Reading Amos 2:4-5 in Context

Amos 2:4-5

(4) Thus says the LORD,
”For three crimes of Judah,
and for four I will not turn back its punishment:
For their rejecting the Torah of the LORD,
And his statutes they did not keep.
Their lies have led them astray,
After which their fathers walked.
(5) I will send a fire on Judah,
And I will devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.”

Reasons the Authenticity of Amos 2:4-5 is Doubted

As I mentioned last post, the authenticity of Amos 2:4-5 is doubted by the vast majority of Amos scholars and has been since at least the late 19th century. The reasons historically put forward for this evaluation include:

  • That it, like the oracles against Tyre and Edom, lacks the concluding “says the LORD” formula (all three are doubted and thought to come from a similar redaction);
  • That the oracle uses “Deuteronomic” language: Torah of the LORD, keeping his statutes, condemnation of idolatry (“their lies”);
  • That it interrupts the flow of thought and dulls the climax felt in the oracle against Israel;
  • That the oracle is vague and cursory, not including any specific offense (unless “their lies” refers to idols), and unrelated to the content of the oracles that surround it.

The first argument can be dismissed in all three instances. If nearly half of the oracles do not have the concluding formula, what is the basis for saying (1) that the concluding formula is the “standard” form and (2) that those oracles lacking the formula are of a later origin? As mentioned last post, artistic license can account for this level of variation perfectly well.

The second argument, that the Judah oracle uses language that is not typical until a later time period, ends up being an argument that begs the question. If this oracle does originate with Amos, then it is evidence that such language described as “Deuteronomic” is earlier than critical scholarship thinks it is (and, at times, seems to want it to be). There are other texts that contain “Deuteronomic” language but are otherwise arguably early (e.g., Isaiah 5:24). What is the basis of our conclusion that Deuteronomic language is late? It has to be texts that contain such language and a late dating of those texts that is based on other criteria. To then use Deuteronomic language as a criterion for dating texts is the kind of logical circularity that diachronic biblical scholarship has suffered from since its inception and for which it has never found a real answer. So the argument that the Judah oracle is late based upon the presence of words such as “Torah” and “statutes” is hamstrung by faulty logic.

The last two arguments require more detailed attention. By itself the argument that the Judah oracle interrupts the flow of thought could be dismissed, being not an objective fact but a subjective feeling whose authority is directly dependent on how well the reader has understood the passage as a whole. But then we are obliged to answer the question: how does it fit into the overall form and thrust of Amos 1-2? How does it not interrupt the flow of thought, especially in light of the last argument: that the acts for which Judah is condemned are vague and apparently unrelated to the acts for which all the other nations are condemned – including Israel. This is the question for which I want to attempt an answer in this post.

The Thematic Unity of Amos 1:2-2:3

Let us begin by trying to articulate the unifying features of all the preceding oracles in Amos 1:2-2:3. The oracle against Damascus (1:3-5) has to do with violence against Israelites, especially those in Gilead, as does the oracle against the Ammonites (1:13-15). The oracles against Gaza (1:6-8) and Tyre (1:9-10) have to do, apparently, with kidnapping whole communities (or possibly communities with whom they were not at war) and selling them as slaves to the Edomites. The oracle against Edom (1:11-12) is about excessive, animal-like violence, possibly (but not explicitly) perpetrated against Israelites (likely people in Judahite border villages). The oracle against Moab (2:1-3) condemns Moab for burning the bones of the king of Edom to lime, an act that is both excessive in its violence and extremely disrespectful in preventing proper burial (possibly being understood as inhibiting his proper passage into Sheol).

Every one of these oracles concerns acts that are typically connected to warfare: violence in border disputes, slavery, execution of prisoners. But if that were all there was to it, isn’t Amos being kind of hypocritical? A central element of any ancient Near Eastern foreign policy was war against one’s neighbors in the springtime – threaten and weaken the other guy before he can threaten or weaken you. That’s what you had to do to ensure the safety and prosperity of your people. So if all Amos is doing is condemning the other nations for engaging in business-as-usual foreign policy that was at the same time perfectly okay for Israel and Judah to engage in, his message lacks any real moral authority.

However, I don’t think what is being described is “business as usual” foreign policy. In many if not all of these oracles, there is an excess to the violence or some egregious aspect to the violence that merits the LORD’s rebuke. Damascus threshed Gilead with sharpened implements of iron. They did not simply threaten and demand tribute or take control of key strategic sites. They slaughtered the people of Gilead. The Ammonites ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead to kill not only them but the next generation. Moab’s treatment of the Edomite king, rather than demanding ransom or quickly and cleanly executing him, is excessively violent and insulting. The Edomites’ violence against their neighbors is explicitly and willfully excessive: they “cast off all pity”, their “anger tore perpetually”, they insistently held onto their vengeful wrath. The enslavement that the Phoenecians and the Philistines were engaging in appears to be considered shockingly unethical, kidnapping communities of innocents and selling them into slavery. Enslaving a conquered region was something that could be and often was a way of taking control of the region, but it was as a part of warfare. But kidnapping people to sell them into slavery was punishable by death (Exodus 21:16). Admittedly, the line between being at war and not being at war might be a little blurry in the ancient world, but apparently they had some concept of such a distinction. Taken all together, the picture is of a world where the usual violence of everyday life and warfare has reached a new level where previous moral restraints were no longer operating.

– The picture is of a world where the usual violence of everyday life and warfare has reached a new level –

Even if one wants to argue that this excessive violence wasn’t really all that excessive, that instead it was just the way things were, perhaps what we see here is an early condemnation of this warlike way of life. Amos is saying, “God has had enough of this tit-for-tat way of living, because all it does is escalate.” This is the way of life our President-elect says is how you have to live: if somebody hits you you have to hit them back 10 times harder to discourage them from attacking you in the future. This is world’s way of life, but in Amos, God is saying, “I’m tired of it. No longer will I let you all get away with it.” People want to attack God and the Bible for endorsing warfare, but in places throughout the Old Testament, here not the least, it seems to me that God is working gradually to show the Israelites another way of life entirely. What seems to be an endorsement of warfare may simply be an acquiescence to the worldly assumptions of the early Israelites, albeit usually a partial or modified acquiescence that, if explored thoroughly, pokes a hole in the entire system (the same way one might argue Philemon in the New Testament subversively lays the groundwork for a Christian-led overturning of the Roman institution of slavery). In other words, I would argue that if Judah and Israel had followed the Torah with their whole heart, would have begun to do foreign policy in a dramatically different way from the nations around them.

The bottom line is this: the six oracles of Amos 1:3-2:3 do not condemn a random assortment of actions just for the sake of mentioning every nation in the immediate vicinity of Israel and Judah. They are all thematically connected: excessive and immoral warlike wrath and violence, committed usually against innocent people.

Reading the Judah Oracle in the Context of Excessive Violence

What if, when we get to the Judah oracle in 2:4-5, instead of assuming that the vagueness of the oracle’s accusations are because they are describing a general sort of religious apostasy, we assume that the same actions and attitudes that God is dissatisfied with in Aram, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab are what he is dissatisfied with in Judah? What if Judah is also engaging in excessive violence and immoral enslavement practices? What if Judah, in response to Edom’s violence, is stepping up its own violence? Then the oracle against Judah reads differently. The same problems are described differently, being framed in light of Torah obedience: you, Judah, when you do those things, are proving that you have rejected my Torah. You haven’t seen that I instructed you all to be priests to the nations, to be peacemakers, not to get caught up in their petty, escalating feuds. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi speaking to Anakin Skywalker, Amos is saying to Judah, “You were the chosen one. You were supposed to be a blessing to the nations of the world, not join them. You were to bring light to the Gentiles, not leave them in darkness.” When Judah is condemned for rejecting the LORD’s Torah, God is saying, “You should have known better.”

– If Judah is also engaging in excessive violence then the same problems are being framed in light of Torah obedience. –

This reading lets Amos 1:3-2:5 be a unified literary unit with a deceptive mini-climax in the Judah oracle. The oracle against Judah sets the wickedness of the world in the context of God’s Law. And then the real climax happens, when Israel are condemned not for violence against other nations, but for violence against their own poor – a violence that is, again, tied to religious apostasy. The shock of this, if we read it as the true climax of Amos 1-2, is the revelation that God considers taking unfair advantage of the poor in your own community to be more even damning than ripping open pregnant women to enlarge your borders or kidnapping people to sell them into slavery. At first it might seem anti-climactic, but that just shows that the reader who perceives this as an anti-climax doesn’t share God’s value system. That paradigm shift, I think, is part of the point of Amos, especially in these first chapters.

So getting back to my original point and concluding: I just don’t see any compelling argument remaining that the oracle against Judah is a later insertion. The bias of biblical scholarship against seeing so-called Deuteronomic language and concepts as early is something that needs to change, because it is a relic of 19th century German historical-criticism. It isn’t based on hard evidence, but on circular reasoning that claims that the texts that Deuteronomic language appears in are late texts, therefore Deuteronomic language is late, therefore, texts that contain Deuteronomic language, even if they otherwise appear to be early, must be late – making the lateness of Deuteronomic language both protasis and apodosis. I have proposed a plausible reading of Amos 1-2 that resolves all the supposed problems with the oracle and makes it a vital part of the text’s overall message rather than an obligatory and jarringly inappropriate insertion.

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