Saturday, August 07, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (27)

Proximity to God comes at a price. God is holy, and those who speak his name and identify themselves with him invariably put themselves in the gravest danger. C.S. Lewis had it right: Aslan is not a tame lion. Judgment begins with the house of God.

That said, where God is concerned, there is no better place to be than as near as possible. “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Just bear in mind that when you take God’s name on your lips and broadcast your association with him to the world, you make yourself accountable for everything you do and say afterward. God is holy, and cannot allow his name to be associated with sin unrepented.

Israel forgot that. The prophet Amos was sent to remind them that the name of God is holy, and the consequences of defaming it are both inescapable and dire.

Amos 6:8-9 — Special Delivery

“The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts: ‘I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds, and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.’ ”

Swearing by Himself

Who does God swear by? Amos says he has sworn by himself, and the writer to the Hebrews tells us why this is necessary when God makes a solemn oath: “he had no one greater by whom to swear”. Jeremiah would later use the same expression in his invective against Babylon to indicate the absolute certainty of its coming judgment.

As I noted earlier this week in another post, some of God’s promises are conditional on the conduct of those who receive them. God may relent from either a promise of destruction or a promise of blessing if their recipients show themselves repentant or obdurately evil. Thus Nineveh escaped the “forty days” judgment declared by Jonah, while Solomon had his promised kingdom torn from him and given to his servant.

No More Conditions

But when the Lord swears by himself, it seems to me that any prospect of conditionality has gone out the window. The expression is a rare one, and every event promised when God swears by himself has either occurred historically, or else the certainty of its future fulfillment has been stressed in scripture. To my knowledge, no promise made when the Lord swears by himself has ever been forfeited, relented from or abrogated.

For example, the blessing Abraham was promised after he obeyed God in the sacrifice of Isaac is unconditional on anything Abraham or his descendants might do later, good or bad, as Romans 11 should be adequate to demonstrate to anyone with an open mind. It has in some (spiritual) respects already been fulfilled, and its literal fulfillment during the millennial reign of Christ is an absolute certainty. Likewise, Babylon was destroyed, just as Jeremiah prophesied.

In this case, it seems to me that this is a final declaration about the fate of Samaria. Sometimes repentance is not enough. In order for the lesson to be learned, judgment must be executed, just as David repented of his sin against Uriah, but still had to endure the loss of Bathsheba’s child. When God said, “I will deliver up the city”, there was no going back. It would happen exactly as promised, notwithstanding Samaria’s impressive fortifications.

I Hate His Strongholds

Incidentally, Part 11 of this series on Amos’s prophecy deals with the word “strongholds”, so I won’t repeat myself here, but this verse is the last reference to the term in Amos. In chapters 1 and 2, God pronounced a judgment of fire on the strongholds of seven other nations, including Judah. Here is his final declaration of judgment on the stronghold of Samaria.

Amos 6:10-11 — Great Houses and Little Houses

“And if ten men remain in one house, they shall die. And when one’s relative, the one who anoints him for burial, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and shall say to him who is in the innermost parts of the house, ‘Is there still anyone with you?’ he shall say, ‘No’; and he shall say, ‘Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord.’

For behold, the Lord commands, and the great house shall be struck down into fragments, and the little house into bits.”

Life and Death Under Siege

Verse 10 is a little obscure, but the commentators seem to generally agree about its meaning. Historically, there were plenty of ways for men to die in a siege. You could be killed by a stray arrow, cut down defending the city gate, die of malnutrition, or catch the sort of infectious disease that would run rampant in a crowded urban setting from which there was no escape. Picture the exact opposite of social distancing … for three years.

When we consider the extreme length of the siege of Samaria, it comes as no surprise to hear God saying, “If ten men remain in one house, they shall die.” In war, men are killed off in large numbers, while women and children are more often taken as slaves or wives for their conquerors. Whether the latter fate is preferable to being cut down with the sword probably depends on the disposition of the individual.

A Great House in Fragments

A household with ten men in it was a “great house”, the expression we find Amos using in verse 11. It was unusually large, an indicator of significant wealth. The consensus seems to be that Amos is saying that plague would take these men if sword did not. Their riches would not make them any likelier to survive than their servants and neighbors.

The logic behind this depends on reading the phrase “the one who anoints him for burial” literally in Hebrew as “his burner”. Hebrews usually treated the bodies of the dead with respect. They buried their dead rather than burning them. The few cases of cremation we find in the Old Testament (Saul and his sons, for example), were desperate wartime situations where the normal grieving process was impossible for his relatives. If the bodies of the fallen in Samaria’s great houses were to be disposed of by burning, it would probably be in order to lessen the chances of transmitting disease, or because the conditions imposed by the Assyrian siege made traveling to the family plot impossible even for the rich.

In the alternative, a few commentators suggest “his burner” refers to burning incense for a normal Israelite burial. Under the circumstances this interpretation seems less likely.

An Interrupted Malady

In any case, Amos denies the possibility of escape for Samaritans, rich or poor. The great household would be struck down into fragments and the little household into bits.

The latter part of verse 10 probably involves an interrupted exchange. The “uncle” or “burner” has done his duty and come to the great house to dispose of the body of his relative. He asks any left hiding in a dark corner — servant, woman or child — if anyone else remains alive in the house, and receives the answer, “No.” Most commentators suggest that in these direst of circumstances, the person responding in the negative would likely do so with an oath, as Peter did when pressed about his association with Christ. The uncle’s retort, then, is an interruption; an attempt to ensure the name of the Lord remains unspoken so that further judgment would not break out against them.

By this time everyone in Samaria would have figured out what the Bible teaches from cover to cover: that proximity to God comes at a price. If you take his name, make sure you do not take it in vain.

Photo of ancient Samaritan ruins by Daniel Ventura [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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