Bible blog 2189


The smashed altar

Amos 9.

I saw Adonai standing beside the altar, and he said,

“Strike the tops of the columns until the thresholds shake!
Smash them to pieces on the heads of all the people!
Those who remain I will kill with the sword;
not one of them will succeed in fleeing,
not one of them will escape.
If they dig down to Sh’ol,
my hand will haul them out;
if they climb up to heaven,
I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of the Karmel,
I will search them out and capture them there;
If they hide from me at the bottom of the sea,
I will order the serpent to bite them there.
If their enemies herd them into exile,
I will order the sword to kill them there.
I will fix my gaze on them
for harm and not for good.”

For Adonai God of Armies
is the one who can melt the earth with his touch,
and make all who live on it mourn.
It will all rise, just like the Nile,
and then subside, like the Nile in Egypt.
He builds his upper rooms in heaven
and establishes his sky-vault over the earth.
He summons the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the earth.
Adonai is his name.

“People of Isra’el, are you any different
from the Ethiopians to me?” asks Adonai.
“True, I brought Isra’el up from Egypt,
but I also brought the P’lishtim from Kaftor,
and Aram from Kir.
Look, the eyes of Adonai God
are on the sinful kingdom.
I will wipe it off the face of the earth.

Yet I will not completely destroy
the house of Ya‘akov,” says Adonai.

“For when I give the order,
I will shake the house of Isra’el,
there among all the Goyim,
as one shakes with a sieve,
letting no grain fall to the ground.
10 All the sinners among my people
who say, ‘Disaster will never overtake us
or confront us,’ will die by the sword.

11 “When that day comes, I will raise up
the fallen hut of David.
I will close up its gaps, raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as it used to be,
12 so that Isra’el can possess
what is left of Edom
and of all the nations bearing my name,”
says Adonai, who is doing this.
13 “The days will come,” says Adonai,
“when the plowman will overtake the reaper
and the one treading grapes the one sowing seed.
Sweet wine will drip down the mountains,
and all the hills will flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Isra’el;
they will rebuild and inhabit the ruined cities;
they will plant vineyards and drink their wine,
cultivate gardens and eat their frui
15 I will plant them on their own soil,
no more to be uprooted
from their land, which I gave them,”
says Adonai your God.

In this last passage from the prophecies of Amos, who worked in the 8th century BCE, we can see the hand of the biblical editor who worked in the 5th century BCE, and was a citizen of a small but restored kingdom of Israel. It seems to me unlikely that Amos spoke of a future of any sort for Israel, but entirely understandable that editor wanted to include verses 8b -15, to reassure his readers of God’s blessing. He would have had no difficulty in finding such a prophecy in the archives he was using.

The vision from verse 1- verse 8a, is unsparing: God is depicted poised above the temple altar commanding its destruction, as it represents worship without societal justice which God detests. The divine judge will hunt down his prey without mercy or negligence. The slightly flowery tone of verses 5 and 6 may also signal an editorial insertion. The real crunch comes with verse 7 which takes the theology of the chosen people by the scruff of the neck and gives it a good beating. Yes, God has brought Israel up from Egypt, but he has also brought its neighbours from their former territories. Doubtless this savage dismissal of Israel’s favoured status would have seemed almost blasphemous to its religious leaders of the 8th century BCE and even to the editor and his associates. It would remain challenging for orthodox Jews today. It’s clear that Amos knew that he was contradicting a cherished belief.

Many scholars accept verses 8b-10 as original, but I can’t see how any of it is compatible with 8a which promises the complete destruction of Israel in blunt terms. The images of a more selective destruction, along with those of restoration and plenty, may have been added the scroll of Amos at various times in its history prior to or contemporary with the editor. They strike me as standard and banal.

Even given these editorial efforts to communicate some positivity, the prophecies of Amos are overwhelmingly negative. To be sure God is passionately committed to social justice, but he finds none in Israel and seems content that the poor should be punished for the crimes of the rich. So the poor of Israel are twice cursed, once by the rich and then by God. The image of the sieve on verse 10 may have been introduced to deal with this apparent injustice.

So we are left with Amos’s faith in an all-powerful God who is not much interested in anything except national and international justice. I think Mohammed and Karl Marx, peace be upon them, would have found much to relish in the prophecies of Amos, and that his editor must have seen them as a useful corrective to less rigorous texts. Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself pretty unsparing towards the rich, would have not been offended by his words. As for me, I think God is more tham Amos imagines, that is, he/she is concerned with more than social justice, more indeed but never less. Any doctrines of divine patience, forgiveness or salvation which dilute justice, along with any kind of worship offered by people who have no commitment to justice, are like the altar which Amos is told to smash.






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