Sunday School Lesson #35

August 22, 2006 | 14 comments
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Lesson 35: Amos 3, 7-9; Joel 2-3


Amos

Though Amos is a short book, it can be difficult to make sense of it. Amos seems to have done his prophetic work at about 765-750 B.C., though it may have been earlier. (We can give fairly accurate dates for him because he refers to an earthquake (1:1) that occurred during the reign of Uzziah (Zechariah 14:5) and to an eclipse of the sun that took place in 763 B.C. (8:9). So Amos prophesies just after Hosea or perhaps he was his contemporary. Look at the Old Testament chronology in the Bible dictionary to see what kinds of things were happening in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah at that time. How is this related to the events narrated at the beginning of the Book of Mormon?

Amos is a herdsman (1:1) and someone who collected sycamore figs (7:14), a food eaten by the poor. Our view of shepherds owes a great deal to our Christmas-views of Christ’s nativity: a shepherd lives with his flock in the hills and is often an itinerant worker. Similarly, our view of someone who collects figs is that the person is probably a hired hand. As a result, we assume that Amos was not a wealthy person and probably had little formal education. We see many books on Amos informed by that assumption. It is possible that the assumption is correct, but it is also possible that view is quite wrong.

The word translated “shepherd” described Mesha, the king of Tekoa (2 Kings 3:4), and the same word is used in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures to refer to officials among the priests and other nobility. So, perhaps rather than an itinerant, uneducated farm hand, Amos was a wealthy businessman, a dealer in wool and sycamore figs. Such a person was probably well-educated. According to The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “He may have occupied a professional status under the king or the temple which obligated him to supply them with flocks, to pay taxes, or even to fulfill a military role; he would have also enjoyed certain privileges that came with employment by the royal house” (3:143). That Amos was called from the village of Tekoa, geographically isolated from Jerusalem and Israel, but on a major trade route, is evidence for the Anchor Bible Dictionary‘s suggestion. In the end, however, we do not know much about Amos’s background.

What do you make of the fact that, though Amos lives in Judah, his message is primarily for Israel?

Amos’s message is that Israel will be punished for her sins even more than those outside Israel: being the covenant people means having greater obligations. Amos is also adamant that meticulous observance of religious rituals will not be enough to save them. Justice toward others is more important: God demands not only religious ritual, but righteousness and mercy.

The first two chapters of Amos are a kind of preamble. They tell us that just as those outside Israel cannot escape judgment for the ways in which they treat others, Israel also cannot escape that judgment. The next four chapters are criticism directed at those who believe that their prosperity is proof of their righteousness. (Evidently they hadn’t read or hadn’t believed Ecclesiastes or Job.) The last three chapters tell us of Amos’s visions of calamities, calamities that remind us to repent before we suffer the greatest calamity of all, captivity. (We can read this warning on several levels: beware lest you fall into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians; beware lest you fall into captivity at the hands of Satan.) The last several verses of the book (9:11-15) are a conclusion that describes the time when Israel as a whole will be reconciled to their God.

As you read Amos, notice that Amos’s message differs from many other prophecies in that it is addressed not only to Israel, but also to others, specifically to “the nations,” a phrase that probably refers to those who, in Amos’s time, occupied the territory once occupied by the kingdom of David and Solomon. However, the phrase can also refer to all of those outside Judah and Israel, to the Gentiles. Why did he address his message to those other than Judah and Israel?

Also notice that the Lord does not condemn the nations for idolatry, but for what we would call “crimes against humanity”: waging annihilating war (1:3), breaking one’s obligation to kinsmen and warring against them (1:9, 11), torturing pregnant women (1:13), and either human sacrifice or desecrating a royal tomb (2:1—the meaning is unclear). It is as if to say that “the nations” might not be expected to worship the Lord, but surely they can be expected to be humane.

Of course, in addition to his message of woe to the nations, Amos also speaks to Israel. Amos pleads both with Israel (to repent) and with the Lord (to give Israel more time to repent). He is unsuccessful with the former and only temporarily successful with the latter. (See 7:1-3.) What does it mean for a person to plead with the Lord? How can Amos, or anyone, do such a thing? What might we make of Amos’s failures?

In Amos 7:1-3, we see Amos supplicate the Lord, successfully, and we see the Lord promise that the devastation he has threatened “shall not be.” Then, in 8:7 ff., we see the Lord say he will never forget the wickedness of Israel and threaten destruction again. What do you make of this seeming contradiction?

When Amos condemns Israel as a whole (the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah), it is only partly for not living up their religious obligations in a narrow sense: Judah rejected the instruction of the Lord, failed to keep the commandments, and practiced idolatry (2:4). Amos also condemns them for being generally wicked: the kingdom of Israel oppressed the righteous and the poor (2:6-8) and practiced idolatry that included fornication and adultery (2:7).

When Amos names specific sins, he most often mentions such things as the oppression of the poor (4:1, 5:11-12, 8:4-6), the suppression of the prophets and the Nazarites (2:12, 5:10, 5:12, 6:1-6), that the children of Israel are not concerned for Joseph’s affliction (6:1-6), and that they trust in military might (6:13). (What does Joseph’s affliction or fall refer to?) Indeed, Kelly Ogden has pointed out that Amos uses the Israelite disruption of society as the type of his own disruption of nature:

“You cause the poor of the land to fail” (8:4); “I’ll cause the crops of the land to fail” (4:9); High society had withheld necessary sustenance from the poor, and God withheld necessary sustenance from the Israelites (4:6-8). Leaders had swallowed up the needy (8:4), so God would swallow them up with various catastrophes. Merchants had sold the refuse of the wheat (9:6), so God would sell them as refuse into the hands of the enemy (6:8).

What should we make of Amos’s emphasis on these kinds of sin? What comparison is implied between Israel and the nations? What might the mention of these specific sins say about what the Lord values? What might it say about the relation of religious worship to humanitarian concerns? Why does concern for the poor seem to be such an important matter here? Virtually every one of the prophets who come to Israel just before her entry into captivity make justice for the poor a major theme. Why? Is this concern perhaps one of the origins of the same concern in the Book of Mormon? Of what might such justice be a type or shadow?

Consider what Amos has to say about the religious centers of his day, the temples (3:14, 5:4-5, and 5:21-23). (Oddly, Amos doesn’t mention the Jerusalem temple, but Isaiah does, and in much the same kinds of terms that Amos uses to speak of the temple at Beth-el.) What does Amos teach us about ancient Israel? about latter-day Israel?

Amos 8:11-12 tells us that one result of Israel’s sin will be the absence of prophecy. How is that an appropriate punishment for the sins Amos denounces? Why is the absence of prophecy such a calamity? How does this relate specifically to Amos’s work? (Compare 7:10-17.) Do we ever experience an absence of prophecy?

What is prophecy? Though today, the word “prophet” is often used to mean something like “one who tells the future,” it does not have that meaning in the Old Testament, even though prophets sometimes tell of future events. The Hebrew word translated “prophet” (nabi’) has the literal meaning, “one who is inspired” and, when used positively, always refers to an authorized spokesman. (See Exodus 7:1-2; Numbers 12:1-2—compare Jeremiah 23, and Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19.) In the Old Testament a prophet must meet five requirements: (1) he must be an Israelite (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18), (2) he must speak in the name of the Lord (Deuteronomy 18:19, 20), (3) what he prophesies comes to pass in the eyes of those who hear the prophesy (Deuteronomy 18:21-22), (4) he has the power to perform miracles (Deuteronomy 13:1ff.), and, (5) a prophet must never ask us to serve another god or gods (Deuteronomy 13). What do these signs of a prophet mean to us today? (Remember that the prophets in the Old Testament did not serve exactly the same function or fulfill the same office as the prophet does today. As we have already seen, there were schools for the prophets (Amos 7:14; 1 Samuel 10:5, 10; 19:20), and often there was more than one prophet at a time.)

Amaziah was Jeroboam II’s high priest. (Recall how what happened to the priesthood in Israel under Jeroboam I, when Israel was divided into two kingdoms. You may wish to review lesson 27.) What does that say about his authority? About the worship in the temple at Beth-el? Why do you think Amaziah commands Amos no longer to prophesy at the temple at Beth-el (7:12-13)? Do we ever imitate Amaziah? If so, how?

If we don’t read carefully, we may find ourselves reading the book of Amos as a catalogue of sins and destructions, but it is important to remember that it is not only that. Don’t forget the message of repentance that Amos preaches (4:4-5; and 5:4-6 and 14-15). And notice that even after the Lord says he will never forget, he makes a promise of restoration through his prophet, Amos (9:7-15). What might we make of this message and this promise?

More questions on Amos

Chapter 3

Verses 1-2: What does the Lord mean when he says, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth?”

Verses 3-7: How does the list of rhetorical questions in verses 3-6 culminate in the statement of verse 7?

Verses 9-10: Why does the Lord call on Ashdod and Egypt to witness the destruction of Israel?

Verses 11-15: The Israelites “store up violence and robbery in their palaces. What will be the result? The horns of the altar served two purposes: 1) the blood of the sin offering was placed on them, since this was the part of the altar closest to heaven, and 2) a fugitive might flee to the temple and take hold of them for safety (1 Kings 1:50, 2:28). Given that, what does taking the horns from the altars at Beth-el indicate (v. 14)? What does the reference to the winter houses and the summer houses and houses of ivory and the great houses tell us about life in Israel at Amos’ time (v. 15)? Why would God be concerned with the size and number of our houses?

Chapter 7

Verses 1-6: What is the relationship between grasshoppers eating all of the crop and the fire consuming the great deep, and Amos’ question about the rising again of Jacob (i.e. the covenant people)?

Verses 7-8: With what do you associate a plumbline in carpentry? Why would the Lord place one in the heart of Israel? What does this metaphor tell us about justice and uprightness in Israel?

Verses 10-13: Who is Amaziah and why doesn’t he want Amos to prophecy in Bethel, the king’s sanctuary? What does he mean when he says regarding Amos: “the land is not able to bear all his words?”

Verses 14-17: What is Amos’ response to Amaziah’s threat? In relating his biography, why would Amos want to distance himself from the professional prophets who were abroad in the land? What does he mean by the warning, “thou shalt die in a polluted land”?

Chapter 8

Verses 1-2: Why is a basket of summer fruit a good symbol for the decline and fall of Israel?

Verses 3-8: What conditions of social injustice does the Lord give as a cause for the demise of Israel? Are any of these things happening around us? Should that concern us? Can we really do anything?

Verses 9-14: What will the conditions be when Israel is taken captive?

Chapter 9

Verses 1-8: What indications of God’s wrath do we see here? Who is going to escape his punishment? Within one generation, what is he going to do to the northern tribes?

Joel

It is difficult to know when Joel prophesied. Tradition puts him just before or contemporary with Hosea, perhaps prophesying during the reign of Joash, who came to the throne in 837 B.C. However, many scholars believe that he did his work much later, as late perhaps as 444 B.C.

When we read Hosea, we saw the Lord use historical events to characterize his relation to Israel. In Joel we see the same comparison at work: a plague of locusts that is real, but that is also symbolic of those who will conquer Israel. In scripture, events can have more than one meaning.

This multiplication is more than just the fact that a plague of locusts can also portend an invasion. The invasion can also have more than one meaning. To what did Joel intend Judah and Israel to understand his prophecy to refer? How might the Jews have understood Joel at the time of Christ’s first coming? How should we understand it? How might we understand it as a personal revelation rather than a general revelation about the last days?

Outline

In chapter 1, Joel describes a horrible invasion of locusts (1:1-7). In verse 9 he points out that the temple ritual is no longer being carried out. This may be because the food shortage is so great that the offerings can no longer be made, or it may suggest that the calamity is not only a natural one, but a matter of apostasy. In response to the calamity, Joel calls on Judah to repent: mourn (1:13), call a solemn assembly (1:14), recognize that the day of the Lord—a day of the destruction of the wicked—is at hand (1:15), and understand the locust invasion as part of that day (1:16-18). Then Joel reminds them that only the Lord can undo the damage of the locusts and, by implication, only the Lord can save them from the destruction to come.

Chapter 2 repeats chapter 1: Joel repeats his description of the locust plague (verses 1-10) and he again draws a parallel between that plague and the day of the Lord’s wrath (verse 11). In verses 12-17, he calls the people to repentance, and in verses 15-17, he tells them to call a solemn assembly. The chapter ends by telling us that the Lord heard Joel’s and the people’s plea, and promises to save them from the invasion.

Joel 2:28 marks a change in the subject matter. (In the Hebrew Bible, verses 28-32 constitute a separate chapter.) The Lord not only promises that he will save Judah physically, he promises to bless them spiritually: he promises to pour his Spirit out on all (2:28-32). In these verses, Joel moves from talking about a particular plague and rescue from that plague to a more general prophecy about the last days.

Chapter 3 describes the restoration of Judah and Israel and the judgment that the Lord will mete out on those who have conquered them (3:1-17) and the blessing that he will give Judah and Israel (3:18-21).

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14 Responses to Sunday School Lesson #35

  1. Jordan L. Hyde on September 7, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    Thanks for the great comments and questions. Your postings really have improved my study. By the way, where did the Kelly Ogden quote come from?

  2. Danae Reagan on September 8, 2006 at 11:54 pm

    In the Oct. 2001 General Conference, Pres. Hinckley proclaimed, “The vision of Joel has been fulfilled…” He then read Joel 2:28-32. This statement seems fairly important but is rarely, if ever, referred to in our classes.

  3. DKL on September 11, 2006 at 12:29 am

    After Isaiah, Amos is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He puts himself right in the middle of everything and proceeds to turn all the familiar Biblical formulae on their head in order to stick it to the man–blessings become curses, promises become disavowals, and a nation’s election becomes pedestrian equality with other countries. The first half of chapter nine (through the 8, well at least the first half of verse 8) is the finest in the Old Testament outside of Isaiah.

    I think that it’s worth noting that Amos lambasts the Northern Kingdom at the same period of its history that Hosea does. Yet Amos’s critique mentions nothing of politics and foreign alliances. He restricts his attack to the social injustices. If they lived in an era of low-cost communication (like our own), it might be tempting to suppose that they were playing tag-team (perhaps some prophets played the good-cop/bad-cop game with other prophets, and only the bad-cop portions of the exchange have been preserved). In any event, it’s interesting to read the different condemnations that come forth from contemporary prophets about the same nation at the same time–kind of like the five blind men and the elephant. It prompts me to wonder what things might look like if we had multiple simultaneous prophets nowadays the way that they did back then.

  4. Jim F. on September 11, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Jordan L. Hyde, the quotation is from Ogden, D. Kelly, “The Book of Amos,” Studies in Scripture, Vol. 4: 1 Kings to Malachi, ed. Kent P. Jackson. Deseret Book, 1993. pp. 54-55.

    Thanks for asking. I should have included that in the notes originally.

  5. Robert C. on September 24, 2006 at 11:42 am

    I’m struggling to understand the purpose of the 7 rhetorical questions leading up to Amos 3:7. Here are some very rough thoughts on the passage indicating my current thinking, but somehow I feel like there is more significance to these questions than I am finding. In short, I think the first question about traveling alone is suggesting the covenant that God and Israel have entered into, and that the other questions either have to do with ways in which Israel has violated that covenant and hence precipitated the judgment that Amos is declaring. But perhaps these questions are suggesting a relationship between God and Amos. Or perhaps something else entirely is going on here. Thanks to anyone who can offer any insight on this….

  6. BrianJ on September 24, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    Robert C: I made those questions the focus of half of my lesson. My reason for doing so is to put Amos 3:7—one of the most quoted scriptures by LDS—in context. I read the symbolism similarly to you, with a little addition. Overall, I think each question is meant to raise an absurd scenario:

    Can two people actually walk together if they aren’t going the same direction? Of course not.

    Can you catch a bird in a snare if you haven’t set a snare? Of course not!

    If a trumpet sounds in a city (where trumpets are used to announce that you are being attacked), will people ignore it? Of course not; they will run for their lives!

    And then the final question: Can you commit sin and hide it from the Lord? By now, the listerner has been primed to answer each question with, “Of course not!”, and so they are caught in the snare of the larger question being asked. And the point of that question leads into the answer in Amos 3:7:

    Surely the Lord GOD who knows you have not really been agreed with him will do nothing just like a hunter who has set no traps, but he revealeth his secret which sets the traps unto his servants the prophets who will declare it as if blowing an alarm trumpet.

    And that is followed up by two more questions in verse 8:

    The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?

  7. Robert C. on September 25, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    BrianJ, thanks for the thoughts. I like how you take the snare of the bird and take it as a snare that the prophet is using the catch the listener. I still find the question nagging me as to why these particular questions were used in this particular order (that is, I think there may be even more reasons to consider–alas, the infinite depth of scriptures!), but this definitely helps. (We’ve tossed around a couple other ideas here.)

  8. DKL on September 25, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    Robert C., in my opinion, Amos 3:7 is a gloss added some time afterwards. This is not an uncommon opinion, but I don’t have a source for it right now. After reading several translations, it seems obvious to me that it simply does not fit in. This strikes me as by far the most plausible explanation.

    The Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward (she’s the best in the church, if you ask me–no disrespect, guys) explained it as well as one can if you want to keep the authorship of the chapter intact. She did not focus on the obvious “is the Pope Catholic?” nature of the questions. She,
    like you BrianJ, focused on the preponderance of violence in the questions, so that verse 7 is cast in the light of saying that the Lord will inform the prophet before he does violence to his people. This strikes me as about as plausible as one can get.

    Still, Amos 3:7 strikes me as something added by a later author.

  9. Mark Butler on September 25, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    I believe DKL is right. The children of Israel have departed from the path of truth (or ripened in iniquity) so far that they can no longer be saved by mercy, but only by judgment. But before the hand of the Lord comes down upon them, His secret is revealed to his servants the prophets, so like the children of Nineveh, they may have an opportunity to repent, and the judgment be forestalled or avoided:

    Then spake Jeremiah unto all the princes and to all the people, saying, The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all the words that ye have heard.

    Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you.
    (Jer 26:12-13)

  10. Mark Butler on September 25, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    One more thing that is rather significant – Joseph Smith reversed the sense of Amos chapter 7 verses 3 and 5. In the JST it reads:

    Thus hath the Lord GOD shewed unto me; and, behold, he formed grasshoppers in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth; and, lo, it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings.

    And it came to pass, that when they had made an end of eating the grass of the land, then I said, O Lord GOD, forgive, I beseech thee: by whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small.

    And the Lord said, concerning Jacob, Jacob shall repent for this, therefore I will not utterly destroy him, saith the Lord.

    Thus hath the Lord GOD shewed unto me: and, behold, the Lord GOD called to contend by fire, and it devoured the great deep, and did eat up a part.

    Then said I, O Lord GOD, cease, I beseech thee: by whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small.

    And the Lord said, concerning Jacob, Jacob shall repent for this, therefore I will not utterly destroy him, saith the Lord.
    (JST Amos 3:1-6)

  11. Jim F. on September 25, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    Amos 3:7 certainly sticks out in the series of questions where we find it. And it has been the subject of some dispute. Some, such as the editors of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (Brown, Fitzmyer and Murphy) say “This verse interrupts the sequence of questions and may therefore be an editorial gloss glorifying the prophetic role. The phrase, “his servants, the prophets,â€? is a deuteronomic expression.”

    In contrast, the editors of Hosea-Jonah volume of the Word Biblical Commentary (Stuart) say, “There are no good grounds—only bad presuppositional ones—for excising this subsection of the passage as inauthentic.” On Stuart’s reading, verse 7 is a reasonable transition to verse 8, which he reads as saying “The tru prophet cannot ignore Yahweh’s voice any more than sensible people can ignore the roar of a lion. If Yahweh has spoken to someone, can that person be expected not to prophesy?”

    I don’t have enough training to decide between these two on scholarly grounds.

  12. BrianJ on September 26, 2006 at 12:53 am

    Re: lions roaring

    I wondered myself about the lion roaring. As a zoologist, I quickly learned that ranchers know more about animal behavior than I ever would. Most Bible commentary, however, is not made by ranchers, and from what Amos wrote, I sort of doubt whether he knew much about lions either. (I know, there is debate as to whether Amos was a shepherd–in which case he would be all too familiar with lions–or a wealthy proprieter of flocks–in which case he might know as much about lions as the average Bible scholar.)

    Lions roar often and for several different reasons. Most of the roaring is social communication, done at night, within the pride. A lot is done between males, before and in order to prevent a fight. Roaring before a kill is only rarely done, in order to coordinate the attack with fellow pride-members—but Amos never mentions (plural) lions. Roaring after a kill, if a lion is hunting solo, is not done: hyenas/other predators would be drawn by the noise and overwhelm the lion.

    So what does Amos mean (which may be quite different than what a shepherd or zoologist would mean) when he says, “Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey? will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing?” Has Amos’ lion caught his prey, or does he just have it in sight? What does the prey represent? Assuming the prey is Israel, what does this mean? If Israel has already been caught by the lion (the Lord), then Israel is already dead, which renders any call to repentance a little late. If the prey is not yet caught, then roaring will scare it away. If wildebeast could talk, I suspect they’d have a phrase that goes, “It’s not the roaring lion, but the one you don’t hear, that you should fear.”

    So I think Amos either: 1) did not really understand lions, in which case he thought that the last thing the prey hears is a roar (and then the snap of its neck), ie. the Lord/lion is about to attack Israel/the prey, or 2) Amos understood lions quite well, in which case his roaring lion is giving up his position, allowing the prey to escape, ie. the Lord/lion is roaring in hopes that he will scare Israel/the prey to safety. As tempting as that 2nd explanation is for feel-good reasons, I favor the first explanation.

  13. DKL on September 26, 2006 at 1:36 am

    I always smile when I hear Amos 3:7 recited aloud. It’s because of the Airplane joke.

  14. Robert C. on September 26, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    BrianJ #12: Interesting insights about lions and roaring. The roar of the lion seems to be used in several ways in the OT, indicating generally the ferocity of lions in various ways: most often I think is a roar indicating that a lion is hungry and on the prowl (a couple verses seem to indicate the roaring is the night before he goes on the hunt), but also during the kill. The roar is also used to describe the prayer of a lion in Ps 104:21, and as a lament in Zech 11:3. I posted various links here. I think the “being devoured by a lion” harks back to covenant curses in Deut 32:24 and 28:26.

    Regarding the bird traps, they seem to be a common metaphor for calamity….

    Somehow seeing these metaphors used elswhere in the OT make me feel like they are used by Amos here less arbitrarily. If Amos is trying to convey covenantal curse cause-and-effect, these analogies seem like logical choices using the lion—as the strongest animal—to represent God, using the bird—as the swiftest and most free animal?—to represent in the starkest terms possible the capitivity (loss of freedom) that Israel will experience, and using the trumpet in a city—as a close symbol to the watchtower function of a prophet leading up to verse 7—to represent the warning that God is giving to Israel regarding its imminent destruction….