Saturday, March 13, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (6)

Ten of twelve spies sent into Canaan by Moses came back complaining about the presence of giants. The Philistine Goliath, slain by David, may have descended from the same race that produced the oversized Amorites to which Amos refers in his denunciation of Israel. But Goliath maxed out at about 10' 6", and could easily have been a foot shorter, depending on whether you use the 18" or 20" cubit as your standard of measurement.

This is not an unrealistic height. Robert Wadlow [pictured right], the tallest man measured in the twentieth century, was 8' 11", which is not so far from the low-end biblical estimates of Goliath’s height. The Amorite giants described by the spies may even have been slightly taller, having lived several generations earlier.

Whatever their actual size, these Amorites scared the ten spies silly. They towered over the Israelites.

Back to our study in Amos 2, where God has first laid out three reasons he must judge Israel, and now goes on to give three reasons his people ought to have trusted him in the first place. The first of these has to do with giants.

Amos 2:9 — I Brought You In
“Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks; I destroyed his fruit above and his roots beneath.”
Hyperbole and History

It is useful to distinguish hyperbole from history, and it should be obvious that cedars are considerably taller than even the tallest men in the world. The cedars with which Israel would have been familiar were probably in the 50' range, so there is evidently something like a five‑fold exaggeration going on here.

And yet it occurs to me that when God speaks through Amos of the Amorite being as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks, he is not engaging in gratuitous hyperbole. Rather, he is pointing to Israel’s own fears and their unwillingness to trust him; to the spirit of the spies’ own report. Exaggerating the height of the Amorites was a trick that originated not with God, but with the ten cowardly spies (“we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them”). The ten were looking for an excuse to turn and run rather than to obey God and take possession of the land, and they persuaded the people to follow them in their cowardice. Their ridiculous claim about the relative size of their enemies is no mere five‑fold exaggeration; it is more like something in the order of 900‑fold. Moses could have called them out for the absurdity, but he did not.

The irony may not be obvious on the first read. For the sake of argument, God is simply accepting Israel’s own documented assessment of the challenges they had faced in taking the land, despite its inaccuracy, then turning it around on them here by pointing out, “Look, if I really delivered you from all that (and your own history proves I did), why have you not trusted me since?”

Turning False Premises Around

The Lord Jesus frequently accepted false premises from his detractors, then promptly decimated them with their own logic. One ridiculous case involved a woman who was alleged to have sequentially married seven brothers. The odds of this actually occurring in our world are sub-zero, but the Lord does not dismiss the hypothetical case for its absurdity; he simply points out that in the resurrection such a woman would not be bound to any of the seven brothers. The same technique is evident in the Lord’s parable of the talents. The slothful servant offers the lame excuse that his master is a hard man, reaping where he did not sow. Again, the master accepts his premise and turns it back on him, condemning him by his own standard.

There is maybe a lesson here for Christians counseling the fearful. The answer to overwhelmed people in impossible situations is not to minimize their fears and concerns by trying to prove to them that they are exaggerating their problems; rather, it is to assure them our God is more than capable of dealing with the very worst case scenario: “I destroyed his fruit above and his roots beneath.” Despite their incredible size and strength, God left the Amorite nations neither history nor posterity. To God, the difference between ten feet and fifty is a non-issue, hardly worth bringing up.

God had brought Israel into Canaan despite long odds. He deserved their trust.

Amos 2:10 — I Brought You Out
“Also it was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite.”
The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt. They had no control over their own destiny and no hope as a nation. And yet God had reached out to them in their pitiable condition, had identified himself with them, had taken them for his own and had done for them what no nation before or since has ever experienced. The forty years in the wilderness were unnecessarily prolonged, but God can say in all truth of that period, “I led you.” Israel was never left to its own devices, never without direction, never without hope, and never without leadership. Despite their many provocations, God kept his promises to them and brought them into possession of the land of the Amorites.

The Christian can relate. In Christ, he too has been “brought out”, delivered from the domain of darkness, led along the way, and given spiritual and eternal territory for his possession which he did not deserve and could never have obtained on his own.

God had brought Israel out of Egypt. He deserved their trust.

Amos 2:11 — I Brought You Up
“ ‘And I raised up some of your sons for prophets, and some of your young men for Nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?’ declares the Lord.”
The book of Judges is full of men who were “raised up”. There is a call-and-response theme to this. The people of Israel cried out to the Lord, and the Lord raised up judges for them. Othniel and Ehud were “raised up” to provide deliverance in times of trouble. They demonstrated that God was not just committed to taking a nation out of Egypt or bringing a nation into Canaan, but was also committed to maintaining them in the land to which he had called them. Some of these were prophets, though not all.

Prophets were a connection to God envied by the nations and sought out by kings in times of danger. When Jehoshaphat wanted to know whether it was prudent to go to war, he called for a prophet. When Israel had no rain for over two years, Ahab (rightly) blamed Elijah the prophet, and looked for him in all the surrounding nations. When Zedekiah needed prayer, he called for a prophet. Foreign kings had their sages, but nobody’s word was deemed more dependable than the prophets of God. The reputation of the Israelite prophets was such that even people from other nations sought them out for help. At times, they were thought to be near-omniscient. In providing the people of God with a genuine connection to heaven, God raised them up above the nations around them and gave them a privilege they did not deserve and frequently abused.

Nazirites were not only spiritual men but powerful leaders and deliverers. They didn’t just tell a story in God’s words, they made things happen on behalf of his people. For all his failings, Samson was a Nazirite from the womb, separated to God. He put the Philistine overlords of Israel in their place repeatedly.

God is reminding Israel that in addition to bringing them out of Egypt and settling them in their new home, he had also provided ways in which they would be protected and cared for in this new environment. He had given them leadership, direction, and a hotline to heaven that made them the envy of the nations.

He deserved their trust, but did not receive it.

Amos 2:12 — Israel’s Special Status Rejected
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’ ”
Unfortunately, there was a flipside to the privilege of having a unique relationship with heaven, and that is that heaven spoke back. The prophet was not simply a conduit of information to God, whereby God would respond to his people in blessing whenever they requested, or would tell them things they wanted to hear. The prophet also came to men with God’s thoughts about what they were doing, and with warnings of future judgment if they continued in their disobedience. God wanted a people whose behavior was consistent with the special relationship he had established with them, and whose society modeled godliness for the world around. But Israel loved its sins and self-indulgence more than its special status and unique privileges, and so it became necessary to try to disconnect the hotline. The prophets were told not to prophesy (though they continued, and many were killed for it). The Nazirites were corrupted before they could work the deliverance God had intended.

If you are keeping track, this is God’s fourth charge against Israel, and it may be the most serious: that they had consciously and deliberately rejected the blessings of God. More charges are coming ...

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