Bible blog 2181

My bible blog gets going again on the first day of the new year with a distinctive voice from the Hebrew Bible

Amos 1:1-2:6 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

I have used the Complete Jewish Bible version because it is Jewish, with Jewish spellings of biblical names, as a reminder that this is a Hebrew text, preserved and edited by Jewish scholars before the of Jesus who would have read it in its original language. 

My first extract is lengthy because it is a passage composed to be read as a whole. Try reading it aloud; it’s a great rant.

The words of ‘Amos, one of the sheep owners in T’koa, which he saw concerning Isra’el in the days of ‘Uziyah king of Y’hudah and Yarov‘am the son of Yo’ash, king of Isra’el, two years before the earthquake; he said:

Adonai is roaring from Tziyon

thundering from Yerushalayim;

the shepherds’ pastures will mourn,

and Mount Karmel’s summit will wither.

Here is what Adonai says:

“For Dammesek’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because they threshed Gil‘ad

with an iron-spiked threshing-sledge;

I will send fire to the house of Haza’el,

and it will consume the palaces of Ben-Hadad.

I will break the bars of Dammesek’s gates.

I will cut off the inhabitants from Bik‘at-Aven,

and him who holds the scepter from Beit-‘Eden.

Then the people of Aram will go into exile

in Kir,” says Adonai.

Here is what Adonai says:

“For ‘Azah’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because they exiled a whole population

and handed them over to Edom;

I will send fire to the wall of ‘Azah,

and it will consume its palaces.

I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod,

and him who holds the scepter from Ashkelon.

I will turn my hand against ‘Ekron,

and the rest of the P’lishtim will perish,”

says Adonai, God.

Here is what Adonai says:

“For Tzor’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because they exiled a whole population to Edom

and did not remember the covenant with kinsmen;

10 I will send fire to the wall of Tzor,

and it will consume its palaces.”

11 Here is what Adonai says:

“For Edom’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because with sword he pursued his kinsman

and threw aside all pity,

constantly nursing his anger,

forever fomenting his fury;

12 I will send fire on Teman,

and it will consume the palaces of Botzrah.”

13 Here is what Adonai says:

“For the people of ‘Amon’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because they ripped apart pregnant women

just to expand their territory,

14 I will set fire to the wall of Rabbah,

and it will consume its palaces

amid shouts on the day of battle,

amid a storm on the day of the whirlwind.

15 Their king will go into exile,

he and his princes together,” says Adonai.

Here is what Adonai says:

“For Mo’av’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because he burned the bones of the king of Edom,

turning them into lime;

I will send fire on Mo’av,

and it will consume the palaces of K’riot.

Mo’av will die with turmoil and shouting,

along with the sound of the shofar.

I will cut off the judge from among them

and kill all his princes with him,” says Adonai.

Here is what Adonai says:

“For Y’hudah’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because they rejected Adonai’s Torah

and haven’t observed his laws,

and their lies caused them to fall into error

and live the way their ancestors did;

I will send fire on Y’hudah,

and it will consume the palaces of Yerushalayim.

Here is what Adonai says:

“For Isra’el’s three crimes,

no, four — I will not reverse it —

because they sell the upright for silver

and the poor for a pair of shoes,

grinding the heads of the poor in the dust

and pushing the lowly out of the way;

father and son sleep with the same girl,

profaning my holy name;

lying down beside any altar

on clothes taken in pledge; 

drinking wine in the house of ther God

bought with the fines they imposed.

The best guess of biblical scholars is that this text was edited in its final form in the time of the second Jerusalem temple in the  5th or 4th centuries BCE as part of a collection of shorter prophetic works entitled the “Book of the 12 prophets”. The prophets in question are assigned to various times in Israel’s history.

Here the editor assigns Amos to a period maybe 300 years before his own. We do not know whether he possessed authentic speeches of Amos or whether he invented him. The prophet Daniel, for example, seems to have been invented for the purpose of criticising the Greek overlords of Israel. Most protestant bible teaching has treated  biblical material as historical fact, but that is simply a prejudice. Would Christianity be altered if we discovered that all biblical characters were invented or at least substantially re-imagined by their authors?

In this case my own judgement is that the editor did have material passed on through the temple scribes, who may have had access to manuscripts kept by disciples of the prophets. The voice of Amos, not to mention the voice of God declared by Amos, is so distinctive as to defy invention, but then so are the voices of Falstaff and Hamlet. In any case the editor was engaged in producing material which would direct the religious habits of a tiny Israeli state menaced by greater powers in the ancient near East. He or she wanted the prestige of ancient tradition to add weight to a contemporary teaching. As we read it therefore, we should ask what it would have meant to Jewish people between 500 and 300 BCE, rather than to the asssumed contemporaries of Amos. The editor gives us enough information to imagine how his/her audience would have  received the long diatribe printed above.

Amos is described as a sheep- owner, as a substantial farmer, rather than a poor peasant. The diatribe is peculiarly described as “words which he saw” that is, a message received by him in a vision. He is not designated as a prophet, but he behaves like one in his power to access the divine word, and in his courage in proclaiming it openly. Although we discover he comes from the southern kingdom of Judah, he speaks to “Israel”, the small kingdom established by the Jewish people who had returned from exile in Babylon, which lasted until 135 CE. Its citizens included the editor of this book and Jesus of Nazareth. The message of the prophet comes from Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) and is intended for all who want to be part of Israel, a community that orders its life by faithfulness to the one holy God and his teaching.

Doubtless these citizens would have heard with pleasure the judgements of Adonai (The Lord) on their immediate neighbours who had often been their enemies. Oh yes, they would have said, time they got their comeuppance for their crimes. If that’s what God’s about, then he gets our approval! Alas, after six ferocious denunciations, the Lord brings his pitiless scrutiny to bear on his own people, first of all, Y’hudah then Isra’el. We can assume that if this was read in public, the cheering would have died away at this point. In a part of the world where the default culture supposed that your national God would be on your side, this opening diatribe is cunningly composed to cause maximum shock and offence. If we want to understand the editor’s purpose in characterising Amos in this way, then we need to look at the details of the judgements.

The crimes of the neighbouring nations are in effect crimes against humanity. In the course of waging war they have in varying ways broken the Geneva Convention of their day, deliberately using atrocity to destroy their enemy. Adonai, who is not merely a national God but the Holy One, and who who may have laid claim to jurisdiction over the  “greater Israel” occupied by these nations, is according to Amos, utterly opposed to such inhumanity. (We should note that this is clearly not the same Holy God as the one portrayed in the book of Joshua commanding the Israelites to massacre men women and children.) The God whose words are transmitted by Amos expects restraint even in war, a lesson that many nations have still failed to learn.

But when the prophet turns to his own people the focus pf judgement is different: Y’hudah is accused of neglecting “ Adonai’s Torah” and Israel of social injustice.

This translation uses the word Torah which is Judaism’s term for the Law of God revealed in the Bible. There was no bible in Amos’s time but perhaps by the time of the editor an agreed collection of holy books was being formed in Israel, with the expectation that all Israelites should live by them. Probably this was a minority expectation and most Israelites were as neglectful of the scriptures as the Y’hudahites criticised here. We, the readers, are always being given the view of a committed minority who insisted that God’s people should “walk in God’s ways.”

The social injustice of Israel is seen as twofold: rulers and officials can be bribed (silver) to pass judgement against decent people; and to sell the poor into slavery for small debts (the price of shoes). These two crimes indicate the complete corruption of justice by rulers and the wealthy people to the disadvantage of the rest. The prophet views these crimes as proceeding from a disrespect for the Holy God which is further evidenced by neglect of sexual and religious taboos. A quick look at the arrogance of the rich and the need of the poor in most nations today, even in those where the poor are protected by law, should be enough to persuade readers that Amos got it right. The original readers of the edited prophecy would have been encouarged to look hard at their own small society, to see how justice could be made real for all citizens. Probably the editor was hoping that Israel could be ruled by the Torah in much the same way as Muslims hope for a sheikdom ruled by Shariah law. Citizens of democratic nations have the more complex task of applying biblical ideas of justice to systems of law which require consent. I have no doubt however that Amos would have seen the UK’s Universal Credit as a form of justice for the poor devised by the rich and therefore corrupt.

The editor has done enough here to justify the description that Adonai is “roaring and thundering”. Indeed, the invention of God’s voice by prophets and their editors is an astonishing achievement. Whatever unusual trances or spirit- journeys may have been experienced by prophets, they still had to invent God’s speech for their audience. Amos creates God as a passionate and cunning orator as surely as Shakespeare creates Mark Anthony. God strides on to the stage as protagonist in a live debate about faith and justice in national life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: