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Eight is Enough: Entrapment Rhetoric in The 1st Prophetic Sermon of Amos

We have invited Melodie Sargent, a student at Northpoint Bible college, back again to deliver another blog post. This time her attention is turned the importance of rhetorical structure in the first prophetic sermon of Amos. Enjoy.

Amos 1:3–2:16

Background

During the righteous reign of King Uzziah (Amos 1:1), Judah enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. At the same time, Jeroboam II was not-so-righteously, yet just as prosperously, reigning in Israel (Amos 1:1); it was a weak period for their ruthless arch enemy, Assyria. The economy was good; threat from foreign powers was low, and the borders of Israel were as vast as they had been under the reigns of David and Solomon over the unified kingdom.

The inhabitants of Israel were enjoying leisure, pleasure, and regular religious observances. All was seemingly well, until YHWH sent visions to a Judean shepherd from Tekoa, Amos. YHWH was about to act in judgment, and “The LORD God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Consequently, Amos travelled to Israel to deliver the message he received. His initial prophecy is a beautiful poem, possibly delivered to an elite audience in Bethel, who could afford the luxury of being entertained by talented poets.

The structure of this poem preaches a message that is bigger than the sum of its content. The structure is brilliant, and delivers a point that its original hearers would surely have understood in light of common contemporary poetry patterns. It would not easily have been forgotten.

The Poem, Its Listeners, and the Surprise Ending

Amos delivers “A Poem of Judgment against Various Nations”[1] in which he indicates that YHWH has decreed irrevocable judgment against strategically chosen nations for their sins.

  • The poem starts with indictment of a nation to the northeast of Israel, Aram.
  • It moves to a nation to the southwest of Israel, Philistia,
  • then to a nation to the northwest of Israel, Phoenicia,
  • followed by a nation to the southeast, Edom.

Thus, in an artistic chiastic structure, Amos declares judgment on the nations surrounding Israel. (He draws an imaginary X across the nation of Israel with his first four indictments. The attention of his original audience would have been piqued. They had history with these nations, and much of it was not pleasant.

Amos also groups his target nations with regard to their relationship to Israel.

  • Aram, Philistia, and Phoenicia are foreign nations.
  • Edom, Ammon, and Moab are blood relations, having descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother, and Lot, Abraham’s nephew, respectively.
  • Then, he references Judah, the sister kingdom from which Israel separated, resulting in the divided kingdom.[2]

To the Ancient Near Eastern mind, seven is a complete number, so the expectation would be that this poem would end after the seventh indictment.

Amos poetically indicates the sins of these nations to be significant with the leading poetic introduction, “For three transgressions and for four … I will not revoke its punishment.”

The initial sins describe atrocities committed against Israel.

  1. Amos indicts Aram for cruelly running over the inhabitants of Israel’s Gilead with tools intended to plow earth (1:3).
  2. Philistia…
  3. and Phoenicia deported entire populations of Israel into slavery to Edom (1:6, 9).
  4. Edom showed no compassion to Israel, holding the grudge of their forefather, Esau, to the point of pursuing Israel with the sword when Moses asked permission to travel across Edom’s land after being freed from Egypt (1:11).
  5. Ammon’s punishment results from tearing open the pregnant women of Gilead to minimize the Israelite population in order to expand its own borders (1:13).
  6. Moab is indicted for burning the bones of Edom’s king to ash, which demonstrates their cruelty of stepping over a line even in the punishment of one of Israel’s enemies.

At this point, Amos must have had the rapt attention of his hearers. These horrid nations were going to receive honest to goodness hell, fire, and brimstone, Day of the Lord judgment for their wicked deeds against Israel. It was about time! They must have been on the edge of their seats to hear what they would have expected to be the final and seventh judgment.

7. Amos, then, pronounces judgment on Judah, but not for sins against Israel; it is for sins against YHWH. Judah has rejected His law, and has followed after the lies of false gods, like their forefathers (2:4).

This adds a new element to the poem, indicating that all sin is ultimately against YHWH. This being an excellent point, the audience may have been about to applaud the creativity of this poem, (surely it is done) …so well woven with the history of the nations who deserve YHWH’s judgment of fire.

Amos, however, continues on with entrapment rhetoric,[3] adding an eighth indictment to Israel itself, the very audience enjoying the poem until this point. Amos indicates that YHWH is going to judge Israel for injustice with bribes, for not helping the helpless, for gross sexual immorality, and for desecration of YHWH’s place of worship through extortion of others, despite being recipients of YHWH’s grace and gifts in the past.

This eighth additional judgment is the largest and most detailed, indicating that it is the main point of Amos’s message.

Now that Israel already agreed with and celebrated the judgment that was to occur on their enemies, Amos demonstrates how they are deserving of that very same fiery judgment.

Application

Often, we judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions. We need to be careful to not find ourselves in the same place as the Israelite audience for this poem.  If we find ourselves rejoicing in the condemnation of those who have caused us harm in the past, and believe that we deserve God’s favor, then we need to take pause. The reality is that the only reason any of us can escape the judgment of God’s fire is that we are recipients of grace, not because of anything special about ourselves. Offences enacted against us by others pale in comparison to our offences against God and against others. Let’s take Amos’ message to heart.

Works Consulted

  • Barker, Kenneth, ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985.
  • Hays, J. Daniel. The Message of the Prophets: A Survey of the Prophetic and Apocalyptic Books of the Old Testament. Edited by Tremper Longman III. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.
  • McComisky, Thomas Edward, ed. The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009.
  • Smith, Billy K. Amos. Vol. 19 in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. E. Ray Clendenen. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1995.

[1] Thomas Edward McComisky, ed., The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009) 339–373.

[2] Billy K. Smith, Amos, vol. 19 in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1995) 44.

[3] Ibid.

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