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.

Deuteronomy 1-3: Recapping with a slightly faulty memory

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Deuteronomy picks up the story from the end of Numbers. The Israelites are hanging out in Moab, on the wrong side of the Jordan, getting some last minute instructions from Moses. Before getting into the ordinances, however, Moses decides to make sure that everyone is up to speed on what’s happened so far.

Moses recalls feeling rather overwhelmed with the duties of being the leader, and he tells the story of selecting tribal leaders (and sub-leaders) to help him. He does not mention the involvement of his father-in-law (then called Jethro) – as told in Exodus 18 – where he notices that Moses seems a little tightly-wound and recommends that he do some delegating. We also don’t get the details from Numbers 11, with the prophesying and the involvement of Joshua.

But where this narrative does flesh things out a bit is with the instructions that Moses gave to his new judges during the delegation. In particular, he instructs them to judge “righteously,” whether between two Israelites or an Israelite and a non, whether when judging a “small” man or a “great” one, etc. They are also not to “be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17), which I take to mean that they shouldn’t allow fear repercussions (social, political, physical, etc) to influence the judgement rendered. Overall, these are great ideas in principle, though, of course, nearly impossible to enforce.

He also tells them that they are to come to him if the cases are too hard, and Moses will consult with God on their behalf. It’s not specified whether that means that they are to come to Moses specifically, or whether they are to come to whomever happens to be the leader or prophet at the time. The implications of either interpretation are rather important.

The Scouts

When Moses retells the story of the scouts, he gets a rather important detail wrong, and then it cascades from there.

He tells the Israelites about how “all of you came near me, and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us'” (Deut. 1:22). But if you’ll remember, back in Numbers 13, it was God who told Moses to send the scouts, saying: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2).

Why the difference?

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

One clue may be in Moses’ response. In Deuteronomy, he agreed to send the scouts, for “the thing seemed good to me” (Deut. 1:23).

The sin that condemns all the people to spend 40 years in the wilderness is still that they were scared by the scout’s report. In Numbers 13, we read about the “evil report” that the scouts brought back, but I noted then that it was unclear whether the “evil” part of the report was that it was untrue or whether it was just bad news.

The two books agree that Canaan is wonderful and has some nice fruit, but the Israelites say: “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deut. 1:28).

Granted, they could simply be repeating what the lying scouts told them, but it seems to me now as it seemed to me in Numbers – that the scouts are punished for telling the truth because doing so makes the people falter. By warning them of what’s to come, they are guilty of introducing doubt where there should only be blind faith in God’s ability to win any war he pleases. So it matters whether it was the Israelites who had sent the scouts or God (because if God sent the scouts and then punished them for doing as instructed, it’d create a really tough situation for his PR team).

What’s really interesting here, though, is how the passage seems to be a continuation of Numbers 14. I had noticed then that when God lists the people who will be spared, he only lists Caleb and Joshua. He doesn’t mention either Moses or Aaron who, at that point in the narrative, were still goodies in God’s books.

We had to wait until much later, Numbers 20, for Moses to commit the sin that is explicit said to be the reason why he will be barred from entering Canaan. Yet here, Moses agrees with the Numbers 14 narrative that he is not an exception to the punishment:

The Lord was angry with me also on your account, and said, ‘You also shall not go in there’ (Deut. 1:37)

Moses plays the Blame Game in Deut. 3:26, as well:

But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me.

Though, of course, it was entirely his own actions that damned him in Numbers 20.

I also find it interesting that, as in Numbers 14, Caleb’s exception to the punishment is mentioned first, and Joshua’s comes later, almost as an afterthought. In every instance where Joshua has appeared so far (except, tellingly, in Numbers 13 where he is listed as being among the scouts but his name is spelled quite differently), he feels added in – like a later editor had the book of Joshua and wanted to legitimize his leadership by giving him a history of associations with Moses. (I discuss this at greater lengths in this post about Joshua.)

Whom to kill, whom to spare

Moses retells the story of why the Israelites had to go around – rather than through – Edom. In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites sent messengers to Edom asking for passage. When Edom refused, they were forced to go around. In Deuteronomy 2:4-5, God was worried that the Israelites might spook Edom, and asked them to go around as a courtesy.

There’s a speech in there about how the Israelites are related to the Edomites (Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, and Esau, grandsire of the Edomites, were brothers), so they should not harm them. Likewise, the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot and should also be left alone.

In both cases, we are also told that they are living in lands that God has given them, so those lands are rightfully theirs.

David Plotz sees this as an explanation for why the Moabites were not punished – but the Midianites were – in Numbers 25, though women of both groups were caught trying to tempt the Israelites into the worship of other gods.

But not to worry, there were plenty of people that the Israelites were allowed to harass.

We get a repeat of the story from Numbers 20:14-21, where the Israelites are refused passage by the Edomites. Except that in Deuteronomy 2:26-31, the one doing the refusing is Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon. This makes them fair game for harassment (and is presumably the reason why the Edomite refusal is conveniently unmentioned).

Of course, the reason given for King Sihon’s refusal is that God made him refuse:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as at this day. (Deut. 2:30)

So it’s not really Sihon’s refusal that dooms his people, but rather all part of God’s original plan. But, I guess not to appear the jerk, he orchestrates things so that it looks like Sihon deserved his fate. Or, more likely, God is like a cat that just tripped – he wants to make sure that everything knows that he totally meant to do that.

The Israelites also fight with King Of of Bashan. His and Sihon’s lands are divided between the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh.

The multitudes

When addressing the Israelites, Moses says: “The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10). Does that mean that the multitudes part of the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled?

The reference certainly seems to suggest it, yet Moses is not yet satisfied:

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you. (Deut. 1:11)

Closing business

Commenter Abbie from The King and I went through much of these chapters and found which parts of what stories were selected for retelling – and, most importantly, which sources those passages came from. Her analysis deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, which you can read more about on Wikipedia.

Her whole comment is quite interesting, so do go have a read. But in summary, she found that material is derived strictly from Exodus and Numbers, and that it seems to be “mostly drawn from chapters that have a mix of JE and P, but only containing JE references… except in ONE case… which is basically fossil rabbits in the precambrian.”

Deuteronomy 3 ends with the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ successor.