Saturday, May 01, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (13)

I am understandably reluctant to compare other men’s wives to cows. Let’s just say the criticism may not be well received.

Amos says some hard things, but they were given to him to say, and he dared not water them down or modify them. These are God’s words, not his. And if God wants to call your wife a cow, you had best listen. More importantly, your wife would be wise to pay attention.

Then again, if she were wise, the Lord wouldn’t be calling her a cow.

Amos 4:1 — Things That Go Moo in the Night

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ ”

Beef on the Hoof

The term used here is often translated “heifer”. Samson used a synonym for it to describe his own wife, but he was a coarse fellow and may even have meant it with gruff affection. Even today, we still use the adjective “bovine” to describe people who are unusually placid and insensate. That’s maybe a little unfair to cows, which are not particularly unintelligent, though people who do not work with them often have that impression, probably because cows have different priorities than human beings. Nevertheless, even scriptural metaphors derive their effectiveness from the general impressions people have of what they mean, not their technical or scientific accuracy.

Hosea would later refer to Israel as a “stubborn heifer” which God could not bless because of its unwillingness to cooperate with the divine purpose, and Jeremiah would use the phrase “frolic like a heifer” to describe Babylonians oblivious to their coming judgment. One of these is probably the intent of the comparison here, to suggest dullness, wilfulness and self-absorption.

These women were not just cows, but “cows of Bashan”, a land known for its fruitfulness. So the accusation of being cow-like is not leveled at every woman in Israel, but specifically against those of a particular type: the rich, young city-dwellers (“on the mountain of Samaria”). These women are charged with oppressing others — including their own husbands, whom they had repurposed as their servants, an inversion of a God-designed order in marriage that would have been more obvious and offensive in Amos’s day than in the last century.

All You Can Eat

In scripture, the word translated “oppress” usually refers to deceit and defrauding, particularly the practice of withholding wages from the poor when they had already completed the work for which they had been hired. In Job, the expression denotes overconsumption and greed, leaving nothing for anyone else, a charge often made against First Worlders today. The word translated “crushed” has a similar connotation. It too occurs in Job, where Zophar uses it to describe the actions of a man who has “seized a house that he did not build”, probably through legal trickery.

So then, God’s complaint through Amos about these affluent and powerful women in the Israelite capital is that they were greedy, dissolute, self-involved and uncompassionate. They hoarded their luxuries and exploited others for their own benefit. They were concerned only with their own desires and pursuits.

Amos 4:2-3 — Taken Away with Fishhooks

“The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. ‘And you shall go out through the breaches, each one straight ahead; and you shall be cast out into Harmon,’ declares the Lord.”

Swearing by His Holiness

The New Testament instructs us not to take oaths, and the reason given is our impotence: “You cannot make one hair black or white.” We are finite, limited and may well be entirely unable to make good on our promises. The Lord, of course, is under no such restriction. His power is such that he can do anything he pleases. If he promises, he delivers. The most potent thing the Lord can swear by is some aspect of his own character. In making his promises to Abraham, Hebrews says, “Since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” If the Lord swears by his own holiness, we can be very sure he will do exactly as he has promised, a fact which did not bode well for the “cows of Bashan”.

The promise is that these rich women would shortly be taken away into captivity, probably to end their lives as concubines (if they were attractive and lucky) or servants (if they were not) in Assyrian households. Their fate was to become the very class of person they had taken delight in defrauding and oppressing.

Hooks and Fishhooks

The image of being taken away with “hooks” and “fishhooks” is a difficult one to unpack. The first word, translated “hooks” here, is everywhere else in the Old Testament translated as “shield” or “buckler”, something both we and the original audience would associate with war and captivity, but not necessarily fishing. The probable meaning has to do with the ancient practice of putting a ring through the nostrils of larger animals so they could be controlled and directed by means of a hook that went through the ring. One tug on the tender nose of the animal would tend to encourage cooperation. It is unlikely Amos meant that the Assyrians would literally pierce the noses of Israelite women, but rather that they would become as humbled and obedient before their Assyrian captors as farm animals on whom pain is inflicted to enforce compliance with their owner’s will. In connection with fish, obviously we are not talking about lures and lines such as modern fishermen use, but rather some sort of sharp gaff like the instrument referred to in Ezekiel or Job with which larger fish were dragged from the water.

In any case, even if the details are a little obscure to us, the general intent of the image is obvious: these women were destined to be forcibly and inexorably pulled from their comfortable and familiar environment into one they did not know and in which they exercised no control over their fate whatsoever.

Out Through the Breaches

The reference to going “out through the breaches” refers to the broken-down wall of a city that had been besieged and taken by the enemy. It evokes humiliation and loss. Unlike Lot’s wife, who stopped to look back at Sodom, these women would go out straight ahead with no backward glances at what had once been their lives. A ring through the nose, metaphorical or literal, tends to encourage single-minded compliance.

The meaning of “Harmon” is said to be “high fortress”, and the probable sense is an enemy citadel, a dungeon from which there is no escape. This too is probably not meant literally; rather, the picture is of the Assyrian empire as the dungeon from which there was no return to their former lives, families and lost property. The apocryphal Book of Tobit is set during the Assyrian captivity, and while its storyline is fantastical and bizarre, its portrayal of the daily lives of captive Israelites and their relationships with their captors likely contains elements of truth. In Tobit, while the captives lived in dread of their vicious and capricious Assyrian overlords and were definitely members of a social underclass in the empire, they did enjoy freedom of movement, and after a few years, even land and property. The real problem was that they could have no assurance they would ever go home.

Amos laid the prospect of captivity out for them in detail long before it happened, while there was still time to repent and avoid the worst of it. That is certainly what God would have preferred.

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