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Amos 4:1-13 | Werner Bible Commentary

Amos 4:1-13

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Those addressed are called upon to “hear” YHWH’s word (“this word”) or message through his prophet. They are located on the “mountain of Samaria,” identifying them as residents of the city of Samaria that is situated on a hill. For over 200 years, starting with the reign of Omri, Samaria served as the capital of the kingdom of Israel. (4:1; for pictures of and comments about Samaria, see Samaria.)

These particular residents on the “mountain” or hill of Samaria had been guilty of “oppressing” or exploiting the poor and “crushing” the needy, depriving them of their rights. They are called “cows of Bashan.” The region of Bashan on the east side of the Jordan River was known for its good pastures that were ideally suited for cattle. Therefore, the expression “cows of Bashan” applies to wealthy residents of Samaria who lived luxuriously at the expense of disadvantaged Israelites. (4:1)

Although these inhabitants of Samaria are called “cows of Bashan [Basanitis (LXX)],” the imperative “hear” at the beginning of this verse is a masculine plural, not the feminine plural that one would expect. The Hebrew participles translated “oppressing” and “crushing” are both feminine plurals, agreeing with the feminine gender of the noun “cows.” These “cows of Bashan” are the ones “saying to their lords, ‘Bring [Give to us (LXX)], and [that (LXX)] we may drink.’” In the Masoretic Text, the suffix here rendered “their” is masculine gender, and the verb for “bring” is singular. In the preserved portion of verse 1 in a Dead Sea Scroll (4QXIIc), as in the Septuagint, the verb is plural, and this may be the original Hebrew reading. Because the verb forms in the Hebrew text are not consistently feminine gender and the suffix that is rendered “their” is masculine gender, some have reasoned that the expression “cows of Bashan” designates oppressive, self-indulgent men who are mockingly represented as being like wanton females. The reference to “their lords” could then apply to the deities to whom they looked to make their grapevines productive, assuring a yield that would supply abundant juice for making wine. According to another view, both men and women may be regarded as being called “cows of Bashan.” (4:1; for pictures of and comments about Bashan, see Bashan.)

The differences in gender existing in the extant Hebrew text of verse 1 do not affect the way in which the Greek participles and the Greek pronoun for “their” are rendered. This is because the Greek plural participles and the Greek adjective “their” are the same for feminine and masculine gender. Based on the reading of the Septuagint, the “cows of Bashan” may be understood to designate domineering rich women who thought nothing of calling upon “their lords” or their husbands to supply them with drink. They may well have acted much like Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who wielded tremendous power over him. (4:1; compare 1 Kings 21:5-16, 25.)

Those who are called “cows of Bashan” would not escape divine punishment, for YHWH had sworn by his “holiness” (“holy ones” or angels [LXX]) to this effect. His swearing by his holiness or his absolute purity, which remains untainted at all times, would be like his swearing by himself. His holiness transcends that of all others, and so the oath-bound declaration of judgment would unfailingly be executed. (4:2)

Women who pampered themselves, cruelly dominated over others, and satisfied their every desire would be forcibly taken out of Samaria as if they were cattle led to slaughter. There is uncertainty about the means referred to as used for this purpose. The usual meaning of the Hebrew word tsinnáh is “shield,” and the Septuagint rendering is the plural of hóplon, a “weapon” or a “spear” by which the “cows of Bashan” would be seized. In the context, the meaning “shield” for the Hebrew noun does not fit, and lexicographers have conjectured that the Hebrew word may refer to a “hook” or “barb” used for catching fish. Also an animal could be led with a rope attached to a hook through its nostril. The two Hebrew words sir (“thorn” or “hook”) and dugáh (“fish”) are believed to refer to a “fishhook.” (4:2)

Another lexical definition for the Hebrew noun sir is “pot” or “caldron.” In part, this may explain the unusual reading of the Septuagint, “Fiery pests will toss those with you into a caldrons being heated from underneath.” When recounting the tortures to which King Antiochus Epiphanes subjected seven Jewish brothers who refused to act contrary to the law, 2 Maccabees 7:3 mentions that he ordered caldrons to be heated. Then 4 Maccabees 12:1 specifically refers to one of the brothers as having been thrown into the caldron. Possibly because the Septuagint translator was familiar with this account, he rendered the phrase that included the Hebrew word sir (“pot” or “caldron”) in the manner that he did. (4:2)

The wealthy women of conquered Samaria would go out by way of breaches that the attackers would make in the fortifications of the city, with each woman going out “before her.” This could mean that one woman after another would be led out as captives through the breaches in the walls of Samaria. Another possible meaning is that each woman would be going straight ahead of her. According to the Septuagint rendering, the women would be “naked” when carried out of Samaria “before one another.” (4:3)

YHWH is represented as declaring that the women would be “cast out to Harmon” (“Mount Remman,” LXX). In the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew word for “cast out” (shalák) is active voice and can also mean “drive out.” According to an emendation, translators have commonly rendered the verb as passive. When the active voice of shalák is preserved in the rendering of this verb, the phrase wherein it appears could be translated, “and you will cast one out to Harmon.” (4:3)

The rendering “mount” in the Septuagint does not depart from the Hebrew text, for the Hebrew noun har means “mountain.” “Mount Remman” may be the same as the location known as the “rock of Rimmon,” situated about three and a half miles (c. 6 kilometers) east of Bethel. (Judges 20:45, 47) This site, however, does not fit the context of a conquest of Samaria, a city located about 25 miles (c. 40 kilometers) to the north. When “Harmon” is rendered as “Hermon” (NJB), the meaning of the phrase could be that the women would be “cast out” or driven northward in the direction of Mount Hermon on the way to their exile in Assyria. A number of translators have chosen to render the Hebrew text interpretively without using a proper name. “You shall be cast into the mire.” (NAB) “And flung on the refuse heap.” (Tanakh) “You will be thrown on the garbage dump.” (NCV) “You will be thrown from your fortresses.” (NLT) (4:3)

The imperatives for the Israelites to continue their involvement in divinely disapproved worship constitute a taunt, with the implied message being that they would suffer the consequences for their wayward course. Let them come to Bethel, the center of calf worship in the southern extremity of the kingdom of Israel, and engage in idolatrous practices, transgressing the law that had been divinely given to their ancestors and which they were obligated to obey. (4:4)

Gilgal, a town not far to the north of Bethel, is here identified as a place for idolatrous worship. There, in keeping with their desires, the Israelites are told to go in order to repeatedly transgress the commands set forth in God’s law respecting matters of worship. To both sites they are to continue bringing their sacrifices in the morning and their tithes “on the third day,” possibly meaning the “third day” of a festival or the “third day” after their arrival to participate in worship. (4:4)

According to the rendering of the Septuagint, the verbs are not imperatives but express what the Israelites were doing. They came to Bethel (Baithel), and “were lawless” there, violating God’s commands about idolatry. In Gilgal (Galgala), they increased their acting in an impious or ungodly manner. (4:4)

According to the law, thanksgiving offerings could include both leavened and unleavened items made from grain. (Leviticus 7:11-15) Leavened items, however, could not be burned on the altar as an offering to YHWH. (Leviticus 2:11) In the Hebrew text of verse 5 of Amos chapter 4, the preposition min precedes the noun for “leaven” and could be understood to mean “with” or “without” leaven. Both meanings are found in translations. “Bring a thank offering of leavened bread.” (NRSV) “Burn your thank-offering without leaven.” (REB) It appears preferable to consider the meaning to be “with leaven,” as a leavened item would not be acceptable as a thanksgiving offering to be burned on the altar of YHWH’s temple but could be presented on altars for idolatrous worship. (4:5)

The Septuagint does not mention leaven, and the rendering has nothing in common with the extant Hebrew text. “And outside they read the law and called for confessions.” This could be understood to mean that the people heard the law read to them and thereafter were to confess their wrongs before engaging in worship. (4:5)

The imperative to proclaim “freewill offerings” also has no parallel in the Septuagint. This proclaiming of voluntary offerings may refer to a public, loud, or boastful announcing by the individuals who brought the offerings. Another possible meaning is that the proclamation constituted a solicitation, causing people to be pressured into making such offerings instead of doing so of their own freewill. (4:5)

The Septuagint concludes with the phrase, “Announce that the sons of Israel have loved these things, says the Lord God.” As in the case of the Masoretic Text, the imperative verb in the Septuagint is second person plural, but the wording of the Septuagint does not identify those who are to do the announcing. The reference to this announcing suggests that there was to be no hiding of the God-dishonoring idolatrous practices that the Israelites loved. These practices were to be made known or exposed. (4:5)

The reading of the Masoretic Text is similar. “Cause to be heard [announce or proclaim], for so you love, O sons of Israel — declaration of the Lord YHWH.” Translations commonly link the introductory verb (here rendered “cause to be heard”) to making the announcement about freewill offerings, and a number of them render the verb as an adverb. “Brag about your freewill offerings — boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do.” (NIV) “Announce publicly your free-will offerings; for that is what you Israelites love to do!” (REB) “Proclaim publicly your freewill offerings, for so you love to do, O men of Israel.” (NAB) “Widely publicise your free-will offerings, for this, children of Israel, is what makes you happy.” (NJB) These renderings suggest that the Israelites loved to broadcast that they were making voluntary offerings. It is also possible to understand the reference to be to the pleasure the Israelites had in pursuing their God-dishonoring practices and that their loving these practices should be made known. (4:5)

YHWH withheld his care and blessing from the Israelites on account of their waywardness. Therefore, he is represented as giving them “cleanness of teeth” in all the cities where they resided and lack of bread everywhere. Having faced starvation, the Israelites experienced “cleanness [aching (LXX)] of teeth.” There would have been no evidence on their teeth that they had eaten anything. The Septuagint reference to “aching” could be understood to mean feeling the pain of having no food in their mouths. Despite having to endure the effects of very limited supplies of food, the people did not repentantly return to YHWH and abandon their lawless ways. (4:6)

Three months before the harvest, possibly meaning the barley harvest, would be a time when the rainy season was in progress. YHWH is represented as withholding the rain at that time, and the resulting drought would have been ruinous for the growing crops. Rain that did fall was unevenly distributed, with one city and the surrounding area getting rain and with another city and the surrounding fields not having any rainfall. Areas of land without rainfall would then “be dried up.” (4:7)

The people from two or three cities suffering from severe drought would, in their weakened state, stagger to a city that did get some rain and so had water, but the supply of water for drinking was not enough for the arrivals. Still, the adversities that drought had caused did not motivate the people to return to YHWH and stop pursuing a course contrary to his commands. (4:8)

YHWH is represented as saying that he struck the Israelites “with blight [shiddaphóhn] and with mildew [yeraqóhn],” which would have devastated the grain harvest. According to the Septuagint, the reference could be to afflicting the people with “inflammation” or “fever” (pýrosis) and “jaundice” (íkteros). Certain lexicographers, however, do not limit the Greek words pýrosisíkteros to these meanings. This explains why The Orthodox Study Bible renders the Greek words as “parching” and “blight.” In Haggai 2:17, the Septuagint renders the Hebrew words shiddaphóhn and yeraqóhn as aphoría (“barrenness”) and anemophthoría (“blight,” “blasting” [which could include damage from a scorching wind]). (4:9)

After the word yeraqóhn (“mildew”), the Hebrew text may literally be rendered, “to increase your gardens and your vineyards.” Believing that the Hebrew infinitive (a form of raváh) does not fit the context, translators have followed an emendation that changes the Hebrew verb to mean “I laid waste.” Other translators have rendered the Hebrew infinitive as an adverb (“repeatedly”) to indicate that an insect devastation had repeatedly consumed the gardens, vineyards, fig trees, and olive trees. The Septuagint, although not rendering the Hebrew verb form as an infinitive, basically corresponds to the Hebrew text. “You increased your gardens.” This could be taken to mean that, although the Israelites increased the number of their gardens, an insect plague devastated what they had planted. (4:9)

Translators have often rendered the Hebrew word gazám as “locust” (a collective singular) or “locusts.” The corresponding word in the Septuagint is kámpe, meaning “caterpillar” (the larval stage of a butterfly or moth). “Caterpillar” is also one of the lexical definitions of the Hebrew word. This significance fits the root gazár (“to cut”), from which gazám is thought to be derived. With each caterpillar devouring more food than its own weight during the course of a day, a caterpillar infestation would have consumed much of the fruit of fig trees and olive trees. (4:9)

The poor grain and fruit yields should have caused the Israelites to think seriously about their standing before YHWH. Yet they did not return to him as a repentant people and abandon their lawless ways. (4:9)

YHWH is referred to as saying that, among the Israelites, he sent the kind of “pestilence” (thánatos [LXX], “death”), or the deadly diseases, that had plagued Egypt (Mizraim). (Compare Deuteronomy 7:15; 28:27, 59, 60.) He slew the young Israelite men with the sword, letting them be killed in battle with their enemies. The victorious attackers also captured the horses of the Israelites. As a result of the many men who perished in the conflicts, the stench from the decaying corpses in the military camps of the Israelites entered the nostrils of the survivors. These adversities, however, did not prompt them to return to YHWH as a repentant people who were desirous of doing his will. (4:10)

The Septuagint makes no mention of the stench. As to what God did, it says, “I caused your camps to go up in fire in my wrath.” These words could be understood to mean that YHWH, in expression of his anger, permitted the enemies of the Israelites to burn the camps of his defeated people. (4:10)

The “overthrow” that YHWH brought about could refer to his use of the enemies of the Israelites to devastate their land. This overthrow would resemble the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the defeat of the Israelites being so decisive as to make it appear that they had been annihilated and that their land had been reduced to ruin. It is also possible that the overthrow could refer to an earthquake that caused extensive destruction and resulted in the loss of many lives. (Compare Amos 1:1 and Zechariah 14:5.) As to those who survived the “overthrow,” they were like a firebrand that had been snatched out of a fire (literally, “out of the burning”) to prevent the flames from completely burning it up. Despite all these calamities, the people failed to respond as they should have. Regarding this, the identical expression is set forth in verses 6, 8, 9 and 10, “And you did not return to me — utterance of YHWH.” The Israelites persisted in their wrong course and stubbornly refused to repent. (4:11)

What YHWH purposed to do to the Israelites because of their unwillingness to repent, he would do to them. Therefore, they are challenged with the words, “Prepare to meet [‘to call upon’ (LXX) your God, O Israel.” What he had allowed them to experience in the past had repeatedly given them the opportunity to change their ways. The declaration to be prepared for an encounter with him, however, meant that they would have to face him as the God who would severely punish them. (4:12)

There would be no escape for the wayward Israelites from YHWH’s judgment against them, for he controls everything. This is emphasized in his being identified as in possession of matchless power. YHWH is the former of the mountains, the most prominent and stable features of the landscape. He is the creator of the wind, a force with tremendous destructive power. The Septuagint does not mention “mountains,” but refers to God as making “thunder” strong. This reference to “thunder” in connection with wind is suggestive of a severe thunderstorm. (4:13)

YHWH’s announcing to “man” (the “earthling”) “what his thought” is could relate to his communicating to humans what his purpose is, as he did to the Israelites through his prophets. Another possible meaning would be that he is fully aware of what humans may be thinking. Either in the main text or in footnotes, translators have explicitly expressed both meanings. “I let humans know what I am thinking.” (CEV) He “declares his thoughts to mankind.” (REB) He “reveals his mind to humankind.” (NJB) “No one’s secret thoughts are hidden from me.” (CEV, footnote) He “reveals the thoughts of humankind.” (NJB, footnote) The Septuagint conveys a different significance, referring to God as “announcing to men his anointed one.” (4:13)

YHWH’s making “dawn” or morning into darkness could relate to the darkness that results from a solar eclipse or from thunderclouds when they blacken the sky. According to the Septuagint rendering, he makes “dawn” and “mist,” “fog,” or “darkness.” (4:13)

As YHWH is perceived as coming down from above when turning his attention to the inhabitants of the earth, he is represented as “treading on the high places of the earth.” This may also serve to indicate that he is in control of everything that is beneath him. (4:13)

The One whom the unrepentant Israelites would have to face is unmistakably identified. “YHWH, the God of hosts, [is] his name.” He is the God who has revealed his name and has hosts of angels in his service for carrying out his will. (4:13)