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Amos 8

February 22, 2016

The chapter begins with another vision–part of a series of visions that began in chapter 7. Like the vision in 7:7-8, this vision is based on a word-play. Amos sees a basket of summer fruit. The Hebrew word for summer fruit sounds similar to the Hebrew word for “end.” So the basket of summer fruit is a sign of Israel’s end.

God says, “I will never again pass them by.” What does this mean? In English, to say you are going to pass someone by means you are going to ignore someone; so to “never again pass them by” would seem to mean that God is going to never ignore them again. But the intended meaning is the opposite of this. To “pass by” probably means to forgive. So God is never going to forgive them again. Amos perhaps has in mind the story of the Passover in Egypt when the Hebrew slaves put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts so that God’s plague of death would “pass over” their homes. But now, God will no longer pass over Israel. Instead, the angel of death is coming for Israel. The songs in the temple will become wailings.

Why? What has Israel done that it can no longer be forgiven? Why is the end of Israel unavoidable? What sin could be so terrible that it must result in God’s abandonment? The answer is given in verses 4-6. Although the details are somewhat obscure, the overall picture is clear: The poor and needy are being cheated and oppressed. Those doing the cheating can hardly wait until the religious rituals of the sabbath are over so they can get on with commercial activities and making money off of the poor. Once again religious behavior is a mere sham; it makes no difference to how people are treating the vulnerable. This has been Amos’s judgment throughout the book.

Verses 11-12 are quite poignant and original. A famine is coming, but not a famine of food or water. It will be a famine of hearing God’s word. People will be desperate to know what God wants; people will search everywhere for some divine guidance; but God will be entirely silent.

We may think we are safe–after all, we have the Bible. But possessing a Bible–even reading a Bible–does not mean we hear God’s word. Our ability to hear God’s word depends on our openness to selflessness, to trust, to compassion, to humility. Without the right attitude and commitment within us, the Bible is just words on a page. We can study it; we can become experts on it; we can claim to believe all sorts of doctrines of the divine inspiration of the Bible. None of that matters. We will not hear the word of God until we truly have the Spirit of God among us and within us. Without that Spirit, we will use the words of the Bible for our own purposes, to defend our own fears, to construct our own reality, to serve ourselves and to condemn anyone who threatens our perspective.

Amos obviously cares deeply for the poor. But the judgment that is coming is going to destroy the poor as well as the rich, the slaves as well as the masters, the humble as well as the arrogant. How is that just? It isn’t. The coming destruction of Israel is not divine justice, it is not God imposing a balanced scale on the human experience; rather, the coming destruction is the consequence of an unhealthy and unjust society. The coming destruction is, in its own way, yet another injustice–another act of oppression against those most vulnerable.

God does not intercede directly in our world, forcing upon us some sort of heavenly state of justice. Instead, God’s will is going to have to come about through the messy actions of human beings. One act of human injustice will likely result in another act of human injustice, on and one, until we finally, truly hear the word of God and stop reacting with injustice.

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