Saturday, May 29, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (17)

In his book The Riches of Divine Wisdom, David Gooding notes that the writers of the New Testament had a distinct advantage over the Old Testament prophets in that they now looked back on the prophecies and histories of the Old Testament from the vantage point of having witnessed their fulfillment in Christ. Gooding writes:

“In that light it was inevitable that they should perceive that the intended meaning and scope of God’s Old Testament prophecies were often far greater than many people realized at that time.”

Makes sense. The more light you have, the more you can see.

We are almost halfway through our studies in Amos, which makes it a good time to take a break from direct exposition of the book and have a closer look at one of its more important aspects for the Christian: How do the New Testament writers make use of it? In what way did witnessing the life, death and resurrection of Christ broaden their understanding of the meaning of the prophet’s words?

Amos in the New Testament

There are two direct quotations of passages from Amos to be found in our New Testament, both in the book of Acts:

1/ Acts 7:42-43 quotes Amos 5:25-27

Side by Side

(Hebrew > English)
Amos LXX
(Hebrew > Greek > English)
(Greek > English)
“Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god — your images that you made for yourselves, and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” “Have ye offered to me victims and sacrifices, O house of Israel, forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Rephan, the images of them which ye made for yourselves. And I will carry you away beyond Damascus.” “Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.”

The first person in the NT to make use of Amos is Stephen, in his chapter-long diatribe that got him stoned. A side-by-side comparison shows Stephen’s quotation to be more of a rough-and-ready paraphrase than a literal rendering of Hebrew into Greek: “Sikkuth your king” becomes “the tent of Moloch”, “Kiyyun your star-god” becomes “the star of your god Rephan”, “made for yourselves” becomes “made to worship”, and “beyond Damascus” becomes “beyond Babylon”.

While these differences may seem a little alarming to the new reader, two mitigating factors should be considered: (1) Stephen is clearly following the Septuagint (or LXX, a respected translation into then-current Greek made 300 years before Christ) rather than the original Hebrew; and (2) nothing of substance is lost in translation; in both readings Israel has a history of empty religious observance and idolatrous hearts, and God is determined to send them into exile.

The Septuagint and the New Testament

The LXX is certainly a freer translation than I might personally prefer, but since the vast majority of New Testament quotations of the Old are from the LXX, and since the Greek version of the OT was widely used at the time of Christ both by the Jewish leaders and the apostles themselves, the occasional variant word is better attributed to a divinely-acceptable broadening of the original meaning than to human error. The Lord’s own ‘quotations’ of Old Testament passages have been called allusive, paraphrastic and eclectic. All we can say about that is to reverently acknowledge that if anyone had the right to paraphrase the word of God, it was the Word incarnate. Moreover, on no occasion in the gospels do we find his critics accusing him of misquotation. In adapting a text hundreds, even thousands of years old, to the needs of his audience in the first century, his intent was never to obscure but to more accurately reveal God’s intended meaning. The same can be said of his apostles.

Likewise, the translators of the LXX sought to make the meaning of the ancient Hebrew texts more understandable to a wider Gentile audience, which necessitated the occasional paraphrase, idiom, explanatory clause or editorial qualification. While we might not refer to the translation team as inspired, there seems to be a rationale for each change they made. For example, sikk├╗th may legitimately be translated “tent” or “tabernacle”, and Moloch (or Molech) comes from the Hebrew noun melek, meaning “king”. Both are acceptable alternate renderings that make the passage clearer to a contemporary audience. Ancient representations of Moloch’s tent have even been discovered in the Near East.

A Little Prophetic License

So then, Stephen follows the LXX. The only actual change he makes to Amos is to speak of an exile “beyond Babylon” rather than “beyond Damascus”, as the LXX has it. These two cities are 917 km apart, the capitals of two very different nations, which Stephen knew perfectly well. It is impossible this is simply an error on his part, nor do I accept the idea that Stephen quoted Amos correctly and Luke changed it after the fact, a fancy for which there is precisely zero evidence.

In fact, the change was necessary to make Stephen’s point, which involved not just the history of the idolatrous northern kingdom up until the time of Amos, but the continuing idolatry of Judah which later resulted in a second diaspora, one with which Stephen’s contemporary audience were more intimately familiar. The change has no deep theological significance, but it enables Stephen to apply the point made by the Lord in Amos to the consciences of his first century audience, perhaps even turning the reference to Amos into a new prophecy about the future dispersion of his nation post-AD70, which was certainly very much beyond both Damascus and Babylon. As Gooding well put it, “The intended meaning and scope of God’s Old Testament prophecies were often far greater than many people realized.”

So then, a little prophetic license. Fortunately Stephen had his.

We should get past the minor word variants so as to compare the two passages theologically. In Amos, the two verses essentially summarize chapter 5. They emphasize the hollow nature of Israel’s invocation of the name of Jehovah when its true allegiance was to the star-gods; the phoniness of putative worship that was really only about themselves. The result would be Assyrian exile, which in Amos’s time was still future. In the book of Acts, Stephen uses the quotation of God’s complaint against Israel from Amos as merely one in a long series of evidences that his nation is a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears”, who “always resist the Holy Spirit”.

No wonder they were destined to be dispersed among the nations once more.

2/ Acts 15:16-17 quotes Amos 9:11-12

Side by Side

(Hebrew > English)
Amos LXX
(Hebrew > Greek > English)
(Greek > English)
“ ‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the Lord who does this.” “ ‘In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and will rebuild the ruins of it, and will set up the parts thereof that have been broken down, and will build it up as in the ancient days: that the remnant of men, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, may earnestly seek me,’ saith the Lord who does all these things.” “ ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,’ says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”

The other time Amos is quoted in the NT is by James, during the Jerusalem Council. Once again, his version is closer to the LXX than to the original Hebrew text of Amos, probably because the Septuagint better makes the point James is seeking to emphasize. (The LXX has, for example, “the remnant of men” rather than “the remnant of Edom”.)

Rebuilding the House of David

In Amos, after nine chapters in which Israel’s sins are rehearsed and God’s judgments predicted, this final passage comes as a refreshing reminder of God’s grace and the fact that he always keeps his promises. The house of David is destined to be restored in a future day, and God’s blessing to be poured out on his revived people. It is possible some of the Jews returning from Babylonian exile in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah may have aspired to apply this prophecy to their then-current circumstances, but a careful reading makes that impossible. Verse 15 reads “they shall never again be uprooted”, a prophecy which awaits fulfillment in the millennial reign of Christ.

As in the earlier quotation, the Septuagint expands on the Hebrew in a way its original readers would not likely have expected. The two different emphases are not so much contradictory as complementary, and the thought-flow of both Hebrew and LXX are supported by a host of other scriptures. The Hebrew version predicts that the house of David will “possess” the remnant of Edom and the nations, a vast expansion of millennial Israel’s dominion consistent with that foretold repeatedly in the Psalms and Prophets. The emphasis in the Hebrew is on the restored glory of Israel.

Back to the LXX

On the other hand, the Greek version goes a different direction, suggesting the future blessing of Israel will also involve great blessing for the nations, something not explicit in the Hebrew text of Amos but certainly supported by other scriptures. James quotes Amos, but he could as easily have quoted Genesis, Psalms, Daniel or Isaiah.

In Acts, James picks up this thought made explicit in the LXX translation of Amos and uses it to support Peter’s plea for acknowledging that God himself had “visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name”. The net result was the acceptance of Gentile converts not as mere proselytes of Judaism, but as full brothers in Christ, and on terms that did not involve forcing them to observe the Law of Moses.

It was not until the translation of the Septuagint that such an interpretation of Amos could become acceptable to Jews. As David Gooding points out, Amos himself could not have seen that one coming.

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