Saturday, March 06, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (5)

Evil takes various forms, as does God’s judgment.

For example, Paul tells Timothy, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” There are obvious sins and there are secret sins. Many of these await judgment in a future “day of wrath”, as Paul tells the Romans. The self-seeking and disobedient will indeed receive their due, not always during their lifetimes but upon being resurrected to judgment at the end of the age.

Secret vs. Conspicuous

But there are times when delaying judgment to the end of the age would be inappropriate. The Old Testament records numerous occasions on which God has broken out in wrath against various groups of people whose evils were not individual or secret at all. They performed their wicked acts openly, to general public approval.

When a nation is corrupted, when evil is corporate rather than individual, and when it is the whole system that is broken, this is when God often steps in and acts, not at the end of the age, but immediately and visibly.

These are the sorts of evils against which Amos speaks in his first two chapters, and with which each of eight nations are charged. They are individual evils in the sense that all wicked acts are committed by specific people, but they are also corporate, systemic evils in that they are tolerated, publicly indulged and even praised. They are flagrant, glaring and conspicuous. The society which refuses to condemn them is in need of a serious shakeup in the here and now. In such times, God sometimes steps in and gives the system a shake.

Amos 2:6-8 — A Broken System
“Thus says the Lord: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment …”
Amos’s prophesy against the ten tribes of Israel follows the same general pattern as his critiques of the other seven nations and contains all the same elements, though greatly expanded. He begins with his declaration of authorship (“Thus says the Lord”), followed by a declaration of divine intention (“I will not revoke the punishment”), and then a list of reasons for judgment. In the case of other nations, one, two or three systemic evils were listed. In Israel’s case, the list is much longer. Three major types of wickedness are listed in the first three verses of his prophecy against Israel, but Amos will go on to detail further abuses throughout the remaining eight chapters.

The first three sins Amos enumerates are injustice, immorality and religious hypocrisy. These things were not done in secret. They had been institutionalized.

“… because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted.”
Israel’s justice system had broken down. It was not a matter of mere inequality between rich and poor; that has always existed and always will. If the rich in Israel had allowed their less fortunate brothers to go about their business in peace, things might have been different. Instead, they grossly exploited them. In the ancient East, unpaid debts were not discharged through bankruptcy, but often by selling the debtor and/or his family members into slavery until such time as the debt was paid off, as the Lord’s parable in Matthew vividly illustrates. That much was fair enough, I suppose, though unnecessary and unkind. However, it appears that in Israel the systemic exploitation of the poor had gotten so bad that innocent men and women (“the righteous”) were having their lives destroyed over trivial amounts (“a pair of sandals”) and for profit (“for silver”), despite the prohibitions in the Law of Moses against charging interest on the debts of fellow Israelites.

Amos will expand on this subject again in chapter 5, where it is explained that the civil authorities in Israel were colluding to enrich one another through onerous taxation of the working classes, refusing to hear their cases when they appealed to the courts, and taking bribes to look the other way when they saw their wealthy peers afflicting the poor. In view of the systemic corruption, Amos says, wise men no longer attempted to use the courts at all.

The whole system had become unjust. Perhaps you can relate.

“A man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.”
The Lord’s name is mentioned here, which reinforces the notion that these were not private sins but common and very public occurrences. It is possible Amos is referring to some further degradation of the then-common practice of selling daughters of impoverished families into servitude, where they became servants and concubines (or additional wives) to rich men. Exodus 21:7-11 was designed to regulate this sort of thing: that provision of the law insists a purchased wife must be “designated”; such a woman was to become either the wife of her owner or of one of his sons. (In other words, she was not to be passed around the house like some plaything.)

However, it is more likely Amos is referring to shrine prostitution, a practice picked up from neighboring nations and commonly accepted by Judeans going back 150 years, in which religion and recreational fornication were disgracefully combined. When an outwardly religious man commits adultery or frequents prostitutes in secret, his family and friends usually sense something is not right in his life, but have no real way of knowing precisely what that might be. But when he carries on in the public square as if nothing has happened, when he goes to worship and the religious authorities accept his offerings as they would anyone else’s, and when such practices are so commonplace they have become unremarkable, this is when the Lord’s holy name is brought into it, trivialized and made common.

The nations looking on would see no difference between their own practices and those of the average Israelite. Why then should they seek out the God of Israel?

Religious Hypocrisy
“They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.”
Once again, the reference to the “house of their God” is not to the temple in Jerusalem, but to its various counterfeits in Israel. Despite the fact that these houses were not the true place where the God of Israel had set his name, they were associated with YHWH and he was worshiped there after a syncretistic fashion, mish-mashing truth and error, and the name of the one true God with those of local, false pagan deities.

That was already a major offense, but to add to it, the “worship” of rich Israelites was facilitated by the oppression of the poor. The law promises God would hear the cries of the poor man whose cloak had been taken in pledge and not returned to him, and yet this was exactly what was happening. The rich thumbed their noses at heaven by engaging in heathen worship practices atop garments that did not belong to them. Commentators believe the “fines” referred to were probably the end result of the aforementioned court rulings obtained through bribery, with which wine was purchased to celebrate the victory of rich over poor, as if it had been granted by God himself.

If we find the hypocritical association of worship with blatant disregard for the poor shocking, we should probably remind ourselves of the situation Paul describes in 1 Corinthians, where well-off “worshipers” ate and drank to excess, humiliating their brothers in Christ who had nothing. The spirit behind such religious shenanigans was not wildly dissimilar, and the judgment of God broke out against it just as predictably as it did against Israel.

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