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.

2 Samuel 17: A tale of two counselors

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With the addition of Hushai, Absalom now has two counsellors. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that only one of them is on his side.

Needing to deal with his father, Absalom first turns to Ahithophel. Ahithophel suggests that Absalom give him 12,000 men to pursue David, taking advantage of the fact that David is on the run and hasn’t had a chance to organize. Besides, he’s been on the run, so he’ll be exhausted.

Ahithophel assumes that David’s retinue will scatter once they see the 12,000 men coming, leaving David behind to be killed. The operation would therefore be a precision strike, getting rid of David without giving his retinue a reason to resent Absalom.

This advice pleased Absalom, as well as “all the elders of Israel” (2 Sam. 17:4). Either the Israelites are seriously fickle, or David’s really gone too far. Or perhaps Absalom put all his stat points into Charisma.

2 Samuel 17Absalom may have liked Ahithophel’s advice, but he still wants a second opinion. Hushai’s advice is just about the opposite of Ahithophel’s. He argues first that Ahithophel’s plan is a bad one because David and his men are both very mighty and very mad. Further, David is an expert at war; he wouldn’t be somewhere obvious to be found and assassinated. No, David has surely buried himself in a pit! If he proceeds with this plan, Absalom will lose people, and it will shake the people’s confidence in him.

Rather, says Hushai, Absalom should take his time and gather all of Israel, then lead them himself when they go after David. When they catch up, they will kill David and slaughter his entire retinue. They’ll raze David so hard that, if he hides in a city, they’ll just rope up the whole city and drag it out into the valley until its completely destroyed.

Ahithophel’s plan is to capitalize on the disorganization of David’s fleeing retinue, attacking them fast before they have a chance to entrench and prepare. Hushai’s plan, on the other hand, depends on superior might. His plan is to just throw everything at David and roll right over him.

Absalom chooses Hushai’s advice. There are a few possible reasons for this: Ahithophel proposes to take care of the problem for Absalom, while Hushai’s plan has Absalom emerge as the hero. Hushai’s plan also involves the total slaughter of everyone who sided against Absalom. Or perhaps the text’s explanation is the correct one: God made him choose Hushai because he’s setting Absalom up for failure (though this note is, according to my study Bible, an addition by a later editor.

Down the well

It appears that Absalom doesn’t tell his counsellors whose advice he will follow. Perhaps he suspects that one of them (or someone else around him) is a spy. Which, of course, one of them is.

Hushai wastes no time before he reports to the priests, Zadok and Abiathar. According to what he tells them, it seems that he believes that Absalom has chosen Ahithophel’s plan.

The priests get a message out to their sons, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, via a maidservant. It might have aroused suspicion if they were coming in and out of the city, so they were waiting outside for instructions. Despite their precautions, however, a boy sees them and reports to Absalom, who comes out after them.

Jonathan and Ahimaaz hide in a well, and a woman puts a cover over them and sends Absalom in the wrong direction. After searching for a while, Absalom gives up and heads back home.

Now free of danger, Jonathan and Ahimaaz meet with David and tell him that Ahithophel is on his way. David and his retinue carry onward and cross the Jordan, losing Absalom his advantage. It seems like it didn’t matter which advice Absalom chose, whatever the editorial insert tells us.

Back in Jerusalem, Ahithophel finds out that Absalom has chosen not to follow his advice. Perhaps he now knows that Absalom will ultimately lose and fears the disgrace of having chosen the losing side. Perhaps he feels shamed by having had his advice disregarded. Either way, he goes home and hangs himself.

Back out in the field, Absalom has chosen Amasa to lead his army rather than Joab – implying that Joab was a possibility and therefore had sided with Absalom instead of David (EDIT: In light of 2 Sam. 18, this reading is incorrect. It seems, rather, that Joab had to be replaced as the leader of Israel’s army because he has defected to David’s side). Amasa is the son of Ithra, an Ishmaelite whose wife was Zeruiah’s niece. This would make him Joab’s cousin once removed? The family relationships are getting complicated. In the genealogy, it gives Amasa’s grandfather as Nahash, though it should be Jesse – unless Jesse’s wife remarried at some point. It could also be a transcription error because someone else is the son of a man named Nahash later in the same paragraph.

David reaches Mahanaim, and he’s met by Shobi (son of Nahash the Ammonite), Machine (son of Ammiel from Lodebar), and Barzillai the Gileadite. The three men bring him supplies. This is precisely what Ahithophel’s plan for swift action was trying to avoid.

One thing I noticed in this chapter is just how many of the characters are not Israelites. Israel is looking like a very diverse place!

2 Samuel 9: So that I too may go and worship him

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Apparently, from here until the end of 2 Samuel (with just a smidge of 1 Kings), we should be getting a continue and largely unedited section of Early Source. According to Collins, this section is “often identified as the ‘Court History of David’ or the ‘Succession Narrative'” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.123). The former is rather self-explanatory, and the latter because it tells of David’s eventual fall and the rise of Solomon.

To start us off, David asks a very suspicious-sounding question: “Is there still any one left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake? (2 Sam. 9:1).

Yikes!

Given the unfortunate fates met by Saul’s other family members, it sounds an awful lot like David wants to make sure that no one else might be brought up to challenge him. Or, as my New Bible Companion puts it: “In the ancient world kings were accustomed to exterminate all members of a previous dynasty” (p.306). If you’ve been reading ahead, you might also notice how similar David’s words here sound to Herod’s in Matthew 2:8.

The stated purpose of the search, however, is to honour David’s loyalty pledges to Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:1-4; 1 Sam. 20:14-17; 1 Sam. 20:42).

2 Samuel 9 - MephiboshethThe search turns up Ziba, one of Saul’s former servants, who knows of one remaining descendant: Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, the boy with the crippled legs from 2 Sam. 4:4. His nurse had fled with him around the time that Saul’s dynasty officially crumbled and David took over. Since then, they had been hiding in the house of Machir, son of Ammiel, at Lodebar. David sends for him.

When Mephibosheth arrives, he is understandably terrified. He falls on his face before David and “did obeisance” (2 Sam. 9:6). But David reassures him that he has no evil intentions, and only wants to care for him. He promises to give Mephibosheth title to all of Saul’s land (presumably his personal demesne in Benjamin), and to give him a permanent place at the royal table.

Mephibosheth appears appropriately humble, asking who he is that David should be so kind, calling himself a dead dog, all that usual convention.

It’s worth noting that even if David hasn’t (not) sent assassins after Mephibosheth, having him at his table doesn’t necessarily indicate that his motives are pure. As Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic puts it: “Reading between the lines, this kindness also keeps a legitimate claimant to Saul’s throne in check.” Bringing Mephibosheth into the palace makes it easy to keep an eye on him, and to limit his ability to be in contact with any unsavoury sorts who might like to form a rebellion around him.

It’s an interesting window into courtly life that David appoints Ziba and his family to care for the land he’s given to Mephibosheth (indicating either that courtiers were not in the habit of looking after their own lands, or that Mephibosheth’s movements were being restricted).

Ziba’s job is to “bring in the produce, that your master’s son may have bread to eat” (2 Sam. 9:10), indicating that the (perhaps compulsory) place at the table didn’t come free. My New Bible Commentary explains this by saying: “Presence at court would rather increase tan diminish his expenditure” (p.306). This may mean that courtiers were expected to contribute to their upkeep – which may not be unreasonable depending on the size of the court.

Despite possibly being a sort of gilded cage, Mephibosheth’s position at David’s table apparently increased his social status, making him “like one of the king’s sons” (2 Sam. 9:11).

To close off the chapter, we are told that Mephibosheth had one son: Mica.