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Amos 7

February 15, 2016

This chapter forms the climax of the book and provides us with its most personal glimpse of Amos himself.

The first few verses introduce a prophetic way of speaking that is totally new in the Bible. Amos speaks in the first person about what God has shown him. Then Amos speaks to God, and God replies to him. This kind of dialogue and first person narrative of what one has seen in a vision marks a new genre. Isaiah and Jeremiah and other prophets will express themselves in similar ways, but Amos is the first (at least, the first that has been preserved).

Amos has two devastating visions: in verse 1 and verse 4. In the first, he sees locusts devouring all the crops at the worst possible time. The implication is total starvation. In the second, he sees fire destroying all. Each of these calamities is understood as a judgment against Israel for its sins of injustice. But for Amos, the judgment is too harsh, too devastating. He begs God to forgive and to relent. In each case, God does relent, and the particular vision does not come to pass.

This is very interesting. First, it means that the prophet has the power to intercede on behalf of the people and cancel the outcome of a vision! God’s plan can be changed. God’s judgment can be changed. We see this in Abraham’s argument with God about whether it is just to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there are innocent people present. We see this in Moses’ pleading with God to shift the punishment from the people to himself. We see this (in another way) when the people of Nineveh repent after Jonah pronounces doom, and God relents and does not destroy them. And so here, Amos pleads for God not to carry out this judgment, even though the judgment is understood as just.

What’s also interesting is the reason Amos gives for canceling the devastating judgment: Israel is so small. Either Amos is suggesting that the nation is too small to bear these devastations  and still survive, or he is suggesting that the nation’s weakness in comparison to its neighbors ought to illicit feelings of pity. Either way, Amos is not suggesting that God should forgive because the people have repented–they have not. Repentance is the usual condition for forgiveness in the Bible, but here we see a radical mercy: “Please forgive even though there has been no repentance! Please forgive simply for the sake of pity! Please relent because you are a merciful God who does not punish us according to our sins but gives us extraordinary second chances!” And God . . . does. (This is also similar to the theme in the book of Jonah. Although God cancels the judgment on Nineveh because of its repentance, God later tries to assuage Jonah’s righteous anger by appealing to the concept of unmerited mercy and pity.)

But in verse 7 we see another vision which shows another coming judgment and destruction for Israel. This time there will be no canceling; it is going to happen. Does this mean that Amos simply postponed the national destruction he saw coming in verses 1 and 4? I assume so. Twice God was willing to relent from punishing Israel. Twice God gave Israel another chance to change its ways. But eventually, God’s patience has run out. This too fits in with Israel’s ancient creed about the nature of God: a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. “Slow to anger” does not mean God never gets angry and never punishes. It means God is ridiculously merciful, pardoning us often when we don’t deserve it, but eventually we will face the consequences of our actions if we do not shape up.

The vision of a plumb line and a wall is a bit puzzling. Presumably, the wall is a metaphor for Israel, and was supposed to have been built straight with a plumb line, but now the plumb line reveals that the wall is not straight after all. There’s just one problem with this interpretation:  the Hebrew word translated “plumb line” doesn’t mean plumb line–it means “tin”! This makes the image even more nonsensical, which is probably why English translations have chosen to continue a faulty translation that originated in the Middle Ages. But the Hebrew word here (probably meaning tin), sounds like the Hebrew word for “sigh.” The most likely explanation is that Amos is using a word-play pun. He has a vision of a wall of tin. God asks him what he sees.  He says, “Tin” (which sounds like “sigh”). God then announces the destruction of Israel and God’s total and permanent absence from the northern kingdom of Israel. A sigh indeed!

The next scene, verses 10-15, is very interesting because it provides us with a little bit of narrative about a confrontation Amos had with the high priest at Bethel–the location of Israel’s chief religious sanctuary. Amaziah does two things: he tells King Jeroboam that Amos’s prophecies are seditious and undermining the kingdom, and he orders Amos to return to the southern kingdom of Judah and make his living as a prophet there. Amos’s response is famous. First, he says he is (or was) “no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” but instead he is (or was) a herdsman and a dresser (pruner) of fig trees. What he means is that he is not a professional prophet who makes his living by prophesying. Unlike the court prophets and those who belong to the prophetic guild (“sons of the prophet”), Amos is on no one’s payroll. He makes his living as a farmer and rancher. He prophecies, not with any expectation of receiving bread, but simply because God has told him to do so. The NIV translates the key verbs in the past tense so that Amos was (in the past) a farmer and rancher, but now he is a prophet; but I think the passage makes more sense if everything is translated in the present tense. He is correcting Amaziah’s assumptions about how he makes his living and what kind of a prophet he is.

In the following verses, Amos then proceeds with an oracle from God to Amaziah announcing the destruction and exile of Israel. “Take that!”

So what likely happened after this? Clearly Amos is refusing Amaziah’s orders. Amos is saying he has a divine duty to stay there in Israel and keep making these pronouncements. Amaziah has already informed the king that this is seditious and dangerous. One can only imagine that this had a bad end for Amos.

Interestingly, Amaziah claims that Amos said “Jeroboam shall die by the sword.” Amos never corrects this statement. And yet, according to 2 Kings 14:29, Jeroboam died of natural causes. Nonetheless, this passage went uncorrected by future editors, and this book became part of sacred scripture. This says to me two important things: First, a prophet did not have to get every detail literally correct in order for that prophet to be eventually recognized as a genuine prophet. Second, what determines who is a genuine prophet (whose words should be recorded, preserved, and included in sacred scripture) is not what kind of experiences they claimed to have (lots of people claim to have visions from God), but whether, over time, their words turned out to be deeply true in an existential, ongoing, and helpful way. Amos’s words turned out to be true for his own time and the time immediately following, but also turned out to be true for all time: God always wants justice for the vulnerable, and our worship is meaningless and obnoxious without it.

 

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From → Amos

One Comment
  1. Brian H Roth (soon to be Brian M Roth (Malachi) permalink

    Ryan: I thought this was a very fair and honest study/explanation of these verses. Thank you and thanks also for the Hebrew explanations. I do not yet know enough vocabulary to be able to say I understand Hebrew but I am learning.

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