Friday, October 3, 2014

Amos

If you mention the book of Amos, every Mormon in earshot will immediately think of 3:7. It is a well used missionary scripture.

The Prophet Amos by Gustave Doré
Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.
So what does that mean? What was the great secret that was revealed? Who was Amos and what did he prophecy?

Amos was a fig farmer. Sycamore fruit were a particular type of fig grown in Canaan. He was also a citizen of the northern kingdom or Kingdom of Israel, during its Golden Age.
Jeroboam II had been a great King and won military success as well as economic gains. His kingdom was the largest Israel would ever achieve before its destruction. With the expansive success of his political power, Jeroboam moved his attention to religious unity. Many in his kingdom still viewed the Jerusalem temple and priesthood as the legitimate seat of worship. This gave economic advantage to the southern kingdom of Judah with pilgrimages leading a steady supply of commerce south.

Religious centers for the worship of Yahweh had been well established at several locales in Israel with the most prominent being located in Beth El and Dan. Whether the priesthood serving these locations and the religion practiced there was legitimately recognized by God is a difficult question. Our records come from the kingdom of Judah, who was not favorably disposed toward Israel and had a natural interest in dismissing any legitimacy of Israel's religion. However what does seem clear is that at this time Jeroboam took a greater charge of the Yahweh religion and its priesthood. The Yahweh religion included the worship of the father God El at this time. Eventually El would be assimilated with Yahweh and the distinction between the two is lost. The symbol for the God El was the bull and Jeroboam placed golden bulls in the sacred compounds at Beth El and Dan. It is unclear if this was a legitimate use of iconography. The kingdom of Judah had large Cherubim in the temple complex and these Bulls may have served a similar purpose. Certainly there are scriptures that condemn them including Amos 4:1, but it is not clear if they are condemned of themselves or for the degenerated religion of the people for whom they were sacred symbols. Amos runs afoul of the local priesthood (7:12-13), but it is not clear he condemns it entirely as illegitimate. He complains the prophets and Nazerites have been silenced (2:11-12). He also complains that the religous centers have become outward manifestations of religious practice while corruption abounds (4:4). He does prophecy doom against these religous complexes (7:9) and declares they lack saving power (5:5) as well as condemning their religious feasts and sacrifices and hymns (5:21-23) but immediately follows that with the explanation that it is because they lack judgement and righteousness (5:24)

Amos is also a social reformer. He is concerned with the excesses of the free market and lack of regulations. Particularly, the poor are mistreated by contemptible merchants who used dishonest weights and measures to cheat the poor in buying and selling (8:5-6). He complains of court systems that favor the wealthy (5:12). He also condemns the use of the poor as slaves (8:6) probably as a result of excessive debts.

Throughout the various prophecies of doom Amos teaches the principle of why the calamities must come upon the people. The Lord is desperate to have the people feel something (4:8-12). He prophesies throughout of captivity, famine and drought, all of which can be averted by sincere repentance (5:14-15). When these fail, he gives an additional prophecy of a famine of hearing the word of the Lord (8:11-12) and finally an earthquake (9:1) and exile. This earthquake was used at the beginning of the book to set the date of his message as two years before it occurred (1:1) and would be of such significance that Zachariah would reference it as a well known event two hundred years later (Zachariah 14:5).

Amos however does not leave the northern kingdom without hope. In graphic imagery he indicates they will be "As the shepherd taketh out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear;" (3:12), a badly damaged but apparently salvageable remnant. He explains it is a cleansing process, drawing on the familiar agrarian metaphore of wheat sifting: "For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth" (9:9). He also promises a restoration of temple worship (9:11) but it notably does not seem be associated with the Jerusalem structure, suggesting that with reform the Israel temple structures and worship system could be legitimate.

So in conclusion, Amos was a prophet of a fallen nation, a world of fabulous success that had disregard for its poor, a world of unbridled power for the successful and slavery for the unfortunate. His world put great store in the outward forms of religion but lacked its heart. Many parallels can be seen to our present day. To this world Amos pronounced doom, but also hope, hope that righteousness could save them and a hope for a glorious restoration one day. His prophecies of doom were literally fulfilled with spectacular scale. His prophecies of restoration are still unfolding in even grander style.

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