Saturday, September 18, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (33)

Prophetic language in scripture is always more difficult to interpret from a distance.

This uncertainty is especially common when figurative language — a regular feature of the prophetic word — is in play. When a prophecy is fulfilled in a generation or less, its original audience has little difficulty unpacking a nicely turned figure of speech and applying it to their own situation. On the other hand, a 2,700 year distance from the events about which the prophet has spoken or written severely limits the modern reader’s ability to dogmatize about specifics.

The historical record just isn’t that comprehensive, and the culture and language barriers to understanding the text as its original readers understood it increase with every passing generation.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t understand the broad strokes, and grasping the big picture — what pleased God, what didn’t please him, and why — is far more important to Christian living than being able to correctly interpret historical details couched in metaphors and similes.

Figurative or Literal

Last week’s passage in Amos mentioned the land of Israel rising and falling, and compared it to the turbulence of the river Nile in its annual flood cycle. In our English Bibles it’s a simile — translated with the word ‘like’ — but even in Hebrew it’s incontestably imagery of one sort or another. One suggestion is that the upheaval of the Nile speaks of the upheaval of the earth, which in turn speaks of the upheaval in the lives of the people of Israel, a metaphor for the coming Assyrian invasion — a figure of a figure, if you like. Another possibility is that the land rising and falling is quite literal: the very first verse of the book tells us Amos saw his visions during the two year period prior to the earthquake in the days of Uzziah, a cataclysm significant enough to rate a mention by Zechariah 250 years later. Further, because the prophecies of scripture often have multiple or multi-phase fulfillments, it’s even possible Amos is referring to a coming earthquake which serves as confirming evidence of the coming invasion and the absolute integrity of Amos’s prophetic ministry, as well as a call to repentance.

You see what I mean about not dogmatizing. There’s no point. Many in the original audience lived to see both earthquake and invasion. Their interpretation of Amos would be meaningful. Mine can be reduced to Hulk language: “People bad. God judge.”

Okay, that’s a wild oversimplification, but you can see the problem distance creates. And when we come to the next verse, we find ourselves with much the same problem: is what Amos is describing figurative, literal, or maybe even both?

Amos 8:9-10 — Don’t Let the Sun …

“ ‘And on that day,’ declares the Lord God, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.’ ”

Down at Noon

Consider the phrase “I will make the sun go down at noon.” What is Amos trying to say here?

Literal version: When the earthquake hits and the fires break out, ash will fill the air for miles around and blot out the sun in the middle of the day, a common occurrence associated with even comparatively minor volcanic events, especially near their epicenters.

Figurative version: There would be no actual sun going down, but the prophetic word would no longer be heard in Israel when it was most needed. God would no longer speak to his people. (Similar language is found in Micah 3:6, where the sun going down on the prophets means there is no longer an answer from God to be heard. In support of this interpretation, see the very next verse.)

Multi-level version: The darkness caused by the coming earthquake would be a picture of the spiritual darkness into which Israel was about to be plunged, much as the Lord’s physical healings of the blind and lame spoke of the need for and availability of spiritual healing through him.

Can we be dogmatic about which Amos meant? I can’t. What is not unclear is that these events would be accompanied by great distress: sackcloth and baldness (traditional symbols of grief), the end of feasting and singing (for those who could afford them), mourning and bitterness.

Amos 8:11-12 — A Famine on the Land

“ ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land — not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.’ ”

From Darkness to Famine

If the figurative reading of verses 9-10 is correct, then this is an explanation or expansion on what would happen when the “sun went down” on the prophetic word. The metaphor shifts from darkness to famine, just as in the New Testament God’s word is pictured both as a source of light and a source of food.

We might well ask why a people who had departed so extravagantly from obedience to the Law of Moses would suddenly be desperate to hear the prophetic word of the Lord, whose written word they were in the daily and weekly process of either ignoring entirely or rejecting when they found it. But desperate times call for desperate measures. You may recall a scene in Jeremiah after the first wave of Babylonian captivity, where the commanders of the forces of the remnant in Judah come to Jeremiah and beg him to pray for them so that “the Lord your God may show us the way we should go, and the thing that we should do”. The first clue that all is not right here are the words “the Lord your God” rather than “the Lord our God”, but at least the statement has the virtue of being accurate, if not ingenuous. Having rejected the word of the Lord through Jeremiah for months during the siege of Jerusalem, they now appear desperate to hear it. There is a famine, and they are running to and fro.

Two Kinds of Famine

A famine may happen because there really is no food to be had anywhere. Equally, men may starve because they fail to recognize food when they find it. The end of the story is a sad one. Jeremiah prays and comes back to the commanders with a word from the Lord. Unfortunately, it is not one they want to hear. So they accuse Jeremiah of lying and set off for Egypt in defiance of the Lord’s word. It turns out the word of the Lord was only of interest to them if it confirmed them in what they were already intent on doing.

If that doesn’t sound like a temptation you and I encounter almost every day, I’m not sure what does.

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