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).