The Basket of Figs – Amos 8:1-7 (part 2)
(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.
(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.”
Buying the Weak With Silver …
Amos 8:4-7 contain a number of callbacks to earlier portions of Amos, tying the whole book together into a coherent message. Both verse 4’s “You who trample the poor” and verse 6’s “buying the weak with silver and the poor in exchange for a pair of sandals” recalls chapter 2:6-7
Thus says Yahweh, “For three crimes of Israel and for four I will not turn back punishment: for selling the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals. They trample into the dust of the earth the head of the weak, and the way of the needy they turn aside.”
The focus of Amos from start to finish has been very consistent. Amos is not just some angry dude who is vaguely angry at everybody and nobody at the same time and interprets his anger as righteous indignation. That’s the way we can be sometimes. “I’m just grumpy. Dadgummit, why does everybody have to be so dumb? Everybody just needs to get right with Jesus! You know what’s wrong with this world? Cotton pickin’ everything!” There’s a lot of people online and in the real world who aren’t so much filled with righteous indignation as just plain indignation.
Amos isn’t like this, though. He has very specific things stuck in his craw. Chief among these is what he perceives to be the mistreatment of the poor by the wealthy. It is true that religious infidelity is also a recurring theme, but by far Amos’ strongest language seems to be reserved for the wealthy and powerful who use the courts and the taxation system to keep themselves in wealth and power, who interpret their wealth as an indication that Yahweh is pleased with them and that they have nothing to worry about, who wastefully spend their money on stupid luxuries when their neighbors are starving, and – especially here in chapter 8 – who use dishonest commercial practices that largely target the poor. They use dishonest weights and measures: an ephah (which is a measure of volume) that is too small, or a shekel (which is a measure of weight) that is too large. Imagine buying a gallon of milk for the usual price of a gallon of milk only to discover that the person or the store has given you only 7 pints and not a full gallon. If you don’t have reliable governmental oversight insuring the use of proper weights and measures, you’ve just lost a pint of milk and won’t ever get it back. Or imagine buying fruit by weight, and the scale the store uses measures everything a little heavier than it really is, meaning you end up paying more per weight than you were supposed to (or you get less fruit than should for the amount that you pay). The Israelites, particularly the mercantile class, were using dishonest weights and measures to cheat their customers, who were predominantly the poorer among the Israelites, out of little bits here and there.
There’s a movie called Office Space that I do not recommend anyone go and see. But the plot revolves around these guys trying to cheat their company by siphoning off a fraction of a penny per electronic transaction (of which there were thousands in a day, if I remember correctly) and depositing that fraction into an account. They figured no one would ever notice a fraction of a penny. Unfortunately for them, when they went to execute the plan they missed the mark by a decimal place. Suddenly, they were seeing an enormous amount of money going into their account, but the amount being siphoned off from each transaction was very noticeable.
Now, watching the movie we all laugh at this situation and even sympathize with the protagonists in their crime because these are average joes sticking it to the man, getting back at a company that treats them horribly. But imagine if this scenario were reversed, where the company discovers a way to take money from their customers or their employees by taking small amounts here and there that no one could complain about. That wouldn’t be funny at all, would it? Part of the reason it wouldn’t be funny is because companies do this already. You try to find a decent cell phone provider at a decent price only to discover that the advertised price is inflated beyond recognition by taxes and fees. Governments and businesses have a ridiculous number of ways to nickel and dime us to death. Nobody reasonable could complain about this little fee here, or this little tax there. The government intentionally keeps inflation above its own confessed “ideal” rate in order to reduce the size of its own debt burden. But who is it that bears the weight of that? The average consumer. “Oh, come on,” someone will say. “You can’t complain about a measly 1% increase in inflation, can you?” You certainly can, because it all adds up, and the bottom line effect is that I don’t get a dollar’s worth of value from every dollar I spend, but businesses and governments somehow always end up on top.
Verse 6 tells us that Israelite grain merchants would sell an ephah of wheat that contained an unusually high amount of wheat refuse rather than legitimate wheat and get away with it, because no one was going to hold them accountable. If anyone called them on it, they had friends in high places, and they could grease the palms of any judge who was in a position to make trouble. Fortunately, today we have government regulations that help us protect ourselves against things like this, but it is still the case today that if you aren’t careful, the food and house products you buy will consist mostly of filler: a big bag of snacks that is mostly air, cleaner that is mostly water, yogurt that consists of too much corn starch. Worldly businesses and businessmen will work very hard to find a way to give you less than they sell you, or to use technicalities to eek out just a few pennies from every transaction.
Amos interprets all these dishonest commercial practices as essentially buying the weak with silver and the poor for a pair of sandals. The poor, who are the chief ones being taken advantage of here, are not treated as human individuals worthy of honor but as numbers, as commodities to be bought or sold. Greed, in other words, is dehumanizing. The eyes of greed do not see the human being on the other side of the transaction. All they see is the money, the bottom line.
“I Will Not Forget Their Deeds”
To all of this, God says, “I will not forget their deeds.”
Then, in verse 7, we see “Yahweh swears by the excellence of Jacob.” This is a callback to Amos 6:8 in two ways (“the Lord Yahweh swears by his very being” and “I loathe the ‘excellence’ of Jacob”). This statement says, in essence, “I swear by the excellence you think you have.” Once again we see the Lord swearing an oath in the context of his disgust over Israel’s misdeeds. In other words, God takes this deadly seriously. Misdeeds such as Amos is describing are not the kind of thing we should be shrugging off saying, “Well, that’s just the way the world works.” Whereas in chapter 6 it was the wasteful luxury of the wealthy in Israel that disgusted God and the arrogant overconfidence of the wealthy in their wealth when the poor in Israel were suffering horribly, here it is the outright abuse of the poor in the marketplace that makes God angry enough that he swears an oath to express the strength of his emotion. This could apply both to the wealthy and to the poor, but the people he is targeting are the merchant class, not the landless peasant or the poor subsistence farmer. They may not be the social or governmental elite, but they do hold a great deal of power because they control the flow of goods.
The offenses of this passage are love of money more than of honoring God, dishonesty in business dealings (again largely hurting those who are too poor or weak to defend themselves), and the reduction of the poor to a commodity. Really, this all boils down to the love of money. When you love money, you cannot love God. When you love money, people become numbers, commodities to be bought or sold in the marketplace. Contracts become technicalities to be danced around and manipulated.
Societies that become dominated by this spirit are inviting God’s judgment. He will not let such a society exist perpetually. He will either purge it or destroy it altogether. “I will not forget their deeds.” These are chilling words.