Saturday, October 02, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (35)

We have come to the final chapter of Amos, and to the seer’s final vision, this time of the Lord and the altar.

As in previous passages in Amos, the altar in question is not the altar in Jerusalem, in the true temple of the Lord, but rather the altar of the facsimile-temple in Bethel, home of one of King Jeroboam I’s two golden calves, variously referred to as “the guilt of Samaria” and, more often, “the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.”

That last bit is important. Jeroboam “made Israel to sin”.

The Sins of Jeroboam

Now, obviously each sinner is personally responsible to God for the choices he makes. Pointing to Eve as the source of his temptation didn’t help Adam’s case one bit. However, the sinner who sets a stumbling block for others is singled out in scripture as uniquely culpable and subject to much more severe judgment. As the Lord himself put it, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!”

The seriousness of Jeroboam’s crime against his nation is discussed at greater length in this post. Jeroboam’s sin changed the nature of worship in Israel. It reset the defaults for each subsequent generation, so that tens of thousands of Israelite children came into a corrupted religious environment unaware of how things used to be or should have been. It was one of those problems that don’t go away by themselves. They require a re‑examination of the scriptures and a complete re‑evaluation of where the people of God have gone wrong.

The Power of Fear

Jeroboam’s motive in initiating this great multi-generational evil is worth mentioning. It was not ideological, religious, or even truly political; it was pragmatic and personal. He reasoned this way: “If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.”

“They will kill me.” It was that simple. The religious corruption of an entire nation came about because a man to whom God had given a kingdom didn’t believe God would enable him to keep it. It was nothing more profound than unreasoning, faithless, selfish fear that drove Jeroboam. There was a time I might have found it hard to believe that one man’s ungrounded paranoia could do so much lasting damage, but the last 18 months have shown us repeatedly the remarkable power of fear, the grip it can have on an entire population, and the unbelievable consequences that can come from it. Need I add that fear ought to be foreign to those who know and love Christ? “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” We may have moments of trepidation in which we need to get before the Lord in prayer, but being gripped, driven and controlled by our fears is not what God ever intended for his people.

With that background in mind, to the passage at hand ...

Amos 9:1-4 — Strike the Capitals

“I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said:

‘Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of all the people [margin: “all of them”]; and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away; not one of them shall escape.

‘If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them. And if they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them; and I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.’ ”

Amos saw the Lord standing atop or beside the altar of Jeroboam’s phony temple pronouncing judgment on the building and on those who worshiped there. (I like the picture of the Lord atop the altar myself, but the Hebrew is ambiguous.) Once again we have what might be earthquake imagery in Amos: “Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake.”

All of ‘Them’

I have included the marginal reading in the above quotation for good reason. In order to correctly understand the passage, it is necessary to know to whom it was intended to refer. The ESV’s “of all the people” is unhelpful in this respect, as it may lead the reader to take from it the meaning “every Israelite”, which would be both contextually and historically inaccurate.

So then, who are these people upon whom the Lord promises to fix his attention for disaster and not for blessing? If we step back chapter by chapter we find out. They are those “who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end”. They are those who “swear by the Guilt of Samaria”. They are those “who are at ease in Zion” and “lie on beds of ivory”. In other words, the ire of the Lord is particularly directed at the affluent and idle rich, the idolaters, the swindlers, merchants and money-men, the priests who perpetuated false religion; in short, everyone who bought into Israel’s status quo and profited from it in one way or another.

Three Phase Captivity

Historically, this is exactly what happened. The Assyrian captivity occurred in three phases. The Transjordan tribes were deported to various cities in upper Mesopotamia by Tiglath-pileser. Again, a decade before the fall of Samaria, the Assyrian army carried off men from a number of cities in the territory of Issachar, Zebulun, Asher and “all the land of Naphtali”. The final wave of deportations under Shalmaneser and Sargon II is commemorated in Assyrian court records which indicate 27,290 captives were taken from Samaria. (This would not include the captives taken in the two earlier campaigns.)

So then, huge numbers of Israelites were deported over this twenty year period and the area was resettled by the Assyrian kings with deportees from other nations. All the existing cultural, social, religious and political structures of Israelite life were carried away with its survivors. This, I believe, is what is meant by the passages in Kings which refer to all Israel going into captivity (“none was left but the tribe of Judah only”). There remained no organized “Israel” to refer to, only a feeble remnant of its people living in their tribal territories, politically powerless and subject to the whims of their Assyrian rulers.

The Poorest of the Poor

As with all deportations, the poorest of the poor were of no interest to their conquerors and were left behind to intermingle with the newly-imported population. There is not just historical but biblical evidence this was the Assyrian policy in Israel. A few years after the conquest of Samaria, the Judean King Hezekiah sent couriers from city to city through Ephraim and Manasseh as far as Zebulun with a proclamation that its people should come and keep the Passover. A few humbled themselves and came. These are specifically said to have been men of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun, and are addressed as “people of Israel”, as opposed to recently-imported settlers sent by the Assyrian kings. Moreover, Hezekiah’s proclamation specifically referred to “the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria”. This makes a great deal of sense: there would have been no point in inviting foreigners who worshiped other gods to keep the Passover.

So then, there can be no question some Israelites were indeed left behind, and that the passages in Kings which appear to imply a complete and total Israelite deportation are not being understood as their original readers understood them; that “not one of them shall escape” means “not one member of the Israelite establishment”.

As is often the case, the poor and oppressed in Israel may well have done better under the new Assyrian governors than they did under the rule of their own people.

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