Shaken in a Sieve – Amos 9:8-10

(8) Behold, the eyes of the Lord Yahweh are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from upon the face of the earth, although I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob. (9) For behold, I am giving a command: I will shake among the nations the house of Israel, just as if it were shaken in a sieve and not a seed falls to the ground.

Amos 9:8-9

The last part of verse eight and verse nine confirm what I’ve been saying since chapter 7: that there is a concern in the prophet Amos and in God that the judgment that is coming be a targeted one rather than an indiscriminate one. Finally here in chapter nine God says this outright: God’s coming judgment will not indiscriminately punish guilty and innocent alike. It will separate out the guilty and it will be totally just. A big international upheaval is coming which will shake all the world, including Israel. But it won’t be a universally destructive upheaval. Rather, it will be as if God is shaking the nations with a sieve to find the righteous seeds.

Now, we have very little information about the sieves of this time and their place in the everyday life of the average 8th century BC Israelite, but people from various parts of the Middle East still today use a specialized sieve called a ghurbal to sift grain one final time before grinding it into flour. The ghurbal is a shallow, circular tool that is somewhere around two-and-a-half feet in diameter. Women will sit on the ground, place this between their legs and sift grain in small amounts, both shaking it on the sieve and blowing on it, to remove impurities that remained from the threshing and winnowing processes. The good grain remains in the sieve while all the impurities fall through or are blown away. It is possible that Israelite practice may have been something like this.

God shaking Israel among the nations as if in a sieve refers possibly to the earthquake that apparently occurred soon after Amos’ prophetic career. We’ve already seen that this earthquake and the way it would destroy the cult centers of the northern kingdom would focus its punishing power on the guilty rather than the innocent. It may very well also refer to a massive global shakeup of world that was coming as Assyria was soon to become the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. As Assyria seized control of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and eastern Asia Minor in the second half of the 8th century BC, Israel, like every other nation in the ancient Near East, would be shaken to its core and forever changed. Israel as a nation never recovered from its destruction at the hands of Assyria in 722 BC. Northern Israelites continued to exist, both in their ancestral territories and, importantly, as refugees in the southern kingdom of Judah. The wealthy and the political elites, who are the ones that Amos has been focusing most intently on in his prophecy, would certainly have been among the ones that the Assyrians would have made sure to either kill or to disperse amongst their other territories.

(10) By the sword they shall die, all the sinners of my people, the ones saying, “Evil shall not approach or encounter us.”

Amos 9:10

It is interesting that the thing that characterizes the sinners more than anything else at this point is self-assuredness. What is this self-assuredness? It is at the same time a kind of self-righteousness and a worldly confidence in one’s own strength regardless of righteousness. This is an attitude that Amos has been identifying in the sinful social and economic elite of Israel throughout the book of Amos. And as I’ve pointed out before, this isn’t simply an attitude that only pertains to historical Israel. This attitude is the attitude of humanity in rebellion against God. This is the attitude of the people of Babel in Genesis 11 which in many ways is meant to represent the opposite of the attitude taken by Israel’s patriarchs. Rather than self-righteousness and confidence in their own strength, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob depended entirely on God for their future, at least when they were successful. The main hiccups in the patriarchal narratives occur when the patriarchs start trying to take their future in their own hands. In Genesis, it is the worldly nation that depends on its own strength and righteousness.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve recently been obsessing about World War I. In particular, I am fascinated by the way all the major powers who participated in World War I seemed so eager to jump into war and so reluctant to find paths toward peace. While each participant justified their place in the war in ideological terms (this is a battle of liberty versus autocracy, or this is a battle between a nation that is advanced and godly and nations that are backwards and godless), it seems to me that what really drove the war to the utter ruin of virtually the whole world was national pride. The ideological interpretation was really nothing more than a justification, an overly exalted way to say “my nation’s better than your nation and no one’s ever going to convince me otherwise”.

Germany’s attitude in the war, in particular, I find disturbing. Germans as a whole were absolutely convinced that their nation represented the peak of human civilization, and that it had reached this peak because they more than any other nation worshiped God and were blessed by God. God’s kingdom had been uniquely realized in the German nation, as evidenced by their surpassing advances in science, technology, and the humanities. The fields of philosophy and theology in the 19th century were, with few exceptions, dominated by German scholars, and in the first two decades of the 20th century it looked as if this trend would continue indefinitely. Germany, Germans felt, was the surpassingly Christian nation, blessed by God with a unique destiny to bring civilization to the barbarian masses. While they did more than anyone else to exacerbate the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary that started the whole thing, Germans convinced themselves that they were fighting a defensive war as well as a crusade for godly civilization. “Evil shall not approach or encounter us” they thought to themselves, even as they were blatantly breaking international law by invading neutral Belgium. “Necessity knows no law” they convinced themselves. The inherent righteousness of their cause gave them license to break customs and laws in its defense.

But clearly they were wrong. Germany weren’t God’s uniquely Christian nation. Everybody knows the United States is, right? That’s why we are justified in policing the entire world, violating the sovereignty of other nations in pursuit of our goals – because our goals are uniquely righteous, and in their pursuit necessity knows no law. (In case it is not clear, the preceding paragraph must be read sarcastically.)

Let me be clear: I don’t hate the United States. I love the United States and am very thankful to live in a nation where freedom of speech is guaranteed by law, where (in theory at least) I can count as my legal right the freedom to worship God as I see fit. These are good things, and I believe that, when these rights are truly protected, the United States is a state that works in cooperation with the Kingdom of God. But we must never make the mistake of confusing the United States for the Kingdom of God, because down that road is destruction, not only for the United States but for all those who make that mistake. Jesus is Lord, America is not. The United States is not automatically righteous because it has prospered economically, nor is its prosperity guaranteed by its military strength. A peace that is guaranteed only by military strength is no peace at all. Rather, it is tyranny for all those on the other side of the gun barrel. Like Germany before World War I, the United States lives under a special blessing from God for a set time during which it will accomplish God’s unknowable purpose, willingly or unwillingly. If, however, the United States follows the path of ancient Israel or of 1914 Germany, it is not blessing that Americans can expect from God but judgment. And I am going to be honest: I fear that we have begun to see the judgment of God.

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