April 15, 2016
(h/t: Episcopal Church Memes)
April 11, 2016
Reading Amos has been a pretty interesting journey. I feel like I’ve been trained by the loooong history books to read sectionally, thinking about individual chapters separately. I tend to reserve any ‘whole book’ thinking for the conclusion post, where I note the odd theme that may have stood out for me.
As I was nearing the end of Amos, however, the fabulous Jim Linville let me read a couple of his articles, and I realized just how much I had been missing. After that, I had to go back and re-read the book (several times, as it happens, since I ended up writing a few follow-up posts), and I realized just how interconnected the book actually is. It seems to be much more of a cohesive whole than anything we’ve read previously, except maybe the book of Ruth.
My second great takeaway from Linville’s articles was that I had been taking Amos far too literally. Once I was clued in that Amos is using a lot of puns and double-meanings, I started getting much more from my reading, and appreciating the book more deeply.
I’m very grateful to Linville for all his help, and for taking the time to throw some resources in my direction. Thank you!
The historicity of Amos seems to be rather hotly debated. A lot of my sources, such as John Collins’s A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (which, now that I think of it, I actually bought on Jim Linville’s recommendation a few years ago, so thanks again!), seem to take it for granted that the stated narrator of the book was its author – though most of my sources also argue for a much later editor(s).
In Linville’s “What Does ‘It’ Mean”, he proposes that Amos is merely a narrator in a work of historical fiction (p.402).
Either way, both seem to admit that there are some passages that don’t really make a whole lot of sense if they were written by a historical Amos. And as Collins points out, this can make quite a difference in how we read the book, and how we read later covenantal works, like Deuteronomy. Was Amos (and other prophets like him) a product of the same religious environment that gave us Deuteronomy, or was he helping to create it. (I’m somewhat misrepresenting the discussion in A Short Introduction, which focused more on whether the laws themselves were foundational or written into foundational stories – p.156 – but I think the same logic can be applied to the question of historicity).
Another question that kept coming up in my reading was why Amos should be preaching to Israel when he lived in Judah. Wouldn’t it make more sense for his immediate concern to be the cultic practices in Jerusalem, rather than those in Bethel? Particularly when his home town of Tekoa was apparently a mere ten miles from Jerusalem (A Short History, p.154).
I’ve seen a few theories bandied about: Perhaps Amos saw the border as insignificant, as both north and south were one people under God. Perhaps he targeted the north in the belief that it was “in rebellion” (2 Chron. 10:18) against the Jerusalem Temple and the Davidic dynasty (this latter perhaps finding some support in Amos’s prophecy of David’s dynastic return in Amos 9:11). Maybe his girlfriend lived in Bethel, so he took his prophecy there to spend more time with her. Who knows?
But my personal favourite story is that the whole book of Amos is a trap, and that the introduction in Amos 1-2 provides us the map to figure it out. I think that the audience is meant to cheer with anti-Samarian sentiment, just as they cheer through the oracles against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, etc. – all while being themselves implied in the criticism. In my headcanon, it is Judah that Amos condemns, even while he uses the removed Israel as his straw target.
Amos is not called a prophet within the confines of the book, and he explicitly denies being one, though the book is included in the list of the Twelve Minor Prophets.
I’ve seen quite a few wiggles to try to make sense of this, including the idea that Amos merely claimed not to have been a prophet (past tense), indicating that he now actually is one.
If we take Amos’s denial of prophet status at face value, I find that the most compelling explanation is that he is denying membership in a prophetic guild. Perhaps a modern day equivalent would be for Amos to be proudly displaying his grassroots authenticity – he’s no guild shill!
Yet this all seems to be a fairly silly argument of semantics. After all, the introduction tells us plainly that Amos received visions from God. In the course of the book, he converses with God and relays God’s words to the people. A prophet by any other name would still relay God’s message and challenge authority.
But I’m drawn to something Linville points out in “Dead Prophets Society”: That the introductory verse of Amos defines him as a shepherd (p.57). That is his identity, and perhaps we are to understand what follows as coming in that light. Perhaps Amos denies that he is a prophet in an effort to prevent that identity from overtaking his identity as a shepherd.
If that’s the case, we might look to references to shepherds in the book to understand why. Specifically: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued” (Amos 3:12). As Linville writes, this shepherd “does not succeed in leading the flock to safety, but ends up only with evidence that it has been attacked” (p.75).
We saw a similar fatalism in the rhetorical questions of Amos 3:3-8, where the lion’s roar indicates that the prey has already been caught.
Understanding Amos as the shepherd helps us to understand how he perceives his role: He is the watchman who blows his trumpet as the people are slaughtered (Amos 2:2), he is the observer who sees the danger yet can do nothing but watch. As Linville asks, are we to see prophets as those who are intended to save Israel, or as people chosen merely to “witness […] Israel’s destruction” (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.75).
The salvation twist at the end seems to cause problems, with a lot of commentaries arguing that it can’t possibly be authentic because it doesn’t match with the doom-and-gloom tone of the rest of the book.
But as I re-read Amos, I found that the twist was actually somewhat set up. Not strongly, by any means, but enough to make the ending plausibly authentic.
In particular, Linville points to the possible meanings of the phrase my RSV translates as: “I will not revoke the punishment” (repeated throughout Amos 1-2). In particular, he uses verses like Job 9:12 to argue that the phrase could more properly be translated to mean something like: “I will put a stop to your sinning” (“What Does ‘It’ Mean”, p.414).
Perhaps we could even argue that the phrase is intentionally vague, to hint at the future redemption without allowing the Israelites to rest to comfortably in such a promise.
Once I got a better grasp of Amos, I found that I was really enjoying it. It’s complex and often ambiguous, with very few satisfying “ah-ha!” moments, but it is full of possibilities to consider. I really enjoyed trying to find the puns and the internal references, as well as the process of trying to guess at what it all might mean.
My next book is Hosea, but I think I need a little bit of a break. I wrote quite a few extra posts for Amos, which meant giving up time I had set aside for my fiction writing. As a result, I’m feeling hopelessly behind on that. I had originally intended to begin Hosea at the start of May, but I think I may push my first post back as far as June 3.
I may change my mind before then, but I feel like I need that month and a half to both finish up a novel I’m working on and build up a post buffer for this blog so that I’m not pulling all-nighters again!
So that’s the end of Amos, and more than enough housekeeping for now. Taa!
April 8, 2016
In Amos 4:1, Amos turns his attention to the women of Israel, who are compared to “cows of Bashan.” As I wrote at the time, the surface meaning seems clear enough. Bashan seems to have been a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that Amos is essentially calling the women of Israel “fat cows.” As for the crimes, I wrote in that post that:
The women’s crimes are pretty terrible. You see, they have oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and asked their husbands for something to drink. Yikes. Fat cows and hen-peckers? For this, their days are numbered and they will be cast forth into Harmon.
To the charge that the women were not suitably subservient to their husbands, Jim Linville adds that, according to many readers, “the women maintain their lifestyle by exploiting the poor” (“Who Were Amos’ ‘Cows of Bashan’?”).
But as with so much else in Amos, there appears to be another layer to the intended meaning.
Amos on women
It’s not exactly uncommon for the Bible to gloss over women. They are counted in general population terms (sometimes), but their unique experiences tend to be ignored. The book of Ruth was one of rare (and welcome) exceptions to this.
Given our readings, it’s not exactly striking that Amos would only mention women once, and then in a way that is condemning.
But even though women often aren’t mentioned, they are there. Linville turns to Judith Sanderson, who points out how shallow Amos’s concern over social justice may be: “Amos clearly saw the suffering of the poor, but did not see it fully for its impact on women, who would represent a disproportionate amount of the poor” (“Cows of Bashan”).
Sanderson points out that, in all the horrors, women’s particular experiences are only mentioned when their pregnant bellies are ripped open in Amos 1:13. While undeniably horrible (and a war crime that we saw before in 2 Kgs 8:12 and 2 Kgs 15:16), it’s easy enough to find an uncharitable explanation for Amos’s revulsion: Is it concern for the women who are ripped open? Is it the destruction of the innocent? Or is it the offence the act commits against patriarchal fertility? Which aspect of the act made it so terrible to the people at the time that it was evoked as a horror of war?
This becomes particularly salient in Amos 7:10-17, when Amos drops mic on Amaziah by predicting his wife’s prostitution. “This is the punishment of her husband, a priest, who would perhaps be particularly dishonoured if his wife engaged in such activities” (“Cows of Bashan”). Her own suffering and destitution are irrelevant, as her experience is relevant only for its effect on her husband.
Linville points out that the same thing happens again in Amos 2:6-8, where a man and his father are condemned for sleeping with the same “girl.” Who is this girl? Was she consenting to these relations? We don’t know because it doesn’t matter: “No blame is attached to her, nor is there any concern for her experiences. As Sanderson points out, she seems lost in theological accusation” (“Cows of Bashan”).
Considering all of this, the easy interpretation of Amos 4:1 seems perfectly plausible: Women are condemned for their participation in social practices over which they have as little control as the poor, and doubly condemned for ‘hen-pecking,’ or trying to find some small way to hold power in a society that largely denies it to them.
But if women are often seen merely as stand-ins for male pain, perhaps the women in Amos 4:1 only “stand as metaphors for the greater populace” (“Cows of Bashan”). The personification of Israel as a woman is certainly something we’ve seen before, such as Lam. 1:1 where Israel is a lonely widow, or even later in Amos 5:2 where Israel is a maiden.
One possibility is that they represent religious adherents. We’ve seen quite a few examples of Yahweh associated with bulls. The most obvious example is the Golden Calf story in Ex. 32. We’ve also seen it associated with more establishment ritual, in both the north (with Jeroboam’s bulls in 1 Kgs 12:26-30) and the south (when the Temple’s Molten Sea is supported by twelve oxen in 1 Kgs 7:23-26). So Linville points out that the term ‘cows’ may be “the self-designation of female worshippers of a bull-like manifestation of Yahweh” (“Cows of Bashan”).
The commentary, then, may be most properly seen as an extension of Amos’s criticism on Israel’s religious practices. We might read the passage more properly as: “You so-called faithful who oppress the poor and crush the needy.”
If women serve as stand-ins for the people, who are the husbands who are ordered to bring drinks?
If the women are adherents, then we may see the husband as God (or perhaps the husbands are their gods). The point, then, may be that these devotees are making presumptuous demands of their gods, rather than being appropriately worshipful and subservient.
Linville underscores this idea by linking the demand for drink with the threat of drought in Amos 4:7-8. And perhaps the image of plenty evoked by the cows of fertile Bashan is evoked again in Amos 8:11, when there will be “a famine of the divine word” (“Cows of Bashan”).
We haven’t seen much of the bridal imagery so far in our readings, but it is elsewhere. In Isaiah 54:5, God is explicitly called Israel’s husband. In Jeremiah 3:1-5, we find that the wifely Israel has committed adultery on her divine husband.
Finding a metaphorical interpretation does not, of course, negate the surface interpretation. If anything, the metaphor only works because of the imagery invoked by the surface interpretation. When the Israelites boss around God, they are wrong in the same way as the women who boss around their husbands.
Bashan may well have been chosen just because it was a fertile area. I noted above that the image of plenty evoked by the cows of Bashan may have been intentionally chosen to contrast with the later image of famine.
This is supported in places like Deut. 32:14, where God nourishes Jacob with meat products from Bashan.
But there may be a more ominous connotation to the land. Linville points to Psalm 22:12-13, where the narrator is encircled by the “strong bulls of Bashan,” whose mouths are “like a ravening and roaring lion.” As Linville points out, Bashan may well invoke both the fertility and plenty, and these more menacing images.
Linville also points to Psalm 68:22, where Bashan is “imagined as a place of exile, of absence from God.” Perhaps even more telling, Linville points out that Psalm 68 also explores Yahweh’s concern for the underprivileged. In the Psalm, the women announce the defeat of enemies and the bringing in of spoils (Ps. 68:12-14). It could be, then, that Amos 4:1 is intended as an “ironic reversal of the imagery in the Psalm” (“Cows of Bashan”).
It seems, then, that Amos may have chosen his words very carefully, making each pull at least double duty.
NOTE: For this post, I have been using a draft of a paper Linville presented to a conference (which he believes took place in 2000). Citations are appropriately vague.