The Basket of Figs – Amos 8:1-7 (part 1)
(1) This is what the Lord Yahweh showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. (2) He said, “What do you see, Amos?” I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Yahweh said to me, “The end is coming to my people Israel. I will no longer continue to pass over him. (3) The singing women will howl in grief on that day, says the Lord Yahweh.
“The corpses are many,
In every place they are flung.
The first seven verses of Amos chapter 8 use a vision to tell us that a violent end is coming for Israel as repayment for their sins, specifically for their greed, their dishonest and godless commercial practices, and their taking advantage of the poor and weak. Amos chapter 8 does not really start a new unit but continues the series of visions begun in chapter 7. Yahweh again shows Amos an image, asks him what he sees, and makes a declaration concerning Israel’s future that is somehow related to the image. The relationship here between the image and the declaration is far less transparent in English than that of the plumb line in chapter 7. There is a word play happening that just doesn’t come across. The word I have translated “summer fruit” is the Hebrew word qaits (sounds like the English word “kites”). The word I translated “end” is the Hebrew word qets (sounds like English “Kate’s”), which sounds very similar to qaits, obviously. So God is saying, “See this basket of qaits? It means that the qets is coming for Israel.”
As in chapter 7, however, this is more than a simple play on words. “Summer fruit” most likely refers to figs. Figs ripen toward the end of Israel’s agricultural year (August-September). So not only is there a word play, but figs themselves represent the year drawing to a close, being among the last things harvested each year. Whenever one were to see a basket of figs in a real Israelite marketplace, it would mean that winter was around the corner, and the next thing the farmers would be doing is preparing the fields for a new round of sowing barley and wheat when the early rains arrived in November.
The end is coming, Yahweh says. I have had patience with them so far. I have passed over them without destroying them. I have inflicted calamities on them, but so far I have preserved them. That mercy is coming to an end. The day is coming when their female singers will not sing for joy or to entertain the idle wealthy at their feasts, but instead they will “howl in grief”. “Howl in grief” is an inelegant translation of the Hebrew word yalal, which is actually onomatopoeia, meaning it is a word that imitates the sound it is describing. We have a more precise word for it: ululation. To ululate is to intone a high pitch while rapidly moving the tongue up and down against the roof of the mouth. Different cultures use ululation for different purposes. Some places will use the sound as a kind of celebratory cheer. This is the way, it appears to be used in southern Africa. Ululation is sometimes used as a battle cry. I don’t know if Comanches actually ululated when they went into battle, but based on mid-20th century American Westerns I certainly have that sound implanted in my brain as the battle cry of American Indians.
But ululation is also often a sound that expresses and accompanies grief, and this is the way the ancient Israelites used the sound. We’ve learned a lot about the sounds and practices of the ancient Israelites in relation to mourning and grief. They screamed and wailed. They moaned. They employed professional mourners. And now we learn that part of the noise they made to express their grief was ululation. The reason they are ululating here is gruesome: so many corpses strewn about, almost as if they were flung here and there.
“Hush!” – this is the second time we’ve seen this word. The first was in chapter 6 verse 10 where the point, it seemed to me, was to keep from drawing the attention of a wrathful God. Hush! Don’t mention Yahweh! Be careful what you say! We don’t want any more corpses. Or maybe: “Hush! It is unlucky to speak of the dead. We must not mention the name of Yahweh in such a cursed place.” Perhaps the same sentiment is at work here in 8:3. So many corpses! Their bodies are strewn about all over the place! Hush! We must not speak, for this is a terrible scene, and we do not want to draw the attention of a wrathful God! The horror is so intense, it’s almost as if the Israelites cannot decide whether to howl in grief or to be silent from fear.
The Sin of the 24/7 Society – Amos 8:4-5
(4) Hear this, you who trample on the poor, putting an end to the poor of the land, (5) saying, “How long until the New Moon passes and we may sell grain, the Sabbath and we may open up the wheat (to sell it), making the ephah small and making the shekel big, making crooked scales of treachery, (6) buying the weak with silver and the poor in exchange for a pair of sandals, and the refuse of wheat we will sell as wheat.” (7) Yahweh swears by the excellence of Jacob, “I will never forget their deeds.”
This paragraph is densely packed with details describing the corruption of Israelite society and the reason Yahweh is just fed up with Israel. I also see in this paragraph a disturbing reflection of elements of contemporary American society.
One of the first things we see in this paragraph is the merchants saying, “How long until we can get back to selling things? And by selling things, I mean cheating my customers out of their money.” They are impatient with the Sabbath, during which society would not allow them to sell. The same goes for the New Moon observance, about which we read in Numbers 28:11-15. They do not appreciate the Sabbath as a time of rest. Instead, it chafes. Rather than resting and honoring God, they would really rather be engaged in acquisition. If they could, these merchants would do away with the Sabbath entirely, even though the Sabbath is in place for their own benefit and for the benefit of society.
I think about how our own society has for years crept bit by bit towards being a 24/7 society, where stores never close, where the weekends are just two more work days rather than dedicated relaxation days. Admittedly, there are some aspects of society that have to work longer hours, or at least different hours. Bakers get up before everyone else in order to provide the bread that fuels the rest of the economy. Law enforcement and emergency responders need to be on call 24/7 because emergencies can occur even at home. But beyond a few specific things like that, it is difficult to justify this creep in society where stores stay open longer hours or extra days to squeeze a few more dollars out of every day or every week, where cell phone tech support call centers must be open even on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, because somebody out there might be getting a new cell phone as a gift, and God forbid they have a problem that they cannot solve that very day. These longer hours might be put in place in the name of “customer service”, but it really isn’t about customer service at all. It is about making more money. But this sort of creep has long term negative effects on our society. When we cannot all depend on working approximately the same hours and resting approximately the same hours, we become increasingly fragmented and isolated. When you work a night job, it becomes extremely difficult to get together with family because you can never get your schedules together. Jobs that unnecessarily make you work on holidays gnaw away at the threads that bind us together when we celebrate those holidays together.
Amos is describing a spirit that honors God only reluctantly and out of obligation. This kind of spirit asks, “How long until I finish what is technically required of me? What is the minimum I can do?” Amos perceives astutely that this attitude is just one step away from cheating people, because the one who fears God only out of obligation will jump at any loop hole, any exception in a contract. This is the way it sometimes feels working with insurance companies – you have to work hard, it seems sometimes, to hold them accountable, and if they can get away with not covering something, you know they will. If they are not absolutely required, by law or by contract, to cover you, they won’t.
Now here’s my question to you: is that righteousness? Doing the absolute minimum one is required by law to do? I suppose you could say technically yes it is. But real righteousness, God honoring righteousness, requires a great deal more from us than that. Technical righteousness is what the Pharisees who opposed Jesus were masters of. They knew not just every regulation in the oral Torah but every loophole to every regulation. This is why Jesus says near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, “I say to you, unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall certainly not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And then he commences to describe to us what this surpassing righteousness looks like. It has been said, do not murder, but I say do not be angry. It has been said, do not commit adultery, but I say do not look on a woman with lust in your heart. It has been said, divorce must be done legally and in order, but I say divorcing is practically the same thing as adultery. It has been said, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but I say do not resist an evildoer. The surpassing righteousness that Jesus says is the absolute minimum for entering the kingdom of heaven is not about checking off the Torah lists, but about understanding the heart behind the Torah. This means not only abiding by the spirit rather than the letter of the law, but it also means what I have called aggressive honesty: don’t simply do what is technically required of you. Do more. Don’t just give the minimum tip at the restaurant. Give extra. Not because the server earned it, but because you want to express the meritless free grace of God that you have received in Jesus. When you have a contract with a client, don’t just do the bare minimum to satisfy the contract. Go above and beyond. Not only is the good business practice, this is what your heavenly Father expects from you: pay his grace and favor forward onto an unsuspecting world. The fact that this reflects the heart of God is probably why it turns out to be good business practice. Be ruthlessly, aggressively honest. This puts you at a disadvantage in the short term, it is true, but it expresses the character of God and it demonstrates your faith in God’s providence. You don’t need to grasp for every little penny. You don’t need to be eager to get back to selling grain just as soon as the Sabbath or New Moon is over, because you know that God is going to honor your honesty and faithfulness and pour out on you blessings that you cannot contain. The surest way to dry up God’s fountain of blessing is to have grasping hands and a faithless heart.