Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

This brief passage consists of a vision (verses 7-9; the third of five visions in Amos), a report (verses 10-11), an eviction notice (verses 12-13), and a defense (verses 14-15).

July 12, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Amos 7:7-15

This brief passage consists of a vision (verses 7-9; the third of five visions in Amos), a report (verses 10-11), an eviction notice (verses 12-13), and a defense (verses 14-15).

In the vision, God calls upon Amos to identify something in God’s hand. “What do you see?” is a rhetorical question. The object Amos ventures to identify is translated into English as a “plumb line.”

This Hebrew word (‘anāk) has something to do with “tin,” and the location at which God takes a stand is described as a wall of ‘anāk. Since the wall and the item that God holds share a metallic feature, it is logical to connect them through the “plumb line” translation. In a vision in Zechariah 4:10, Zerubbabel, the governor of Jerusalem appointed by the Persians, is described as having laid the foundation of the temple. Then, the viewer is warned that Zerubbabel will hold “the plummet,” i.e., the stone of tin (hā’eben habbedil).

While the translation “plumb line” in Amos 7:7 fits the failure of the Israelites to measure up to their covenantal duties, the image of the plumb line does not capture the Lord’s steely resolve. The ‘anāk cuts the people off from God — permanently. The Lord adamantly declares, “I will never again pass them by” (Amos 7:8).

Here the English translation can be confusing since a commitment not to “pass by” could be interpreted as God promising to correct a prior lack of attention to the Israelites. However, the context in Amos 7:8 (and 8:2) is clearly negative.

The passing by is a form of the Hebrew verb ‘ābar. In Micah 7:18 and Proverbs 19:11,‘ābar refers to forgiving, literally “passing over” someone else’s transgression (pāsa’). The Jewish Publication Society adopts this meaning when translating God’s resolve in Amos 7:8 as “I will pardon them no more.” Since ‘ābar is also used in passages such as Isaiah 24:5 and Jeremiah 34:18 to speak of the people’s “overstepping” or “transgressing” God’s laws, Amos 7:8 may be drawing a link between these two meanings. Indeed, the Lord will no longer overlook the people’s overlooking of God.

The effect of God’s not “passing by” will be the total destruction of Israel’s worship sites and the complete end of its government (verse 9). While this may be the consequence of God’s choosing not to pardon, there is yet another use of the verb ‘ābar that could help in picturing what is happening in Amos 7.

In Exodus 33, ‘ābar appears with God as the subject. Moses asks God to regard the band of Israelites in the wilderness as God’s people (Exodus 33:13). God assures Moses “you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:17), and promises to be gracious and show mercy (Exodus 33:19).

In these verses God draws near, not only in pledge but in person, as Moses witnesses the glory of the LORD “passing by” (‘ābar; Exodus 33:22). Here “passing by” signals the intimate presence of God as deliverer and provider. It is this presence that God cuts off by pledging never again to “pass by” in Amos 7:8. The absence of God is devastation and death.

The vision revealed in these verses is one of judgment. The announcement of destruction is unmistakable. Yet what is disclosed is not only what God will do, but what God has done. God has called them “my people” (verse 8) and revealed God’s self to them.

A sermon on this text should not pass over God’s intimate and persistent presence with the Israelites. The judgment Amos declares can awaken present-day hearers to God’s intimate and persistent presence in our lives. It also calls us to examine our willingness — or unwillingness — to live lives reflecting that deliverance and mercy.

The report in verses 10-11 is sent from Amaziah to King Jeroboam. He accuses Amos of conspiracy and alerts Jeroboam to the divine death sentence Amos has announced for the king and the kingdom. Though Amaziah denounces Amos, indirectly he acknowledges the words of Amos will come to bear in the land (verse 10).

The eviction notice in verses 12-13 is delivered by Amaziah to Amos. Interestingly, Amaziah does not challenge the content of Amos’ message, instead he challenges where Amos speaks. He commands Amos to leave Bethel, one of the chief sanctuary sites in the kingdom of Israel, and return to his homeland of Judah. Amaziah claims Bethel as “the king’s sanctuary” and “a temple of the kingdom,” though the very name Bethel means “house of God.”

Readers of Amos 7:12-13 can easily recognize the self-interest at work in Amaziah’s attempt to evict Amos from Bethel. But are we willing to examine where self-interest silences truthful critique of our own religious institutions and government?

The denial of Amos’s voice does not alter the truth. The judgment that Amos delivers against Israel cannot be separated from the injustices he names. The same charges and judgment will later be declared in the kingdom of Judah. There they will be met with a similar refusal to attend to the injustices and with similar attempts to silence the prophets for their critique.

In verses 14-15 Amos offers a defense of his presence in Bethel by denying any self-interest, family connections or personal gain related to his prophetic activity. Two things are interesting to note:

  • It was God’s need for a prophet to address injustice in Israel that sent Amos in a new direction and into a new calling. Amos calls upon the people in Israel to repair the injustices in their land. In what ways does the need for justice influence the direction and the deeds of our lives?
  • The authority for Amos’ work is rooted in God’s call, not Amos’ biography. Though the people of Bethel attempted to discredit him on the basis of his nationality, family and occupation, these factors did not disqualify him from divine service nor diminish the truth of his message.