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.