12. Do horses run on the crags? Can you plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into venom, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood,12. Do horses run on the crags? Can you plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into venom, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood,
13. You who are happy over Lo-Debar, who say, “Have we not by our power taken Carnaim for ourselves?”
14. So, look, I am raising up against you, O house of Israel (says the LORD God of hosts), a nation. And they will oppress you from Lebo-Hamath to the Wadi of the Arabah.
How do we make sense of the two rhetorical questions of verse twelve: “Do horses run on the crags? Can you plow the sea with oxen?” Moreover, how do these questions relate to the inversion of justice mentioned in the second have of the verse? First, both questions have to do with some aspect of the ground that is incompatible with the subject animal. Horses cannot run on the crags. Crags, or rocky cliffs, are too uneven and perilous. Horses that attempt to run on them will either stumble and break their limbs or fall to their deaths. Oxen cannot plow the sea, obviously, because they sink into it. One kind of ground is to hard, rocky, and uneven; the other is not hard enough. So we are talking about the grounds, or foundations, of something.
In the ancient Near East, the horse is the animal that above all represents war. Because of this, horses represent safety and stability in society. Oxen are the representative farming animal. Whereas more recently humans have used horses for plowing, historically, and especially in the ancient world, oxen were the animal of choice for pulling a plow. Therefore, they represent provision for Israelite material needs. The rhetorical questions of verse twelve declare that you cannot perform the actions that build a safe and prosperous society on the wrong kind of ground, that is, on a bad foundation. What is the foundation of a stable society? Justice. Righteousness. Honesty. Fairness. Equality before the law. Justice is the only foundation on which a stable society can be built. But the second half of verse twelve says that Israel have poisoned the foundation of stability and prosperity by perpetrating injustice and encouraging the perpetration of injustice. Verse twelve as a whole says that all our attempts to provide for our safety (the horses) and material needs (the oxen) are ridiculous if they are not made on the stable ground of justice.
What is this justice I am talking about. First of all, I am talking about honesty with our neighbors: keeping our word, not saying one thing and doing another. By extension, this means being honest in all of our business dealings. And this honesty is not a minimalistic honesty – by which I mean doing the absolute minimum to fulfill our obligation in a contract or agreement – but a proactive, aggressive honesty – going above and beyond to make sure that we do our end of the deal and that our agreement to begin with is a win-win situation. Real honesty conceals neither by commission or omission. Real honesty proactively thinks about one’s customers or clients or other partners in business dealings. A person that thinks only about oneself is not truly honest in the fullest sense.
It is a corruption of capitalism that tells us the greed is good, that everyone acting ruthlessly in self-interest produces the most perfectly balanced economy, and that because of this you need to work as hard as you can to unbalance contracts and trade agreements in your own favor. It is true that the balance and growth of a free market economy is based on people acting in self-interest, but that does not necessarily entail ruthless self-interest or the elimination of any concept of altruism. An economy built on ruthless self-interest is what is envisioned in the writings of Ayn Rand, who wrote the books Anthem, The Fountainhead, and perhaps most especially Atlas Shrugged. Atlas Shrugged, in particular, has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, especially amongst conservatives and libertarians in the United States, in response to the overstated Statism of the Western political Left. Now, I appreciate Ayn Rand and find much to stimulate my thinking in her writings, but if you are a libertarian-leaning Christian don’t make the mistake of thinking that Ayn Rand’s business ethics are compatible with Christian ethics. They most certainly are not. Ayn Rand’s ethics are the ethics of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the common assumption between Rand and Nietzsche that makes their ethics cohere is the belief that there is no god and that because of science modern man can never again truly believe in a god. Christians reject this assumption, therefore we reject the ethics that are built on this assumption. With Amos, the modern Christian must believe and proclaim that a prosperous economy cannot be built on a unjust society, because the foundation of peace and prosperity can be only justice, and especially justice that is built upon the acknowledgement that God is God and we are not.
Ancient Israel, however, had convinced themselves that they were building a powerful and prosperous society despite their pervasive injustice. They would look at any sign of strength or prosperity as something to brag about. Verse thirteen mocks this attitude when it says that they were happy over lo-debar. While this may be a pun based on an actual place name, literally, lo-debar means “not a thing.” In other words, Amos says that the Israelites were happy over nothing. But they believed it to be something worth bragging about, because they were saying to themselves, “Look how strong we are! Didn’t we take Carnaim for ourselves? Doesn’t this prove that God is with us? Doesn’t this demonstrate how powerful and prosperous we are?” “Carnaim” may refer the city of Ashtaroth or Ashtaroth-carnaim (cf. Gen 14:5; Deut 14; Josh 21:27; 1 Ch 6:71), which the Israelites may have recently taken back from foreign conquerors, such as the Aramaeans. In any case, Israel seems to have been pretty impressed with themselves for this feat.
But God was not so impressed. He responds to this attitude by saying, “You think you’re pretty tough. But I am raising up against you a nation that will defeat from your northernmost border to your southernmost border.” We don’t know exactly where Lebo-Hamath is (if it is a place name), but whatever it is it represents Israel’s northern border. “Wadi Arabah” seems to be a way of referring to the dry, harsh land that stretches from the southern tip of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, otherwise known simply as the Arabah. Then as well as today, it represents Israel’s southern extremity. The point of verse fourteen is simply this: no matter how strong Israel thought they were, God could always raise up someone stronger. The only true security is that which is built on justice, which acknowledges God as God.