The first two chapters of Amos set Israel’s sins within an international context. As they heard Amos condemn one after another of their regional neighbors they were no doubt alarmed that Israel was included in the list and received the most attention. Israel is the focus of Amos’s concern.
The second major section of Amos (chapters 3-5) contains three oracles describing the punishment, sin and lament of the northern kingdom of Israel. Each begins with “Hear this word!” (3:1; 4:1; 5:1). In many ways, this is the heart of Amos’s work as it lays out Yahweh’s case against Israel.
The first oracle is titled by a superscription (3:1) followed by the divine announcement of punish exactly because they are God’s elect nation (3:2). The rest of the oracle describes the nature and rationale for this divine punishment (3:3-15).
Superscription: Yahweh Addresses Redeemed Israel (3:1).
Premise: Yahweh punishes Israel because they are elect (3:2).
1. Yahweh is responsible for the coming disaster (3:3-8).
2. The nations will witness Israel’s destruction (3:9-12).
3. Israels economic and religious centers will topple (3:13-15).
The opening address–the most extensive opening of the three oracles–reminds Israel that their identity was formed by the Exodus. God had “brought them up out of the land of Egypt” (cf. Exodus 32:7; 33:1; Amos 9:7). The superscription locates Israel as the recipient of divine grace. They are a redeemed people and yet God now must say something “against” (used twice) them.
Yahweh is not originally hostile to Israel. Quite the opposite! Israel, as a redeemed people, is the only “family” among all the “families of the earth” that God has “known.” God “knew” Israel so that “all the families of the earth” would be blessed (Genesis 12:3 uses the same Hebrew phrase that Amos uses here). This knowledge is not the same as the term “elect” or “chosen,” but is a more intimate or relational term. Yahweh had become intimate with Israel; Yahweh had revealed the divine presence to Israel. Yahweh communed with them. They shared life together.
It is precisely because God knew Israel that God determines to punish them. Their blessed identity as God’s family–the one whom God has known out of all the families of the earth–entails deep responsibility. Their identity (people redeemed through the Exodus) and intimacy (God knows them) means that God holds them responsible for their way of life. Instead of becoming a light to the nations and blessing them, they followed the nations by embracing their values of wealth and power. Amos will point out some of these particulars in the second oracle (Amos 4).
The verb “punish” is typically translated in the older translations as “visit.” God visits Israel. Here, however, God comes (visits) in judgment. The verb is also used twice in Amos 3:14. This divine visitation is equivalent to punishment, a judgment against the sins of Israel. Though elect, Israel is not immune to the historical processes of divine judgment.
Amos leaves no doubt that Yahweh is responsible for the disaster that is coming upon Israel. It is, in fact, a result of cause and effect. But it is not a mechanical cause and effect as if it is impersonal and mechanistic in its outworking. Rather, it is a divine response to the sins of Israel. Israel has sinned and now Yahweh responds. The one who “knows” Israel now “visits” her in judgment.
Amos uses a series of six images to lead us to the climactic point of the seventh. Each is a matter of cause and effect, or perhaps better, it is ground and response.
Two walk together because they have agreed to meet.
The lion roars because it has caught its dinner.
The young cub cries because something has been taken from it.
A bird is entrapped because a snare has been set.
A snare has sprung because something has been taken.
The people are afraid because the trumpet has sounded.
Point: Disaster came to a city because Yahweh did it (3:6b).
Disaster (ra’ah) is a common word in the Hebrew Scriptures which is variously translated evil, trouble or disaster. It may refer to moral evil (Jeremiah 3:5; 23:10) or it may refer to destruction (Jeremiah 4:6; 11:29). As disaster or destruction, it is “evil” in terms of the trouble and devastation effected. As Amos later writes, divine punishment (the captivity, see Amos 9:10) is intended for “evil (ra’ah) and not for good” (Amos 9:4). It is intended to destroy rather than bless. In this sense, God can bring “evil” upon a sinful people; he can curse rather than bless.
Amos clarifies the origin of the disaster so that Israel will not mistake what is happening. Yahweh does not want Israel to misinterpret the coming calamity. Israel might think of the disaster as unlucky, accidental or ill-fated. But, says Yahweh, it is purposeful. God sends a messenger–Amos the prophet–to interpret the misfortune for them and reveal the divine purpose (secret or counsel). The prophets, including Amos, have stood in the divine council and received the interpretation of God’s visitation (cf. the use of the same Hebrew term in Jeremiah 23:18, 22). Through the prophets, Yahweh describes what he is doing, why he is doing and what the significance is for Israel. This is, in essence, the function of the text of Amos.
Just as the disaster is a divine response to Israel’s sins, so the prophet’s words are a response to the voice of God. Just as people are afraid when they hear a lion roar, so the prophets must speak when they hear the voice of God. Amos, then, is compelled to speak the message and announce God’s “visitation” upon Israel. Amos interprets the divine “visitation.”
A text like this causes us to wonder whether God is still engaged in such activity today. It is not unique to Israel since such judgment is also announced against the nations surrounding Israel in chapters 1-2. Further, it seems that such judgments are still active in the Apocalypse (Revelation) where divine visitations still fall upon nations and fell upon Jerusalem itself in 70 C.E.
Might such disasters continue into the present by the hand of God? It is certainly possible, perhaps even probable. Maybe certain. But the problem is that we have no prophetic voices like Amos who have stood in the council of God to interpret those events for us. Without a sure and certain prophetic word, who can interpret the nature of a disaster that hits a city? I think must live with the ambiguity rather than project our own agenda onto the disaster.
Whatever the origin of a disaster and whatever its meaning, what we can hear in Amos is that the sort of sins with which God is displeased might lead to a divine visitation…whether upon Edom, or Israel, or the United States.