Saturday, April 03, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (9)

Actions have consequences. Some things follow inevitably from others. In his third chapter, Amos takes a series of illustrations from the natural world and uses them to demonstrate that when presented with the evidence of one’s eyes and ears, certain conclusions ought to be drawn. He does this by asking seven questions to which every answer is an obvious “No” or “Of course not.”

It may be that the content of the questions is less important than the rhetorical flourish they achieve cumulatively; that each statement is intended to build upon the previous one and together reinforce the certainty of the prophet’s concluding statement. However, when we look at the content of each line more closely in the light of other Old Testament scriptures, it does not seem unreasonable to view them as different ways of illustrating the inevitability of Israel’s coming judgment.

Amos 3:3-6 — Seven Rhetorical Questions

“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?
 Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey?
 Does a young lion cry out from his den if he has taken nothing?
 Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth when there is no trap for it?
 Does a snare spring up from the ground when it has taken nothing?
 Is a trumpet blown in a city and the people are not afraid?
 Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?

Let’s examine these individually.

1. Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?

When you see two men or two women side by side going in the same direction, it is not unreasonable to assume they are keeping some kind of appointment. They are sufficiently on the same page to meet up and pursue their affairs together. Here perhaps is a hint of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Two had agreed, and that agreement had consequences which were about to play out.

2. Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey?

Archeologist and Near East specialist St John Simpson says the golden age of lion imagery in the ancient world coincided with the Neo-Assyrian Dynasty. In the temple of Ishtar the Assyrian goddess of war stood a 15 ton statue of … a roaring lion. Some speculate it was carved with the destruction of Israel in mind. Indeed, Ishtar herself is often depicted with the body of a lion.

Readers with no familiarity with wild animals might assume lions roar to frighten their prey. Apparently that is untrue. The lion’s roar is a sign that dinner is served. It is a signal to the lion’s pride to come share in the kill, and a warning to other lions to back off. Unless you work in a zoo, the roaring of a lion means someone is in the middle of a very unpleasant experience. If the prophet is indeed intending to associate the lion image with Assyria, the implications for Israel are not good ones.

3. Does a young lion cry out from his den if he has taken nothing?

The third rhetorical question is almost identical to the second, but not quite. There is additional information. This is no decrepit old lion making noise over a mere rabbit or a coney. This is a young lion in all its strength, capable of taking down almost any prey, a nation so powerful and violent that there is only a single historical example of a city withstanding it. (That would be Jerusalem, not Samaria.)

If we want to know what the “young lion’s” cry sounded like, we have a biblical account of Assyrian bravado in 2 Kings 18. King Shalmaneser’s cupbearer asks the besieged Judean people a series of his own rhetorical questions: “Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?” He could ask these questions in brazen confidence because his audience already knew the answers. Nobody had ever faced down the Assyrian lion, at least not up to that point.

When the Rabshakeh spoke these words, the prophecy of Amos concerning Israel had only just been fulfilled. The young lion was crying out from his den, his wounded prey between his great forepaws.

4. Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth when there is no trap for it?

Again, this could be merely a rhetorical statement reinforcing the thought that conclusions follow inevitably from certain premises. And yet the image of a bird caught in a snare was a very familiar one to Amos’s Israelite audience. David had written in the Psalms about snares [pah] being rained upon the wicked. In another psalm, (probably) Moses had promised deliverance from the snare of the fowler, but context shows this was not a benefit available to everyone, but only to those who had put their trust in the Lord — the very God Israel had abandoned. It is not unreasonable, then, to view Assyria as the trap and Israel as the fallen bird.

5. Does a snare spring up from the ground when it has taken nothing?

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes about the suddenness with which misfortune strikes men:

“Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.”

The point he is making? “Man does not know his time.” We do not refer to an animal as prey when it is cagey enough to notice a snare laid by hunters and avoid it. Snares spring up from the ground and catch inexperienced animals running eagerly to take the bait offered to them without stopping to question their good fortune. Likewise, when judgment comes, many of those affected have never given a thought to the possibility that their own self-indulgence, injustice and pride have led inevitably to unpleasant outcomes.

6. Is a trumpet blown in a city and the people are not afraid?

According to the Law of Moses there were several different reasons the sound of ram’s horn trumpets might be heard in Israel. Not all were bad; for example, the book of Leviticus commands the trumpet be blown to signal the arrival of the Day of Atonement. However, it is not at all clear that Israel, separated from the temple in Jerusalem and worshiping at the high places, kept any of the feasts of Jehovah at this point in their history, let alone the Day of Atonement.

This being the case, any Israelite associations with trumpet blowing were invariably of the negative sort. The sound of the trumpet meant war, which is a fine thing if you are the one initiating it and going out in confidence. On the other hand, if you heard the sound of the trumpet while lying in bed at home, it still meant war … but war for which you were totally unprepared and would probably lose.

7. Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?

It is hugely unwise to take this as a universalism. Our fallen world, mankind’s sinful condition and Satan’s machinations are capable of producing plenty of disasters without us making God the proximate cause of them all. Insisting the Lord is behind any particular disaster with which we are familiar goes well beyond the scope of our ability to speak with biblical certainty. For example, in the absence of a direct prophetic word, it is difficult to explain why the Lord would choose to flood Midland, Michigan or burn Boulder Creek, California (as opposed to Las Vegas, New York or even Toronto), or why the Lord might choose to simultaneously afflict thousands of urban centers of varying levels of sinfulness across the world with COVID‑19 outbreaks. We would agree that the Lord certainly allows such things — indeed, his sovereignty requires we acknowledge it — but to claim that he is the one who has done them in every instance is considerably more than scripture insists upon.

We should probably bear in mind that this statement is made specifically to Israel in the context of its covenant relationship with God, where disaster only ever occurred because of sin, as described vividly in the final fifty-one verses of Deuteronomy 28. Where faithful obedience to God was a national habit, disaster would be unknown. Modern nations and cities cannot claim such promises, but neither are they subject to the same dire curses which were the flipside of Israelite blessings.

That said, with respect to Israel and Judah, the statement may be read as an absolute truism. Israelites experiencing national disasters could be very sure they were under God’s direct and personal judgment, not merely experiencing the vagaries of life in a fallen world. Their own scriptures told them so.


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Guardian lion from the temple of Ishtar in Nimrud (British Museum) courtesy Andres Rueda, CC BY 2.0

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