< July 15, 2012 >

Commentary on Amos 7:7-15

 

"You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting," mocks Prince Adhemar, as he admonishes William, a young squire posing as a knight in the 2001 movie adaptation of Chaucer's A Knight's Tale.

When William defeats Prince Adhemar in the final jousting contest, he and his friends repeat these words to the fallen knight.

The sentiment of weighing and measuring guides the principle of the brief visionary report in Amos 7:7-9 in which God shows the prophet a "plumb line," a piece of lead or tin hanging from a string used to measure the straightness of a recently constructed wall. In essence, YHWH has measured the northern kingdom of Israel and found the nation wanting.

Silencing the Prophetic Voice: Amos 7:7-15 in its Canonical Context

The lectionary inventively combines two distinct genres that many commentators tend to separate based on form criticism: the first-person visionary report in 7:7-9 and the third-person biographical prose in 7:10-15. The lectionary, however, eliminates the concluding judgment oracle to Amaziah in verses 16-17. This demarcation suggests an emphasis on the defense of the prophetic voice, a major theme in the book of Amos. It also suggests a tendency in the lectionary tradition to avoid sentiments that seem less than palatable, namely, the two verses that predict the punishment of Amaziah's family for his sin of attempting to silence the prophet.

Israel stands under harsher judgment for their social and economic sins than do the other nations precisely because of their covenantal relationship with YHWH, who provided prophets to help keep the Israelites in line. Amos concludes his initial indictment of Israel with the lament: "you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, 'You shall not prophesy'" (Amos 2:12).

The two brief visions preceding the plumb line vision reinforce the necessity of the prophetic voice. Amos 7:7-9 stands within a series of four very brief visions in chapters 7-8. The first two in 7:1-3 and 7:4-6 follow a consistent pattern. First, God asks the prophet what he sees. Then, the prophet reports locusts in the first vision and fire in the second. The locusts devour the produce of the field (7:2) and the fire is strong enough to evaporate the waters of the great deep (7:4). In both vision accounts, the prophet protests on behalf of the nation of Israel: "O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!" (Amos 7:2, cf. verse 5 where "forgive" = "cease"). In response to the prophet's intercession in both instances, God relents from sending this destruction on Israel.

The pattern shifts in 7:7-9. Here, the prophet does not intercede, and YHWH does not relent. Rather, the vision leads to an oracle of judgment declaring the demolition of Israel through military invasion. The fourth vision in 8:1-3 follows a similar pattern to the third. Amos reports seeing a basket of summer fruit (qayits), and using a pun, YHWH declares that the end (qets) is coming for Israel. After describing the macabre scene of funeral laments and dead bodies that will lie in the wake of the destruction (8:3), the passage ends with the strange interjection: "Be silent!"

The Prose Tale and the Prophet's Unpalatable Words

The prose biographical tale in 7:10-17 interrupts the series of four visions in its current canonical arrangement. If we read the four visions as a unit unto themselves, the message is quite clear: YHWH's anger increasingly grows and will ultimately result in the suffering and destruction of Israel. But why would the shapers of the book of Amos place the prose tale in the middle of this series of visions?

A possible answer lies within the intent of Amaziah. Amaziah wishes to silence Amos, whom he views as a charlatan from Judah. He accuses Amos of using his prophecies for financial gain and suggests that he go back to the southern kingdom and "earn his bread there" (7:12). Amos rejects this accusation, saying that he is not a professional prophet, but earns his living in agriculture (7:14). He is in Israel on the direct command of YHWH (7:15).

Amaziah's attempt to silence the prophet backfires, and Amos adds to his oracle against Jeroboam a personal judgment against Amaziah's family in 7:16-17. The lectionary's elimination of these verses certainly make the text much more theologically palatable to a Christian audience that would like to emphasize God's love and mercy as well as individual responsibility. The oracle's elimination, however, softens the indictment of Amaziah who is attempting to silence the prophet's voice.

When we read the prose tale in the context of the visionary reports, a pattern emerges. The first two visions include an intercession by the prophetic voice that results in God's merciful repentance. The third vision does not conclude with the prophet's interjection, but with a narrative that shows how a human authority might vainly attempt to silence the prophetic voice and thwart YHWH's intentions. The fourth and final vision concludes in 8:3 with the enigmatic interjection, "Be silent!" Just as YHWH is the only one who can raise the voice of the true prophet, might this interjection suggest that only YHWH can silence it? Is it this silencing that leads to the famine "of hearing the words of the LORD" in 8:11?

What might paying attention to the theme of silencing the prophet mean for the teacher or preacher treating this text in the context of Christian community? First, this passage could encourage Christian communities to measure the cacophony of religious and political rhetoric presently in the media as we seek out the prophetic word. Second, the prose narrative might encourage laypersons, who like Amos, might heed God's call to exercise their prophetic voice in their community, their workplace, or the public forum. Finally, when read in the context of a God who demands justice, the defense of prophecy in the book of Amos might stand as a cautionary tale against our tendency to silence the unpalatable prophetic voice that might just demand change in those areas in which we have been found wanting.