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.

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(h/t: Episcopal Church Memes)

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.

Aaaawkward

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Happy Easter for those who celebrate it!

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Resurrection

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.

Jael’s Had Enough

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(h/t: Classical Art Memes)

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).

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