(9) And it will be that if there remain ten men in one house, they will die.
(10) And one’s relative, the one burning spices for him, will take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and he will say, “Are there in the recesses of the house anyone still with you?” He will say, “There is not.” And he will say, “Hush! For we must not mention the name of the LORD.”
(11) For, behold, the LORD is giving the command: he will smash the great house into rubble and the small house into bits.
This little vignette is kind of strange. It’s difficult to understand who is saying what and what they are meaning by it. But here’s my reconstruction.
This is kind of like post-apocalyptic imagery, here, and it seems to me to highlight just how depraved Amos thinks Israel is. The picture, I think, is something like this: ten men are hiding in a house out of fear during a siege or perhaps after the destruction of Samaria. One of the men dies. When someone comes to collect his body, the person calls into the house, “Is anybody left in there?” One voice says, “Nope, nobody in here!” Another voice says, “Shut up. Do you want to draw God’s attention to us?”
In other words, even after the destruction of Samaria, Amos is depicting the Israelites as not only not returning to God but actively avoiding turning to God out of Genesis 3-like fear. They have nothing left after the Assyrians have destroyed everything. Now at last they realize that God was angry with them and was the one responsible for the Assyrian invasion. But instead of turning to God, asking for his forgiveness, and praying that he will restore them, they are saying to themselves, “Whatever you do, don’t bring God into the picture. He’s the one that got us into this mess.”
We tend to think that people turn to God when things get bad, but that’s actually not the case, at least not necessarily. Rather than turning to God, those with wicked and foolish hearts look at their sufferings, which they brought on themselves by their own wickedness and foolishness, and they blame God. Think about the common dismissal of God one hears among the angry atheists and agnostics of the world: if God were really good and loving, how could he allow all this injustice and suffering to happen. My answer to this question is, “You’re right. What he really ought to do is just wipe us all out rather than let us continue to mess things up.” But the worldly mind doesn’t think, “Wow. Look at what we humans have caused. How does God put up with us?” Instead, they think, “Wow. Look at what God has allowed to happen. How terrible he must be if he truly exists.” Because while virtually all of us agree that there is something terribly wrong in the world, the wicked and foolish will rarely if ever admit their part in making the world terrible. It’s always someone else who is making the mess. I know how to solve the problem if everyone would just listen to me, but everyone else out there are a bunch of evil, stupid people. And until God decides to clean up the mess he has allowed to happen, he just needs to keep out of my way while I sort everything out. Or more accurately, as punishment for God’s allowing this mess, I’m going to deny he exists, or at least act like he doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be unfair, but so much of the so-called new atheism sounds to me like spoiled children petulantly disowning a parent who lets them suffer the consequences of their own bad behavior.
One of the starting points for Christian ethics, though, is the admission that each one of us is part of the problem. I may not be directly responsible for the deaths of millions, but I have to admit that if I had been born in Hitler’s circumstances and lived Hitler’s life, I too might have done precisely what Hitler did. It is only by the grace of God that I am what I am, and if there is any good that comes out of my life it is exclusively because of his goodness, not mine. Israel could never make that admission, though. When bad things happened in the past as a result of their infidelity, they thought, “Huh. God must not be strong enough to provide for us. Let’s worship other gods who are strong enough.” When their society was collapsing around them, the wealthy elites continued to live in a fabricated reality and insist that God was on their side. And in this hypothetical future, even when God’s judgment has been made perfectly obvious, rather than turning back to God and asking for his mercy, the Israelites, according to Amos, would continue to avoid God out of fear, because they really never knew him to begin with.