Saturday, February 13, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (2)

Any map of the Middle East from the time of the prophet Amos, including this one (if you want something larger than the map to the right), shows an interesting feature of the judgment of nations we read about in chapters 1 and 2.

The six Gentile nations — and all eight nations against which Amos prophesied, including God’s own people in Israel and Judah — are not chosen willy-nilly from here, there and everywhere in the Middle East; rather, they comprise a contiguous geographic region of over 50,000 square kilometers. Israel sits dead center in this region, while Judah abuts it on the south, Ammon on the east, Moab on the southeast, Philistia on the southwest, Phoenicia (Tyre) on the northwest, and Damascus (southern Syria) on the north. Only Edom does not have a common border with Israel, and it has common borders with both Judah and Moab.

This suggests that rather than a series of separate judgments, we are considering a single massive, transformative event that affected every one of these nations to differing degrees.

Amos 1:2-2:3 — Six Gentile Nations Under Judgment
“And he said: ‘The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Carmel withers.’ ”

Amos begins with a general statement that may be his own way of characterizing what follows, or may be a direct quotation from God. Either way, he is writing under the direction of the Spirit of God.

The declaration “The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem” is a reminder that at one time the presence of God dwelt among his people in his temple in Jerusalem in Judah. Consider the difference if Amos were to say, “The Lord roars from heaven.” It singles out Judah and the house of David as a nation with which God would continue to work under King Uzziah and the subsequent Davidic heirs to the throne, and which he would not send into Babylonian captivity for another century and a half.

As we will consider next week, Judah too would be subjected to certain short-term judgments along with all these other nations, but the prophecy of Amos is directed primarily against the northern kingdom of Israel, which is why it is the “top of Carmel” (the mountain dividing the territory of the tribe of Asher from that occupied by the half-tribe of Manasseh) that withers at the sound of the Lord’s voice coming through a Judean shepherd named Amos.

Israel’s captivity at the hands of the nation of Assyria was much closer than Judah’s when Amos made his declarations, only thirty years distant. Some who heard the prophecy of Amos against the northern kingdom would live to see that judgment.

Prophecies Against Six Gentile Nations

Amos 1 and the first few verses of chapter 2 are concerned with prophecies against six Gentile nations. There are actually seven preliminary prophecies in total, but the final prophecy in this parallel series is against Israel’s sister nation Judah. I will deal with that separately next week, despite the fact that it follows the precise pattern established in the first six prophecies.

The symmetry of these seven prophecies invites us to set them side by side in order to better compare and contrast them. With only a couple of exceptions, the first six prophecies divide neatly into six categories, which I have numbered 1 through 6 in the first column.

We can break down these categories as follows:
  1. Declaration of authorship
  2. Declaration of intent
  3. Reasons for judgment
  4. The fire
  5. Additional punishments
  6. Declaration of authorship
The First Three Declarations (Amos 1:3-10)
Syria (ch1 v3-5) Philistia (ch1 v6-8) Tyre (ch1 v9-10)
1 Thus says the Lord: Thus says the Lord: Thus says the Lord:
2 ‘For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, ‘For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, ‘For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
3 because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron. because they carried into exile a whole people to deliver them up to Edom. because they delivered up a whole people to Edom, and did not remember the covenant of brotherhood.
4 So I will send a fire upon the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. So I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, and it shall devour her strongholds. So I will send a fire upon the wall of Tyre, and it shall devour her strongholds.’
5 I will break the gate-bar of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and him who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Syria shall go into exile to Kir,’ I will cut off the inhabitants from Ashdod, and him who holds the scepter from Ashkelon; I will turn my hand against Ekron, and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,’
6 says the Lord. says the Lord God.
1 and 6: Declarations of authorship. Four of these six prophecies begin and end with declarations of authorship. Only the middle two do not finish with “says the Lord” or “says the Lord God”. It is not Amos but the Lord who is really speaking, and the prophet is at pains to ensure his audience understands that he is not sharing a personal opinion, but that the word he is declaring against each nation is of divine origin. Like the repeated claims of Jeremiah, these declarations of authorship become a watershed for Amos’s audience: he was either telling the truth, or he was lying. He was either genuinely speaking for God, or he was a very bad man indeed, willing to risk telling lies about God’s purposes and intentions for some nefarious purpose of his own. The notion that Amos was only offering his best educated guess about what might happen to the nations against which he declaimed, or that he was deluded with such specificity, should be rejected as preposterous.

2: Declaration of intent. The wording of this portion of each prophecy is identical; as they say, “only the names have been changed”. Opinions vary about the expression “For three transgressions, and for four”. In a journal article entitled “Telescoping N+1 Patterns in the Book of Amos”, Robert H. O’Connell writes, “Similar N | N+1 patterns are used commonly enough in Hebrew, Ugaritic and Akkadian poetry to warrant little need to explain or justify this attestation of the device as another instance of ascending numerical parallelism.” A writer at the GotQuestions website says, “ ‘Three sins’ represents fullness or completeness; ‘four’ represents an overflow or a sin that is the tipping point for God’s judgment.”

Bear in mind that this is a Hebrew figure of speech, not some Western mathematical calculation. The actual number of sins listed in Amos’s denunciations varies from nation to nation — Syria, Philistia, Ammon and Moab have one sin each, Tyre has two and Edom four — but the severity of judgment on the nations suggests other transgressions might have been enumerated, or perhaps that it is not the specific number of sins that is the problem; rather, it is their severity and their cumulative effect that calls for judgment.

At any rate, God’s statement to each nation is this: “I will not revoke the punishment.” Unlike the Assyrians living in Nineveh who received the prophecy of Jonah in a repentant spirit, none of these nations could hope for a 150‑year reprieve.

3: The reasons for judgment. God’s judgment might have come through a single, common event, but the reasons for it vary from nation to nation:
  1. Gilead was the area in which 2-1/2 tribes had settled east of the Jordan River back in the days of Joshua. Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh made their tribal homes in this area often referred to as Transjordan. These would be the first tribes to be led away into captivity by the Assyrians only twenty years or so after Amos’s prophecy. But Gilead was already ripe for the taking. As Amos puts it, the Syrians of Damascus had already “threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron”, a figure of speech that suggests great violence and oppression. For this, Damascus would receive her judgment.
  2. The Philistines of Gaza were charged with exiling a “whole people”, delivering them up to the Edomites. There is no recorded instance of a whole nation being carried off to Edom, but the word “people” is not present in the Hebrew text; rather, it is inferred by the translators. The expression is actually something like “the fullness” or “the whole”. For this reason, some commentators consider that Amos is referring to the Philistine attack against Judah in the days of Jehoram almost a century prior, in which the raiders carried off the king’s entire household and possessions, including his original heir and all his wives, effectively stripping the monarchy bare.
  3. The same accusation is leveled against the people of Tyre. It is not clear when this second attack occurred or who was involved. Possibly some Tyrians were unnamed participants in the events of 2 Chronicles 21. Nevertheless, Tyre had enjoyed a special relationship with Judah during the days of Solomon some 250 years earlier, including a peace treaty, a trading agreement, and even the use of the expression “my brother”. Regardless of the circumstances of the Tyrian betrayal, God saw their actions as a violation of that ancient covenant.
  4. The Edomites stand accused of maintaining an ongoing grudge against Israel. This may have gone all the way back to the days of Esau, who was swindled by his brother Jacob and proposed to murder him, though he never made good on his threat. As a result, though the two nations were related by blood, there was ongoing animosity toward Judah and Israel from the Edomites recorded here and here.
  5. The Ammonites are charged with having “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead”, a savage act prophesied about Hazael king of Syria by Elisha, which left the prophet in tears even as he declared it. Ammon bordered on Gilead, and while the nation is not explicitly declared to have directly participated in this atrocity, it is highly likely due to their physical proximity that they at very least cooperated with the Syrians in the devastation of the Transjordan tribes, perhaps in exchange for increased territory. In any case, God has reason to hold them responsible.
  6. The people of Moab are accused of burning to lime the bones of the king of Edom. There is no mention of this act in scripture, as we might expect of most atrocities occurring during that time period between non-Israelite nations. The Targum amplifies this, suggesting that the corpse of the king of Edom was reduced to powder and used to plaster the walls of a Moabite palace, a grave insult to both the family of the king of Edom and his nation, and one that would not be forgotten.
It should also be noted that each sin (or each of the sins) with which these nations are charged are not individual but national transgressions. It appears that sins committed by whole cultures or by heads of state acting on behalf of their nations are on a different level from the crimes and transgressions of individuals within those nations. When a sin is accepted on behalf of, participated in or indulged by an entire society, the judgment of God takes a very visible and definite form. We may have difficulty accurately assessing the fallout from the sins of individuals: is sickness or poverty the judgment of God, the natural consequences of suboptimal choices, defective genes, or just random bad luck? We have no clue most of the time. But when God judges entire nations, he leaves no doubt about what he is doing.

The Next Three Declarations (Amos 1:11-2:3)
Edom (ch1 v11-12) Ammon (ch1 v13-15) Moab (ch2 v1-3)
1 Thus says the Lord: Thus says the Lord: Thus says the Lord:
2 ‘For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, ‘For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, ‘For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
3 because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever. because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead, that they might enlarge their border. because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.
4 So I will send a fire upon Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.’ So I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour her strongholds, So I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the strongholds of Kerioth,
5 with shouting on the day of battle, with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind; and their king shall go into exile, he and his princes together,’ and Moab shall die amid uproar, amid shouting and the sound of the trumpet; I will cut off the ruler from its midst, and will kill all its princes with him,’
6 says the Lord. says the Lord.
4: The fire. If you managed to miss the repeated reference to fire in each of these prophecies, you are definitely reading too quickly. There are nine references to fire in Amos, one relating to each of the Gentile nations, one concerning Judah and two concerning Israel. In Israel’s case the destruction by fire is averted because of Amos’s intercession. In the first seven cases, the fire is directed at “strongholds”. The KJV has rendered 'armôn as “palace” or “palaces”, but the better translation is “citadel” or “fortress”, as the modern translations have it. In times of peace, a palace may be of an effete or opulent design, intended to impress rather than to serve a practical function. That is never true of a fortress. Fortresses are designed to save lives in time of war, and the thrust of the Lord’s word here is that the strongest defences of each of these nations will be utterly consumed and destroyed.

The great debate here, I suppose, is whether the “fire” of which Amos speaks is literal, symbolic, or perhaps even both. Fire is such a consistent metaphor for cleansing judgment in scripture that taking the word non-literally at first seems perfectly reasonable. And yet in chapter 7, Amos is graciously allowed to avert two judgments against Israel, one by way of locust infestation, and the second by fire, before God reveals his third judgment, the plumb line and the sword. The plumb line is clearly figurative, but the locusts, fire and sword in chapter 7 are almost surely literal. And if the fire of chapter 7 is literal fire, it would seem odd to interpret the fire of chapters 1 and 2 as symbolic. Further, if it is not literal fire upon the citadels of these various nations of which Amos speaks, then we must ask of what real-world events symbolic fire might be made to speak: Is it invasion, famine, pestilence ... what?

There is more to be said about the fire, enough to warrant a full post on the subject.

5: Additional punishments. All the listed nations would be punished with devouring fire, but some of these nations would also suffer additional punishments. The Syrians would be punished with exile, some of the Philistines with annihilation (the cities of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron are singled out by Amos to be subject to the most extreme effects of this particular manifestation of God’s wrath, but we find other groups of Philistines spoken against in the later prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel), the Ammonites with a tempest and exile, and the Moabites with the loss of their royal bloodline.

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