Saturday, June 12, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (19)

There is no such thing as a truly secular state. Man was made to worship, and if he will not worship the one true God, then he will worship false gods. If he does not worship false gods, then he ends up worshiping himself. But worship he will, one way or another.

The problem with alternatives to the worship of the one true God is that they are all futile.

Amos 5:4-5 — Going to Extremes

“For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing.’ ”

Bethel and Gilgal

As previously mentioned, Bethel and Gilgal were Israelite centers of worship where temples had been built to pagan deities. Bethel even had one of Jeroboam’s golden calves. Hubs of religious activity in Israel served a variety of purposes and attracted people for a variety of reasons, much as religious gatherings still do today. In those days, shrine prostitutes enabled the sexually immoral to give their passions a sheen of religious respectability. Rituals and routines gave structure to lives that were characterized by more hard work and less opportunity for amusement than is available to us today. We should not discount the social aspect either; some people have always gathered at places of worship simply because that’s what family, friends and neighbors are doing.

But people like this, while outwardly engaged in religious routines and activities, are not what we would call seekers. They are not looking for the meaning of life or answers to hard theological questions, for relief from guilt, for protection from their enemies, or for a change of life. They are simply habitual attendees, and they are not really the audience Amos was addressing. Amos is addressing people who went up from their homes to the high places at Bethel or Gilgal to offer sacrifices in hope of appeasing gods who might otherwise make their lives difficult. As with all superstitious people, they drew conclusions about the disposition of the gods toward them from their circumstances. If it looked like the Assyrians were about to invade, well, maybe it was time to placate the gods again.

But merely being a seeker is not enough. You have to be seeking the right things. There were no solutions to be found in the temples at Bethel or Gilgal because the gods worshiped in those places did not exist and could not help anyone. Commentators point out there is a play on the words “Gilgal” and “exile” [gâlâh] in the Hebrew that is too subtle to translate into English. The same is true of “Bethel” and “nothing” ['āven, meaning literally “trouble” or “sorrow”]. But with or without the double entendres, the message is that the Assyrians would take the people of Gilgal and Bethel away into exile, including the priests and leadership. There were no answers to be found in those places. The only real hope for Israel was the God of Israel, and Amos urges the seekers to pursue him instead.


Whereas Bethel and Gilgal were cities in Israel, Beersheba was actually in southern Judah, hence the reference to crossing over. There was a border involved. In fact, Beersheba was about as far south as you could go without entering the desert, the last stop on the most direct route to Egypt. Beersheba was where Abraham called on the name of the Lord, and where God spoke to the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob in dreams, so it may have had real spiritual significance to the truly devout. Here the suggestion is that some Israelite seekers might be willing to make the grand gesture of traveling to another country to display their devotion, or perhaps in hope of having a mystical experience of similar significance to that of the patriarchs. It is not clear why a seeker might choose to travel all the way to Beersheba rather than simply stopping at the temple in Jerusalem, where the Lord had placed his name, but we all know people who prefer making extravagant religious displays to the difficult and humiliating task of actually repenting.

But even making a pilgrimage to a place where the one true God has made himself known to others is not equivalent to seeking the Lord himself. It is not an act of repentance so much as an act of superstition. And it was totally unnecessary. The Lord could still be found within the borders of Israel, not by traveling to particular locations or making particular offerings, but by changing one’s ways and heart. That is what the Lord was looking for, and no grand display of religious effort or act of piety could serve as a substitute for it.

Going to Beersheba for help was as futile as seeking it in a pagan temple.

Amos 5:6-7 — Turning Justice to Wormwood

Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!”

God’s judgment is regularly compared to fire in scripture. Moses said, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Isaiah wrote, “The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day.” Jeremiah would later write, “He has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around.”

The “house of Joseph” is another way of referring to the northern kingdom. Among the ten breakaway tribes were those of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s two sons, who represented a significant percentage of Israel’s people.

Wormwood refers to a bitter, poisonous plant. The sense is that those seeking justice in Israel found only the bitterness and disappointment that comes from being cheated of the remedies God had provided for his people. Justice had been turned to wormwood.

Here it should be clear, if it was not already, that seeking the Lord in the intended sense is not merely a personal spiritual exercise. It required a change of heart not on the part of a few, but a change of practice throughout the nation. The injustices mentioned in the declamation of chapter 2 — selling the righteous for silver, trampling the head of the poor — could not be overlooked on account of a few timely offerings and sacrifices. There needed to be a complete inversion and conversion of a thoroughly corrupted system.

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