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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Angry Amos and God's Wrath

I wrote the following as my newsletter column for our church newsletter which comes out every two weeks.

In 2010, one of the ways we are attempting to live out God’s call on us to be givers of love and compassion is to explore the scriptures to see if we can get a sense of how much God values justice and mercy. Throughout the Bible it is clear that the people of God are people of justice, people of love, people of grace, and people who care for one another and for all people. The book of Amos, found in the Old Testament, provides one of the most powerful and provocative pictures of Godly justice.

The prophet Amos gives us a picture of God’s anger throughout his book, and the first two chapters show the breadth of God’s judgment. Keil and Delitzsch in their commentary describe in vivid detail the sins of Damascus (1:3). The threshing of the Gileadites with iron threshing-machines … took place … when the conquerors acted so cruelly towards the Gileadites, that they even crushed the prisoners to pieces with iron threshing-machines, according to a barbarous war-custom that is met with elsewhere.” At Gaza (one of the five capitals of the Philistines) the transgression was not as gruesome, but cruel nonetheless. They forced those they conquered into exile.

God threatened fire upon the walled city of Tyre because the rulers of Tyre were involved in slave trading (1:9). Edom was condemned specifically because of Edom did not show pity during armed conflict. These condemnations, straight from the mouth of God’s prophet, reveal God’s merciful character as well as God’s disdain for people who don’t reflect that character. When people lord power over one another, God does not like it.

Nor does God approve of excessive evil and violence. The Ammonites “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead” (1:13). An awful thing described as the “climax of cruelties inflicted upon the Israelites” during the war with Ammon (Keil & Delitzsch). For this, God declares that the capital of the Ammonites would be burned and their king sent into exile (v.14-15). Just as Edom and Ammon would each suffer God’s wrath for their cruelty against God’s people Israel, Moab would be burned by fire sent from God for her evils against Edom (2:2). God has no hatred for Edom or any of the places condemned in Amos 1-2. The extreme measures of punishment described by the prophet do not reveal a rage-filled God; the writings of Amos show the response of a holy God to heinous sins.

Even the chosen people fall under judgment. “Because they have rejected my law … I will send fire upon Judah” (Amos 2:4-5). Judah was the southern kingdom of God’s chosen people the location of 2 of the 12 tribes. The other 10 tribes lived in the northern kingdom, Israel. And the harshest words of wrath are reserved for Israel. This is important to remember because what God says to Israel is equally severe in terms of punishment, but compare the sins.

The Gileadites crushed their prisoners to pieces. The Ammonites ripped open pregnant women. The Philistines and Phoenicians (Gaza and Tyre) sold defeated enemies into slavery. Compared to the graphic nature of those sins, Judah doesn’t seem so bad. All they did was neglect God’s law. But, it is just as sinful to God. Israel’s transgression also seems insensitive but not criminal to the degree of the sins of the other nations mentioned.

For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. 8 They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines” (Amos 2:6-8).

In God’s eyes exploitation of the poor and the denial of justice to oppressed people warrants the hardest of divine discipline. In fact, because Israel and Judah were to be God’s light to the rest of the world and because they were blessed to descendants of Abraham, to receive the Law of Moses, and to be led by men like David and Solomon. They should have known how to act and how to treat people. Instead the hands of the Israelites were as dirtied with injustice as their neighbors.

As we think about how God wants us to live justly and treat each other and the peoples around us the values revealed in Amos 1-2 are a great help. When we hurt people, or participate in exploitative systems, we are as guilty of sin as if we committed violent crime. So, are we, as Americans, consuming an incredibly disproportionate amount of resources, knowing there are people in the world starving, participants in an exploitative system?

Rob Tennant

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