Amos, Bite-Sized Exegesis, Old Testament, Sermons and Lessons

A Series of Calamities – Amos 4:6-13

6. So I gave to you cleanness of teeth in all your cities
And lack of food in all your places.
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

7. So I withheld from you the rain for the three month span before harvest.
I caused it to rain on one city, and on another city I would not make it rain.
One plot of land would be rained on,
And a plot of land on which it did not rain withered.
8. Two or three cities went trembling to another city to drink water, and they would not be satisfied.
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

9. I smote you with blight and with mildew.
Locusts utterly devoured your gardens, your vineyards, your fig trees, and your olive trees.
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

10. I sent against you a plague in the manner of Egypt.
I killed with the sword your young men,
And your horses were captured.
I sent up a stench from your camps and in your nostrils.
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

11. I overthrew some among you like God’s overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.
You were like a firebrand pulled from the flame.
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

12. Therefore, thus will I do to you, Israel.
Because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, Israel.
13. For behold, the one fashioning the mountains and creating the wind
And revealing to man what are his thoughts,
The one making dawn darkness and treading upon the high places of the earth –
The LORD God of hosts is his name.

The third part of Amos 4 (vv. 6-11) gives us a list of calamities that have befallen Israel, and it says that God is the one who made all of these happen in order to try to persuade Israel to return to Yahweh with their hearts. Nevertheless, Israel has persisted in its transgressions. According to Amos 4:1-3, these transgressions are partially social in nature – the social elites are oppressing the poor and helpless. According to 4:4-5, however, these transgressions may also be religious in nature. Somehow, the worship of Yahweh that took place at Bethel and Gilgal was impure – the people were committing pesha’im, which are crimes or transgressions, at the same time they were offering their sacrifices. These pesha’im made their worship unacceptable to God. So Israelite society was sick to its core, loving neither God nor neighbor.

Because of this, God had, in the past, brought calamities on Israel to bring them to their senses. The word wegam at the start of this verse is used in a retributive way – you did this, and I did that (in response). In such cases, the sentence or clause introduced by gam expresses a consequence, a reciprocation of previously mentioned actions by a different party. Hebrew gam does not mean this by itself, but this text level structure carries that meaning. This is a great example of why smaller particles end up having an enormous number of “definitions” in a traditional dictionary or lexicon. Linguistic particles have actually very little meaning in and of themselves (in other words, they bring independently very little meaning to the context), but they are used in combination with other particles and larger words to create conventional syntactic structures. Those structures are what communicate the meaning. All that can be said of gam is that it is a comparing conjunction that is stronger and more consistently conjoining than the ubiquitous prefixed conjunction we.

So theologically verse 6 is saying that God, in response to Israel’s infidelity (which was just characterized as moral degradation with a veneer of religious observance), made food scarce. This was not in a purely vindictive way, but rather the point, as indicated by the last phrase (“But you did not return to me”), was to get them to return to the LORD with their hearts.

A good grammatical question here is whether to interpret the Qal suffix verb natatti as a perfect or a preterit. Is God saying that they that the famine is something present (perfect) or something in the past (preterit). The qatal form can mean either one. My sense is that the preterit is the better reading, especially in light of verse 7.

7. So I withheld from you the rain for the three month span before harvest.
I caused it to rain on one city, and on another city I would not make it rain.
One plot of land would be rained on,
And a plot of land on which it did not rain withered.
8. Two or three cities went trembling to another city to drink water, and they would not be satisfied,
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

I think the most natural way to read vv. 6-11 is as a sequence. This means that drought followed food scarcity and made water scarce, too. The food shortage certainly would not have been alleviated during this time. If the qatal verb forms are interpreted as an English perfect tense, this would make the drought sound like a very recent thing (“I have withheld from you the rain for the three months before harvest”). However, I am inclined to think that this drought refers to that mentioned in 1 Kings during the time of Ahab and Elijah, which would have been approximately 100 years prior. The memories of major calamities were passed on from generation to generation orally. We know this was the case with the earthquake that was to come two years after Amos prophesied his oracles against the nations if not the whole book of Amos. This earthquake is remembered in Zechariah 14:5.

The drought described in v. 7 is not a minor drought, where lake levels are down a bit. Rain withheld during the three months before harvest would have been devastating. While farmers in Mesopotamia had elaborate irrigation systems to water their crops, and Egypt’s moisture came entirely from the yearly flooding of the Nile, farmers in the Levant, meaning Israel, Lebanon, and western Syria, depended on rain. On average, it did rain enough to support agriculture, but this situation also made Israel more vulnerable to drought than Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt were, since they did not rely on rain.

The second half of this verse seems to me to highlight the weird arbitrariness of the drought. It wasn’t a normal drought. It would randomly rain in one place and not another. One field would get rain, while the field right next to it would not.some towns would have water and others wouldn’t. Multiple towns whose wells had dried up would converge on a single town with water and drink everything up. Again, the point of these calamities was not simply to punish but to draw the people back to God. There was something undeniably supernatural about these calamities.

9. I smote you with blight and with mildew;
Locusts utterly devoured your gardens, your vineyards, your fig trees, and your olive trees.
But you did not return to me, says the LORD

Both blight and mildew are caused by micro-organisms, usually fungal infections, but also sometimes bacterial. Shiddafon, or blight, is most often cause by excessive moisture. Yeraqon, or what I translated “mildew”, could refer to powdery mildew, which is a grain disease, or downey mildew, which effects vine crops, especially grapes. Fungal infections tend to happen in places and periods of excessive moisture, though heat and drought can contribute to fungal infections by causing damage to the plant that lowers the plant’s natural immunity and makes openings that allow fungal spores to enter and set up camp. If we are dealing with a sequence of calamities in Amos 4 (which is the natural way to read it), then the blight and mildew may have been brought on by the drought and the intense heat. This is essentially a detailed description of their crops withering away. Finally, what the blight didn’t get, locusts got. This is a perfect storm of disasters. It is, in fact, conspicuously perfect.

It is important to note that the curses in Amos 4 bear a strong resemblance to the curses in Deuteronomy 28. In particular, v.9’s mention of shiddafon and yeraqon echo Deuteronomy 28:22, and the locusts echo Deuteronomy 28:38-42. This list of calamities in Amos 4 seems to imply the context of covenant, the “legal” basis for God’s punishment of Israel.

10. I sent against you a plague in the manner of Egypt;
I killed with the sword your young men
Together with a capture of your horses (or “And your horses were captured”)
I sent up a stench from your camps and in your nostrils,
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

Verses 10-11 both bear witness to memories from Israel’s ancient past which we read about in the Pentateuch. Whether or not Amos knew a Pentateuch in the manner we know it today, the traditions behind the Pentateuch are ancient indeed. In the next verse, Amos remembers Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Genesis 19). In v. 10, Amos likens the plague sent against Israel to one sent against Egypt.

Again, we also see points of contact with Deuteronomy 28. While the standard word for “curse” in Deuteronomy 28 is qelalah (which is not found in Amos 4), another important thematic word in Deuteronomy 28 (in 28:21, for example) is deber, which means disease or pestilence, and that is the word used here. It is not the general term that we translate as “the plagues of Egypt”, which is negaʿ, but specifically the term for the disease that killed the Egyptian livestock.

So what do we draw from this? At the very least, what the first line of Amos 4:10 refers to is a widespread disease among Israelite livestock. This would make sense, since so far the calamities of Amos 4 have not touched this extremely vital part of the Israelite economy. And the comparison texts in Exodus 9 and Deuteronomy 28 both relate this word to livestock disease. But since the following lines focus on human deaths, it may also refer to a terrible plague that decimated the Israelite human population (along the lines of 2 Samuel 24:13, where deber is also the term used).

11. I overthrew some among you like God’s overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah;
You were like a firebrand pulled from the flame;
But you did not return to me, says the LORD.

It seems to me that God is saying that he utterly destroyed some towns. Apparently all these calamities were too much, and some villages ended up being completely deserted and dilapidated. Perhaps this was the result of foreign invasion, but it seems to me that natural causes are in view, here. The comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah has to do with the totality of the destruction. Some villages were left completely uninhabited and perhaps without a survivor at all.

What does it mean to be a “firebrand pulled from the flame”? “Pulled” is a Hophal ptc. of natsal. The Hophal only occurs here in the Bible, but there are plenty of examples of its active voice counterpart, the Hiphil. In the Hiphil (as well as in the Niphal), there is often a connotation of rescue, of snatching away from danger. But this is not always the case. For example, the word occurs twice in Amos 3:12, once in the Hiphil and once in the Niphal. There, the idea is that what is pulled from the mouth of the lion is bits and pieces of the sheep – the sheep is hardly rescued. The verse then says, “Thus the sons of Israel will be salvaged/pulled/rescued, those dwelling in Samaria.

Here, I feel that what he is saying is that Israel is ripe for destruction. It is already burning if not completely destroyed. In what way are they ripe for destruction? By their own sin. Their own sin isn’t simply the motivation for God’s punishment, it is part of what is actually destroying them and making their punishment so disastrous. A sick society, one that is eaten up by greed and anger and selfishness and infidelity, cannot endure when calamity comes upon it. A healthy society that is honest and selfless and righteous can endure a disaster and actually come out stronger on the other side. Both righteous and unrighteous communities will experience calamity, but the sin of the unrighteous one will cause their unrighteousness to burst into flame like dry brush. On the other hand, the righteous community will suffer loss, but they are like a well watered tree that is deeply rooted.

All of these things calamities, God says, are things he has sent. I gave you scarcity of food. I withheld the rain. I smote you with blight. I sent against you a plague. I overthrew some among you like Sodom and Gomorrah.

12. Therefore, thus will I do to you, Israel;
Because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, Israel.

13. For behold, the one fashioning the mountains and creating the wind and revealing to man what are his thoughts,
The one making dawn darkness and treading upon the high places of the earth;
The LORD God of hosts is his name.

What does “thus” mean? It seems to me that it is not a reference to the calamities just described. If it were, then essentially God is saying, “I tried all these things, but you didn’t listen. Therefore, I am going to try them again.” Rather, the “thus” refers to something which has not yet been described. It is a section heading, not a concluding summary. It seems to me that verses 12-13 actually work better as the beginning of what we now know as Amos 5:1-13. But that does not mean that they are not connected to Amos 4:6-11, as well. Rather, verses 12-13 link Amos 4 and Amos 5 together into a larger unit. This is a problem for standard diachronic analyses of Amos, which, as far as I can tell, seek to divide Amos up into a series of loosely related or even unrelated discrete oracles. So far, I find it difficult to make hard literary divisions in Amos. Each part seems to lead naturally into the next. Perhaps we have a unit division at Amos 4:4, but I don’t see a clear one between Amos 4:13 and 5:1.

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A Series of Calamities - Amos 4:6-13
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A Series of Calamities - Amos 4:6-13
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Amos 4:6-13 tells us how, in an effort to bring Israel to her senses, God sent a series of calamities, including famine, drought, blight, pestilence, disease, and violence. Nevertheless, Israel wouldn't turn back to God. This list of calamities is strongly reminiscent of the curse list in Deuteronomy 28, suggesting a covenant context for Amos 4.
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Bite-Sized Exegesis
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