Saturday, August 14, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (28)

Friends recently commented on the length of our current series (hence my choice of visuals for this post). Let me assure you we are coming down the home stretch. Amos is about to relate a series of five visions from the Lord (groups of three and two), punctuated with a historical interval.

But before we get to that, he has three final verses of invective for the rich, self-indulgent, out-of-touch idolators in Israel.

Amos 6:12 — Turnabout is Fair Play

“Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood ...”

Depending on the translation you are reading, the second question is either “Does one plow the sea with oxen” or else “Does one plow there [meaning the rocks horses don’t run on] with oxen”. This is one of those distinctions without a difference: the questions are rhetorical, and the answer is “No” regardless of the quirks of the underlying Hebrew. The point is that something is taking place in Israel that doesn’t follow logically. Oppression, arrogance and self-indulgence do not ring in an age of peace and prosperity; history is unequivocal about that. But though animals are smart enough to avoid paths that could cause them injury, and farmers are sufficiently intelligent to avoid plowing where nothing will ever grow, the leaders of Israel persist in a course of action from which nothing good can ever come. The obvious question arises: Why are they so completely out of touch with reality?

A justice system that does not dispense justice is a problem much bigger than partisan politics. Systemic corruption may be a useful tool for powerful people with agendas over the course of a single generation, but invariably the power balance shifts, and the abusers of the system become victims of the same traps they created for others. Haman in the book of Esther exemplifies this principle in action; we reap what we sow.

This is what Amos is at pains to point out. It’s not just that the Israelite elite have embarked on a course that is wicked or displeasing to God. That much is already established. The point here is that it is also a futile exercise. Injustice and unrighteousness cannot possibly accomplish anything good for their perpetrators. The word wormwood implies this: it is a bitter-tasting plant, self-propogating and extremely difficult to exterminate. Nobody sensible would seek to replace the fruit of righteousness with wormwood. But this is the nature of evil-doing. It circles back around and consumes itself.

Amos 6:13 — Taking Karnaim by Storm

“... you who rejoice in Lo-debar, who say, ‘Have we not by our own strength captured Karnaim for ourselves?’ ”

Lo-debar and Karnaim are very likely references to geographic locations, which means they are also Hebrew puns.

Lo‑debar was the city where Machir hid Saul’s son Mephibosheth from David, fearing the new king would have the old king’s grandson killed if he could find him, as was common in those times. It was the equivalent of a ghetto town in Gilead. Its name means “no pasture” or “nothing”, and its insignificance in its day made it an excellent hiding spot for the heir to a contested throne. But the real point is that nobody rational would rejoice in Lo‑debar. There was nothing there to rejoice about. So then, when David rescued him from his protectors, Mephibosheth really went from worst to first, providing a wonderful illustration of the recipients of God’s grace in our own generation. The pun is obviously intentional, but doesn’t translate well into English without further explanation, so some translations go with the literal place name and others, like the ASV, render it something along the lines of “rejoice in a thing of nought”. Both ways work provided you understand the backstory.

Karnaim [qeren] is also the name of a city in the same region. It means “horns”, which in ancient times symbolized strength. So the question is, “Have we not by our own strength captured strength for ourselves?” Again, the pun is very much intentional, and Amos seems to be mocking the attitude that rejoiced in and made much of the relatively small victories achieved during the reign of Jeroboam II, including the recapture of territory formerly lost. The idea is that the nationalist elite in Israel were out of touch with reality. They did not correctly estimate the effects their conduct would produce, and they were not even able to accurately compare the events of their own times against the much more significant victories of the past. They thought far more of themselves than was merited.

As it turns out, their victories were short lived in any case, likely nothing more than a convenient byproduct of Assyria’s ongoing occupation with conquering Syria. Once the Assyrian army had accomplished its mission in Damascus, it would turn toward Samaria. At that point, the smartmouths inside her walls would quickly fall silent.

Amos 6:14 — Trouble on Every Side

“ ‘For behold, I will raise up against you a nation, O house of Israel,’ declares the Lord, the God of hosts; ‘and they shall oppress you from Lebo‑hamath to the Brook of the Arabah.’ ”

Lebo-hamath was a northern boundary point in Israel, mentioned many times in the Old Testament. The brook of the Arabah marked Israel’s southern border. To be oppressed from Lebo-hamath to the Arabah would be understood as total oppression. There would be no place to run from the nation God would raise up against his sinning people.

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