Saturday, May 15, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (15)

Like most fathers, I disciplined my children when they were young and disobedient.

We can think about discipline in either of two ways: firstly, as punishment for sinning, which it most certainly is. When an evil act is committed, it deserves a penalty. Justice cries out for it, and if justice doesn’t make its voice heard, a child’s siblings generally will. But secondly, most acts of discipline are also designed to encourage repentance. A good father desires that the offender learn his lesson and stop offending, both for his own sake and for the sake of those he offends against.

Both these aspects of the disciplinary process are in play in God’s dealings with Israel in Amos 4.

Amos 4:6-11 — God Encourages Repentance

As in chapters 1 and 2, the prophet has chosen a repeating structure to reinforce God’s message. I always like to chart such things as it helps me analyze them better:

Plagues, War
1 I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
2 yet you did not return to me, yet you did not return to me, yet you did not return to me, yet you did not return to me, yet you did not return to me,
3 declares the Lord. declares the Lord. declares the Lord. declares the Lord. declares the Lord.

1: Sending the message. Deuteronomy 28-32 contains a massive litany of curses which Israel would inevitably bring upon itself for failing to keep the law of God; every single consequence of sin we find listed here in Amos. Anyone in Israel who had ever read or heard the Law of Moses could not help but recall the warnings of Deuteronomy and be reminded that God keeps his promises, for good and ill.

  • Famine. “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl,” reads Deuteronomy. “I gave you cleanness of teeth and lack of bread,” says Amos. But hard hearts too easily attribute even drastic shortages of resources to any cause other than the judgment of God. After all, it was not God’s displeasure that forced Jacob’s family to migrate to Egypt.
  • Drought.The heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land powder,” reads Deuteronomy. By the grace of God, it appears Israel had not quite got there yet. Amos speaks of rain which is sporadic and inconsistent and droughts sufficient to destroy harvests and cause massive movement of the population, but perhaps not quite to the degree that Israel had experienced under Ahab.
  • Pests. “The Lord will strike you with ... blight and mildew,” reads Deuteronomy. “I struck you with blight and mildew,” confirms the Lord in Amos. “You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it,” reads Deuteronomy. “Your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured,” says Amos. Kind of hard to miss these parallels, isn’t it?
  • Plagues, War.The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you,” warns Moses. “I sent among you a pestilence,” says Amos. “Outdoors the sword shall bereave, and indoors terror, for young man and woman alike,” reads Deuteronomy. “I killed your young men with the sword,” says the Lord through Amos. Deuteronomy also speaks of livestock being carried off, while Amos mentions Israel’s horses.
  • Fire. The reference to Sodom is interesting. Deuteronomy speaks of “the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah”. Amos writes, “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.” The similarity of language is undeniable.

On its own, any single item on this list might be dismissed as bad luck or coincidence. Taken cumulatively, any rational observer must acknowledge God is surely acting in judgment.

The next step in the disciplinary process should also have become obvious to Amos’s audience even if he had not spelled it out for them: “The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.” The words of Moses are unambiguous.

2: Failure to return. In this repeated chorus of “yet you did not return to me”, we see that God’s primary object in disciplining his people is to change their hearts and consequently their conduct. If you are only concerned with stopping an offender offending, capital punishment works just fine. It is ruthlessly efficient and satisfies the need for justice in this life. It keeps victims safe from victimizers, and it saves the citizenry the cost of incarceration. But it also eliminates any possibility of a change of heart and life on the part of the sinner, which is what God most desires.

3: Declaration of authorship. Like Jeremiah, where the words “declares the Lord” and similar language appear more frequently than any other book in the Bible, Amos repeatedly affirms the divine authority and origin of his message. This same phrase and a few closely related variants appear 21 times in Amos’s nine chapters. His audience might believe it or disbelieve it, but they couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned.

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