Yesterday, we began our series in Amos, looking at how this shepherd from the southern kingdom of Judah turned up in the (rival) northern kingdom of Israel, with a tactful message that went something like: “God speaks from my homeland, which is where he lives, not in any of the rival shrines you lot have built. And when he speaks, it’s a message of judgement on your idolatry. (Say, is there a Motel 7 anywhere near here, as I’ll be around for a while doing this whole judgement-oracle thing?)”
Let’s see if his next effort can endear him a little more to his audience. It’s a series of judgement oracles.
Damascus (Assyria)Amos 1:3-5 This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not relent.
Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth,
I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad.
I will break down the gate of Damascus;
I will destroy the king who is in the Valley of Aven
and the one who holds the scepter in Beth Eden.
The people of Aram will go into exile to Kir,” says the Lord.
This is a little more like it. He’s turning up in Israel and preaching judgement against Damascus. It’s a bit like today… um… turning up in Israel and preaching judgement against Damascus. Plays well to the crowd.
Interlude: A few quick comments on the structure of this oracle, as it’s pretty much the same formula for all the others in the first two chapters:
- “This is what Yahweh says…”Amos is reporting the words God has given him to say, so pay attention.
- “Was that four sins, or only three? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself.” God (or Amos) seems to have a hard time counting – or at least remembering – the number of sins. But this is a standard form of wisdom writing (we looked at it earlier this year in Proverbs), which uses ascending numerical patterns (n, n+1). It’s like saying: “look at all these sins – oh yeah, and there’s one more, too.” And it seems to be this extra sin that’s the one mentioned – the last straw that has exhausted God’s patience with the nation in question and has him drawing his .44 Magnum.
- The particular punishment that will come upon the nation because of their sins.
- A recap (in most oracles) that solemnly reminds us that this is what God has said.
Back to the oracles, which we’ll read through pretty quickly. Keep in mind the map, below, which will help you see what’s happening:
Gaza (Philistia)Amos 1:6-8 This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Gaza, even for four, I will not relent.
Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom,
I will send fire on the walls of Gaza that will consume her fortresses.
I will destroy the king of Ashdod and the one who holds the scepter in Ashkelon.
I will turn my hand against Ekron, till the last of the Philistines are dead,”
says the Sovereign Lord.
Israel’s thinking: Ooh good! The Philistines are going to get what’s coming to them.
TyreAmos 1:9-10 This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Tyre, even for four, I will not relent.
Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom, disregarding a treaty of brotherhood,
I will send fire on the walls of Tyre that will consume her fortresses.
Tyre, too. Awesome. We’re Tyred of their smug little “you can’t get inside our island fortress” attitude.
EdomAmos 1:11-12 This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Edom, even for four, I will not relent.
Because he pursued his brother with a sword and slaughtered the women of the land,
because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked,
I will send fire on Teman that will consume the fortresses of Bozrah.
Naughty Edom. They weren’t all that helpful when we were wandering in the desert a few hundred years ago, and nothing much has changed.
AmmonAmos 1:13-15 This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Ammon, even for four, I will not relent.
Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders,
I will set fire to the walls of Rabbah that will consume her fortresses
amid war cries on the day of battle, amid violent winds on a stormy day.
Her king will go into exile, he and his officials together,”
says the Lord.
The Ammonites. We won’t forgive them for what happened to us in Gilead.
MoabAmos 2:1-3 is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not relent.
Because he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king,
I will send fire on Moab that will consume the fortresses of Kerioth.
Moab will go down in great tumult amid war cries and the blast of the trumpet.
I will destroy her ruler and kill all her officials with him,”
says the Lord.
Moab. Wow. All of the nations around are going to get judged. It’s like God’s firing arrows in a circle all around us. Can’t wait to see whom he hits next!
Hey Amos, you should have started with that stuff! Maybe you’re not such a bad guy after all.
We’ll see where this leads tomorrow.
Judgement and the nations
For now, let’s stop and look at the pattern. The nations around God’s chosen people – who, in effect, have no special relationship with him; who don’t know him like Israel does – they’re still being held to account by God. Is that fair?
After all, Israel and Judah have God’s commandments. They were told how to behave, and warned of the consequences if they rebelled. But what about these other nations?
Look at the sins they’re being accused of. They’re not being judged for not obeying The Law (which they don’t have) – no mention of idolatry, or breaking the sabbath, or even some of the commandments about human relationships, like theft or adultery. Read again the list of sins:Amos 1:3 Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth Amos 1:6 Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom Amos 1:9 Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom, disregarding a treaty of brotherhood Amos 1:11 Because he pursued his brother with a sword and slaughtered the women of the land Amos 1:13 Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders Amos 2:1 Because he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king
The common theme is unnecessary cruelty in war. Kind of like “unnecessary roughness” penalties in American Football. Yes, we know you need to hit the quarterback hard, but if it’s after the play’s over, it’s a foul. Yes, warfare happens (and that’s not good), but at least have some semblance of restraint. Don’t sell the conquered peoples into slavery, especially when they’re your near-relatives! Don’t go killing all the women! Don’t go ripping out the unborn babies! Don’t go defiling the remains of the vanquished!
God hasn’t set the bar too high for these people, judging them by a standard of which they’re unaware. He’s simply judging them by the standards of the nations of that era – and even then, they’re playing “dirty football.” They don’t even live up to the light they’ve been given.
To think about
Some of the time, Christians try to hold the rest of the world to standards that only make sense if you actually know God. (Particularly the so-called “higher ethics” of Jesus which encourage us to self-sacrifice, and turn the other cheek.) Rather than simply living out those standards in an attractive way, they try to coerce or legislate. I think that’s mistaken.
But if we look at this example from Amos, there are standards to which we can hold the world that derive from a general sense of morality that comes from having been created in God’s image. What kinds of things might these be?