Concluding Amos

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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!

Author

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).

Why Israel?

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.

A Prophet?

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).

Salvation

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.

Conclusion

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!

Amos and the Cows of Bashan

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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.

The Women

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.”

The Men

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

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.

The Questions of Amos 3:3-8

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The questions asked in Amos 3:3-6 appear to be ones of obviousness, like the expression: “Does a bear shit in the woods?”

But right off the bat, the first question tripped me up: “Do two walk together, unless they have made an appointment?” (Amos 3:3). After scratching my head for a bit, I took this to mean that two people don’t walk together unless they are going to the same place. After looking through some commentaries, it seems that it might mean that two people don’t walk together unless they’ve already met each other. It seems probable that the phrase was a common proverb, perhaps luring the audience in with its obviousness (something like our “birds of a feather flock together”).

Jim Linville raises the possibility that the two who walk together are meant to allegorically represent God and Israel, referring to language like that found in Lev. 26:12: “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” There may be a hint to this much closer by, as God tells us in Amos 3:2 that: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” (“Amos Among The ‘Dead Prophets Society’: Re-Reading The Lion’s Roar”, p.68. Published in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 25 no. 90, p.55-77). In other words, God and Israel walk together, and therefore they must know one another. Perhaps this is why God takes it so hard when Israel silences its prophets in Amos 2:12; if God can no longer speak to Israel, then Israel can no longer know God, and therefore they can no longer walk together.

Linville also links this to Amos 4:12, in which “a different verb is employed,” but “Israel, at the moment of its punishment, is told to prepare to meet their god” (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.69).

The Roaring Lion

The section contains two questions that involve lions: “Does a lion roar in the forest, when he has no prey? Does a young lion cry out from his den, if he has taken nothing?” (Amos 3:4). In both questions, a lion is making noise because it has caught prey – dark imagery in a book that opens with “the Lord roars from Zion” (Amos 1:2). The lion has roared, and Israel is its prey. It’s telling that Amos reinforces the connection just a few verses later: “The lion has roared; who will not fear?” (Amos 3:8).

Linville explains it thusly:

There is also a trap in Amos 3,3-8. The reader (along with the implied audience) is asked a number of rhetorical questions which are easy to answer, although there is a growing morbidity to the different scenarios. In V. 8, the reader must agree that the roaring lion causes one to fear. But then the trap is revealed. The lion’s roar becomes a metaphor for divine speech and fear turns into prophecy.” (“Visions and Voices”, p.25).

This is followed by more questions of traps and snares, then asks: “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?” (Amos 3:6). The trumpet, of course, would be the alarm, sounded if an enemy approaches. And yet the lion has already roared, the prey is already taken. The city watch has fallen asleep on the job, and they’ve failed to sound the alarm in time for it to serve as a proper warning (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.70).

In the same paragraph, Linville points back to Amos 2:2, where the Moabites are slaughtered to the sound of their trumpets. The city watch is no match for the wrath of God.

Linville points out another possible connection:

It is not, in my view, coincidental that in v. 6, the citizens ‘tremble’ at the sound of the shofar in the face of an unknown threat, but in v. 8, one is asked who will not ‘fear’ the divine lion. ‘Tremble’ has been replaced with a term which often has connotations of ‘to revere’. Verse 8 draws a distinction between those who, on the one hand, understand enough to fear a lion but perhaps still scoff at Amos and, on the other, those who revere the divine lion and are led to prophesy.” (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.73)

The Structure

The seven questions of Amos 3:3-6 are followed by the statement: “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). The number seems significant, as it may have been in the oracles against the nations in Amos 1-2. As Linville points out: “as is well known in Amos scholarship, numbers of completion, like seven, are sometimes the bait” (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.71). This would make the statement into the snapping of a trap.

When I wrote about the oracles of the nations, I concluded by wondering if the central theme of Amos is the voice of God. If we interpret these rhetorical questions in that light, then the questions serve to underline and add exclamation marks to the statement: God reveals his acts through the prophets, God’s voice is present. This provides a context for the withdrawal punishment to come, as well as to imply Amos’s credibility in making such a prediction.

Amos’s “Rhetoric of Entrapment”

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When I wrote about the oracles against the nations in my Amos 1-2 post, I noted the theory that the section was intended as a rhetorical trap:

First, Amos lures his readers/listeners in by raging at the other guy. Then he moves a little closer with the next batch, raging at nations considered ‘cousins’: Edom is mythically descended from Jacob’s brother (Gen. 25:19-34), while the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot (Gen. 19:36-38). Circling ever closer, Amos turns to Judah.

And then Amos pounces, throwing the sins of Israel into their faces.

This has been compared to the strategy used by the prophet Nathan to trick David into condemning himself for the murder of Uriah and rape of/affair with Bathsheba in 2 Sam. 12.

It all seemed simple enough in my initial reading, and I didn’t dig too much further. A few days ago, however, Jim Linville shared a few of his papers with me, and I realized that I had been quite superficial in my post. So I wanted to revisit the oracles against the nations now, with a good bit of help of Linville’s “What Does ‘It’ Mean? Interpretation At The Point Of No Return In Amos 1-2” (published in Biblical Interpretation, Volume 8, Issue 4, p.400-424). I also want to touch on something Linville brings up in “Amos Among The ‘Dead Prophets Society’: Re-Reading The Lion’s Roar” (published in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 25 no. 90, p.55-77). With the citations out of the way, let’s dive right in!

The Nations

The first thing I’d missed that may be significant is the number of nations: 8. The first seven follow a set pattern with little variation, while the eighth (Israel itself) breaks the pattern in several significant ways. Seven is, of course, a number that’s cropped up an awful lot in our readings so far, so the use seems significant here, too. Or, more specifically, the +1 seems significant. But why?

Linville wonders if we are meant to join Judah (the seventh) and Israel (the eighth) together, to force a proper complete set (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.408). I want to talk about this more in a different post, but maybe Amos’s audience isn’t really Israel at all. We could assume that it is because we are told that Amos had visions “concerning Israel” (Amos 1:1), but perhaps there’s more going on. One theory that Linville highlights in “Dead Prophets Society” is that the book was not written by Amos, but by a later author(s) using Amos as a narrator.

If that’s the case, then it may be possible that the “rhetoric of entrapment” in the oracles serves as a microcosm of the “rhetoric of entrapment” of the whole book: Getting a Judahite audience to cheer along in the condemnations of Israel while they themselves are implied in the criticism. After all, Amos avoids specifics in his lists of Israel’s sins. His focus is on the emphasis of cultic practice over social justice – something we’ve seen Judah accused of as well. And the connection is reinforced by forcing the audience to read Judah and Israel together in order to get a satisfying seven nations.

A second possibility that has occurred to me is that having eight nations breaks the harmony of the oracles, like the jarring sound when someone suddenly plays a half note on a piano when the piece has so far only had full notes. It’s off, it feels wrong. Maybe that is meant to drive home the wrongness (and unnaturalness, if we assume that God’s wishes are the natural social order) of Israel’s sins.

What Is Returned?

In each oracle, God says: “For three transgressions of [transgressor] or for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (RSV). This seems straightforward enough. With nothing but my RSV to guide me, I focused on the first part: What is this about three or four transgressions? My best guess was that it means something along the lines of: “Three transgressions would have been bad enough, but you’ve gone and had four of them!” The specific numbers, of course, are figurative.

I take no responsibility for missing something far more important in the phrase, because my RSV buried it. See, God never says that he won’t revoke the punishment. Rather, he says something more along the lines of: “I will not cause it to return.” And if you are now wondering what “it” is, you’re in great company.

The translators of the RSV clearly assumed that the “it” refers to the punishment that will be mentioned at the end of each oracle. Fair enough, that’s a solid guess. But there are plenty of other possibilities. Linville has a solid crack at it in “What Does ‘It’ Mean?”

One possibility is that the “it” refers to the people. Several of the oracles mention exiles. Damascus is to be punished with exile, while only the king and princes of the Ammonites will be exiled. Gaza, Tyre, and Edom don’t mention exile as punishment, but, as Linville points out, Gaza and Tyre are both charged with selling other nations into exile – specifically to Edom (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.412).  It could be, then, that God is saying he will scatter all these people, and he will not return them to their ancestral lands.

For a second possibility, Linville draws a connection to Job 9:12, Job 11:10, and Job 23:12, where the verb the RSV translates as “return” is instead used to mean “to hinder” or “to stop”: “[I]t seems not to fit the context of our phrase if it is considered as a negative statement. It will work, however, with the particle as asservative, ‘I will certainly stop him’, or, as is more probably, as part of a question, ‘Shall I not stop him?'” (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.414). So while the nations are sinning three times and four times (and on and on), God could be indicating that he will put a stop to it – the sinning – because the nations won’t on their own.

A third possibility is that “it” refers to God’s anger, which will be unleashed but not returned or taken back into himself (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.418).

My personal favourite “it”, however, is the voice of God, described as a lion’s roar in Amos 1:2 (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.417). This would then connect the oracles to later parts of the book, such as the famine “of hearing the words of the Lord” in Amos 8:11-12. Making “it” God’s voice provides us with a thesis for the whole of the book: For their sins, the people will no longer have access to God.

The Punishment

I noticed in my original reading that every nation is given the punishment of devouring fire – expect Israel. For some reason, I didn’t think to wonder why that might be.

Another difference is that the fire oracles all say “I will send fire” expect Amos 1:14, where God promises to “kindle fire.” According to Linville’s footnotes, this may be “a deliberate irregularity to keep the copyists alert.” But that’s not necessarily the case (or all that’s going on), because “the exceptional oracle, and the first, seem related to the oracles in Jer. 49” (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.401).

Rather than be devoured by fire, Israel is to be pressed down (Amos 2:13). The imagery of being pressed down by plenty (“as a cart full of sheaves presses down”, Amos 2:13) is surely a reference to the prosperity under Jeroboam. Perhaps there’s the sense that this prosperity leads to complacency or fosters the kind of greed that led to Israel’s sins. So while it is God who presses Israel down, it is also their bounty – cause and result are therefore linked through the metaphor.

But is that reason enough to move away from the fire? I wonder if the pressing is meant to be seen as temporary: A cart going down a dirt road will carve furrows, but they’ll be gone after a few rains if they aren’t maintained. A pressing down implies to me an eventual release, whereas a fire implies outright destruction. I’m not sure if this is justified, but it would certainly help to join the oracles to the final vision of hope in Amos 9.

Or perhaps what I’m reading as the punishment section of Israel’s oracle is merely the beginning of it – and the oracle against Israel is meant to continue on for the rest of the book. It’s hard to imagine that the chapter breaks aren’t there, but of course they weren’t present in the original version(s) of the book.

Linville also points to some possible wordplay, in which the silencing of the prophets (and therefore of God) is linked to the suffering of the people through a mutual “groan[ing] under the burden”: “Within the single expression are references to both the suffering of Yahweh and Israel. The nation and the deity are inextricably linked” (“What Does ‘It’ Mean?”, p.422).

Another part of the punishment, not mentioned until later, is that God will be giving the people some major silent treatment (causing a “famine” for God’s word in Amos 8:11-12). Among Israel’s many sins is the silencing of the prophets in Amos 2:12 – so the thing that Israel thinks it wants and does for itself ends up being a punishment, just as their cart full of sheaves is what will crush them in Amos 2:13.

Linville also draws a parallel between the silencing of the prophets in Amos 2:12 with the statement in Amos 3:7: “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” He writes: “There is, therefore, an irony in 3.7; what should have bound Israel to God is now that which divides them” (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.72). The line of communication, once meant as a gift, is now used to pronounce doom.

It seems as though God’s voice – the lion’s roar – may be a much more central theme in the book than I had initially thought. The cutting of the lines of communication comes up again and again as both Israel and God do it. It is this cutting of contact that warrants Israel’s punishment, and it is also the punishment itself. Amos’s role as intercessor in Amos 7 becomes so much more important, because it is through the prophets that Israel might “seek the Lord and live” (Amos 5:6). As we move through the book, we find that God’s voice is linked to sin, punishment, and even salvation.

Amos 9: Shaking Things Up

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Amos 9 begins with Amos’s fifth vision, in which he sees God standing beside the altar. Which altar is not specified, but the the implies that Amos had a specific altar in mind (accepting the limitations of finding linguistic clues in a translation, obviously). Given the focus of Amos’s prophecies, it seems reasonable that he means Bethel.

There, God issues a command: Smash the capitals (the uppermost part of a column – these are load-bearing structures) until the thresholds shake; shatter them on the heads of the people. If anyone survives, God will clean them up with the sword. No one will escape.

The fact that God is standing by his own altar is significant – Amos has been clear that God’s beef is with Israel’s crappy social justice record, and that it is for this reason that they will be destroyed (we saw this just recently, in Amos 8:5-6).

When we talk about the religion of God as Amos saw it, passages like Amos 5:21-24 make it clear that he wasn’t talking about showing up to church at the correct times and diligently paying tithes. For Amos, social justice is a core feature of the religion, and any version that does not include it (or views it as some nice but optional extra) is loathed by God.

Amos driven from Israel, by Doré

Amos driven from Israel, by Doré

According to Amos’s God, the people deserve to be destroyed because they have marginalized the role of social justice in their faith. It is their religion that condemns them, and so it is their temple collapsing down upon their heads that will kill them.

We can also tie this back to the idea that God will no longer speak to the people, as expressed in Amos 8:11-12. The altar will be destroyed because the people have lost the privilege of access to it.

The image also lends an immediacy to the vision. When Amos’s audience hear his words, they know the capitals he’s talking about, they know what they look like, they can visualize them falling. It contextualizes and personalizes the vision, so that the destruction is not merely something that will happen, but something that will happen right here.

The last thing I wanted to touch on with this verse is that God is speaking a command: “Smite the capitals” (Amos 9:1), he says. Who is this command being issued to? Is it Amos himself? Is the point that Amos will destroy the people (psychologically? or condemn them because now they have no “they know not what they do” excuse?) by revealing the Truth of his visions to them?

Is the command issued to the Israelites? Is it even a command, or merely a rhetorical way of describing what the people are already doing to themselves?

In the RSV, the word “command” appears a number of other times in Amos, such as when God commands “the sword” (Amos 9:4) to slay the Israelites (he does not command the wielders of the swords, but the concept of swords – or violence – more generally). So perhaps God is commanding the capitals themselves to shake.

And with that, I think we can conclude our discussion of the first verse.

Next, God explains that there can be no escape for Israel:

  • Though they dig into Sheol, God will pull them up. Sheol being the place of the dead (as we saw in places like Gen. 37:35), typically imagined under the ground. I interpreted this to mean that the people will find no rest in death.
  • Though they climb to heaven, God will knock them down.
  • Though they hide themselves on the top of Mount Carmel (apparently a sacred site, and seems to have been associated with the prophet Elijah, as in 1 Kgs 18), God will find and take them.
  • Though they “hide from my sight” (Amos 9:3) at the bottom of the sea, God will command the serpent to bite them. On the kind of serpent meant, my study Bible refers me to the Leviathan in Job 41.
  • Though they go into captivity, God will still command the sword to slay them.

God has set his eyes on them with evil intent.

Jim Linville sees a progression as we move through these five visions, and the way in which Amos seems to fade as a presence: “The mediating role of the locusts and fire, and the ensnaring ambiguity of the אנך and the fruit basket are replaced with the direct order that the temple is to be destroyed” (“Visions and Voices”, Biblical Studies on the Web, vol.80, p.39).

Doxologies

My study Bible refers to Amos 9:5-6 as the “third doxology” – a doxology being a liturgical formula of praise to a deity. The other two are Amos 4:13 and Amos 5:8-9.

In it, God is described as the one who touches the earth and causes it to melt. This is a cause for mourning, but we also seem to have some hint of hope. As in Amos 8:8, we are told that the land, under God’s touch, rises and sinks like the Nile. As I noted in my post about Amos 8, the rising and sinking is a reference to the annual flooding of the Nile, and may be meant to evoke “the symbolic expectation of subsequent renewal, as the Nile’s flooding brings silt that makes the river’s watershed fertile.” This will be especially relevant soon.

God is described as having built his upper chambers in the heavens, and his vaults on the earth. Typically, the upper chambers are where the family lives in two-story architecture, since they have the benefit of being both the coolest in hot climates (being aired out more easily, being more removed from the dust of the street, etc) and warmest in cold climates (benefiting from the body heat rising from any cattle kept below). Essentially, this makes the whole (known) universe into God’s personal home.

As in Amos 5:8-9, God is described almost as a nature deity. Here, he is the one who calls waters up from the sea and pours them down over the earth.

Moral Superiority

In much of our readings, there has been a sense that the Israelite people are special – chosen and nurtured and guided by God, entitled (through their specialness, if not their worthiness) to his unique focus. In Amos 9:7-10, however, Amos sets the record straight.

God begins by asking, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” (Amos 9:7). I’m not sure Ethiopians are important here, except that they are an example of a fairly distant group of people. We have a very similar conception here in North America, and “Are people in Africa not at least as important to me as you?” would work just effectively for us today.

God admits that he did bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but then adds that he did the same for the Philistines (out of Caphtor) and Syrians (out of Kir). On this passage, Collins writes:

The significance of the exodus was that it marked Israel as a special people YHWH. Amos does not deny that God brought Israel out of Egypt, but he radically questions its significance. It was the same God who brought the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete) and the Arameans from Kir (location unknown, but cf. Amos 1:5; 2 Kgs 16:9). For Amos, YHWH is the God of all peoples and responsible for everything that happens, good and bad. The movements of the Arameans and Philistines were just as providential as those of the Israelites. In the eyes of God, Israel is no different than the Ethiopians. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158)

Regarding Caphtor, Claude Mariottini describes it as “a possible reference to Crete.” In the same post, he writes: “The origin of the Philistines is debated. Egyptian records include them as one of the groups of people known as the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples invaded Egypt during the reign of Ramses III. Archaeologists believe that the Sea Peoples originated in the Aegean area.”

As for Kir, it is elsewhere associated not with the place the Syrians are from, but as the place to which they are exiled (Amos 1:5 and 2 Kgs 16:9).

God tells the speaker to “behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom” (Amos 9:8). The sudden switch to the third person when he has, up until this point, been speaking directly to the audience, is rather jarring. But I suspect that “Lord God” is being used in a way similar to the royal “we” – emphasizing importance (though with very different implications), and perhaps even using “Lord God” as if it were a title. He then switches back into the first person to say that “I” will destroy that sinful kingdom, but not completely.

What is meant by this is illustrated in the next passage. When God shakes up Israel (echoing the shaking of the capitals in Amos 9:1), he will do so “as one shakes with a sieve” (Amos 9:9) – in other words, to sift out impurities. In this case, the impurities are pebbles, and none of them will pass through.

In addition to the idea of culling, the image also invokes a scattering. Instead of having a single clump of – say – ground wheat, the individual particles will be separated from each other, and scattered “among all the nations.”

And now for something completely different

After all of that, Amos 9:11-15 sounds downright hopeful. Instead of focusing on all the destruction, we are suddenly given a vision of restoration, and even of comfort!

So it’s not surprising that many argue against the authenticity of this section. And there certainly are aspects of this section that seem difficult to interpret in a way that would allow for authenticity. The easiest example is the reference to the return of a Davidic dynasty – a dynasty that had not, in Amos’s time, fallen.

As I was reading through my notes in preparation for this chapter, it seemed like a fairly obvious conclusion. Now, though, I’m not so sure. The greatest argument against authenticity is that hope seems to be absent throughout the rest of Amos, so this sudden twist is out of character. But as I’ve already pointed out, there are two instances where the destruction of Israel is compared to the flooding of the Nile (Amos 8:8 and Amos 9:5) – a predictable flooding that recedes, leaving behind silt that makes the Nile watershed renowned for its fertility. So without looking any further, we already have two instances in which Amos’s vision of Israel’s destruction promises an After (and, perhaps just as importantly, an After that is particularly fertile).

That doesn’t mean that the section isn’t a later addition, but I’m not seeing it as nearly so obvious as many commentaries make it seem.

Amos has frequently referred to a day, a day in which judgement and destruction will come. But that day is two-sided. In that day, God will also raise up the “booth” (Amos 9:11) of David that had fallen. He will repair its branches and rebuild it as in the old days.

This is, obviously, the most difficult verse to explain away if we want to argue for the section’s authenticity. I’m not sure it’s impossible, though. While the dynasty of David was still in power at this time (and wouldn’t fall for a fair while), it was not ruling over Israel. In that sense, it had indeed fallen from its old status, and controlled a much smaller portion of the Israelite population. Perhaps the point isn’t that it would be restored from nothing, but that it would be rebuilt from what was left.

I was intrigued by the reference to a “booth” of David, while all our other readings have called it the “house” of David. A booth part of a nomadic tent structure. It feels meaningful that David is associated with tents (which evokes imagery of nomadic life) while God talks about destroying the capitals (which are part of settled architecture).

It evokes an image of raising all that has been built and starting over from scratching, coming in to Israel in booths as in the time of the exodus.

In addition to being rebuilt, Israel will come to possess what is left of Edom, as well as all the nations “who are called by my name” (Amos 9:12).

In these coming days, says God:

  • The plowman will overtake the reaper;
  • The trader of grapes will overtake the one who sows the seed;
  • The mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with it.

These promised blessings may be a reference to Lev. 26:5: “And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the time of sowing; and you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely.”

God will restore Israel’s fortunes, and the Israelites will rebuilt their ruined cities. They will be replanted in the land (as the banks of the Nile must be replanted after every flood), and they will never again be plucked up.

And with that, we come to the end of Amos.

Amos 8: Oh my sweet summer fruit

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Returning to the formula of Amos’s first and second visions, his fourth begins with, “Thus the Lord God showed me” (Amos 8:1).

This time, God is showing Amos a basket of summer fruit, and he tells him that the end is coming for the people of Israel. On that day, temple music will become wailing and many will die.

There’s some wordplay here, as Jim Linville points out: “Amos sees a basket of summer fruit, קיץ qays, but upon identifying it, YHWH announces the end קץ qes of Israel” (“Vision and Voices: Amos 7-9.” Biblical Studies on the Web, Vol.80, p.34).

The pun is wonderful. It isn’t just the use of homophones (near homophones?), but in this case the summer fruit can also be seen to represent Israel – which, under Jeroboam, was bloated with prosperity. According to Amos, this abundance warns of Israel’s fall just as the abundance of summer harvests warns of coming winter.

My RSV gives Amos 8:3 as: “The dead bodies shall be many; in every place they shall be cast out in silence.” Other translations, however, have something more along the lines of: “Many are the corpses, in every place he has cast. Silence!”

This second translation is important for Linville, who asks who the intended speaker of the exclamation might be. One possibility is that it is YHWH himself, commanding silence from the people so that they can hear the warning that follows. Another possibility is that he is demanding “silent awe” from those who have survived as they survey the dead. Or perhaps he speaks to the dead, who will never speak again.

Linville also proposes that it could be from Amos, who sees where God is going with this and begs for him not to speak it aloud. Or perhaps the exclamation is “a warning to himself not to interfere.” Linville’s final suggestion is that Amos is demanding “silence from God’s victims when he himself is coerced into declaring their doom” (“Vision and Voices,” p.35).

Hear This

After this, the narrative switches to direct speech for a while as the speaker, presumably Amos, addresses the audience. He calls to them to listen, naming them those who trample the needy and the poor.

The speaker accuses the listener of asking when the new moon will end so they can sell grain, or when it’s the sabbath so they can sell wheat? I initially interpreted this as meaning that they were using the cultic calendar to time their economic activities, rather than using the festivals as reminders of God’s true command: Justice. My study Bible, however, interprets the passage as meaning that the “merchants are impatient for the holy days to pass so they can resume their fraudulent business.”

The visions of Amos, 16th cent.

The visions of Amos, 16th cent.

The speaker accuses the listener of making the ephah small and the shekel great, of dealing deceitfully with false balances. This is clearly a reference to the use of scales in transactions, and merchants rigging them in their own favour.

The listener is accused of selling the refuse of wheat and, as in Amos 2:6, the listener is accused of buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. As I noted in my post on Amos 2: “This is likely a reference to bribery in the justice system, rather than a real buyer’s market in the slave trade.”

Swearing by the pride of Jacob (which God abhors, as per Amos 6:8), God vows never to forget “their” (Amos 8:7) deeds. The use of “their” really threw me, because suddenly the speaker is no longer speaking to the listeners, but about them! I get the impression of God and Amos, standing around the water cooler, dissing the Israelites just loudly enough that the Israelites can hear but quietly enough for it not to be obvious that it’s intentional.

Then comes some more doom-and-gloom as God vows that the land itself will tremble, and that all who dwell within it will mourn. All of it will rise up like the Nile, be tossed about, and sink (a reference to the annual flooding of the Nile – perhaps with the symbolic expectation of subsequent renewal, as the Nile’s flooding brings silt that makes the river’s watershed fertile).

On that day, God promises to make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth during the day (perhaps an echoing of Amos 5:18, where Amos promises that the day of the Lord is “darkness, and not light”). God will turn feasts into mourning, and he will turn songs into lamentations.

He promises to bring sackcloth to every loin and baldness to every head. Given the context, I suspect that the threat of baldness refers to hair cutting/shaving as part of mourning. In any case, God promises to make it like the mourning for an only son – implying that the destruction will be complete, and leave Israel without a future lineage.

Famine

Amos’s God promises a famine but, unlike what we’ve seen in so many other places, this is not a famine for bread or water. Rather, it is a famine of hearing the words of God. The people will wander from sea to sea seeking the word of God, but they won’t find it.

When I was a child, the concept of hell was described to me as separation from God. It seems that Amos has similar ideas.

On the coming day, even the young will faint for thirst. Those who worship Ashimah of Samaria and say: “as thy god lives, O Dan” and those who say “as the way of Beersheba lives” (Amos 8:14) will fall and never rise again. In other words, as my study Bible puts it: “The patron deities of pagan shrines, from the farthest north (Dan) to the farthest south (Beer-sheba), will be of no help on that day.”

The Linville article I am mercilessly quote-mining this evening notes an evolution in the sorts of punishments Amos envisions: “Rather than predict the end of the shrines of Isaac, the sanctuaries of Israel, and the house of Jeroboam (Amos 7,9, matters reintroduced by Amaziah, in 7,10-13), the fourth vision attacks the people directly. The subsequent oracles give reasons for this: social injustice has motivated God’s action (8,4-6)” (“Vision and Voices”, p.34).

The ‘anak of Amos 7:7-9

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In Amos’s third vision, found in Amos 7:7-9, God is described as standing next to a [blank] wall, holding a [blank] in his hand. He then declares that he is setting the [blank] in the midst of the people, and that destruction will be coming.

The problem, as I briefly mentioned in my post on Amos 7, is that we don’t know what this [blank] actually is. The word, which I’ve seen transliterated as ‘anak, isn’t found anywhere in the Bible aside from this one passage, and its meaning seems to be a hot point of contention.

My RSV translates it as “plumb line.” As I noted in my reading of Amos 7:

A plumb line is used for ensuring that a vertical line is straight (in the way that a level is used for horizontal lines), so the implication is – as my study Bible puts it – that “the people are found warped beyond correction.” This is why they will be – must be – destroyed.

That seemed satisfying enough for me, so I didn’t look into it much further. But Jim Linville shared his paper, “Visions and Voices: Amos 7-9” (published in Biblical Studies on the Web, vol.80), with me, and I found his treatment of the issue too interesting not to bring up again.

It seems that some have drawn a parallel to the Akkadian word for “tin,” and this leads to the alternative that Linville suggests. He points to the wordplay in the fourth vision (Amos 8:1-2), in which: “Amos identifies a basket of קיץ qays summer fruit only to have YHWH announce the end קץ qes of Israel” (p.30). Drawing a parallel, Linville argues that we can reasonably assume that a similar wordplay is going on with ‘anak – whatever that may be.

A possibility he provides is:

The pronunciation of אנך is similar to both אנה ‘anah “to sigh in grief” and אנק ‘anaq “to cry in distress”. By simply repeating the word uttered by Amos, YHWH plays on both other terms. The tin, then, stands as a metaphor of the suffering YHWH will inflict on Israel. Amos sees an object of tin, and YHWH declares that he will create cries of misery in the midst of Israel. (p.30)

So while I was trying to find a symbolic meaning in the object itself, Linville proposes that perhaps the symbolism is in the sound of the object’s name, instead. Cool!

Amos 7: Thus God Showed Me

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There are two parts to Amos. In the first, he describes three visions given to him by God. This section has a very folktale feel to it, as the first two visions establish a pattern, then the third breaks it (in folk tales, heroes often encounter something – a trial, a request, a question, etc – three times, with the third altering the pattern in some important way).

All three emphasise that the visions come from God, but we can also see how the pattern is established and then broken with these initiating lines. The first and second visions begin identically: “Thus the Lord God showed me” (Amos 7:1, Amos 7:4). The third, however, begins with: “He showed me” (Amos 7:7). Same meaning, but the different phrasing sets up the different outcome.

In the first two visions, God shows Amos some disaster he’s cooking up (the first is locusts who will eat all the grass, and the second is a fire that will devour the land).

Amos begs God to stop the disaster, and both times he asks:

How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!

Both times, God is moved by Amos’s speech and repents, staying his hand.

In the third vision, however, God is no longer showing Amos his destruction. Rather, he seems to be trying to convince Amos of the destruction’s rightness, giving him his reason for judgement rather than just showing him the results of it.

So in this third vision, Amos finds God standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line in his hand. Maybe. Apparently, the word used here isn’t known anywhere else, and there’s some debate about what it might mean. But though a number of objects are suggested (Claude Mariottini gives us the possibility that it might be a type of sword!), a plumb line (or similar) seems to fit the context quite well.

God tells Amos that he is setting a plumb line in the midst of the Israelites, and it is becomes of this that its high places and sanctuaries will be destroyed, and the house of Jeroboam will fall by the sword. A plumb line is used for ensuring that a vertical line is straight (in the way that a level is used for horizontal lines), so the implication is – as my study Bible puts it – that “the people are found warped beyond correction.” This is why they will be – must be – destroyed.

This time, Amos has no response. The implication is clear – he now sees what God has seen, he now knows that the destruction is warranted.

As a side note, the third vision sounds an awful lot like the prediction of destruction against King Manasseh of Judah in 2 Kgs 21:13.

The Exile

In the second part of the chapter, the narrative switches to the third person as it describes Amos being exiled from Israel. Most commentaries claim that Amos 7:10-17 was added by a later editor, and that seems quite likely. It’s just too awkward to have been written by Amos himself.

Amos rebukes Israel's luxury, by Gerhard Hoet

Amos rebukes Israel’s luxury, by Gerhard Hoet

Amaziah is the priest at Bethel, and he’s clearly out of patience for this weird guy who keeps preaching doom and gloom outside his sanctuary. To get rid of him, he appeals to King Jeroboam, claiming that Amos is conspiring against the king by working up the people; He’s been claiming that Jeroboam will die by the sword and that Israel will go into exile.

I’ve seen some commentaries claiming that the reference to Jeroboam’s death here is evidence that this section is original to Amos because Jeroboam does not die by the sword. Why keep the reference to a failed prediction if it isn’t even original to the author?

Maybe there’s more to this in the Hebrew, but the English RSV makes the claim rather silly. In Amos’s own words, we read that the house of Jeroboam will fall by the sword (Amos 7:9), not Jeroboam himself. What we’re reading in Amos 7:11 are the words of Amaziah, his interpretation of what Amos has said. And either the reader is meant to laugh at Amaziah’s incorrect understanding of Amos, or we’re meant to see Amaziah as a liar who twists Amos’s words to get the desired reaction from the king.

We never find out whether Jeroboam gave a crap about Amaziah’s claims, however. All we get is Amaziah himself telling Amos to leave, go prophecy in Judah.

In response, Amos says that he is not a prophet, nor a prophet’s son. Rather, he is a herdsman and a dresser of trees. God took him from his flock and told him to go prophecy to the people of Israel. And since Amaziah has told him not to do as God instructed him, God will make his wife a harlot, cause his children to die by the sword, and cause his land to be parcelled out. Amaziah himself will die in an unclean land, and Israel will go into exile. Yikes.

Much seems to be made of Amos’s claim not to be a prophet, with a lot riding on which tense would be most appropriate – is Amos claiming not to be a prophet, or saying that he wasn’t one until God called to him? The tense changes our interpretation quite considerably.

If his claim is indeed meant to be taken in the present tense, then he may be distancing himself from the guild of prophets, such as those we saw in 2 Kgs 2:3. This could mean that he is admitting that he lacks cultic authority, but that his relationship with God makes him legitimate anyway. Or it could be meant as an implicit indictment of the guild – Amos is claiming to have a direct line to God, unlike those professional charlatans!

According to Claude Mariottini, it may also be significant that Amaziah calls Amos a seer in Amos 7:12: “Amaziah recognized Amos’ authority to preach the Word of God. This is the reason Amaziah did not forbid Amos from preaching. Rather, Amaziah commanded Amos to leave the country and return to his home.” In other words, Amaziah agrees that Amos is a prophet, but could he please speak the words of God from somewhere else?

Amos’s response, that he is not a prophet, might then be in reference to the title that Amaziah uses, though this is complicated by the two using different words. Unless Amos is saying, “You’re right, I’m a seer (someone who receives divine transmissions), not a prophet (a member of a professional guilt who may or may not have any communication with God).” So is his response meant to be a clever twisting of Amaziah’s words to reinforce Amos’s authority?

Amos 5-6: Lamentations

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Amos 5-6 give us a lamentation very similar to what we read in the book of Lamentations. The difference is largely one of tense – Lamentations bemoans the horror that has happened, while Amos is looking forward to a coming horror.

As in Lamentations, Israel is feminized. And, again, we see the theme of friendlessness, the “virgin Israel” (Amos 5:2) is forsaken in her own lands, and no one will help her.

The Day of the Lord

Amos warns that the “day of the Lord” (Amos 5:18) is coming. He bemoans those who look forward to the day of God, because it is a day of darkness, not one of light. To look forward to such a day would be like to flee from a lion only to encounter a bear (Amos 5:19).

Given a lot of the context, the “day of the Lord” seems to refer to a day of judgement. And, given the commentaries, that’s definitely how many others seem to read it. But Collins gives an interesting alternative possibility:

In later times it came to mean the day of judgement. In this context, however, it clearly refers to a cultic celebration, perhaps the Festival of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, which was known as “the feast of YHWH” in later times. Tabernacles was celebrated at the end of the grape harvest. It was a joyful festival, marked by drinking wine. It was a day of light, in the sense of being a joyful occasion. For Amos, however, the day of the Lord was darkness and not light, gloom with no brightness. He is sweeping in his rejection of the sacrificial cult, in all its aspects. Instead, he asks that “justice roll down like waters.” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.157)

In other words, this could be Amos condemning the excess of a festival, rather than naming the anticipated day of judgement. Either interpretation could easily fit the context.

But if the “day of the Lord” does refer to a day of judgement, Amos has very clear ideas of what it will look like and why it’s deserved. The people of Samaria hate those who “reprove in the gate” and those who speak the truth (Amos 5:10), which sounds rather personal coming from a prophet. They also trample the poor and take from them exactions of wheat. While Amos certainly cares about social justice issues, his personal pique seems just a tad more important.

Amos warns the people that though they’ve built lovely stone houses, they won’t get to live in them. Though they’ve planted nice vineyards, they won’t get to dink the wine. Because God knows how great their sins are, and he knows that the people of Samaria afflict the righteous, turn aside the needy at the gate, and take bribes (the city gate being where justice is served – or, as the case may be not).

Because of all these things, God will destroy the strong. The cities will be decimated, and there will be wailing in all quarters when God “will pass through the midst of you” (Amos 5:17).

The only chance will be to seek God, and to seek good instead of evil. Bring justice back to the gates (Amos 5:15) and maybe God will be gracious.

I Despise Your Feasts

God calls to the people of Samaria to “seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), but not to bother at Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba.

God hates their feasts and their solemn assemblies. The people make their offerings, but God won’t accept them. He even asks that they take away the noise of their songs (a strong contrast to what we read in Chronicles!).

Amos, by John Sargent

Amos, by John Sargent

Instead of all this pomp and ceremony, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It’s a hard argument to disagree with.

For Collins, the problem isn’t necessarily with the ceremonies themselves, but rather that they “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the service of God, but actually an impediment to it” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158).

God, via Amos, asks if the people brought him sacrifices and offerings during their forty years of wandering in the desert (Amos 5:25). In the context,this seems to be used to call back to a state of purity, when justice (rather than ritual) reigned. Therefore, the only answer Amos could have expected from his audience is a “no.” This is a problem in light of the Pentateuch, where the origins of ritual traditions are tied to the exodus.

In Amos 5:25, God promises to take the Samarian people into exile to Damascus because they worshiped idols, including the Assyrian gods Sakkuth and Kaiwan. According to Collins, this could be a problem for the dating of Amos. Because while Samaria was, in fact, eventually destroyed by Assyrians:

[T]he Assyrian threat was not in evidence during the reign of Jeroboam and developed only in the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, whose reign began about the time of Jeroboam’s death. Amos never mentions Assyria in his oracles, but a few passages refer to the punishment of exile, which was typical Assyrian policy (5:5,27). These oracles are more easily explained if they are dated somewhat later, when Assyria was a threat to Israel. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.155)

I Abhor Your Pride

Amos 6 is quite a bit shorter than the preceding chapter, and mostly focuses on the pride of Samaria.

It begins with a lament for those who feel at ease or secure, whether in Zion or Samaria (Amos 6:1). That tossing in of Jerusalem seems so casual, and yet there it is.

Amos asks, is Samaria better than Calneh or Hamath (according to my study Bible, these were important commercial centres in Assyria), or Gath (an important Philistine city)? Or is their territory greater than yours?

Amos predicts woe coming to the wealthy: Those who lie on ivory beds, those who eat lamb and calf, those who drink drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves, those who sing idle songs, those who, like David, invent for themselves instruments of music (Amos 6:5). After reading the fawning over David in Chronicles, this dismissal of him as something of a layabout really struck me. In any case, these creatures of wealth and comfort would be the first to go into exile, and their revelry will pass away. This did, of course, prove to come true.

God hates the pride of Jacob, he hates his strongholds, and so he has commanded that the great houses be smitten into fragments and the small houses into bits (Amos 6:11).

Though Samaria may congratulate itself for its military prowess, God will raise a nation against it (Amos 6:13-14).

Returning to rhetorical questions, Amos asks if horses run on rocks, or if oxen are used to plow the sea? Though the answers are apparently obvious no, the people have Samaria have managed to turn justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (Amos 6:12). In other words, the injustice seen in Samaria is a perversion of the natural order.

A Celestial Deity

Before I leave Amos 5-6, I wanted to mention Amos 5:8:

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name.

This makes God seem like an amalgam of typical Near Eastern male nature deities. God is the god of the stars, of the sun and moon, and of rain. It feels deliberate, like Amos is asserting that his god is the true god of these things, and that the worship of these things (either directly or through other gods) is idolatry. Maybe.

Amos 3-4: Disciplinary Strategies

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In Amos 1-2, it was easy to see a structure. I had noted at the time that Amos seemed to be drawing the Samarians in with some bravado about how terrible foreign nations are, then drawing ever closer until he dropped the bomb: indicting Samaria itself.

I see a few similar rhetorical tactics in Amos 3-4, but they are shorter. I’m getting the impression that the book of Amos is a collection of arguments/prophecies, rather than something that would have been meant as a complete treatise.

Most of Amos 3-4 is told as if it were the direct words of Gods (“spoken against you” – Amos 3:1), though with periodic speech tags in case anyone forgets.

Amos 3 begins by identifying Israel as a chosen people (or “family,” as they are called here). As Collins points out, “this should be good news.” Instead, however, it is because God has only known (in the biblical sense) Israel that the nation will be punished. “Election only means greater responsibility” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).

A Rhetorical Questioning

Amos 3:3-8 contains a series of rhetorical questions, culminating with the argument that God is the agent of Samaria’s suffering. The questions themselves are ones of obviousness, along the lines of “Is the pope Catholic?”

They start off rather unrelated to the point being made: Do two people walk together unless they have, at some point, met each other? Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey? (While I typically think of lions as being savannah dwellers, the Asiatic lion can, apparently, live in forests, and would have been the lion Amos was most familiar with.)

The questions inch closer to the point: Can a trumpet be blown in a city without making the people afraid?

And, finally: Can evil befall a city without it being God’s doing?

After the questions, we are told that God does not act without revealing it to the prophets (Amos 3:7). This, then, leads into:

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

This is clearly a call back to Amos 1:2, but also reinforces the argument. God causes evil => God lets the prophets know when he does so => I have heard God tell me so, and am therefore compelled to tell you.

See the Oppression!

The reader is bidden to witness the tumult and oppression in Samaria. Clearly, Amos is one of them SJWs, because this injustice is prompting punishment from God.

The imagery is striking: Just as a shepherd might pull a few body parts out of a lion’s mouth, so will some small minority of Israelites be rescued from Samaria’s fate (Amos 3:12). The implication is clear – you may survive what’s coming, but you won’t be whole.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

Special mention is made of the altars at Bethel, whose horns will be cut off. These would be Jeroboam’s altars, built in 1 Kgs 12:25-33.

God will also destroy all the fancy houses, including the houses of ivory. An ivory house is mentioned in 1 Kgs 22:39, which my study Bible identifies as a Samarian palace “decorated with carved ivory inlay and containing furniture so decorated.” (It seems that some of these ivory inlays have survived.)

The listing of the palaces that will be destroyed concludes with “and the great houses shall come to an end” (Amos 3:15), which seems to be another example of a pun on the word “house” (which can mean both a physical structure and a dynasty). One of the more elaborate examples of these came in 1 Chron. 17:1-15, where David and God keep offering to build houses for each other, variously meaning palaces, dynasties, and temples.

Amos then turns his attention to the women of Samaria, whom he calls “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). Bashan, it seems, was a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that they are basically being called “fat cows.”

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.

Next come the cultic practices, as God, via Amos, invites the Samarians to keep sinning at Bethel and Gilgal (both associated with prophets in 2 Kgs 2:1-2). They are invited to keep bringing their sacrifices and tithes, and to “publish them” as they so love to do (Amos 4:5).

The mention of the shrines made me wonder if it was a Deuteronomistic criticism of worship outside of the Jerusalem Temple. However, what follows makes it seem more like the criticism is of the pomp and circumstance, and the publicity of it all. It rang similar to Matthew 6:5, calling out the public display of pious peacocking as hypocrisy.

Collins points to another possibility, that ritual “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the serve of God, but actually an impediment to it. The service of God is about justice. It is not about offerings at all” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 158).

Expecting A Different Result

There have been portions of tonight’s reading that I’ve appreciated (the mentions of social justice, the condemnation of religious hypocrisy), and parts that have made me gag (the overt patriarchy of Amos’s condemnation of wives who presume). But the second half of Amos 4 is just plain silly.

In it, God lists all the punishments he’s given Samaria, ending each with, “yet you did not return to me.”

See, I’m a parent. I don’t go with the whole punishment thing as a general rule because the concept is rather silly. Most of what we read as “misbehaviour” actually turns out to be age-appropriate responses to asking too much from itty-bitty people. When I adjust my expectations and plan ahead for the unavoidable, nearly all “disciplinary” issues disappear. What remains can almost always be dealt with through teaching.

Punishments usually end up being counter productive, because punishing a child for age-appropriate behaviours doesn’t actually fix the problems. All it does is either break the child so they become unable to cope and meet their own needs, or it fosters an adversarial relationship that will then require parents to maintain constant vigilance in order to maintain the family hierarchy. Neither of which sounds like a positive outcome to me.

So here we have a God who sees the same behaviours repeated over and over again, and responds every time with punishments. And even though these punishments are clearly not working, he doggedly sticks to this one strategy while wringing his hands because it never ever works.

It reads like bad comedy.

The punishments themselves are:

  • Giving the people clean teeth and lack of bread;
  • Withholding rain when it was still 3 months before the harvest;
  • Arbitrarily withering some fields and not others;
  • Smiting with blight and mildew, laying waste to gardens and vineyards, devouring fig and olive trees with locusts;
  • Sending a pestilence (in the manner of Egypt);
  • Slaying Samaria’s young men with the sword and carrying away its horses;
  • Making the stench of Samaria’s camps go up their nostrils (I do believe this is scatological);
  • And overthrowing bits of Samaria, “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Amos 4:11 – you may notice the POV break here).

I just happened to be reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, and I came on the following relevant passage, given the mention of the harvest:

Before the time of the harvest, rich and poor alike waited. The Mediterranean is notorious for the variability of its harvests, due to unstable climatic conditions. The carefully tended fields were menaced by flattening cloudbursts, by random scything by hailstorms, and by the perpetual menace of prolonged drought (along its eastern and southern shores) and of “dry” winters (winters without snow and thus without moisture) in the plateaus of its hinterlands, notably in Anatolia. “Harvest shocks” caused by unforeseen shortfalls in the crops were the norm. In all areas except Egypt, yields could vary by over 50 percent from year to year.

Not surprisingly, therefore, wealth was widely thought of as lying in the hands of the gods. A good harvest was the smile of God or of the gods spreading across an obedient landscape. In 311, one of the last pagan emperors (the eastern emperor Maximin Daia) informed the citizens of Tyre that his persecution of the Christians had pleased the gods. The weather itself had changed for the better:

“Let them look at the standing crops already flourishing with waving heads in the broad fields, and at the meadows, glittering with plants and flowers, in response to abundant rains and to the restored mildness and softness of the atmosphere.” (p.12)

After all of that, though, the sermon just sort of… fizzles. Because all these punishments haven’t worked, God will send more. “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

Then it derails entirely, telling us that he who makes mountains and creates wind is the God of hosts. It seems that I’m not the only one who feels that the passage seems odd in this spot, and the authenticity of Amos 4:13 is questioned, mostly because “the passages are abrupt in their context” (New Bible Commentary, p.728).

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