International ethics are important to Amos. He condemns violent aggression (perhaps even torture and wanton killing), enslavement of populations, and the slave trade.
The oracles against the nations are intricately structured. They each follow the same rhetorical pattern.
Address: “The Lord Says”
Proverb: “Because of the three transgressions of … and because of four, I will not cause (him/it) to return.”
Conclusion: “The Lord God has spoken” (not always present).
This rhetorical pattern stresses the sin and the consequence. Only one sin is identified even though many others are presumed (“three, even four…”). The identified crime becomes the central ethical condemnation (1:3, 6, 9). The identification of the sin becomes the key element of the oracle itself with its subsequent consequence.
The consequences, however, are essentially the same–fire will burn destroy the cities/citadels (1:7, 10, 12). The cities will be razed to the ground by an invading force. Future Assyrian campaigns will do just that in the 740s-720s BCE.
What are the sins?
- “because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron” (1:3)
- “because they carried into exile a whole people to deliver them up to Edom” (1:6)
- “because they delivered up a whole people to Edom and did not remember the covenant of brotherhood.” (1:9)
1. Damascus (Syria, also called Aram) “threshed” Gilead. The region known as “Gilead,” the Transjordan area of Israel, was claimed by Damascus as well as Ammon. Damascus and Samaria (Israel) fought over this area for a hundred years or more.
The names Hazael and Ben-hadad, two kings of Aram, are also known from 2 Kings 8. There Elisha announces the coming death of Ben-hadad but weeps over the future that Hazael will bring to Israel. He wept because he knew “the evil that [Hazael] will do to the people of Israel.” In particular, Hazael will “set their fortresses on fire…kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women” (2 Kings 8:12).
Some believe that the Syrians used threshing tools with iron teeth to torture or kill prisoners, pregnant women and children. Threshing-sledges with iron (or basalt) are large boards (7×3 feet usually) pulled by oxen to separate the grain from the chaff. It is possible that Syrians ran over people–men, women, and children–with these boards. Such atrocities would not be unknown in the ancient world. Others believe the “threshing” is a metaphor for Israel’s defeat at the hands of Syria (cf. 2 Kings 13:7 for an example). Whichever is the case, Amos condemns Damascus for their violent aggression against Israel.
2. Gaza sent whole communities into exile to Edom. Gaza represents the alliance of Philistine cities–Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron [Gath is not named here]–in southwestern Palestine. This is Judah’s traditional enemy on its southwest border.
Literally, the text says they “shut up” the “whole” into “captivity.” The Philistines assaulted surrounding communities. They enslaved their inhabitants and sold them to Edom. The community or people to which Amos refers is Judah. They enslaved local populations–probably those located in the lowlands or Shephelah of Judah among others. perhaps more (cf. 2 Chronicles 21:16-17)–and removed them to Edom (which is located southeast of Judah). This was apparently a common practice in that region (cf. 1 Samuel 27:8-12).
Philistia removed Judeans who lived in the lush farmland of the Judean foothills to the desert regions of Edom (cf. Joel 3:4-8). They sent them into “captivity” (or exile). Amos condemns raiding communities and capturing those populations in order to sell them in the international slave trade. He condemns forcibly removing populations from their homeland.
3. Tyre also sent whole communities into slavery. The language about Tyre is almost exactly the same as how Amos describes Gaza. Tyre is condemned for the same sin as Gaza–the deportation and sale of whole communities (cf. Joel 3:4-8; Ezekiel 27:13). The difference is that Amos adds a further comment on the transgression: they “did not remember the covenant of brotherhood.”
The “covenant of brothers” probably refers to a treaty between nations whether imposed (as upon a vassal) or negotiated. Kings who entered treaties with each other typically thought of themselves as “brothers” (cf. 1 Kings 9:13–the brotherhood between Hiram of Tyre and Solomon of Israel). Israel and Tyre had cooperated with each other from the time of David and Solomon, and that cooperation or treaty-relationship probably continued throughout the existence of the northern kingdom. However, at some point, Tyre–like Philistia in the south–betrayed this treaty relationship and enslaved whole Israelite communities.
Tyre was an important commercial center in the Ancient Near East (cf. Isaiah 23:8). Their commercial interests included the slave trade, even selling Judeans to Greeks far from their homeland (Joel 3:6).
Amos condemns violent aggression (perhaps even torture and wanton killing), enslavement of populations, and the slave trade. Damascus, Gaza and Tyre–three important cities in the region of Israel and Judah–are called to account for their actions by a shepherd from Judah.
We need only look at the history of nations, including the United States, to know that these kinds of atrocities have happened over and over. Humanity continues to witness these atrocities at the hands of those who rule the nations. If Amos’s preaching bears witness to his insistence that nations need to acknowledge their sin, should not our preaching do the same?
Yahweh says, according to Amos, the he will not revoke the punishment such sins deserve. Let the nations who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit through Amos says to the nations.