Amos begins to give more detail about Israel’s coming destruction as well as more detail about why they have earned God’s wrath. He makes sure his listeners understand these are God’s words as he repeatedly tells them, “Thus says Yahweh,” or “Thus says Sovereign Yahweh.”
Amos calls for the wealthy residents (the wealthy are those who live in citadels) of Philistia (Ashdod) and Egypt to gather on the mountains of Samaria to witness the violence and oppression practiced by the wealthy of Israel. Mosaic Law requires two witnesses to condemn someone, and in this case the pagan Philistines and Egyptians are worthy. The text does not say why these two countries are called, but Ashdod has already been condemned for selling an entire population into slavery (1:6-8) and Egypt was the place of Israel’s bondage and God’s redemption (both of which were to remind the Israelites to treat slaves and aliens and the powerless with justice – Deut. 24:17-22). The message is loud and clear that even these pagans (without the covenant) known for their oppression are more righteous than Israel. It must horrify Amos’ listeners to hear these countries have the right to condemn the activities they witness. The Israelites’ oppression of the poor and defenseless has now reached a point where it surpasses even the oppressions practiced by Egypt and Ashdod.
What is it the people of Israel do? They practice violence and devastation. They are characterized by tumults and oppression. All four of these words seem to refer to the way of life the rich and powerful have cultivated at the expense of the poor. There is no peace for the have-nots. Life in general is hard and unnerving for those out of power. The general welfare and fabric of society have been disrupted. Because of this, the wealthy have been able to hoard up riches won as a result of violence (against people) and devastation (against property) practiced on the poor. They have established a society that judicially and socially holds no safeguards for the defenseless. There is no sense of justice.
God says they do not know how to do what is right. They have lived this way for so long that sin is no longer identified as sin. They are so far from God’s law that they do not know they are far from God’s law. They do not know how to get back or even that they need to get back. Practicing injustice is ingrained in society. The thought that someone suffers as a result of their actions does not enter their minds – the only thing that matters is the pursuit of wealth and storing up more and more treasure in their citadels. Common business practices dictate taking advantage of those who can be taken advantage of – it is simply good business. If someone is not smart enough to navigate the system and as a result cannot survive, what concern is that of ours?
Thought: One of the dangers of never getting outside of our socio-economic circles is that the practices and thinking of people just like us never get challenged. If we only touch people who look like us and live like us and talk like us, it is very easy to justify our actions and thoughts as being the same as those of everyone we know. Getting outside of our normal circles brings us face to face with those who may not have the same privileges or the same resources or the same opportunities. Making ourselves come in contact with people in a different part or level of society can challenge our thinking and force us to evaluate our practices. The best guard against complacency in regard to social justice is to confront those whose lives are most affected by the absence of it.
God tells the Israelites that as a result of the injustice in their society an enemy will surround the land and pull down their strength from them. Their citadels will be looted. The very thing they depend on for security will be destroyed and the very riches they value more than people will be stolen. The treasure they have looted from the poor will be looted from them. Amos does not mention Assyria specifically, but this is clearly the enemy referred to.
Thought: Note how much God hates injustice. The condemnation of Israel repeated over and over throughout Amos is how they do not practice justice toward the poor and powerless. Our Father is just and He expects His children to be just in their interpersonal relationships – especially in regard to the poor and the powerless. God’s justice is based in His righteousness and holiness. The child of God clothed in Christ’s righteousness will be characterized by justice too. You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute (Exodus 23:6). Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord you God is giving you (Deut. 16:20). He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord (Psalm 33:5). I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor (Psalm 140:12). See also Deut. 24:10-22 and James 2:1-13.
Amos uses an example he is very familiar with as a shepherd to illustrate the danger Israel is in. He says that just like a shepherd salvages a couple of legs or a piece of an ear from the remains of a sheep eaten by a lion, so will the only remains of Israel be the corner of a bed and the cover of a couch. Under the law (Ex. 22:13), a shepherd has to bring back the remains of a sheep that dies under his watch to prove that he did not steal it. The body parts left after an attack represent the sheep. In the same way, when Israel is destroyed the only things that will represent the people will be the remains of their luxurious furniture – what they reclined on at the expense of the oppressed. The epitaph of Israel: couches and beds – luxury, idleness, indulgence.
Amos calls for witnesses to hear God’s warnings and testify against the house of Jacob (hearkens back to the patriarchs and the covenant). He uses an interesting name for God – the Lord God, the God of hosts (the Sovereign Yahweh, God the Omnipotent). This could be a subtle rebuke of the counterfeit god the Israelites worship in their false temples (though they still call Him ‘Yahweh’). God hates their false worship (4:4-5).
God tells them (note the change to first person – I punish, I will also smite – Yahweh is now officially their enemy) that on the day they are removed from the land He will destroy the altars at Bethel (Jeroboam I set up “temples” at Bethel and Dan, but apparently by this time Dan has faded away and Bethel is the main place of worship). He will specifically cut off the horns of the altar. The horns are where the blood of sin offerings is placed (Lev 4:7) and where those in danger of punishment can come for refuge (Ex. 21:14 & I Kings 1:50). God tells Israel their opportunities for atonement and refuge will be eliminated – there will be no hope.
God will also destroy their winter houses and summer houses. This is a sign of the immense wealth in Israel; the wealthy have multiple houses. Not only do they have more than one house, but the houses themselves are opulent – inlaid with ivory – and very large. They have houses to escape the cold and houses to escape the heat (lower elevations during the cold season, higher elevations during the warm season) – beautiful structures they can point to as monuments to their wealth and accomplishments. God, however, sees them as monuments to oppression and violence – the very symbols of their neglect and abuse of the poor. God knows they can afford this lifestyle only because they hoard up the treasure of injustice. These symbols of their pursuit of wealth at the expense of others will be destroyed.
Thought: While we (hopefully) do not take advantage of the powerless, could our lifestyle and possessions be signs that we neglect them? Could our houses and toys be items of shame rather than pride? Have we ever considered that a lack of generosity is not simply stinginess but perhaps injustice? When those with abundance do not share with those in need, is a just God pleased? Note that God takes from the wealthy Israelites what they would not willingly share. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him (I Jn 3:17)?
Amos now directs his attention to a specific group of people – the wealthy women of Samaria. He calls them the cows of Bashan. Bashan is a fertile area of lush grass on either side of the Yarmuk River (just southeast of the Sea of Galilee – it flows into the Jordan). Just like cows that graze all day and have no concern for anything other than food and comfort, the wealthy women of Samaria care only for their own luxury and have no concern at whose expense it is provided. They demand more and more from their husbands and have not the slightest concern that others may starve while they become fat.
It’s interesting that God singles these women out. To this point in the book He has simply condemned Israel generally. Perhaps God sees the women of the privileged class as the ultimate symbols of a decadent society because they do not work and idly reap the benefits of an unjust system. Far from exercising compassion on the poor and the weak, they are not satisfied with their wealth and demand more from their husbands at the expense of others. Women who have means and who would typically have mercy on the poor (Prov. 31:20) instead crush the needy. Instead of being the conscience of society and the influence for good on their husbands, these women actually drive their men to further pursue oppression for their own benefit. God makes sure to prophesy specifically against them.
God swears by His holiness (something that cannot change and cannot end and separates God from man) that these women will meet a gruesome end. They will be pulled out of their walled fortresses with hooks and cast to Harmon. No one is quite sure what is meant by the hooks, but it could refer to the Assyrian practice of taking captives away with hooks through their noses or lips and chained together. It also could mean simply that grappling hooks will pull the women through the walls once the city has been breached. Harmon is not identified anywhere in Scripture and could simply mean the place of their exile (it could be translated “dung heap” if one letter in the word is changed). Regardless of the specific meaning, the women will be punished in a way that suits their oppression of the poor and needy. Since they do not care about the welfare of others and basically treat them like animals, they will be treated like animals at the fall of Israel.
It is amazing that the shocking words Amos uses in this passage do not change anyone’s behavior in Israel. This shows that the commentary at the beginning of the text – they do not know how to do what is right – is correct. The Israelites are too far gone. The women hearing of their gruesome demise and the men hearing about the destruction of all they have built and all they worship continue on as if the good times will never stop. We would think that when the light shines on their unjust behavior it would cause some introspection and perhaps change. But even the promised wrath of the God they supposedly worship cannot overpower their love of wealth and privilege. In the end they just cannot wean themselves from the love of the world even when that very world is targeted for destruction as a result. This is a warning for us as we live in a land of prosperity – can we see beyond the rewards of this world and our own comfort?