Saturday, July 24, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (25)

One attitude that seems to characterize nations on the brink of being judged, conquered and dispersed in scripture is an all-but-universal denial of the inevitable.

Jesus himself prophesied judgment on Israel. And yet the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 was the direct result of the First Jewish Revolt against Roman rule, which had begun four years earlier. Large numbers of Jews simply couldn’t imagine losing to Rome despite the long odds. They were in absolute denial of reality. So the rebels gambled with the lives of their friends and families and lost, setting the stage for centuries of Jewish diaspora.

This attitude that “it won’t happen to me” persists in the face of even the direst circumstances. Paul tells the Thessalonians that in a future day sudden destruction will come upon the world during a time when men are saying, “There will be peace and safety.” They couldn’t be more wrong. Likewise, the American empire of our present century is very much in decline, but few are able to conceive of the inevitable dissolution of the Republic despite repeated signs of imminent fracture.

Amos 6:1-3 — The First Woe

When we return to Amos, we find the prophet crying out the first of two woes against those who will not hear his message:

“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms, or is their territory greater than your territory, O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence?”

At Ease in Zion

The name Zion originally referred to a specific location, a Jebusite hillside fortress conquered by David, but over the centuries the term acquired a broader sense. Even during David’s lifetime it was already being used to describe the entire city of Jerusalem including the temple (see Psalm 48), so that Jeremiah speaks of going “up to Zion, to the Lord our God”. Later among the prophets Zion is used as a synonym for all of Israel, including both Judah and Ephraim.

Here, Amos may be using Zion in contrast to Samaria (making it his first passing reference to the sister nation of Judah since 2:5). While he does not go into detail about the sins of his home country, we know Judah too had persistent problems with both injustice and rampant idolatry during this same period of history. As we see in Jeremiah, Judah’s elite were as incredulous and unbelieving as Israel’s when told God’s judgment was finally coming upon them.

Alternatively, Amos may be using Zion in the aforementioned broader sense, referring to the entire divided kingdom, after which he narrows down specifically to the northern capital of Samaria, where the “notable men” would dwell and where others in Israel would go to consult them. This is the group he has been addressing since chapter 2.

Those Who Feel Secure

The night he died, Belshazzar drank and feasted with 1,000 of his lords. This was not a case of “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”, but an absolute rejection of any possibility that the Medes and Persians were about to enter Babylon. He felt secure. The disbelief Amos encountered when he preached his message of judgment would later be echoed both in Judah and among the first group of Babylonian exiles in Ezekiel, who held out hope of a speedy return home. They too felt secure. False prophets buoyed the spirits of any who entertained the possibility that Jeremiah or Ezekiel might be speaking the truth. Their message, “I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon”, was a lie. But anyone who suggested the exiles were not coming home and the captive king would not be returning was viewed as “blackpilling” his countrymen. He was seen as a traitor and a danger to his nation.

Move along, folks, nothing to see here, everything is just fine.

This sense of security would inevitably be proved false in Israel, but in the meantime it made the lives of God’s prophets exceedingly difficult. James reminds us, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” A necessary first step toward getting out from under God’s judgment is to admit it is happening. Speaking generally, we find this attitude uncommon.

Near and Far

There is a sarcastic tone in the words “notable men of the first of the nations”, as can be seen from the statements that follow. Israel was far from “first of the nations” during this period, as Amos will go on to point out when he describes three more significant city-states which had already fallen. These “notable men” of v1 are charged with “put[ting] far away the day of disaster” and “bring[ing] near the seat of violence”. Perhaps disaster would come at one point, but surely not in their day. The rulers of Israel were content to carry on as usual. To their minds, Samaria was impregnable. They had good reason for their confidence: the city was well-situated and well-defended. It would take three years for the Assyrian army to breach its walls. Nevertheless, the end would come. History has a way of dealing with hubris.

There is a fair bit of debate among the commentators regarding the historical circumstances of the conquests of the three cities mentioned in v2. Calneh was on the other side of the Euphrates in Chaldea. Hamath was a Syrian capital, while Gath was a prominent Philistine city. We can establish that Gath had been conquered by King Uzziah of Judah during this same time period and Hamath by Jeroboam II of Israel, as these are directly referred to in scripture itself. The conquest of Calneh (Calno) seems to be implied in Isaiah.

It is not crystal clear to modern readers whether it is these scriptural conquests or other Assyrian conquests to which Amos is pointing; however, we can be quite sure Amos’s original audience knew exactly what he was talking about. The most likely answer to Amos’s rhetorical questions is that the territory of these three conquered cities was indeed greater than that of Samaria, and their kingdoms more famous and better established. The citizens of these cities probably also thought themselves perfectly safe, but were proven dead wrong: they became cautionary tales.

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