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. We might even imagine Amos as a prosecutor who presses the case against Israel as a defendant.
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).
In the first post on this oracle, Amos–compelled by the voice of God–announces that the coming disaster is from Yahweh. God has decided to “visit” (or punish) Israel in judgment rather than grace (Amos 3:3-8). God intends disaster rather than blessing. Amos is a roaring lion that warns Israel that God is coming.
The second movement in this oracle announces that the nations will witness and execute God’s plan against Israel (3:9-12). The nations are first called to assemble and “see.” Specifically,
to the strongholds in Ashdod
to the strongholds in Egypt
say [to them], “Assemble on the ridges of Samaria and
see the great tumults in her,
see the oppressed in her.”
Why are Ashdod (Philistia) and Egypt specified? Egypt is missing from the previous list of nations in Amos 1-2. There is probably something about them that remind Israel of their history. Perhaps it is the memory of slavery in Egypt (already noted in Amos 3:1) and the idolatrous reputation of Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1-6). Perhaps, as Harold Shank suggests in his NIV College Press Commentary, their reputations for cruelty are in play. Yahweh summons barbarous nations to see the ruthlessness of Israel. These malicious nations will testify to the presence of evil within Israel. As Shank notes, “Amos pictures the Hitlers and Stalins of the ancient world shaking their heads at the atrocities in Samaria” (p. 233).
What do they see? They see confusion (“unrest”) and oppression within Israel. The term “unrest” or “tumults” is a Hebrew term that denotes panic or terror that is the opposite of shalom (cf. 2 Chronicles 15:5). Israel is filled with fear; they are terrorized. The term “oppression” describes the burdens about which humans cry out and desperately seek help (cf. Job 35:9). Given that Amos plays out these themes of fear and oppression later in this work, the picture portrays a city whose poor are filled with fear and cry out for relief (cf. Amos 6:3-6; 8:4-6).
The nature of this fear and oppression is partly explained by Yahweh’s comment on the situation in Amos 3:10. “Violence and robbery” (NRSV) or “violence and extortion” (NJB) characterize Samaria, according to Yahweh. “They do not know how to do right.” Instead of justice (cf.Isaiah 59:14), they treasure up the spoils of their violence in their citadels so that they might live in splendor and ease. Their only concern is for themselves; they have no mercy for the poor and needy.
Yet, what they have stored up will be “plundered” (Amos 3:12). Because they have not pursued justice but have looted the poor, an unidentified hostile nation will plunder their strongholds. Egypt and Ashdod will bear witness to this. Israel will not be able to resist the onslaught of the adversary that will come to loot and dispossess it. Israel will face divine judgment because it did “not know how to do right,” that is, it did not practice justice.
The destruction will be so thorough that it is compared to a shepherd who returns from the fields with the evidence that a sheep was eaten by an animal rather than stolen by a human. The lion–the national adversary–will completely devour its prey–Israel–so that there is little left. The latter part of Amos 3:12 contains a translation difficulty that involves how to point the Hebrew text (the vowels supplied to the Hebrew consonants) among other matters. This need not detain us but the difference is evident when one reads the NIV (“Damascus”) compared with the NRSV (“bed”). Whatever the case, the rhetorical significance is clear: only a marginal part of those who “sit” or “dwell” in Samaria will be rescued from the lion that will devour the nation. The nation itself will not survive.
The third movement of this first oracle identifies the primary culprits of this inability to “do right” in the land (Amos 3:13-15). They are those who worship at the “altars of Bethel” and live in the “great houses” of Israel. The idolators and powerful enjoy their wealth while the poor languish in oppression.
The courtroom metaphor is explicit here. Amos is to “testify” against Israel. This is a legal attestation (cf. Isaiah 8:2; Jeremiah 32:10, 25; Malachi 2:14; Psalm 50:7). It functions as a legal warning. Devastation awaits Israel.
Their religious centers will disappear. The “horns of the altar,” which are a last place of refuge, will be “cut off” and thrown to the ground. To cut the horns off an altar is to desecrate it so that it became useless for religious purposes. Bethel–the religious center which Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, erected–will cease to exist. [The image pictures a reconstruction of the altar that was found at Beersheba.] The altar was also a place where people would seek refuge (Exodus 21:13-14; 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28). With their altars destroyed, there will be no refuge for Israel.
Not only will the religious centers fall, but the “great houses” will fall. Such houses are described as “large and beautiful” (cf. Isaiah 5:9). They are filled with luxury, including ivory. They are not merely the homes needed for shelter and warmth, but they are the homes of the wealthy. The have “winter” and “summer” houses. The poor experienced fear and oppression through violence and extortion that the wealthy might live comfortably in their multiple homes and worship at their idolatrous altars.
These are the sins for which God will “visit” Israel in judgment. God will bring disaster upon the nation. He will punish rather than bless.
The call to “hear” the word of the Lord rings as true today as it did then. God still loves the poor and “visits” oppressors.
O people of God, “hear the word of the Lord.”