By Shelley Neese—
Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel.
Amos is our featured prophet for November. Hopefully, you have already had the chance to read the first two chapters of Amos. Otherwise, this will feel like a lot coming at you. These first two chapters are called the Oracles Against the Nations (OAN).
The Oracles Against the Nations comprise seven judgement speeches against Israel’s neighbors: the Arameans, Philistines, Phoenicians, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites and Judah, in that order. The eighth oracle targets Amos’s audience directly, the Northern Kingdom of Israel. When I read these oracles, I put myself in the sandals of those Israelites who would have been hearing Amos prophecy for the first time. If I were Israelite, I am sure I would have been clapping and amening every pronouncement of judgement upon my enemies. At various points in Israel’s history, the kingdom had suffered significant abuse by each of the named nations.
Once Amos delivered the seventh oracle, his denouncement against Judah, I would have assumed it was his closing speech. Seven was the number of completion in Hebrew culture. But Amos surprised the Israelites with a final eight oracle, and this time he was denouncing them directly! The list of Israelite crimes was longer and more comprehensive than any of the other nations. They would not be spared from the full force of divine punishment.
One reason this podcast is focusing on the Minor Prophets is because they are very difficult texts to read at times. The text is often organized by theme or literary style, rather than chronologically like in Genesis, Kings, or Chronicles. And as we talked about in Hosea, the nature of prophetic writing also means the voice can change from first to third person within the same passage and the literary style can shift many times in one book. But the most difficult thing of all is that the minor prophets are absolutely filled with references to historical events in Israel’s history and allusions to religious laws from Deuteronomy that only the most biblically literate grasp in the first reading. The guys at the podcast, Bible Project, fittingly refer to these as biblical hyperlinks. The text would be much easier to work through if we could click on a hyperlink for every historical figure and event that we do not recognize. You may have felt this itch when you were reading the first two chapters of Amos. But in lieu of hyperlinks, I would like to walk with you through the first two chapters and provide a little condensed commentary for each of the eight oracles.
Amos follows a numerical formula to introduce each of his oracles: “For three transgressions of __________, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” The only variation in this introduction is the city name that connects to each people group. This three-four pattern is found in other Ancient Near Eastern literature. Look at Proverbs 30 for an example of the three-four pattern also appearing in biblical wisdom literature. Based on the numeric formula, one would expect four crimes listed per oracle, but instead the number of crimes varies each time, and is often only one. As the oracles progress, they also escalate, using the literary tool of parallelism to reinforce the crimes of each nation. It reaches a climax with the crimes of Israel.
Some Amos scholars note that the oracles are formatted like Egyptian Execration Texts. The Execration Texts are lists of the Pharaoh’s enemies written on clay or stone. The texts were broken and buried as part of a magic curse, or divination tradition. The Oracles Against the Nations start with the most distant nations first (Arameans, Philistines, and Phoenicians) and then move to nations with blood ties to Israel (Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, and Judah). Egyptian execration texts do the same but they mostly move from enemies the greatest distance away geographically to Egypt’s hostile neighbors. However, Amos’s oracles are different from Execration Texts in a major way. The Egyptians used them as a type of ritualistic war preparation that appealed to the divine by cursing their enemies beforehand. Amos seems to be doing something similar in his OAN by cursing Israel’s enemies at the start, but eventually the finger points directly at Israel. This is one of the ways that biblical history telling is so much different than the way the Egyptians or other ancient empires told their stories. The Bible writers were very honest about the failings of their own people and leaders, in a transparent manner far removed from the world of the pharaohs.
Throughout the oracles, Amos uses the names of large cities as synonymous with each nation. In the first oracle, he uses the numeric formula “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (1:3). Damascus is the largest city of the Arameans and the “House of Hazael” alludes to any member of the Aramean royal household. As the territory lying northeast of Israel, Aram posed a consistent threat to Israel’s borders, particularly the geographically vulnerable region of Gilead. The Arameans coveted Gilead, one of Israel’s northernmost cities on the east side of the Jordan River, for its lush farmland and its proximity to the King’s Highway, an important trade route. Amos only names one sin to which the Arameans are guilty: “they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron” (1:3). We do not know if Amos is describing the Aramean army literally torturing Israelites with farm equipment or if he is using the image as a symbol for the Arameans brutality in war. God gave the territory of Gilead to the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh, and by the standards of the Israelites, Arameans had no claim to the land. But the primary offense of the Arameans, according to Amos, was not their taking of the covenanted land, but rather their ruthlessness in battle.
God’s punishment against Aram was against the royal house, the elite, their fortified places, and the general population. This prophecy was fulfilled within a generation, and it comports with the narrative of Damascus’s fall in 2 Kings 16. At the request and invitation of the Kingdom of Judah, the Assyrian empire destroyed Damascus, killed the king, and deported the citizens to Kir. According to Amos 9:7, the Arameans of Damascus had originally migrated from Kir so theywere returning to the land they had already left.
The second oracle is directed at Israel’s long time enemy, the Philistines. Out of all Israel’s enemy nations, the Philistines are most familiar to Bible readers because of the famous stories like David and Goliath or Samson and Delilah. They occupied five cities along the southern coastal plain: Gath, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gaza, and Ashdod. Amos names all but Gath. Their primary sin, according to Amos, is their participation in the slave trade with the Edomites. Amos says they “carried into exile entire communities, to hand them over to Edom” (1:6). The reference here may be to an episode described in 2 Chronicles 21:16-17 when the Philistines raided the Judean king’s palace and took the royal household into slavery.
I wish I could say that this is a biblical example of outlawing slavery all together as immoral. However, the laws of war in Deuteronomy did not forbid the practice of turning captives of war into slaves, but it did forbid the mistreatment of captives (Deut. 21:10-14).
The methods in which Philistines were acquiring slaves somehow violated even the most basic of laws around the slave economy. And for their punishment, the Philistine strongholds would be burned by divine fire and the people would perish. Fire is the main form of divine punishment in all the oracles. This prophecy was fulfilled by the Assyrian attack on Gaza in 734 BCE. The other Philistine cities also fell to later Assyrian kings.
The third oracle is against Tyre, a prominent Phoenician port city in antiquity. Tyre, continuously occupied through the centuries, is today the fourth largest city in Lebanon. The denouncement on Phoenicia is almost identical to the condemnation of Philistia. They are both guilty of “delivering entire communities over to Edom” (1:9). Phoenicians did not do the capturing of slaves, but their huge harbors were certainly well-poised in the maritime industry to profit off the trade and transfer of slaves. Amos adds one phrase to the condemnation of Tyre that he didn’t include against Philistia. They are not only guilty of the traffic of humans, but they violated a “covenant of kinship.” The kinship referenced here is the peace agreement and trade alliance that both King David and King Solomon forged with Phoenicia and lasted many years (2 Sam. 5:11; 1 Kings 5). The marriage of Judean King Ahab to the Phoenician princess Jezebel shows how serious both parties took the alliance.
Like Philistia, Tyre was predicted to be destroyed by divine fire. By 883 BCE, Assyria subdued the Phoenicians and forced them to pay heavy tithes to the king. But it was not until Alexander the Great that Tyre was completely captured and most of its people killed.
The fourth oracle is against Edom. The naming of Edom’s southernmost city of Teman and northern most city of Bozrah shows the fullness of Edom’s punishment. This oracle marks a transition from condemnation of outsiders to condemnation of those nations which Israel has a fraternal covenant. Also, the tone of the oracles has escalated. The Ammonites and Philistines participated in the trade of Judean slaves, but the Edomites have the ultimate blood on their hands as they were the actual point men of the slave trade.
According to the Bible, the Edomites were descendants of Esau and they lived in the region of Seir. From the moment of Jacob and Esau’s tenuous reunion, the relationship between Judah and Edom was tense. But still, the Bible continually refers to Judah and Edom as brothers (Num. 20:14; Deut. 23:7).
At various points, Judah subjugated Edom, like during the reign of King David (2 Sam. 8:14). After the fall of the united monarchy, Edom rebelled and temporarily achieved their independence. The enmity the Edomites felt toward Jerusalem was evident by their reaction to Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians. The Edomites were quick to take advantage of Judah’s plight, plundering the wreckage of the Holy City and further slaughtering the Judeans who remained. The savagery of the Edomites will be a focus for one of our later prophets Obadiah. I mentioned in my Joel 3 episode that Yahweh cursed the Edomites for their rejoicing over Judah’s greatest moment of weakness.
The fifth oracle was against another distant relative of Israel and Judah, the Ammonites. According to Genesis 19:30-38, the Ammonites descended from the incestuous relationship Lot had with his daughters after the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. So, technically, through the common patriarch Abraham, the Ammonites were cousins, even if they had the unfortunate origin story of being the products of incest. The land of Ammon, with their walled city of Rabbah, lay east of the Jordan.
When the Israelites were entering the land of Canaan after their exodus from Egypt, God told them not to harass the Ammonites because the land they were on was their rightful possession through the lineage of Lot. Still, the Ammonites often caused problems for Israel and Judah. The sin that Amos highlights in his oracle is their use of excessive violence. According to Amos, the Ammonites “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory” (1:13). Even by the standards of antiquity, Amos’s audience would have condemned the savagery of Ammonite leaders. And Amos is clear that they were not even acting in self-defense. Their gratuitous violence was part of a land grab.
The sixth oracle targets the Moabites. The Moabites were the other product of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters. Moab was an ancient kingdom in a mountainous region in the Jordan Valley. When Moses died, before entering the promised land, he was buried in Moab. And Ruth, the ancestress of our Messiah, was Moabite. Despite this backdrop, the relationship between Judah, Israel, and Moab was never peaceful. One of the craziest stories in the Hebrew scripture is the assassination of the obese Moabite King Eglon by the Israelite leftie Ehud (Judg. 3:15-20).
The sins of the Moabites do not pertain to Israel at all, but how Moab mistreated another one of Israel’s enemies, Edom. Their primary offense was burning the bones of the King of Edom, thereby defiling his burial. While the diverse cultures had varying burial rites and religious beliefs around the afterlife, all agreed that the dead had a right to protected burial. And the Moabites were blind to even the most basic of universal laws that existed at this time. Strangely too, this is the fourth oracle that Edom is featured in some way. Moab’s punishment is like the others. They will be destroyed by fire and their leaders will die in war.
Before the curse against Moab, a sense builds in Amos’s poetry that there was a recognized standard for proper conduct in war. If such a standard did not already exist across borders, Amos was reminding everyone that an ethical code, an understanding of right and wrong, exists for all humanity. Everyone is an image bearer of God. And as the descendants of Noah, everyone is held to a universal standard of human decency. So, the nations are called to account, not only for how they treat the special people of God, but also how they use and abuse each other. Amos is denouncing the world he occupies as completely void of loyalty, honor, and empathy.
Drawing from what is listed in the oracles, that code, at the very least, forbids gratuitous violence (1:11), taking war prisoners into slavery (1:6,9), attacking pregnant women (1:13), breaking covenants, and disrespecting the deceased (2:1).
The seventh oracle is directed at Amos’s own Kingdom of Judah. The measuring stick by which Judah is held accountable is different than that of the other nations. As recipients of Yahweh’s revelation, they are expected to follow more than a baseline moral code for the ethical standards of war. Their crime pertains to their religious worship. They “have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes” (2:4). They followed “the same lies after which their ancestors walked” (2:4). Judah, like Israel, had privileged status among the nations of the world in that they knew the one true God. He had instructed them in His ways so all would be well with them.
God is calling for fire to destroy Jerusalem. This prophecy would be fulfilled when the Babylonians burned Jerusalem in 586 BCE (2 Kings 25).
The eighth and final oracle is against Israel, the very audience that Amos would have been addressing. Yahweh judged the other nations for acts they committed during war time, but Israel was held accountable for how she had mistreated her own people even in times of peace. And for the first time in Amos’s oracles, the numerical three-four formula delivers. Up to this point, only one sin had been named per oracle. But now there are many sins. Israel had horribly mistreated the poor and oppressed, trampling their heads and pushing them away (2:7). They were also guilty of sexual immorality and idolatry (2:7).
Amos enforced the point that Israel’s guilt was the greatest because they had been gifted God’s revelation through the laws and the prophets. Yahweh had called out the descendants of Abraham to be a kingdom of priests, and example of wisdom and justice to the world. And instead, they were acting just like the nations. They had profaned the name of the Lord (2:7), which is the equivalent of saying that they had been such a bad example of how a nation of Yahweh should act under the principles that He had given, that Yahweh’s own reputation was at risk.
Yahweh makes clear that the failure of His people by no means reflects a failure of His own divinity. He sets a sharp contrast between His faithfulness to the covenant and their complete breach of the covenant. Because of His great mercy, Yahweh delivered them from slavery in Egypt when they had been at their lowest low. Through His guidance, they conquered the land of Canaan, fighting back the much stronger peoples of the land. Yahweh sent them prophets to convey His will, and the Israelites in response tried to silence them. He sent them Nazarites, who pledged to lead lives as examples of the pursuit of holiness, and they pressured the Nazarites to break their vows.
Israel’s coming punishment was going to be like the other nations. The Kingdom of Assyria would inflict the final blow on Israel. But Amos does not name the Assyrians, probably because they were merely acting as human agents under Yahweh’s command. Israel’s army under Jeroboam II had experienced success after success, but soon, the foot soldiers, archers, and calvary would all be on the run.
I hope now that when you read these first two chapters of Amos, you do not feel a need to skip over the oracles because they read like one of those lists in the Bible with so many difficult to pronounce people and place names. Each of Amos’s eight oracles is the link in a chain, and to get the full literary effect, you must at least try and comprehend the weight of each link. The denouncement of Israel is the anchor at the end of the chain with the most weight. However, the implicit message of the Oracles Against the Nations, is Yahweh’s reminder that He is sovereign over all nations. All of history is His concern. Yahweh is the one who gave all the nations their inheritance, but as Deuteronomy 32:8 emphasizes, “the Lord’s own portion was His people.”
We will learn next week more about what it means to be the family Yahweh has chosen to know out of all the families of the earth. When I read Amos, the Peter Parker principle is always dashing into my head, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” But in the case of God’s people, the ones delivered out of Egypt and given the gift of God’s laws at Sinai, the more appropriate wording is “With divine revelation there must also come great responsibility.”
Be sure to read Amos 3, 4, and 5 as part of the Bible Reading Challenge.
Thank you for listening. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.