and lo, a great people which dwelt in tents, which were the people of Shum.
"And again the Lord said unto me: Look; and I looked towards the north, and I beheld the people of Canaan, which dwelt in tents.
"And the Lord said unto me: Prophesy; and I prophesied, saying: Behold the people of Canaan, which are numerous, shall go forth in battle array against the people of Shum, and shall slay them that they shall utterly be destroyed; and the people of Canaan shall divide themselves in the land, and the land shall be barren and unfruitful, and none other people shall dwell there but the people of Canaan;
"For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever . . ." (Moses 7:4-8)
The identification of Shum with the Sahara Desert is only speculation at this point, which would require much more research to substantiate. I'm not aware of any scholarly work devoted to identifying the valley of Shum, but Hugh Nibley does compare these verses with some from 1 Enoch.[7] The best evidence for the Sahara being Shum is probably the discovery that the Sahara used to be a fertile, inhabited land, and is now the largest desert in the world. It is tempting to note that the Sahara also seems to fit very well with being somewhat south of what the scriptures call the land of Canaan (Israel and Palestine), but it must be remembered that Enoch is prophesying before the Flood, before the continents were divided. Moreover, the people of Canaan to whom he refers are not the descendants of Canaan, Noah's grandson. They are the descendants of another Canaan who lived in the time of Enoch, because we are later told that "it came to pass that Enoch continued to call upon all the people, save it were the people of Canaan, to repent" (Moses 7:12). Note also that Canaan is spelled differently from the great patriarch Cainan, Enoch's great-grandfather (Gen. 5:12-18), whose people were righteous (Moses 6:41). The main point for this article is the irony that the transformation of the Sahara might actually be explicitly mentioned in the scriptures as having been an act of God.

In conclusion, the real acts of God are much more inclusive than the dictionary definition. He preaches his sermons with the tempest, earthquake and whirlwind, hoping to induce the wicked to repent. We might all do well to recognize the hand of God in all the events of nature, because "any man who hath see any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power" (D & C 88:47).


  1. Kunzig, Robert, "Exit from Eden", Discover 21: 1(Jan. 2000), pp. 84-91.
  2. The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English, Oxford, 1999.
  3. Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus, College Edition, 1992.
  4. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1999.
  5. A.P. Herbert, Uncommon Law, 1935, quoted in Benjamin Watson, Acts of God, Random House, New York, 1993.
  6. Quoted in Acts of God, op. cit., p. 45.
  7. Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.2, Ch.4, p.197 - p.198. He compares Moses 7:5 to 1 Enoch 56:6, which refers to the Parthians and Medes being to the east of Canaan, whereas the valley of Shum was to the south.