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Amos 3-4

January 25, 2016

In 3:1-2 God (through Amos) reiterates that being God’s special people means special responsibility as well as special favor–which means harsher judgment when Israel fails those responsibilities.  This is perhaps similar to how we feel toward police officers and judges:  they have special powers over others which give them special responsibilities; but to fail in those responsibilities and misuse those special powers–to be unjust instead of carrying out those responsibilities–represents a greater wrong with more tragic consequences, requiring a stiffer penalty.  (I’m not sure crooked cops and judges actually get stiffer penalties–though they should.)

In verses 3-8 there is a steady build up in the argument.  The point is that before we see the tragedy that has befallen someone or some animal, we often hear or see something that warns us–a roar, a trap, a trumpet.  Similarly, God carries out no judgment without first announcing its coming through prophets.  Amos sees himself as one of those prophets and insists that people hear his judgment.  The lion has roared, and the LORD has spoken.

Amos’s pronouncement of judgment is not meant as a warning.  It’s not:  You better listen to me and change your ways or this will happen.  Rather, his pronouncement is what will make it happen.  This is the word of Yahweh which, once spoken, cannot be taken back.  The point is not to change the Israelites, but, like a judge, to announce the sentence of the court.

In verses 9-11 this pronouncement of judgment on Israel is shared with the pagan nations surrounding Israel.  As in chapter one, this moves the God of Israel out of the context of being merely a national god; Yahweh is the international God.  Justice–protection from oppression and robbery–is God’s universal will for all nations.

Verse 12 appears to be prose instead of poetry, and may be a later insertion.  It suggests that not all of Israel will be destroyed, but that “two legs” or “a piece of an ear” may survive.  I wonder if this is a reference to the two tribes of Israel that made up the southern kingdom of Judah.  The northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., but the southern kingdom survived for another century and a half.

In verses 13-15 God pronounces coming destruction to the sacred sanctuary of Bethel and the palaces of the northern kingdom.  It is not merely the villages of Israel that will be wiped out, but the very political and religious center.  Religion is no protection.

Chapter 4 opens with a denunciation of the wealthy women of Israel who are compared to cows and accused of living in the lap of luxury while the needy are crushed.  This is similar to Jesus’ picture of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” in his famous parable.

But the main focus of this chapter is for God to explain that this judgment is not coming out of the blue–there were indeed many warnings from God which the people did not heed.  These warnings were in the form of drought and blight and insect infestations–similar to the plagues on Egypt.  Even some towns were destroyed and horses stolen, but still there was no returning to carrying out God’s justice.

So is this how God warns us–through natural disasters and tragedies?  This sounds like a dangerous notion to me.  I have heard many people interpret a tragic accident as God’s judgment against the person injured or killed.  This is rarely a helpful (or accurate) analysis.  I have heard TV preachers claim that certain diseases or earthquakes or hurricanes were God’s judgment on a particular set of sins for a particular set of people.  I have always found such pronouncements irresponsible.  It is too easy to interpret any disaster as God’s judgment on whatever it is we don’t like.  Furthermore, Jesus himself refrained from interpreting disasters as judgment.  He did not blame the blind man for being blind.  He did not think those who had been crushed by a tower, or those killed during a temple sacrifice, suffered because they were worse sinners than anyone else.

So what should we think of Amos’s idea that droughts and pestilence were God’s warnings to Israel?  I find it difficult to believe this is how God operates.  On the other hand, even Jesus pointed at natural disasters and accidents and used these as a reminder that we are all mortal, we are all going to die, and so we had better be doing what we ought to be doing.  A natural disaster is just that–a natural disaster.  But even though its cause is natural, it is also a warning:  be prepared.  Israel should have seen the natural disasters that were happening and asked itself, “How can we respond in a just and compassionate way?”  It did not.  Instead, the rich were sufficiently insulated from the problems that they could ignore them.

We still do this today.  We are facing a number of natural disasters that are tied in with global warming.  The rich try to ignore or discount it.  The poor suffer.  We ignore this at our own peril, and we are failing to be fully just with those who are the most vulnerable to these climate threats.

At some point we may discover, as Israel discovered, that it is too late.  Judgment is coming.

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From → Amos

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