Saturday, April 24, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (12)

When I was in my early twenties I had a job at a local gas station. One of the first things I learned was how to tally up cash, cheques and credit card chits (remember those?) at the end of my shift. If it turned out the number of gallons of gas pumped during those eight hours was different than the number of gallons paid for, any shortage came out of my pocket.

Seemed a little rough to me, but it was a lesson in accountability. I’ve found myself up against equivalent practices in every job I’ve held that placed me in a position of trust.

Amos 3:12 — A Predator’s Table Scraps

“Thus says the Lord: ‘As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.’ ”

At first reading this may seem a ridiculous image. We may wonder why a shepherd would bother to “rescue” a pair of sheep legs or a shredded ear from the mouth of a lion. The risk/reward ratio seems a bit off. But there is a certain grisly logic to the practice. It was an accountability thing. The shepherd in the ancient East was in a position of trust, and therefore accountable to the owner of the flock. If you took 100 sheep to pasture, you returned 100 sheep to the fold. If a member of the flock entrusted to his care were killed by a predator, the shepherd had to either bear the cost of the lost animal himself or else prove death by misadventure to the satisfaction of the owner. If the value of the animal was significant, it was worthwhile for the shepherd to make the effort to obtain a small piece of evidence while the lion was otherwise occupied to demonstrate that he had not cheated his master of his property.

We may note that Amos correctly identifies the city of Samaria as the locus of the Assyrian “lion’s” attention. The book of Kings tells us, “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” This is one among many Amos got demonstrably correct.

Couches and beds were not common features of every home as they are today. All references in scripture to ʿereś (couch, divan or bed) are in the context of affluence. Amos is identifying the rich in Samaria as the torn sheep in his image. There is considerable variation among the English translations of the latter part of the verse, partly because some have rendered dammeśeq as “Damascus”, the ancient Syrian capital 130 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Context makes that unlikely; Amos is possibly referring to fabric. Either way, the picture is of the Israelite elite reduced to the equivalent of a predator’s table scraps. Some would escape the lion’s maw, but their numbers would be few.

God always has his remnant.

Amos 3:13-14 — Punishing the Altars

“ ‘Hear, and testify against the house of Jacob,’ declares the Lord God, the God of hosts, ‘that 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.”

Some commentators believe the “Hear, and testify” of verse 13 is addressed to the nations of Philistia and Egypt mentioned in verse 9. But if we look at what is to be testified about (verse 14), it seems to me more likely the Lord is addressing Amos and charging his prophet to declare the message that the destruction of the temple in Bethel, though it would be accomplished through the agency of men and armies, will be the work of God himself. It is difficult to see how Egyptian and Philistine witnesses to Israel’s ongoing transgressions would possess that particular insight prior to actually seeing God’s judgment fall on their neighbors.

Bethel was the site of Israel’s counterfeit temple, built as a substitute for the true house of God in Jerusalem, Judah. It is not known whether the sacrifices and offerings made in the temple in Bethel were conducted in precisely the same way as Moses had been directed in Leviticus 4, but in Jerusalem the “horns of the altar” were an integral part of the process of making atonement for sin, whether individual or collective. The horns were anointed with the blood of a sacrifice. In that case the message sent by severed horns lying on the ground would be that no atonement could be made for Israel’s iniquity.

It is also possible the significance of the horns of the altar being cut off is related to the practice of catching hold of them as an appeal for mercy when a man feared for his life. David’s son Adonijah used this trick successfully ... once. The same stunt was less effective for Joab. In this case the significance of cutting off the horns would be to demonstrate that no mercy would be shown to the sinful nation.

Amos 3:15 — The End of the Great Houses

“ ‘I will strike the winter house along with the summer house, and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end,’ declares the Lord.”

Jehoiakim king of Judah was in his winter house when he burned the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah in defiance of God. As is the case today, those who live in luxury have multiple residences in which to amuse themselves. As far as Israel was concerned, King Ahab was known for having built himself an ivory house. That was only 75 years prior, so it is likely Ahab’s monument to self-indulgence was still around. Dogs licked up Ahab’s blood when he died all the same. Showing off one’s exceptional wealth may impress some people; it does not impress God. It probably did not impress the Assyrians, who simply helped themselves to anything they wanted and destroyed the rest.

It seems to me there is a bit of a play on words going on here. The noun bayi means both “house” (as in the physical structure) and “household” or “family line”. There may or may not have been great and impressive buildings erected by those left in Samaria after the judgment of which Amos prophesied, but there were definitely no more Israelite kings.

Israel’s next king hails from the tribe of Judah.

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