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Bible Commentaries
Amos 2

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-16


Amos 1:3 - Amos 2:1-16

LIKE all the prophets of Israel, Amos receives oracles for foreign nations. Unlike them, however, he arranges these oracles not after, but before, his indictment of his own people, and so as to lead up to this. His reason is obvious and characteristic. If his aim be to enforce a religion independent of his people’s interests and privileges, how can he better do so than by exhibiting its principles at work outside his people, and then, with the impetus drained from many areas, sweep in upon the vested iniquities of Israel herself? This is the course of the first section of his book-chapters 1 and 2. One by one the neighbors of Israel are cited and condemned in the name of Jehovah; one by one they are told they must fall before the still unnamed engine of the Divine Justice. But when Amos has stirred his people’s conscience and imagination by his judgment of their neighbors’ sins, he turns with the same formula on themselves. Are they morally better? Are they more likely to resist Assyria? With greater detail he shows them worse and their doom the heavier for all their privileges. Thus is achieved an oratorical triumph, by tactics in harmony with the principles of prophecy and remarkably suited to the tempers of that time.

But Amos achieves another feat, which extends far beyond his own day. The sins he condemns in the heathen are at first sight very different from those which he exposes within Israel. Not only are they sins of foreign relations, of treaty and war, while Israel’s are all civic and domestic; but they are what we call the atrocities of Barbarism-wanton war, massacre, and sacrilege-while Israel’s are rather the sins of Civilization-the pressure of the rich upon the poor, the bribery of justice, the seduction of the innocent, personal impurity, and other evils of luxury. So great is this difference that a critic more gifted with ingenuity than with insight might plausibly distinguish in the section before us two prophets with two very different views of national sin-a ruder prophet, and of course an earlier, who judged nations only by the flagrant drunkenness of their war, and a more subtle prophet, and of course a later, who exposed the masked corruptions of their religion and their peace. Such a theory would be as false as it would be plausible. For not only is the diversity of the objects of the prophet’s judgment explained by this, that Amos had no familiarity with the interior life of other nations, and could only arraign their conduct at those points where it broke into light in their foreign relations, while Israel’s civic life he knew to the very core. But Amos had besides a strong and a deliberate aim in placing the sins of civilization as the climax of a list of the atrocities of barbarism. He would recall what men are always forgetting, that the former are really more cruel and criminal than the latter; that luxury, bribery, and intolerance, the oppression of the poor, the corruption of the innocent and the silencing of the prophet-what Christ calls offences against His little ones-are even more awful atrocities than the wanton horrors of barbarian warfare. If we keep in mind this moral purpose, we shall study with more interest than we could otherwise do the somewhat foreign details of this section. Horrible as the outrages are which Amos describes, they were repeated only yesterday by Turkey: Many of the crimes with which he charges Israel blacken the life of Turkey’s chief accuser, Great Britain.

In his survey Amos includes all the six states of Palestine that bordered upon Israel, and lay in the way of the advance of Assyria-Aram of Damascus, Philistia, Tyre (or Phoenicia), Edom, Ammon, and Moab. They are not arranged in geographical order. The prophet begins with Aram in the northeast, then leaps to Philistia in the southwest, comes north again to Tyre, crosses to the southeast and Edom, leaps Moab to Ammon, and then comes back to Moab. Nor is any other explanation of his order visible. Damascus heads the list, no doubt, because her cruelties had been most felt by Israel, and perhaps too because she lay most open to Assyria. It was also natural to take next to Aram Philistia, as Israel’s other greatest foe; and nearest to Philistia lay Tyre. The three southeastern principalities come together. But there may have been a chronological reason now unknown to us.

The authenticity of the oracles on Tyre; Edom, and Judah has been questioned: it will be best to discuss each case as we come to it.

Each of the oracles is introduced by the formula: "Thus saith," or "hath said, Jehovah: Because of three crimes of yea, because of four, I will not turn It back." In harmony with the rest of the book, Jehovah is represented as moving to punishment, not for a single sin, but for repeated and cumulative guilt. The unnamed "It" which God will not recall is not the word of judgment, but the anger and the hand stretched forth to smite. After the formula, an instance of the nation’s guilt is given, and then in almost identical terms he decrees the destruction of all by war and captivity. Assyria is not mentioned, but it is the Assyrian fashion of dealing with conquered states which is described. Except in the case of Tyre and Edom, the oracles conclude as they have begun, by asserting themselves to be the "word of Jehovah," or of "Jehovah the Lord." It is no abstract righteousness which condemns these foreign peoples, but the God of Israel, and their evil deeds are described by the characteristic Hebrew word for sin-"crimes," "revolts," or "treasons" against Him.

1. ARAM OF DAMASCUS.-"Thus hath Jehovah said: Because of three crimes of Damascus, yea, because of four, I will not turn It back; for that they threshed Gilead with iron"-or "basalt threshing-sledges." The word is "iron," but the Arabs of today call basalt iron; and the threshing-sledges, curved slabs drawn rapidly by horses over the heaped corn, are studded with sharp basalt teeth that not only thresh out the grain, but chop the straw into little pieces. So cruelly had Gilead been chopped by Hazael and his son Ben-Hadad some fifty or forty years before Amos prophesied. Strongholds were burned, soldiers slain without quarter, children dashed to pieces, and women with child put to a most atrocious end. But "I shall send fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad"-these names are chosen, not because they were typical of the Damascus dynasty, but because they were the very names of the two heaviest oppressors of Israel. "And I will break the bolt of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitant from Bik’ath-Aven"-the Valley of Idolatry, so called, perhaps, by a play upon Bik’ath On, presumably the valley between the Lebanons, still called the Beka, in which lay Heliopolis-"and him that holdeth the scepter from Beth-Eden"-some royal Paradise in that region of Damascus which is still the Paradise of the Arab world-"and the people of Aram shall go captive to Kir"-Kir in the unknown north, from which they had come: (Amos 9:7) "Jehovah hath said" it.

2. PHILISTIA.-"Thus saith Jehovah: For three crimes of Gaza and for four I will not turn It back, because they led captive a whole captivity, in order to deliver them up to Edom." It is difficult to see what this means if not the wholesale depopulation of a district in contrast to the enslavement of a few captives of war. By all tribes of the ancient world, the captives of their bow and spear were regarded as legitimate property: it was no offence to the public conscience that they should be sold into slavery. But the Philistines seem, without excuse of war, to have descended upon certain districts and swept the whole of the population before them, for purely commercial purposes. It was professional slave-catching. The Philistines were exactly like the Arabs of today in Africa-not warriors who win their captives in honorable fight, but slave-traders, pure and simple. In warfare in Arabia itself it is still a matter of conscience with the wildest nomads not to extinguish a hostile tribe, however bitter one be against them. Gaza is chiefly blamed by Amos, for she was the emporium of the trade on the border of the desert, with roads and regular caravans to Petra and Elah on the Gulf of Akaba, both of them places in Edom and depots for the traffic with Arabia. "But I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod, and the holder of the sceptre from Askalon, and I will turn My hand upon Ekron"-four of the five great Philistine towns, Gath being already destroyed, and never again to be mentioned with the others-"and the last of the Philistines shall perish: Jehovah hath said it."

3. TYRE.-"Thus saith Jehovah: Because of three crimes of Tyre and because of four I will not turn It back; for that they gave up a whole captivity to Edom"-the same market as in the previous charge-"and did not remember the covenant of brethren." We do not know to what this refers. The alternatives are three: that the captives were Hebrews and the alliance one between Israel and Edom; that the captives were Hebrews and the alliance one between Israel and Tyre; that the captives were Phoenicians and the alliance the natural brotherhood of Tyre and the other Phoenician towns. But of these three alternatives the first is scarcely possible, for in such a case the blame would have been rather Edom’s in buying than Tyre’s in selling. The second is possible, for Israel and Tyre had lived in close alliance for more than two centuries; but the phrase "covenant of brethren" is not so well suited to a league between two tribes who felt themselves to belong to fundamentally different races, {Genesis 10:1-32} as to the close kinship of the Phoenician communities. And although, in the scrappy records of Phoenician history before this time, we find no instance of so gross an outrage by Tyre on other Phoenicians, it is quite possible that such may have occurred. During next century Tyre twice over basely took sides with Assyria in suppressing the revolts of her sister cities. Besides, the other Phoenician towns are not included in the charge. We have every reason, therefore, to believe that Amos expresses here not resentment against a betrayal of Israel, but indignation at an outrage upon natural rights and feelings with which Israel’s own interests were not in any way concerned. And this also suits the lofty spirit of the whole prophecy. "But I will send fire upon the wall of Tyre, and it shall devour her palaces"

This oracle against Tyre has been suspected by Wellhausen, for the following reasons: that it is of Tyre alone, and silence is kept regarding the other Phoenician cities, while in the case of Philistia other towns than Gaza are condemned; that the charge is the same as against Gaza; and that the usual close to the formula is wanting. But it would have been strange if from a list of states threatened by the Assyrian doom we had missed Tyre, Tyre which lay in the avenger’s very path. Again, that so acute a critic as Wellhausen should cite the absence of other Phoenician towns from the charge against Tyre is really amazing, when he has just allowed that it was probably against some or all of these cities that Tyre’s crime was committed. How could they be included in the blame of an outrage done upon themselves? The absence of the usual formula at the close may perhaps be explained by omission, as indicated above.

4. EDOM.-"Thus saith Jehovah: Because of three crimes of Edom and because of four I will not turn It back; for that he pursued with the sword his brother," who cannot be any other than Israel, "corrupted his natural feelings"-literally "his bowels of mercies"-"and kept aye fretting his anger, and his passion he watched"-like a fire, or "paid heed" to it-"forever." "But I will send fire upon Teman"-the "South" Region belonging to Edom-"and it shall devour the palaces of Bosrah"-the Edomite Bosrah, southeast of Petra. The Assyrians had already compelled Edom to pay tribute.

The objections to the authenticity of this oracle are more serious than those in the case of the oracle on Tyre. It has been remarked that before the Jewish Exile so severe a tone could not have been adopted by a Jew against Edom, who had been mostly under the yoke of Judah, and not leniently treated. What were the facts? Joab subdued Edom for David with great cruelty. {2 Samuel 8:13 with 1 Kings 11:16} Jewish governors were set over the conquered people, and this state of affairs seems to have lasted, in spite of an Edomite attempt against Solomon, {1 Kings 11:14-25} till 850. In Jehoshaphat’s reign, 873-850, "there was no king of Edom, a deputy was king," who towards 850 joined the kings of Judah and Israel in an invasion of Moab through his territory. {2 Kings 3:1-27} But, soon after this invasion and perhaps in consequence of its failure, Edom revolted from Joram of Judah (849-842), who unsuccessfully attempted to put down the revolt. {2 Kings 8:20-22} The Edomites appear to have remained independent for fifty years at least. Amaziah of Judah (797-779) smote Edom, {2 Kings 14:10} but not, it would seem, into subjection; for, according to the Chronicler, Uzziah had to win back Elath for the Jews after Amaziah’s death. {2 Chronicles 26:2} The history, therefore, of the relations of Judah and Edom before the time of Amos was of such a kind as to make credible the existence in Judah at that time of the feeling about Edom which inspires this oracle. Edom had shown just the vigilant, implacable hatred here described. But was the right to blame them for it Judah’s, who herself had so persistently waged war, with confessed cruelty, against Edom? Could a Judaean prophet be just in blaming Edom and saying nothing of Judah? It is true that in the fifty years of Edom’s independence-the period, we must remember, from which Amos seems to draw the materials of all his other charges-there may have been events to justify this oracle as spoken by him; and our ignorance of that period is ample reason why we should pause before rejecting the oracle so dogmatically as Wellhausen does. But we have at least serious grounds for suspecting it. To charge Edom, whom Judah has conquered and treated cruelly, with restless hate towards Judah seems to fall below that high impartial tone which prevails in the other oracles of this section. The charge was much more justifiable at the time of the Exile, when Edom did behave shamefully towards Israel. Wellhausen points out that Teman and Bosrah are names which do not occur in the Old Testament before the Exile, but this is uncertain and inconclusive. The oracle wants the concluding formula of the rest.

5. AMMON.-"Thus saith Jehovah: Because of three crimes of Ammon and because of four I will not turn It back; for that they ripped up Gilead’s women with child-in order to enlarge their borders!" For such an end they committed such an atrocity! The crime is one that has been more or less frequent in Semitic warfare. Wellhausen cites several instances in the feuds of Arab tribes about their frontiers. The Turks have been guilty of it in our own day. It is the same charge which the historian of Israel puts into the mouth of Elisha against Hazael of Aram, {2 Kings 8:12} and probably the war was the same; when Gilead was simultaneously attacked by Arameans from the north and Ammonites from the south. "But I will set fire to the wall of Rabbah"-Rabbath-Ammon, literally "chief" or "capital" of Ammon-"and it shall devour her palaces, with clamor in the day of battle, with tempest in the day of storm." As we speak of "storming a city," Amos and Isaiah use the tempest to describe the overwhelming invasion of Assyria. There follows the characteristic Assyrian conclusion: "And their king shall go into captivity, he and his princes together, saith Jehovah."

6. MOAB.-"Thus saith Jehovah: Because of three crimes of Moab and because of four I will not turn It back; for that he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime." In the great invasion of Moab, about 850, by Israel, Judah, and Edom conjointly, the rage of Moab seems to have been directed chiefly against Edom. Whether opportunity to appease that rage occurred on the withdrawal of Israel we cannot say. But either then or afterwards, balked of their attempt to secure the king of Edom alive, Moab wreaked their vengeance on his corpse, and burnt his bones to lime. It was, in the religious belief of all antiquity, a sacrilege: yet it does not seem to have been the desecration of the tomb-or he would have mentioned it-but the wanton meanness of the deed, which Amos felt. "And I will send fire on Moab, and it shall devour the palaces of The Cities"-Kerioth, perhaps the present Kureiyat, on the Moab plateau where Chemosh had his shrine-"and in tumult shall Moab die"-to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 48:45) the Moabites were the sons of tumult-"with clamor and with the noise of the war-trumpet. And I will cut off the ruler"-literally "judge," probably the vassal king placed by Jeroboam II "from her midst, and all his princes will I slay with him: Jehovah hath said" it.

These, then, are the charges which Amos brings against the heathen neighbors of Israel. If we look as a whole across the details through which we have been working, what we see is a picture of the Semitic world so summary and so vivid that we get the like of it nowhere else-the Semitic world in its characteristic brokenness and turbulence; its factions and ferocities, its causeless raids and quarrels, tribal disputes about boundaries flaring up into the most terrible massacres, vengeance that wreaks itself alike on the embryo and the corpse-"cutting up women with child in Gilead," and "burning to lime the bones of the king of Edom." And the one commerce which binds these ferocious tribes together is the slave-trade in its wholesale and most odious form.

Amos treats none of the atrocities subjectively. It is not because they have been inflicted upon Israel that he feels or condemns them. The appeals of Israel against the tyrant become many as the centuries go on; the later parts of the Old Testament are full of the complaints of God’s chosen people, conscious of their mission to the world against the heathen, who prevented them from it. Here we find none of these complaints, but a strictly objective and judicial indictment of the characteristic crimes of heathen men against each other; and though this is made in the name of Jehovah, it is not in the interests of His people or of any of His purposes through them, but solely by the standard of an impartial righteousness which, as we are soon to hear, must descend in equal judgment on Israel.

Again, for the moral principles which Amos enforces no originality can be claimed. He condemns neither war as a whole nor slavery as a whole, but limits his curse to wanton and deliberate aggravations of them: to the slave-trade in cold blood, in violation of treaties, and for purely commercial ends; to war for trifling causes, and that wreaks itself on pregnant women and dead men: to national hatreds, that never will be still. Now against such things there has always been in mankind a strong conscience, of which the word "humanity" is in itself a sufficient proof. We need not here inquire into the origin of such a common sense-whether it be some native impulse of tenderness which asserts itself as soon as the duties of self-defense are exhausted, or some rational notion of the needlessness of excesses, or whether, in committing these, men are visited by fear of retaliation from the wrath they have unnecessarily exasperated. Certain it is that warriors of all races have hesitated to be wanton in their war, and have foreboded the special judgment of heaven upon every blind extravagance of hate or cruelty. It is well known how the Greeks felt the insolence of power and immoderate anger; they are the fatal element in many a Greek tragedy. But the Semites themselves, whose racial ferocity is so notorious, are not without the same feeling. "Even the Beduins" old cruel rancor’s are often less than the golden piety of the wilderness. The danger past, they can think of the defeated foemen with kindness putting only their trust in Ullah to obtain the like need for themselves. It is contrary to the Arabian conscience to extinguish a Kabila." Similarly in Israel some of the earliest ethical movements were revolts of the public conscience against horrible outrages, like that, for instance, done by the Benjamites of Gibeah. {Judges 19:20} Therefore in these oracles on his old Semitic neighbors Amos discloses no new ideal for either tribe or individual. Our view is confirmed that he was intent only upon arousing the natural conscience of his Hebrew hearers in order to engage this upon other vices to which it was less impressionable-that he was describing those deeds of war and slavery, whose atrocity all men admitted, only that he might proceed to bring under the same condemnation the civic and domestic sins of Israel.

We turn with him, then, to Israel. But in his book as it now stands in our Bibles, Israel is not immediately reached. Between her and the foreign nations two verses are bestowed upon Judah: "Thus saith Jehovah: Because of three crimes of Judah and because of four I will not turn it back; for that they despised the Torah of Jehovah, and His statutes they did not observe, and their false hoods"-false gods-"led them astray, after which their fathers walked. But I will send fire on Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem." These verses have been suspected as a later insertion, on the ground that every reference to Judah in the Book of Amos must be late, that the language is very formal, and that the phrases in which the sin of Judah is described sound like echoes of Deuteronomy. The first of these reasons may be dismissed as absurd; it would have been far more strange if Amos had never at all referred to Judah. The charges, however, are not like those which Amos elsewhere makes, and though the phrases may be quite as early as his time, the reader of the original, and even the reader of the English version, is aware of a certain tameness and vagueness of statement, which contrasts remarkably with the usual pungency of the prophet’s style. We are forced to suspect the authenticity of these verses.

We ought to pass, then, straight from the third to the sixth verse of this chapter, from the oracles on foreign nations to that on Northern Israel. It is introduced with the same formula as they are: "Thus saith Jehovah: Because of three crimes of Israel and because of four I will not turn it back." But there follow a great number of details, for Amos has come among his own people whom he knows to the heart, and he applies to them a standard more exact and an obligation more heavy than any he could lay to the life of the heathen. Let us run quickly through the items of his charge. "For that they sell an honest man for silver, and a needy man for a pair of shoes"-proverbial, as we should say "for an old song"-"who trample to the dust of the earth the head of the poor"-the least improbable rendering of a corrupt passage-"and pervert the way of humble men. And a man and his father will go into, the maid," the same maid, "to desecrate My Holy Name"-without doubt some public form of unchastity introduced from the Canaanite worship into the very sanctuary of Jehovah, the holy place where He reveals His Name-"and on garments given in pledge they stretch themselves by every altar, and the wine of those who, have been fined they drink in the house of their God." A riot of sin: the material of their revels is the miseries of the poor, its stage the house of God! Such is religion to the Israel of Amos day-indoors, feverish, sensual. By one of the sudden contrasts he loves, Amos sweeps out of it into God’s idea of religion-a great historical movement, told in the language of the open air: national deliverance, guidance on the highways of the world, the inspiration of prophecy, and the pure, ascetic life. "But I, I destroyed the Amorite before you, whose height was as. the cedars, and he was strong as oaks, and I destroyed his fruit from above and his roots from below." What a contrast to the previous picture of the temple filled with fumes of wine and hot with lust! We are out on open history; God’s, gales blow and the forests crash before them. "And I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you through the wilderness forty years, to inherit the land of the Amorite." Religion is not chambering and wantonness; it is not selfish comfort or profiting by the miseries of the poor and the sins of the fallen. But religion is history-the freedom of the people and their education, the winning of the land and the defeat of the heathen foe; and then, when the land is firm and the home secure, it is the raising, upon that stage and shelter, of spiritual guides and examples. "And I raised up of your sons to be prophets, and of your young men to be Nazarites"-consecrated and ascetic lives. "Is it not so, O children of Israel? (oracle of Jehovah). But ye made the Nazarites drink wine, and the prophets ye charged, saying, Prophesy not!"

Luxury, then, and a very sensual conception of religion, with all their vicious offspring in the abuse of justice, the oppression of the poor, the corrupting of the innocent, and the intolerance of spiritual forces-these are the sins of an enlightened and civilized people, which Amos describes as worse than all the atrocities of barbarism, and as certain of Divine vengeance. How far beyond his own day are his words stilt warm! Here in the nineteenth century is Great Britain, destroyer of the slave-traffic, and champion of oppressed nationalities-yet this great and Christian people, at the very time they are abolishing slavery, suffer their own children to work in factories and clay-pits for sixteen hours a day, and in mines set women to a labor for which horses are deemed too valuable. Things improve after 1848, but how slowly, and against what callousness of Christians, Lord Shaftesbury’s long and often disappointed labors painfully testify. Even yet our religious public, that curses the Turk, and in an indignation, which can never be too warm, cries out against the Armenian atrocities, is callous, nay, by the avarice of some, the haste and passion for enjoyment of many more, and the thoughtlessness of all, itself contributes, to conditions of life and fashions of society, which bear with cruelty upon our poor, taint our literature, needlessly increase the temptations of our large towns, and render pure child life impossible among masses of our population. Along some of the highways of our Christian civilization we are just as cruel and just as lustful as Kurd or Turk.

Amos closes this prophecy with a vision of immediate judgment. "Behold, I am about to crush or squeeze down upon you, as a wagon crushes that is full of sheaves." An alternative reading supplies the same general impression of a crushing judgment: "I will make the ground quake under you, as a wagon makes it quake," or "as a wagon" itself "quakes under its load of sheaves." This shock is to be War. "Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not prove his power, nor the mighty man escape with his life. And he that graspeth the bow shall not stand, nor shall the swift of foot escape, nor the horseman escape with his life. And he that thinketh himself strong among the heroes shall flee away naked in that day-‘tis the oracle of Jehovah."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Amos 2". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/amos-2.html.
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