Saturday, June 05, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (18)

In the Bible, the word lamentation refers to a dirge, song or hymn of mourning.

It is certainly possible to grieve privately and in silence. Often we do. But there are losses we share, and injuries of such scope and magnitude that they call for men and women to join their voices together in unified expression of misery. In 1997, songwriter Bernie Taupin repurposed his 25‑year old elegy for Marilyn Monroe into a tacky, maudlin and singularly appropriate pop culture farewell to Princess Diana that reinvigorated Elton John’s flagging musical career, sold 33 million copies worldwide and remained in Canada’s Top 20 for a full three years.

Some hearts were obviously touched around the world, and they sang along. That’s a lamentation.

A Grand Tradition

The Old Testament is full of lamentations, all of them considerably more impressive than that too-familiar Elton John blockbuster. This includes one entire book in which the prophet Jeremiah mourns his exiled nation: “How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!” But lamentations did not originate with the people of Israel. Most ancient cultures have examples we could point to. Often they were accompanied by instruments or the pounding of distressed fists against chests as men hit themselves in unhappy rhythmic unison.

The first bit of poetry we find labeled as a lamentation in the Bible is David’s famous elegy for Saul and Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen,” it begins. Perhaps it is from these lamentation records that we developed the tradition of never speaking ill of the dead. Certainly there was much David could have said negatively about Saul that would have been right on point, but you won’t find it in these nine verses. He and Jonathan are remembered as “beloved and lovely”, “swifter than eagles” and “stronger than lions”.

Yes, and deader than doornails. In a fallen world, we all fall eventually, and it’s actually a wonderful thing if our lives have been the sort that inspire a few kind words from our peers and loved ones, even if, like David, they may have to make great effort to find positive things to say about us that are not laced with irony.

Putting Grief into Words

Sometimes grief makes us inarticulate, dumb with pain. A lamentation is not that. We need at least one person to put our sadness into words for us, and one of the best at it was the aforementioned Jeremiah. He wrote a lament for the dead King Josiah, and men and women still sang it years later, when the text of the book of Chronicles was being finalized. The writer of Chronicles says of Jeremiah’s lament, “It became a rule in Israel.” There was something so powerful in Jeremiah’s words about Josiah that it transcended time and place and was used to express grief on many other solemn occasions by those who were unable to put their own sorrow into words. It became a tradition. Good poetry is like that. Actually, considering the colossal success of Candle in the Wind 1997, maybe even bad poetry is like that when it captures the zeitgeist of its era; inch-deep people mouthing inch-deep sentiments.

The book of Ezekiel is full of references to lamentation, and contains perhaps the most famous ancient lamentation of all, which is believed by many readers down through the centuries to memorialize God’s own sorrow over the spiritually-fallen Lucifer. Though nominally about the king of Tyre, the dirge speaks of one who was “in Eden, the garden of God”, the “anointed guardian cherub” on the holy mountain. The very human king of Tyre sure couldn’t make that claim.

However, when Amos took up a word of lamentation over Israel, the famous examples of Jeremiah and Ezekiel were 200 years in the future, so we can forgive Amos if his elegy for Israel is considerably more succinct. His is one of scripture’s earlier recorded laments.

Amos 5:1-2 — The Virgin Israel

“Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel: ‘Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up.’ ”

An Odd Metaphor

The expression is variously “the virgin Israel” and “the virgin of Israel”, and is found only in Amos and Jeremiah. Knowing the context of Amos’s words, it may seem incongruous to use a metaphor for purity to speak of the corrupt and idolatrous northern kingdom. We might simply write this peculiarity of language off to the tradition of not speaking ill of the one you are mourning, as David did (or rather, didn’t), but perhaps there is more to it than that. When Isaiah speaks of the “virgin daughter of Zion” in 2 Kings, the facts on the ground did not really support his use of the phrase either. Hezekiah’s reforms had been significant, but the people of God were still divided, and right after Hezekiah’s death many of those very same people who behaved themselves under his administration would plunge headlong into some of the worst excesses in Judah’s history. To paraphrase Madonna, they were not much “like a virgin”.

So then, God is using an expression that reflects something bigger and more timeless than the facts on the ground in a single, sad era. In that case, maybe Amos’s choice of words here is more apropos than we might initially think.

Dry Bones Live

A certain very trendy theological school believes the nation of Israel to be permanently disinherited, cut off from the blessings of God forever, its role in history assumed by the church. That is not how I read the scriptures. Romans 11 proves especially difficult to interpret for those who take this theological position, not to mention most of the last half of the book of Ezekiel, and passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah and many others. If we take the apostle Paul at his word, Israel has been set aside for the time being. A day is coming when that nation will be grafted back into the vine of God’s blessing, not just individually, but God’s entire holy national remnant. In that coming day, all the remaining Old Testament promises of God to Israel will be literally fulfilled, not just spiritualized away.

So then, as Amos puts it, the virgin Israel is to fall. She is no more to rise. She is incapable of recovery on her own. She may as well be dead. But just as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones came to life, Israel will one day come to life again; not the secular state established in 1948, but a spiritual revival attributable only to the Spirit of God: “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” Moreover, in the very same chapter of Ezekiel insists that not just the household of David will be restored, but the “stick of Joseph” will be joined with the “stick of Judah” and God will make them one nation in the land, and “my servant David will be king over them”.

Very obviously this has not happened at any point in history. But it will. Of that we can be absolutely certain. The virgin Israel, said Amos, will have none to raise her up. That is how we see her even today, despite her status as a secular state in the historical land of Canaan. But one day God will miraculously revive her in order to display his greatness, his glory and the absolute certitude of his promises.

Amos 5:3 — Decimation Times Nine

“For thus says the Lord God: ‘The city that went out a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which went out a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel.’ ”

Parsing the Wording

The word “decimation” means literally to reduce by a tenth. It comes from the practice in the Roman army of killing every tenth man to instill discipline in mutinous legions. Obviously this is not that. The Lord is not talking about reducing Israel BY a tenth, but rather, reducing a certain demographic within Israel TO a tenth, which is far worse. Not all Israel’s people would be killed, of course. Many would be taken into Assyrian exile.

Note that the prophecy is not that 9/10 of the entire Israelite population would be slain or deported, but rather 9/10 of Israel’s adult, urban-living males; those who comprised its leadership and protection from its enemies. The wording is “The city that went out”, referring to going out to war, as in Genesis 14:8, Numbers 1:20, Deuteronomy 24:5 and a whole host of other OT passages concerned with the subject of mobilizing armies. God is not saying that 9/10 of the women, children and senior citizens would be deported or killed, but that the strength of the nation would be so completely depleted that they would be incapable of taking up arms against the Assyrians or anyone else for generations. They would be defenseless.

The Historical Record

1 Chronicles 5:26 and 2 Kings 17 describe what actually happened in fulfillment of this prophecy. First, the Transjordan tribes — the Reubenites, Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh — were carried off by the Assyrian armies around 740 BC. Then, in 722 BC, the capital city of Samaria fell to the armies of Shalmaneser king of Assyria. 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”, distributing them throughout his empire. Moreover, the king of Assyria then brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. These foreigners took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities, intermarrying with the remnant of Israel, so that by the first century Samaritans had come to be despised by full-blooded Jews. They worshiped the God of Israel nominally, but “also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away”. So a sort of syncretistic, contaminated form of worship continued in Israel after the Assyrian exile.

2 Chronicles 30 clearly indicates that not all Israel was deported. In the days of Hezekiah of Judah, an invitation was made to Ephraim and Manasseh to come to Jerusalem to keep the Passover, in which the king referred to “the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria”. And that passage records that “some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem”.

Historical Arguments

In fact, Assyrian cuneiform states that 27,290 captives were taken from Samaria by Sargon II, though this is only from the city of Samaria, and only one of several times captives were taken. Historians may argue back and forth about the numbers deported and the numbers that remained, but nothing of significance turns on it with respect to the prophetic word, since, if we read him carefully, Amos never insisted 9/10 of the people would be deported.

What is clear is that Israel as a nation ceased to be from the point on, and that Israelites remaining in their land had no power of self-determination, no ability to protect themselves from their enemies, and eventually, no visible separate national identity.

Photo of flowers and tributes left at Kensington Palace by Maxwell Hamilton, CC BY 2.0.

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