Connections 07.14.2019: God and Country

Amos 7:7-17

What were you doing on July 4? Did you celebrate Independence Day, and if so, how?

My family and I enjoyed our usual festivities for July 4, spending the day with our friends by their pool, eating burgers and hot dogs and watermelon and homemade ice cream, playing cornhole and badminton, raising a glass to our country and the freedom we have.

But, as usual, I felt the contradiction of celebrating freedom when it was won by oppressing the original inhabitants of this land. When the history of the United States, founded on freedom, is plagued with discrimination and brutality against non-white people. When the idea of freedom so often endangers other people. Something about the thrill of the fireworks, the playing of “God Bless the USA,” and the waving of the Stars and Stripes always feels terribly hypocritical to me.

I will forever be grateful for the thousands of men and women who have fought and are fighting for our country. Their sacrifices are bold, brave, and sometimes devastating. My discomfort is not due to them. What they must do is made necessary in an unstable world of conflict. They deserve honor and support and unending gratitude.

My discomfort is with our American sense of supremacy, especially when it is based on a supposed blessing by God. This lesson is titled “God and Country.” I grew up seeing the Christian flag and the American flag standing side by side in sanctuaries. I have sung “Onward, Christian Soldier” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in church services full of people who love the Prince of Peace. Driving around my Southern town, I see vehicles with bumper stickers that proclaim Second Amendment gun rights stuck right next to a metallic ichthys, the simple fish symbol that labels one as a Christian. As a follower of Jesus Christ, all of this makes me uncomfortable.

In the Scripture passage for our lesson, God’s prophet Amos boldly proclaims the word of the Lord: “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:9). The priest Amaziah dismisses Amos, telling him to go away to Judah and share his message there. Amaziah insists that these prophecies aren’t meant for Israel and even says that his city, Bethel, “is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (v. 13). But Amos keeps speaking God’s message. God has had enough of the arrogance, the supremacy, the hypocrisy. The people who ignore the word of the Lord will soon suffer consequences.

When I read this lesson under the title “God and Country,” I can’t help hearing God’s words aimed at some of us who claim the name “Christian.” I can’t help stepping back and looking at how we use our supposed freedom. I can’t help wondering what God will do when God has had enough of our overconfidence. May we read these words with a spirit of humility and self-reflection.

Discussion

• What does Independence Day in the United States mean to you? How do you celebrate it, and why?

• How might the celebration of this holiday affect people like Native Americans? Immigrants? Minorities?

• How do you feel when you think about the phrases “God and country” and “God bless America”?

• Why do you think Amaziah was so angry to hear Amos’s words from the Lord? Why do you think he felt they didn’t apply to him and his city?

• In many ways, the people of the United States seem increasingly divided. We are about to enter an election year. What might God be saying to us that we don’t want to hear?

Reference Shelf

The Third Vision, 7:7-9

…The distinguishing characteristics of the third vision report (7:7-9) focus upon the charges against the people. Amos 7:8 conveys judgment through an oblique wordplay. Some ambiguity exists because the word for the object appears only here, but scholars agree that [it] refers to a lump of tin. Most English versions translate the word as “plumb line.” Since YHWH stands beside a wall (7:7) and places the tin in the midst of Israel (7:9), they assume YHWH must be measuring Israel’s suitability, similar to the way a carpenter would use a plumb line to make sure a wall is straight. However, this interpretation creates significant difficulties because tin is not a suitable material from which to make a plumb line. It is too light. Even in the ancient world, lead would have been the material of choice. A second line of interpretation takes its cue from the fact that the fourth vision uses the wordplay that is clearly recognizable. In this case, it is significant that the word used for tin sounds similar to the Hebrew word for mourning. Thus, YHWH is not measuring the people; rather, YHWH is placing mourning in their midst—meaning death is near. In either interpretation, the rhetorical effect is the same: something that looked harmless becomes a message of destruction from YHWH.

Confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, 7:10-17

As with the vision cycle, one should interpret Amos 7:10-17 both as a relatively independent episode and as a unit whose placement serves a literary and theological purpose. By recounting Amaziah’s banishment of Amos, 7:10-17 is a prophetic narrative, one of a very few in the Book of the Twelve (see Hos 1), and one whose significance is best understood in relation to other narrative accounts of the dealings between prophets and kings. In short, in prophetic narratives in the Latter Prophets, the basic tenor of the relationship between prophets and kings reflects a far more confrontational attitude than the counterparts of prophets addressing kings at Mari.

The structure unfolds with the narrator’s account of Amaziah’s actions (7:10-13), followed by a clearly structured judgment oracle against Amaziah (7:14-17). The narrator introduces him as the chief priest in Bethel (7:10) who writes Jeroboam (in Samaria), informing him that Amos is preaching treason. He quotes Amos by paraphrasing 7:9. Then, in a telling exchange, and without waiting to hear back from the king, Amaziah claims the king’s authority and forbids Amos from prophesying at Bethel, demanding that Amos go back to Judah. The sarcasm drips from the last line of 7:13, as the chief priest does not claim that Bethel belongs to God, but that it is a “sanctuary of the king and the temple of the kingdom.” Amaziah accuses Amos of preaching for money when he says, “Seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there” (7:12). Amaziah not only questions the motives of Amos and sends him packing but also in the process shows that his true allegiance lies with the king rather than YHWH.

In 7:14-17, Amos defends his honor as one genuinely called of God (7:14-15), and then pronounces a judgment oracle against Amaziah (7:16-17). Amos begins by denying that he is a professional prophet who has come to Israel to make money. Amos claims not to be a prophet or the son of a prophet (usually interpreted as a prophet’s disciple; see 2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 15; 4:1, 38; 6:1; 9:1). Moreover, Amos claims YHWH called him when he was gainfully employed as a shepherd and a tender of sycamore trees, meaning he did not need to come to Israel to make money. The case has often been made that Amos must have been a man of some means to have owned both cattle and orchards.  Typical of judgment oracles, Amos recapitulates the current setting, though from a perspective quite different from that of Amaziah. Next, Amos pronounces YHWH’s verdict, introducing it with a speech as bombastic as the one Amaziah leveled at him: “You say, ‘do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’” Afterward Amos predicts Amaziah’s wife will be forced into prostitution, his children killed in battle, and his land parceled out to strangers, while Amaziah will die in a foreign land when Israel is exiled. Such specific threats are unusual from a prophet, and one could certainly draw a parallel to the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah in Jeremiah 28:12-16. At any rate, the narrative breaks off abruptly so that the fourth vision report (8:1-3) then concludes the judgment oracle.

Intertextuality plays a role in this narrative since Amaziah’s accusations charge Amos with predicting the death of the king and the exile of the people. Both charges are essentially accurate. Amos 7:9 pronounced God would act against the “house of Jeroboam with the sword.” While some try to obfuscate this charge by claiming it related to only to the king’s descendants, such fine distinctions would probably mean little to a sitting king. In addition, the prediction of exile accurately reflects some of the sayings (5:5, 27; 6:7). The veracity of Amaziah’s charges is not at issue within the narrative, for Amos has done exactly what the priest charges him of doing. Rather, at issue is the question of authority. Amaziah recognizes the king as the ultimate authority, while Amos speaks from his sense of obligation to God.

The narrative in 7:10-17, taken by itself, makes a subtle point with a strong dose of irony. No sooner does Amaziah forbid Amos from prophesying than Amos prophesies against Amaziah himself. Amaziah tells Amos that the land cannot bear his prophecies about exile, and Amos tells Amaziah, “You are going with them.” Amos refuses to let Amaziah have the last word.

However, the rhetorical effect of the narrative looks different when interpreted with the visions. The narrative ends abruptly with the pronouncement of judgment against Amaziah in the judgment oracle, but the judgment oracle lacks a concluding element. Usually, judgment oracles end with a formulaic statement or with some indication of how the situation plays out, but 7:10-17 does not. As soon as Amos pronounces the verdict against Amaziah, the fourth vision begins. Moreover, this fourth vision stresses that the end is near (8:2). By inserting the narrative between the third and fourth visions, the author creates a new dynamic. Instead of emphasizing the irony of a prophet forbidden to prophesy who prophesies, the hammer drops on Israel in the fourth vision. Amaziah, the chief priest at Bethel, Israel’s religious center, rejects Amos, and the placement of 7:10-17 represents Israel’s rejection of the message of Amos in the broader context. This official rejection appropriately precedes the pronouncement of the end because it illustrates for the reader that Israel left God no choice when it rejected the message of his prophet.

James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2011) 339–43.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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Comments

  1. Gary Myers says

    Thank you for speaking the truth! I will have a difficult time with this lesson tomorrow, because I have a class full of Right leaning, gun toting supporters who love Franklin Graham and think our President is a great man. This lesson, I feel will, fall upon deaf ears. I would like to point out that clergy leaders like Franklin Graham are just like Amaziah. He isn’t listening to our Lord, he is supporting the King, Your opinion piece is like Amos’ words, that would be considered a national threat. Thank you again.

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