Saturday, March 20, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (7)

In making his case against the nation of Israel through his prophet Amos, God has first laid out the reasons for which Israel is about to come under God’s judgment: their ongoing oppression of the poor, systemic injustice, culturally-pervasive sexual immorality and rampant religious hypocrisy.

Most importantly, God’s people have rejected all his previous efforts at course correction. They refused to hear his prophets and corrupted his Nazirites. The way they have treated one another is bad enough, but when God’s voice can no longer be heard, then the time for judgment has come.

Now the prophet moves on to the form this coming judgment would take.

Amos 2:13-16 — Pressed Down
“ ‘Behold, I will press you down in your place, as a cart full of sheaves presses down. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain his strength, nor shall the mighty save his life; he who handles the bow shall not stand, and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself, nor shall he who rides the horse save his life; and he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day,’ declares the Lord.”
The Executive Summary

Every corporation listed on a stock exchange is required to file an annual report to shareholders. Nobody in his right mind ever reads these things from cover to cover, but if you want to get a sense of whether your investment is growing or evaporating, you can simply flip to the first couple of pages and get the company’s entire financial picture distilled down to a couple of paragraphs. These final four verses of chapter 2 may be considered the divine equivalent of an executive summary of Israel’s judgment, which, like the evils they have committed, will be developed over the coming chapters at greater length.

When Amos prophesied God’s judgment on the seven nations mentioned in chapters 1 and 2, each judgment was consistently characterized by the sending of fire on their strongholds and citadels. In Israel’s case, the absence of any reference to fire is interesting, and provides us with yet another reason to think the references to fire throughout chapters 1 and 2 may have been intended to be taken literally. If the “fire on the citadels” of Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab and Judah actually symbolizes judgment carried out through some other means, then we can rule out invasion and either partial or complete exile. These are listed separately in the cases of Syria, Philistia and Ammon, and would be redundant if they were also the judgment symbolized by fire.

This “executive summary” of Israel’s judgment is all about a coming invasion and the death or exile of 90% of its population. As Amos will put it plainly in the next chapter, “An adversary shall surround the land and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered.” That adversary would be the Assyrians. Amos most probably wrote these words between 750 and 760 BC. The Assyrian army would take the capital city of Samaria in 722 BC, roughly thirty years later.

Crushing, or Being Crushed?

Amos will spell out the details of Israel’s fate in coming chapters, but in these initial verses his description is a little more poetic. First, the prophet compares the nation to a cart so overloaded that it cannot be moved from its place and ceases to function as intended.

There is a much-debated question as to who is depicted as crushed, and the answer depends on your translation. The KJV renders the line as “Behold, I am pressed under you, as a cart is pressed that is full of sheaves.” Read this way, the thought may be similar to God’s complaint in Isaiah, “You have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities” or Malachi’s “You have wearied the Lord with your words.” But Ellicott among others points out that grammatical usage is against a passive rendering and in favor of the active “I will press you down.” He writes:
“Israel, the nation weighted with the doom of past iniquities, bequeathes a yet more crushing load to future generations.”
Ellicott’s interpretation makes more sense to me than the more traditional reading, especially in view of the next three verses. A cart overloaded with sheaves is a reminder of harvest, and in scripture harvest is on occasion used to symbolize the time of judgment. “Whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” In the Lord’s parable, the harvest is the end of the age, the time when the angels will be tasked with separating wheat from weeds. Here, Israel’s history of sin has weighed it down and sealed its fate.

Paralysis, Futility, Humiliation

These last three verses of chapter 2 reinforce the themes of paralysis, futility and humiliation:
  • Paralysis. “Flight shall perish,” and again, “nor shall he who rides the horse save his life”. Even the swiftest battle steed is no help in a city surrounded by invaders; there is nowhere to go.
  • Futility. Strength, skill and speed are of no use when you are lying under an overloaded cart. “The strong shall not retain his strength”, “he who handles the bow shall not stand”, and “he who is swift of foot shall not save himself”. All efforts to escape will be futile.
  • Humiliation. “He who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked.”
Much more remains to be said about the specifics of Israel’s occupation and exile, but these few sentences are sufficient to introduce the subject.

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