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.
So far, in our reading challenge for November, we have worked our way through Amos’s biography in verse one, his Oracles Against the Nations in chapters 1 and 2, and his judgement speeches in chapters 3, 4 and 5. This week we will close out the last judgement speech and launch into the final portion of Amos which is a sequence of five visions. All five visions point to the nearness and severity of Israel’s judgement. Between the second and third vision, Amos gives a brief narrative of an important moment in his own prophetic ministry.
Amos 6 is a continuation of the judgement oracles from the preceding three chapters. Amos is trying to shatter the delusional thinking of the first-class citizens of Israel who assume that their wealth and success reflects God’s favor on them. Their faulty self-conception was only perpetuating the systems of injustice propping up their lavish lifestyle. Amos paints a scathing picture of the ruling class, reclining on their beds of Phoenician ivory, drinking bowls of wine and anointing themselves with oils. To note, beds in any form would have been a luxury. Most people slept on floor mats. And the imported wine and oil is especially indulgent since we know from the woe speeches that the country had recently been through a drought and struggled with crop failure (4:9-10).
The prophet is disgusted by the complacency of the advantaged. He wonders how they are not “grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (6:6). This chapter reminds me of the careless exuberance of the 1920s, or at least how I imagine it from The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan was too distracted by luxury to imagine the suffering of the world around her, much less the coming nightmare of the next decade. The same is true here for Amos’s “cows of Bashan,” lounging on their ivory couches and oblivious to the approaching devastation.
Amos asks rhetorically if Israel is any different than the Philistine city of Gath or the Aramean city of Hamath: “Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is your territory greater than their territory?” (6:2). Based off their concept of chosenness, they would instinctively respond “yes,” especially considering the Arameans and Philistines were two of Israel’s greatest enemies. But the answer implied from Amos is “no.” False confidence has overtaken them to the point that they are blind to the internal problems in Israel and her weakening security.
Israel has left the standard of God and fallen into the ways of the world. Yahweh says he detest “the pride of Jacob” (6:8). The pride of Jacob could be referencing the strongholds of the capital city in Samaria or the expanded land borders. Amos is reinforcing his point that Israel is swollen with misplaced pride in their recent financial gain, military success, and religious routines.
Israel has afflicted the righteous, taken bribes, and pushed aside the needy at the city gate (5:12). Amos says, “you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12). He is reiterating that the law and the covenant were meant to be lifegiving, a protection against injustice and abuse in their society. And yet, they turned them into poison, an outcome so absurd that Amos compares it to horses running on a cliff or oxen plowing the sea (6:12). The warnings of Amos were meant as a last shaking. The Israelites had to understand that their disobedience and immorality forfeited their rights to the covenant blessings.
With the closing of Amos’s woe speeches, the book transitions into the third and final section: a vision sequence. All the visions are revelations of what will happen to Israel once Yahweh unleashes his judgement, but none of them have taken place yet. The prophet, as part of his vocation, is privy to Yahweh’s plans beforehand. We do not know exactly when Amos received these visions during his prophetic ministry. But from the very beginning of the book, “seeing” is the manner that Amos seems to have received the word of God. Amos 1:1 says “these are the words of Amos…. which he saw.” Amaziah, the enemy of Amos who I will discuss in a bit, identified Amos as a seer (7:12).
In the first vision (7:1-3), Yahweh shows Amos a locust invasion. The timing of the invasion was critical. They were attacking right after the spring harvest and “after the king’s mowings.” The “king’s mowings” seems like a reference to a taxation system which required the rural farmers to pay tribute to the king from the first of their harvest. If they lost the spring harvest, they would have no food storage to get them through the dry summer months. The expansiveness of this punishment moved Amos. The prophet intervenes, asking God, “Forgive! I beg you!” (7:3). God heard Amos’s cry and relented.
In the second vision, Yahweh shows Amos a vision of Israel destroyed by fire. This links back to the promised punishments in the Oracles Against the Nations which were almost all destructions by divine fire. The fire was so extensive that it devoured both the land and the sea. Once again, Amos cried out to God. This time, instead of a plea to forgive, Amos said, “Cease! I beg you!” God stayed His hand. In neither case, does Amos make a plea for the righteous in the land. Amos knew they were guilty; he could only appeal to God’s mercy.
The first two visions connect thematically. If Israel did not repent, seek Yahweh, and obey his commands, they would experience the curses of Deuteronomy 28. In the case of both the locusts and the fire, Amos acted as an intercessor. He was keeping in the prophetic tradition of Abraham and Moses who came before him, and Jeremiah and Ezekiel who came after.
The next two visions require God to interpret the visions to Amos, because they are not events but symbols. In these symbolic visions, God shows Amos an image and then asks Amos “What do you see?” (7:8). Amos then engages in a back-and-forth with Yahweh about the meaning of the symbol.
The third vision is problematic with the Hebrew translation. Since the middle ages, the English translation portrays Yahweh as a builder standing by a wall and holding a plumbline, a weight suspended on a string. When the plumbline hangs freely, gravity shows whether the wall has a proper right angle. In Amos’s vision, the plumbline is crooked, just as Israel is found wanting by the standards of Yahweh. Builders must destroy faulty walls, and Yahweh is forced to destroy Israel.
The problem with the plumbline vision is that the Hebrew word anak is rare, only occurring in this verse in Amos. The meaning of the word was lost. Bible translators theorized that anak meant lead. Because lead was used with a plumbline, the vision made sense. But the translators in the Middle Ages did not have access to the Akkadian archives. What we now know from the advancement of Akkadian scholarship is that anak is an Akkadian loan word that means tin. So, the better translation for the third Amos vision is that Yahweh was standing above a wall made from tin and holding a piece of tin amid the people. The tin wall is a visualization of the Assyrian empire, which remains otherwise unnamed in the book of Amos. God tears off a piece of the tin and places it in the middle of Israel, showing He is the source behind Assyria’s strengthening and He has allowed their army to do His bidding.
There are not many times Bible Fiber will be jump in the weeds of Hebrew word study. But because the plumbline vision has taken off in application sermons, I thought it was important for you to know the latest in biblical scholarship. Tin versus a plumbline does not change the fundamentals of Amos’s message at all but it is worth noting how the study of ancient languages continues to illuminate scripture.
At the end of chapter seven, the vision sequence is interrupted with an autobiographical event from Amos’s life (7:10-17). The event fits into the vision sequence in that it connects to the interpretation of Amos’s third vision. God tells Amos that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:9). For obvious reasons, this is the prophecy that got Amos into trouble with the temple priest Amaziah at Bethel. Amaziah reported the vision to Jeroboam II. Despite being at the top of Israel’s religious hierarchy, Amaziah’s loyalties must have aligned with the royal household, rather than a messenger from Yahweh.
The standoff between Amaziah and Amos is a rare peek into the life of the prophets in the Northern Kingdom. We know that prophets in Judah, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, had the ear of the kings and the temple priests. But this instance in Amos is the only clue we have that Amos took his prophecies to the very centers of Israel’s religious establishment.
Amaziah accuses Amos of treason for predicting the death of the king by sword. Amaziah told Amos to go back to Judah to earn his bread because “the land is not able to bear all his words” (7:10). Prophets did often rely on the donations and charity of the people so the implication is that in Amos’s hometown, the people will pay to hear Amos’s prophecies. But Amos is quick to correct Amaziah and defend his motivations. He is a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, not in the lineage of prophets or part of a prophetic guild. He does not need to benefit financially from what the Lord has called him to do in Israel.
Amos levels up the confrontation with a message aimed specifically at Amaziah. When the day of Yahweh’s judgement arrives, Amaziah’s children will die in the military attack. Occupiers will divide his land. Amaziah’s wife will succumb to a life of harlotry merely to survive, and Amaziah will die in exile. If Amos got a poor reception at Bethel before, I am certain this pushed the limits. We do not know what happened to Amos after this faceoff at Bethel, but Jewish tradition holds that Amos was killed by Amaziah’s son.
Amos returns to his visions. Like the third vision, the fourth vision requires interpretation. In this vision, Yahweh shows Amos a basket of summer fruit, likely figs, grapes and pomegranates. Yahweh, once again, asked, “Amos, what do you see?” The key to this vision is the season for the fruit. Summer fruit is overripe. Just as the ripening of fruit will lead to decay, the same is true for Israel.
The interpretive portion of this vision is long. The summer fruit is juxtaposed with a pile of corpses. Yahweh reiterates all the reasons for Israel’s judgement, paralleling the accusations already brought against Israel in chapters 2 and 5. They “trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land” (8:4).
They keep the Sabbath, but they cannot wait for it to end so they can get back to practicing deceit in the marketplace (8:5). God forbid dishonest weights and scales from the earliest of days when the Hebrews took possession of the land (Deut. 25: 13-16), and God even connected honest scales in the marketplace with their permission to live long in the land. Deceitful scales for the purchase of grain may seem like a small thing to our modern imagination, but Amos indicates that the scam makes the poor poorer, eventually accumulating so much debt that they have to sell themselves (8:6). Interestingly, archaeologists working in the City of David in Jerusalem found an intentionally mismarked weight that dates to the First Temple period.
There is no compassion in the land, and to lack compassion for the poor, widow, and orphan is to oppose the will of God. As a result, Israel’s feasting will turn to mourning and their songs will turn into laments (8:10). Here, Amos predicts not only their physical ruin but also their spiritual devastation. The day is soon coming when Yahweh will no longer send his messengers. Their will be a famine of God’s word. The strongest of Israel, the young men and young women, will stagger about the land “seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (8:12).
By the fifth and final vision, Amos is silent. He is no longer an intercessor on Israel’s behalf like in the first two visions. He no longer has even a brief question and answer with Yahweh like in the third and fourth vision. The sense is that Yahweh’s judgement is final. Also, after the episode with Amaziah, Amos has first-hand experience with the obstinacy of Israel.
In this vision, Yahweh is standing beside an altar and he commands the destruction of the entire sanctuary. The text does not say if it is the altar of Jerusalem or Bethel but the context points to Bethel. What follows is a sweeping judgement of Israel, the most hyperbolic and frightening passage in the whole book. The message is that Israel has no refuge from the wrath of God. He is sovereign over every dominion: the natural world and the cosmos. Amos warns that if they hide in the forests of Mount Carmel, Yahweh will find them. If they hide in the depths of the sea, Yahweh will command a sea-serpent to bite them (9:3). The Israelites, shaken by God’s judgement, will want to escape to Sheol, but Yahweh will snatch them out, and if they reach the heavens, He will yank them down (9:2).
And yet, in the very last verses, God promises that this is not the end of Israel. The political entity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel will never come back after the Assyrian exile. But a remnant from the nation will be saved from the fire, like grain in a fine sieve (9:9). Up until this point, Amos has not so much as taken a side-glance at the grace and mercy of God. That is why he is known as the prophet of doom. But now, the tone is hopeful.
Amos writes that in the days after the judgement, Yahweh will rebuild the “booth of David that has fallen” (9:11). Restoring the booth of David points to the Messianic age when He will replant the people of God in the land, and they will be secure in it. As God always displays His favor to Israel through the abundance of the land, the final verses paint a picture of the land’s bounty overwhelming the harvesters. As for the cities, God will rebuild them, and a portion of the captives will return and never be uprooted again. This final message of hopeful expectation is the rainbow after Noah’s flood story. God had to destroy a certain portion of his family, to remove habitual sin far from Him, but a remnant will be brought back into the Tent of David. God’s plan plays out like the Psalmists says, “For his anger is but for a moment, his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:4-5).
James, the brother of Jesus, recalled the last portion of Amos at the Council at Jerusalem. As he heard the reports of gentile conversions from Paul, Barnabas, and Peter, he realized that God was fulfilling the words of Amos. James quoted from the Septuagint so the wording is slightly different than what we have preserved in the Hebrew Masoretic text of our biblical cannon. But the message is the same. In the Masoretic text, Israel will “possess the remnant of Edom, and all the nations who are called by my name” (9:12). In the Septuagint, as quoted by James, “the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name” (Acts 15:17). For James, Amos foretold of the extension of the covenant to all Yahweh’s image-bearers, even the gentiles in foreign lands. This was the miracle taking place in the time of the disciples through the good news of the salvific powers and works of Jesus Christ.
I am not prophet and certainly no priest, but when I come upon threads like this, linking the words of a minor prophet to the spreading of the gospel to all the ends of the earth, I want to shout in the spirit of Jesus, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Let him hear the words of the prophets. Let him not ignore the Hebrew scriptures. Let him understand that the whole Bible works together as one giant beautiful life-giving revelation.