Saturday, July 03, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (22)

Towards the end of Deuteronomy, when God is renewing the nation’s covenant in Moab with a new generation of Israelites, Moses sets a choice before the people. The choice is life and good, death and evil. One road leads one way, the other in the opposite.

Obey God’s commandments as your fathers did not, Moses says, and you will live and multiply. These commandments are synonymous with “good”. Goodness is not a matter of personal opinion. God has declared what it is. No discussion is necessary. “Choose life,” Moses strongly recommends.

Take the other road, reject the commandments, worship other gods, and you will surely perish. Such an outcome would be evil, as would the choice that leads to it. God has declared this. Disobedience is synonymous with wickedness and evil. Again, no discussion is necessary, or even particularly rational.

From a distance of several thousand years, and with nothing personal at stake for the reader, this seems world’s most obvious choice. How then did Israel miss the mark so comprehensively? One answer, I think, is this: that they failed to keep their personal and national definitions of good and evil consistent with the substance of God’s commandments.

There are those who call evil good and good evil, declared Isaiah. Woe to them.

Amos 5:14-15 — Defining Good and Evil

“Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”

The Language of Deuteronomy

Amos has picked up the language of Deuteronomy: life and good, death and evil, two sets of pairs. He is taking Israel right back to the words of a decision they had ratified nationally nearly 700 years earlier. And he is not prepared to negotiate the underlying meaning of good and evil any more than Moses was. These concepts existed for Amos only in relation to the commands of God.

Israelite society had changed massively over the ensuing centuries. The culture was different, heavily influenced by the nations. The people were different, an inevitable product of their culture. For those Israelites who had remained quietly devout, the social pressures to conform to the dominant culture were huge, just as huge as they are today and probably more so.

Nevertheless, nothing about God’s word had changed in the better part of a millennium, and so nothing about the choice Amos set before this generation of Israelites was substantially different from the choice Moses had set before their forefathers in Moab.

“As You Have Said”

Despite Israel’s abominable conduct, they still maintained God was on their side. Amos replies, “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.” Having God on your side is not automatic, even when you are among his people. God is on our side when we are actively seeking his will and actually doing something in response to his word. “Establish justice in the gate.”

Do you notice how important it is to religious people to prove to you that God is on their side of any given argument? “Please think a little more what Jesus would do,” pleaded a comment on another Christian website recently. In the writer’s mind it is patently obvious: Jesus is firmly entrenched on her side of one of the many hot COVID-related debates currently raging. If you would just think about it a little, it would be obvious to you too. The problem is that you are not thinking. Never mind that the matter being discussed is not a question of clear-cut obedience to the commands of God, but rather a question of whether or not established liars and incompetents are continuing to act in accordance with their nature, or whether we can suddenly and inexplicably trust them now. So our fellow Christians are labeled dithering idiots for not grasping what we think is obvious.

Jesus and the Hot-Button Question

Worse, the Word Made Flesh gets trotted out as if speculating what he might do if confronted with the same dilemma settles the question once and for all, though Jesus never wore a mask in his life, nor did he either accept or reject a vaccine.

Come to think of it, there are many other situations where we should be honest and admit that it is not at all obvious which side of a hot-button question Jesus would come down on. Often it was neither side. His contemporaries didn’t anticipate a great deal of what he did and said. “They marveled at him,” says Mark. “They were astonished at his teaching,” writes Luke. Even his disciples, who should have known him best, were constantly caught off guard by his positions. Absent the command of God to us in our present age, we ought to be careful in assuming how God feels about this or that current hot-button issue, as there is real danger we are simply projecting. “You thought that I was one like yourself,” writes Asaph. Not so.

Here we come back to Deuteronomy. If you want God on your side, obey his commandments. It is God’s own word that defines good and evil for us.

Seeking and Loving

Seek good. Love good. Hate evil. Easier said than done. If good and evil are directly related to God’s commandments rather than our speculations, finding the divine will is not especially difficult. However, loving good and hating the alternative may be quite vexing if it turns out that obedience to God sets you head-on against the prevailing winds of popular culture.

Maybe you even find yourself all alone in your understanding of what “good” really means in a particular context. If Corban is acceptable practice in your society, your refusal to participate and your insistence on honoring your parents directly with the fruit of your labors is a sharp rebuke to your neighbor, who thinks following the teaching of the rabbis is just fine. If tolerance is currently held by your culture to be the greatest of goods, then your unshakeable conviction that certain behaviors are offensive to God may be thought evil. If compliance with unlawful orders is thought to be good, then those who refuse to go along with the current may be charitably characterized as lone wolves rather than team players ... or else not-so-charitably singled out as people who simply don’t love their neighbors.

And that’s evil, right?

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