Saturday, February 06, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (1)

God loves using shepherds.

G.J. Wenham suggests the nomadic lifestyle of the shepherd tended to foster mistrust in ancient societies, as plausible an explanation as any other for the low estimation of the profession in the eyes of the elite. But though the Egyptians disparaged herdsmen, God uses the term as a compliment, and he called some of the greatest men in Israel’s history from among the flock.

Jacob made his fortune tending sheep for his father-in-law. Moses too was keeping his father-in-law’s flocks when God called him. Israel’s greatest king started his career as a shepherd, though even his father once dismissed him before Samuel with the words, “Behold, he is keeping the sheep”, as if that fact alone were sufficient evidence David couldn’t possibly be the son whom the prophet intended to anoint to rule over all Israel. David would go on to write about the Lord’s shepherd care for his people. Wealthy foreign magi followed a star to Bethlehem, but the lowly shepherds received an announcement of the birth of our Savior directly from an angel of the Lord — a Savior who would later refer to himself as “the good shepherd”.

God loves using shepherds, and the next prophet in our series was a shepherd too.

Amos 1:1 — Introduction
“The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.”
Among the Shepherds of Tekoa

God may love using shepherds, but tending the flock doesn’t make for an impressive curriculum vitae in the eyes of men. Here are Amos’s real credentials: “The Lord took me.” No more need be said. These four words are all the authority a servant of God ever needs.

Amos was an otherwise unremarkable man, unlikely to put himself forward or insist on making himself heard in any other situation. He introduces himself not as a chief shepherd but as someone who is “among the shepherds” of Tekoa, a city/village 12 miles south of Jerusalem in Judah, on the edge of the wilderness that bears the same name. In chapter 7 he will say a little more about his background: “I was [am] no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was [am] a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock ...”

Amos refers to himself as a “sheep-raiser”. The word he uses to describe his occupation may also be translated “sheep-owner” or “sheep-dealer”, but when he speaks of “following the flock” and being “among the shepherds”, it seems evident Amos was an underling rather than the man profiting from the flock.

So then, Amos was pretty much a nobody. The prophetic gift did not run in his family, and he had never been numbered among the “sons of the prophets”. But the Lord took him from following the flock, and that was enough.

Concerning Israel

Though Amos was actually a native of Judah by birth, and though his prophecy commences with denunciations of seven other nations (including his own), the prophecy of Amos is directed at the northern kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes who had broken away from the house of David in the days of the first King Jeroboam, the one who is famous for leading his nation into centuries of idolatry. God “roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem”, but throughout this book, his anger is primarily directed northward. “The top of Carmel withers,” says the prophet, referring to a mountain in the territory of Manasseh in what would later be called Galilee.

These are “the words of Amos ... which he saw concerning Israel.” That seems to be the force of the statement.

In the Days of Uzziah King of Judah

The “days of Uzziah king of Judah”, also called Azariah, were a 52 year period commencing in 767 BC. Uzziah was given the throne at age 16, as described in 2 Kings 15 and 2 Chronicles 26, after his father was murdered in a conspiracy. Uzziah then became prosperous and powerful by seeking the Lord. He conquered the Philistines and built Judean cities inside their territory. Ammon paid Judah tribute, and Uzziah’s name was renowned all the way to Egypt. During his reign, Judean engineers invented a sort of trebuchet, an engine used to hurl arrows and stones against besieging armies.

However, the latter years of Uzziah were not good ones. In his pride, he entered the temple to burn incense before the Lord, a function reserved to the priesthood, and was stricken with leprosy for his presumption. As a result, he lived in a separate house, and his son Jotham was co-regent until his father died.

In the Days of Jeroboam King of Israel

The “days of Jeroboam king of Israel” were a 41 year period commencing 27 years prior to Uzziah’s reign in Judah, and partially overlapping it. Jeroboam was an evil man, but also a fairly successful king, at least in combat. He restored the border of Israel as Jonah had prophesied, and he retook the cities of Damascus and Hamath. Nevertheless, the writer of this portion of 2 Kings makes it clear God’s blessing of Jeroboam’s efforts was a matter of keeping his promises, not a sign of his approval of Jeroboam personally.

Both Uzziah and Jeroboam were co-regents for significant periods, and scholars do not agree on the precise timing of the overlap between their reigns, but it seems God’s revelation to Amos occurred during this period when both Uzziah and Jeroboam sat on their respective thrones.

Two Years Before the Earthquake

There is not a lot to be found in scripture about this earthquake. However, it was significant enough to be mentioned in Zechariah, who speaks of a future catastrophe in Jerusalem and compares it to Amos’s earthquake. Zechariah says, “You shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.”

Bear in mind that Israel has a regular history of seismic events, including twenty so far this year and an annual average of 500, most of which are unremarkable. This should not surprise anyone familiar with the study of plate tectonics: Israel is sitting atop several different fault lines, including the 5,000 mile-long Syrian/African fault. Its last 6.5 magnitude earthquake occurred in 1927, and Israeli scientists believe another is imminent.

Who remembers what happened in 1770? I sure don’t. But Zechariah was writing almost 250 years later about the earthquake to which Amos alluded, in a time when written records were considerably scarcer than they are today. That strongly suggests the earthquake which took place in the time of Uzziah was an absolute doozy, an unprecedented disaster. And indeed, Steven Austin says archaeological evidence at six sites in Israel points to “a single large regional earthquake that occurred about 750 BC” with its epicenter in Lebanon, to the north of present-day Israel, a magnitude 8 event that did massive damage over a distance of up to 300 kilometers, making it the largest quake in Israel in the last four millennia.

The earthquake explains a great deal of the imagery in the book of Amos, not least its first two chapters of denunciations of nations shortly to be impacted by it.

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