Feast upon the Word Blog

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Sunday School Lesson 35: Amos 3, 7-9; Joel 2-3

Posted by Jim F. on September 4, 2010

Note to newcomers: These are not lesson notes. They are notes–and questions–to help people study the lesson material. Of course, as such they may also be helpful for preparing lessons, but that isn’t their primary purpose.

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). (“The Book of Amos,” Studies in Scripture, Vol. 4: 1 Kings to Malachi, ed. Kent P. Jackson. Deseret Book, 1993. pp. 54-55.)

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? What is the relationship between our devotion to God and our duty to the poor?

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, outside the Church, 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 about 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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