Minor Prophets: Amos Lowers the Boom


Amos has been connected to the sheep: he was a shepherd by trade, who had a tremendous concern for the downtrodden, and was called by God to become a prophet.

In chapters 4-5, Amos reviewed God’s call to Israel to repent. Today, we will wade into chapter 4.


Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria

Amos 4:1 (NRSV)

Wasting no time, Amos got personal.

In our day, calling someone a “cow” is pretty strong language—it is a slur, an insult, public shaming language.

But was it 2,800 years ago?

This map, taken from my Macmillan Bible Atlas, shows where Bashan was located, in Samaria

Instead, look at it this way: Bashan, just east of the Jordan River, had rich, rolling hills and verdant, grassy plains perfect for herds and flocks. Today, Bashan would be the Golan Heights, also known for its vineyards. In Amos’ day, Bashan was famous for oak trees and cattle.

To have fat, lazy cows meant you were prosperous and secure. Not a care in the world. This is what everyone dreamed of, to be so well-cared for, so pampered and safe, that you could grow fat and happy, your wealth could be spent on pleasures and parties rather than have to be ferreted away for dark days ahead, stashed in secret caches, or spent on security systems.

To be a cow in Bashan was pretty much the epitome of awesome life.

The plains and hills of Bashan in a photo taken by my several greats grandfather Jesse Lyman Hurlbut in the late 1880s

And Amos was specific in his use of language and grammar that hearers should know he very much meant the “Cows of Bashan” to represent the women of the wealthy class, for he held them responsible for much of the evil in Israel. At the very least, he held up the image of these women as iconic for all that had gone wrong.

As a blessing from God, wealth is a good thing. In fact, I can think of several wealthy people in the scriptures who not only made no apology for their wealth, they were praised for it.

  • Think of King David, who opened his private treasury to finance the building of the future temple for God.
  • For that matter, think of Abigail, who was able to feed King David’s whole army from her own kitchen larder.
  • What about the Queen of Sheba, who lavished unimaginable riches on King Solomon in return for the godly wisdom he imparted to her?
  • Cast your mind back to Job, whom God personally blessed with great fortune both at the beginning and the end of Job’s story.
  • And the patriarch Abraham (also his descendants) was so affluent he finally had to part ways with his beloved nephew Lot, because there simply was not enough land to sustain the sum total of all their cattle and sheep.
  • Finally, there was Joseph, the second most powerful and prosperous person on the planet (at least to the known world).

Nothing wrong with being rich.

But! Valuing prosperity above people is terribly wrong.

Amos painted these women as being indifferent to the plight of the poor and needy, being self-centered and profoundly selfish, sporting a sense of entitlement, domineering and demanding of their staff and family, preoccupied with their physical pleasures.

And yet they were also very religious.

How could this happen?

How could gross injustice exist peaceably with popular religion?

Because there was no sense of personal sin, and their religion was not about seeking after God.

This is really where, as we say, the “rubber meets the road.” What is your real feeling about being responsible for the care of people living on the poverty line? (Or under it.)

I mean, thankfully, Christianity, over the course of the past two thousand years, has shifted the course of western culture towards great care for the vulnerable and downtrodden (This is a great article on that). And again, thankfully, many, many Christians are at the forefront of campaigns, organizations, volunteer groups, and charitable efforts that are doing great good the world over. What I’m really asking is, how are -you and I- doing, waaaaay down here, at the ground level?

It is a genuine question.

I think the general tenor of the whole Bible—and Amos in particular—depicts God looking for a right heart attitude first, then expecting to see faith lived out in our real lives, every day. One very clear example was Jesus’ address as recorded by Matthew’s gospel. He talked about very simple acts of kindness,

  • feeding hungry people.
  • giving thirsty people something to drink.
  • being welcoming to people who are new to the area, people who do not fit in.
  • clothing naked people.
  • taking care of those who are sick or ill in some way.
  • visiting people who are shut in, imprisoned in some way.

The way you and I think about something is going to determine what we do. Do I welcome chances to help people or do I try to get invisible when a needy person comes into view? Do I make excuses, or do I ask God if the Lord has opened the way for me to express love to the people God loves in practical ways?

Amos made it clear God’s patience with those whooppress the poor, who crush the needy,” had come to an abrupt stop. His description of what was coming was an uncanny depiction of the Assyrian’s subsequent subjugation of Israel, leading whoever was left alive into exile.

Religiosity

In verse 4, Bethel was where Israel had erected their alternative temple, and Gilgal was located in the plains of Jericho. Here the people had performed lavish ceremonies and sacrifices to God, had in fact been punctilious in their performances, “every morning” and “every three days.” No one could say they had been ignoring God! Far from it.

They were the most publicly fastidious in their religious observances and reputation.

And yet . . . Amos informed them all their religiousity was “transgression,” as far as God was concerned.

Famine

In verse 6, “cleanness of teeth” denoted the famine God had sent, to shake people from their spiritual torpor.

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

Drought

In verses 7-8, God next sent a drought. Actually, one town would get rained out, and the other town would be dry as a cork. One field was drowned, the other field withered up (sounds weirdly like the effects of climate change, doesn’t it?).

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

Pestilence and War

In verse 9, God sent three shock waves: blight, mildew, and locust.

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

God ramped it up, in verse 10, and sent plagues “after the manner of Egypt.” What a loaded phrase, right? The ten epic plagues of Egypt—really the ten contests God had with Egypt’s pantheon of gods, and pharaoh himself, and also the ten judgements God leveled against Egypt for its cruelty and enslavement of God’s people—had to have startled these people out of their stupor!

Then God sent devastating military conflict.

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

Wholesale Destruction

Verse 11, God ratcheted up the megaphone to its highest setting: Sodom and Gomorrah.


and you were like a brand snatched from the fire;

yet you did not return to me,

says the Lord.

Amos 4:11 (NRSV)

Like one of those disaster sagas, I wonder if the people were numb at this point, hollowed of all feeling, the shock of these words landing like mallets on the taut head of a kettle drum.


Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!

For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind,

    reveals his thoughts to mortals,

makes the morning darkness,

    and treads on the heights of the earth—

    the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

Amos 4:12-13 (NRSV)

[Image courtesy Pxfuel]

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