Saturday, February 27, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (4)

As discussed briefly in our introductory post, as divine judgments go, the judgment of nations prophesied in the first few chapters of the book of Amos is a little unusual.

In the mid-eighth century BC, the eight nations targeted by the prophet occupied approximately 50,000 square kilometers of contiguous geographic territory east of the Mediterranean Sea, extending from the middle of modern-day Syria down through Lebanon and Israel to a few dozen kilometres north of the current Egyptian border and, on the far side of the Dead Sea, well into Jordan.

National judgments are fairly common in the Old Testament; simultaneous mass-judgments of multiple nations less so.

Since these prophecies of judgment: (1) were given together; (2) contain near-identical descriptions of the type of cataclysm to be anticipated by each nation; and (3) were almost immediately followed by the most memorable Middle-Eastern catastrophe in several centuries and possibly longer, it seems reasonable to conclude all eight erring nations were subjected to a single, sweeping act of divine judgment, with additional consequences peculiar to certain nations.

So then, let’s talk a little about what has come to be called “Amos’s Earthquake” and the fire he describes in chapters 1 and 2.

Internal Evidence

Neither Bible students nor secular experts today doubt the historicity of the earthquake referred to in the very first verse of the book of Amos. Zechariah mentions it a full 250 years after the fact, a period long enough for the general public to forget nearly anything. Amos calls it “the earthquake”, definite article, and Dr. R. Reed Lessing, among others, thinks that’s significant:
“Historically, earth tremors and shocks are common in the rift valley of the Jordan River-Dead Sea-Arabah axis, yet this particular earthquake (הָרָֽעַשׁ = ‘the earthquake’) must have been stronger than normal, as is indicated by the use of the definite article, which implies that this tectonic shift stood out to the degree that one could simply refer to it as the earthquake, and everyone knew which one that was.”
Such a reference is pointless if Amos’s audience had no idea which earthquake he meant. We may reasonably assume they did.

Further, the language of the entire book of Amos is laced with graphic images of tectonic upheaval:
“The great house shall be struck down into fragments, and the little house into bits.”

“Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?”

“I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said: ‘Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of all the people.’ ”
[The references in the previous verse to the city of Dan, one of the sites of the original “sin of Jeroboam”, and to “the guilt of Samaria”, the capital city from which king after Israelite king had passively encouraged the counterfeit worship of God to continue, suggest the destruction of thresholds and capitals prophesied by Amos was not of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, but rather of its Israelite imitations in the various high places of the land.]

And again:
“On the day I punish Israel for his transgressions, I will punish the altars of Bethel, and the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground.”
These are all prophetic descriptions of impending disaster, but Zechariah describes a then-future earthquake in Israel by comparing it to the one about which Amos prophesied:
“And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.”
Here the earthquake is not a near-future judgment, but a matter of historical record, notwithstanding the passage of two and a half centuries. Again, a comparison like this would be unhelpful as a point of reference unless this earthquake that took place during King Uzziah’s reign was a matter of common knowledge with Zechariah’s original audience.

External Evidence

Further, there is extra-biblical confirmation of the events Amos foretold. The historian Josephus writes of the havoc created by the earthquake in Judah:
“And before the city, at a place called Eroge, half the mountain broke off from the rest on the west, and rolled itself four furlongs, and stood still at the east mountain, till the roads, as well as the king’s gardens, were spoiled by the obstruction.”
This graphic description tends to confirm that the effects of the earthquake were not limited to Israel, but affected other nations mentioned by Amos. Josephus attributes the sweeping destruction to Uzziah’s act of presumption in offering incense at the temple in Jerusalem, for which God judged him personally. There is nothing in the Bible’s historical record that would suggest there is any truth to this conjecture and plenty of reason to doubt it. Nevertheless, the mention in Josephus stands as ancient external confirmation of Zechariah’s statement about the unique and devastating power of Amos’s quake.

Moreover, there has been plenty of secular-sourced evidence unearthed in the last few years of a major eighth century catastrophe. Ruth Schuster of Haaretz Magazine summarizes the recent archaeological discoveries of Shmuel Marco and Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), Amotz Agnon (Hebrew University) and David Ussishkin:
Evidence of catastrophe in eighth-century B.C.E. northern Israel is legion. A destruction layer at Hazor [in northern Israel] was dated by Israel Finkelstein and Yigal Yadin to 760 B.C.E., the right time frame for Amos. At Lachish [an Amorite city conquered by Joshua that was part of Judah’s tribal allotment], David Ussishkin found a destruction level from the same time.

Moving onto Megiddo [midway between the other two sites], the archaeologists describe ‘tilted walls and pillars, bent and warped walls, fractured building stones, dipping floors, liquefied sand, mudbrick collapse and burnt remains.’ ”
So we have evidence of a major quake both in Judah and throughout Israel.

But what about the Philistines?
“Tel Shafi, for instance [the Philistine city of Gath], had a 4‑meter-thick (13‑foot) wall that fell onto its side in the eighth century B.C.E. It would have taken a hand of god, not a donkey with headgear, to push that thing over. ‘That damage couldn’t have been man-made,’ Agnon says.”
Further east, on the shores of the Dead Sea, paleoseismic evidence presents itself. Elisa Kagan used carbon-14 dating of organic matter in the deformed layers to date one quake to 861-705 B.C.E. and a second to 824-667 B.C.E, as published in Tectonophysics.

In short, the prophecies of Amos are not merely internally consistent and harmonious with the other scriptures, but are buttressed by several different sources of external evidence.

The Fire

But what about the nine references to fire in the book of Amos?

Fire often accompanies earthquakes in the modern world, but this is generally a product of arcing electrical wires and ruptured gas mains. Still, long before gas mains and the electrical grid, earthquakes would still upset burning candles, lamps, stoves and fireplaces, things found commonly in every home, business and gathering place, and in much larger numbers wherever people live close together. Thus, even in ancient times, big cities were more dangerous places to be than the countryside during seismic events. There were simply more ways to die. Why choose between being crushed or incinerated if you can have a little bit of both?

It’s no wonder Zechariah speaks of Israelites fleeing from the earthquake.

Interestingly, Amos’s prophecies of fire all target the major cities of the nations under judgment: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Teman, Rabbah, Kerioth ... and of course Jerusalem.

But Amos’s reference to fire may have more to it than that. Those who believe the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is historical have speculated the two cities once thrived somewhere on the Judean side of the southernmost end of what is now called the Dead Sea, perhaps even in territory now underwater, right in the middle of this bloc of nations against which Amos would later prophesy.

The Cities of the Plain

The mechanism by which God judged Sodom and Gomorrah is obscure to us, and much has been speculated about it. It is quite possible that supernatural fire was hurled from heaven upon the cities of the plain that had nothing whatsoever to do with the ordinary laws of nature. God is certainly capable of getting personally involved in the judgment of sin. Then again, the Almighty has often used natural disasters, political movements and other earthly happenings to advance his agenda in the world, to dispense justice in this lifetime, to testify to his implacable hatred of evil, and to produce repentance in those in need of it.

Fault lines between tectonic plates are frequently sites of recurring volcanic activity, and the Dead Sea Transform, which passes 25 miles east of Jerusalem, is one of the longest and most significant of these. The Dead Sea itself is full of asphalt. A variety of scenarios have been proposed to explain the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in natural terms. These would have involved one or more of fire, volcanic eruption or burning asphalt flying through the air. Consistent with these theories, archeologists at the quake site in Megiddo described burnt remains and liquefied sand. Naturally, the greatest damage caused by these by-products of tectonic shift would be to major cities, and each scenario would begin with an earthquake.

It is conjectural of course, but given the natural instability in the area and its history of disaster, it would not be outrageous to suggest that some cataclysm less universally deadly but more broadly destructive than that which overtook Sodom and Gomorrah occurred in the time of Amos.

So then, Amos’s “fire” may be merely symbolic, speaking of some other unnamed manifestation of richly-deserved divine judgment. There are also scientific, archaeological and historical indications that the fire may have been quite literal.

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