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Amos 9

February 29, 2016

The final chapter of the book of Amos contains both the most dreadful curse as well as the most beautiful hope. How can we hold them together? Should we?

The first four verses are shockingly violent. God is not only carrying out a judgment of death, but is doing so with what appears to be implacable hatred and vengeance toward every living soul in the northern kingdom of Israel. Absolutely no one will escape a violent death–whether they try to hide in heaven or hell, the top of a mountain or the bottom of the sea, or even seek escape from death through slavery, God will find them and kill them.

These verses reverse the comforting metaphors of Psalm 139:7-12 in which God’s gracious presence is with us no matter where we go or what happens to us. Instead of God pursuing with love and intimate knowing, God pursues with blood lust. Even the sea–the symbolic place of chaos and un-creation–is not safe from God; God commands even the sea monster of chaos to do God’s violent will. There is a level of punitive and all-encompassing hostility here that I find difficult to credit to God. I cannot help but feel that Amos has let his own out-of-control anger shape his conception of God’s word. How can God be just or loving if God is committed to tracking down every single Israelite for assassination? Not every Israelite was evil. How about all the poor Israelites Amos was so concerned about? They die too.

Verses 5-6 conclude this passage by affirming that God is sovereign over all of creation–that is why it is impossible to escape God’s judgment.

Verses 7-8 are a bit puzzling, but the meaning appears to be something like this: God is telling Israel that it ought not to think that it can escape judgment because it is God’s specially created people, because all nations have been created by God. Just as God created the nation of Israel by bringing a group of ex-slaves from Egypt to the highlands of Canaan, so God created the Philistines by bringing them from Crete to the shores of Canaan, and God created the Arameans by bringing them from Mesopotamia to Syria. God is not only the God of Israel, but of all nations, and any nation that acts sinfully will face destruction. In this sense, God makes no distinction between Israel and Ethiopia (Cush)–the nation at the farthest edge of the world known to Israelites.

But then the end of verse 8 takes an unexpected turn: “except I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD.” This contradicts verses 1-4 in which absolutely every Israelite will be hunted down for destruction. How do we resolve this? Earlier in the book Amos had indicated that there may be a few pitiable survivors, so that may be what he’s referring to here (which would mean verses 1-4 are just slightly exaggerated). Or, this phrase at the end of verse 8 was added at a later time and refers to the remnant that escaped the destruction of Judah two hundred years later. I lean toward this explanation.

Verses 9-10 use the image of a sieve. God will use a sieve to separate stones from grain. The stones are the sinners who think they’re safe and that God’s judgment will never overtake them. These will die. This also perhaps implies that not all of the Israelites will die–only the ones who fail to make it through the sieve. Either Amos is saying everyone is a stone (and will therefore die), or he is backtracking from his absolute statements in verses 1-4. Or, once again, these may be verses added later that refer to the sifting that occurred in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians destroyed the nation of Judah, and in which many went into exile but were able to continue hope for the reconstitution of their nation.

Verses 11-12 seem to me to be a later addition–addressing the hope that the house of David will be restored. David’s throne was in Jerusalem, so it was the southern kingdom of Judah (whose capital was Jerusalem) who identified with David most closely. This hope for David’s “booth” to rise again dates from the time of the Babylonian exile. The northern kingdom of Israel was long gone almost two hundred years before. But the survivors from Jerusalem’s destruction–the former citizens of Judah who now live in exile in Babylon–were able to hold on to their faith, strengthen and clarify their faith, and hope for a return and rebuilding of their nation. I don’t see how these verses could have come from Amos–they would have been nonsensical in his own day.

Verses 13-15 are the exact opposite of verses 1-4. Instead of the utter ending of Israel, we have here the total restoration of Israel, with ruins rebuilt and the land being fruitful again. All of this contradicts what Amos consistently predicted previously. I, along with the vast majority of scholars, see this as an addition to the book, an expression of hope that the historical Amos did not speak.

This leads to an important question about inspiration and the authority of scripture. If some of these passages in chapter 9 were added later, and contradict what Amos said, then why is Amos considered a true prophet and why are his words included in scripture? Here is how I look at it: Amos, unlike everyone else in his day, spoke out courageously about the social injustices going on in the northern kingdom of Israel. He rightly saw that in God’s eyes doing justice trumps all rituals of religion. He also rightly predicted that an invasion would soon wipe out the nation of Israel entirely. Amos likely was killed for giving Israel this unpopular and supposedly seditious message. But when Assyria conquered and obliterated Israel a few decades later in 722 B.C., Amos’s words were remembered and preserved by the southern kingdom of Judah for their deep truthfulness. When, a hundred and fifty years later, the Babylonians conquered Judah in 587 B.C., people saw Amos’s words as relevant for them as well–once again injustice had brought about devastation. But unlike the Assyrian invasion of Israel, the Babylonian invasion of Judah did not bring an end to hope. The exiles kept the faith alive, and their prophets (people like Ezekiel) inspired them to add hope to Amos’s original message so that Amos was, in a sense, continuing to speak a true and relevant message for a new situation. Those who added hope to Amos’s message were just as inspired as Amos himself; indeed, they made Amos’s words even truer, because God never gives up hope. The additions to Amos’s message served to make his message relevant and true for all times and places, not just his own.

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