Saturday, September 11, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (32)

Religious people do some very strange and inconsistent things. Some observe holidays to which they have no attachment in the name of a God in whom they don’t believe. Others appear to have an on/off switch that gets toggled to “off” every time they leave the church building Sunday around noon and head back to the rest of their weekly routine.

Apparently things were no different 2,700 years ago. Religious people were engaged in strange and inconsistent practices, and God sent the prophet Amos to Israel to point this out.

Amos 8:4-6 — Back to Business

“Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?’ ”

The Thoughts of Their Hearts

One of the stranger features of worship in the northern kingdom is that it seems to have combined features of pagan idolatry with vestiges of the worship of Jehovah. They took the name of the Lord on their lips unironically, but bowed before golden calves. They respected the technicalities concerning the feasts of Jehovah introduced in the Law of Moses, but not the principles behind the rules, like love for the poor and needy.

The new moon was a religious festival marking the beginning of the month and announced with trumpets, at which bulls, rams, lambs, flour and oil were offered to the Lord, a feast was held and, like the weekly Sabbath day, no work at all was done and no ordinary business conducted. Notwithstanding their rampant idolatry, affluent Israelites remained committed to observing these traditions; however, they performed them grudgingly, and would rather have been working.

You may have noticed that Amos frequently delivers his message sarcastically. It is highly doubtful that the religious “tramplers of the needy” and oppressors of the poor would be inclined to announce their misdeeds in this fashion (“that we may deal deceitfully with false balances”, etc.). Through Amos, the Lord is pointing out the condition of their hearts and the inconsistency of their practice, and he does so in such a way as to demonstrate he knows exactly what they are thinking even if they wouldn’t necessarily say it. Jesus often did something similar, knowing the hearts of men and answering their unvoiced objections or responding to their inmost thoughts (“Simon, I have something to say to you …”).

Five Evil Business Practices

The evil business practices of the merchants are spelled out in five different ways:

  • making the ephah small (a unit of dry measure normally equal to about 35 liters, which the merchants would reduce while still charging full price);
  • making the shekel great (inflating the value of their own currency when purchasing so that they got more product while paying less for it);
  • dealing deceitfully with false balances (rigging the equipment to cheat the purchaser);
  • buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (reducing the poor to slavery while compensating them trivially); and
  • selling the chaff of the wheat (including the weight of the useless, inedible part of the grain in its selling price).

In all these ways, the rich impoverished the poor and made their lot worse. And of course such business practices were forbidden by the very laws Israelite merchants pretended to respect on new moons and Sabbath days.

Amos 8:7-8 — Not Forgotten

“The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?’ ”

The Pride of Jacob

In Psalm 47, the “pride of Jacob” is the heritage of Israel, chosen for them by God as evidence of his love for his people. Here in Amos only two chapters earlier, the phrase “the pride of Jacob” refers to the walled citadels of Israel, particularly Samaria, which God says he abhors because of their self-sufficiency and arrogance, and promises to deliver up to their enemies. In Amos 6 the Lord swears by himself. Here, the word “by” in “by the pride of Jacob” is inferred in Hebrew rather than explicit. The phrase might be better rendered “sworn concerning the pride of Jacob”, as it seems highly unlikely God would take an oath for which the strongholds of Jacob were offered as evidence of its certainty. After all, these very strongholds were in imminent danger of being swept away forever.

When the Old Testament speaks of God remembering and forgetting, it is with respect to dispensing justice rather than the exercise of God’s memory. Thus, when God says, “I will never forget”, it means something like “None of these deeds will go unpunished. Every one of them will receive its just recompense.” Thankfully, there are times when God overlooks sin in this life. This was not one of them.

Rising and Sinking Like the Nile

Herodotus wrote that the Nile overflowed its banks annually between May and August. Because the surrounding land is relatively flat, the water would often cover the plains for two days’ journey either side of the river. While this provided necessary irrigation for the surrounding land, the floodwaters made living in those areas impossible. The completion of the Aswan Dam in 1970 put an end to this cycle.

One possibility: the turbulent Nile simile may be an allusion to the Assyrian army overrunning Israel. We find similar language in Isaiah concerning the Euphrates:

“Therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.”

Per this reading, the rich in Israel might think they were getting away with their mistreatment of the poor and needy, but the Assyrians would focus their attention on the affluent. God would not forget, and his justice would come in like a flood.

While the Assyrian invasion seems a logical way to understand the Nile flood reference, there is another possibility I am not entirely prepared to discount. We will get into that next week.

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