The first major section of Amos addresses the nations, including Judah and Israel (Amos 1:3-2:16). The writer begins with Damascus (Syria) in the north, then moves southwest to Philistia. Afterwards, the text moves due north to Tyre and then southwest to Edom. This is followed by Ammon in the north and then Moab south of Ammon. The movement of the text crisscrosses the landscape of the Levant (or larger Palestine). An imaginary line moves north-southeast-north-southwest-north-south as it slowly encircles Judah and Israel. In effect, when Amos addresses the nations he slowly strangles Yahweh’s people as well.
This encirclement and strangling is not simply for rhetorical effect. In fact, it is apparent from the history of both Judah and Israel that they are not immune to the charges Amos made against the nations. They themselves have pursued violent aggression, engaged in the slave trade, and acted in malice toward their neighbors. They are as guilty as the nations themselves. The indictment of the nations is also an indictment of Israel and Judah.
Nevertheless, Israel and Judah stand in a different relation to Yahweh than the nations. While the nations are accountable to Yahweh because Yahweh is the king of the whole earth, Israel and Judah are Yahweh’s covenant people. They are bound to Yahweh by covenant and accountable to that covenant. They have particular responsibilities and obligations that are not applicable to the nations.
Consequently, when Amos addresses Judah in Amos 2:4-5, the focus is covenantal. The same proverbial structure is used as with the nations (“three transgressions..even four”) and the same consequence is ascribed to their actions (“fire”). The consequence would come to fruition in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587/6 BCE. The identified sin, however, differs from the previous nations.
The sin of Judah is that
“they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statues,
but their lies have led them astray,
those after which their fathers walked.”
In essence, rather than following the Torah, Judah followed their fathers. The first two lines stand in contrast with the last two lines. They rejected one thing but followed another. In fact, “rejected” may be too weak a translation. Perhaps something like “they spurned the Torah of Yahweh.” They treated it with contempt; they despised it.
The “law” or Torah is the foundational covenant document of Israel. The Torah is not so much a “law” in the sense of a law-code (though there are legal materials in the Torah). Rather, it is “instruction” or guidance; it points the way. In other words, this is the history and path of God’s covenant people. Israel is called to follow that path, that is, to practice the Torah and heed its instruction. Judah, however, did not. What is more, Judah rejected the Torah as its basic orienting instruction. They chose a different path. They chose the “lies” of their fathers.
What are these “lies”? Many suggest that the lies are actually false gods. “Lead astray” is often used in relation to idolatry (cf. Jeremiah 23:13, 32). The phrase “to walk after” is associated with following false gods in many contexts (cf. Deuteronomy 8:19; Jeremiah 9:12-13; 11:10). It implies a submission to another or at least a sense of following another. They allied themselves with another–someone other than Yahweh. They chose other gods. This entailed choosing a “lie.”
False gods–”lies” (or delusions)–are more than simply the wrong gods. “Lie” is one of the words used to describe idolatry in Scripture. Perhaps they listened to false prophets and embraced their lies in favor of these false gods. In choosing the “lies,” they reoriented their lives according to a different way of life. They chose a different lifestyle. But it is a lie and took them down the path of destruction rather than life.
Humanity is often deceived. We have the ominous ability to deceive ourselves and be deceived by others. Such a deception is the root sin in the Garden. Satan is the great deceiver. We believe lies, especially when believing them is to our own self-interest or plays to our pride. We will believe any lie that permits us to do what we want to do, feel good about ourselves, or plays to our own self-interest.
Amos condemns Judah for following lies and thus calls us to diligence in our pursuit of what is true. Where does our allegiance lie? Whom or what do we follow? This is a question Amos asked the nations and it is a question about which every nationalist might want to think as well.