Faithful and righteous, as God wreaks avenging wrath: Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah

The lectionary is currently taking us on a journey through various prophets found in the Old Testament. It is currently offering passages from the prophet Hosea, for last Sunday, and next Sunday. Concurrent with this, Elizabeth and I are leading a series on The Prophets, in which we cover most of the prophetic books in the OT—at least, more than are covered in the lectionary sequence.

As I’ve posted already about Amos and Hosea, and also about Micah (see the links below), this blog relates to four “minor prophets” who, like Amos, Hosea, and Micah, are labelled as “pre-exilic prophets”.

That term indicates that these four prophets—Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah—were each active in the few decades leading up to the conquering of the southern kingdom by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the removal into exile of the people as a result of that event. Obadiah is most likely to have been active just after the exiles started to leave (verses 11–14 could well refer to the fate of Jerusalem).

Each book is short; the first three have three chapters each—63 verses in Zephaniah, 56 verses in Habakkuk, and 47 verses in Nahum—whilst Obadiah has only one chapter of 21 verses. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (in that order) are grouped together in the canon; Obadiah appears before them, coming after Amos and before Jonah and Micah. The arrangement of books amongst The Twelve (the minor prophets) is not by chronology, nor by theme; the precise reason has occasioned a still-unresolved scholarly debate.

Each book contains the prophetic rhetoric that we have met in the earlier northern kingdom prophets: calls for justice, criticism of oppressive actions, and threats of intense punishment from a wrathful God. Most of them also contain glimpses of hope.

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Habakkuk says “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself at the rampart” (Hab 2:1), from where he declaims the words of judgement given to him by God: the wealthy will be called to account by their creditors, violent terrors will arise, and “the cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory” (Hab 2:15).

The Prophet Habakkuk, a detail of the Interior Mosaics
in the St. Marks Basilica, Venice; 12th century

Amidst these thundering pronouncements, Habakkuk does offer hope, declaring that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14), and imploring the people, “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20). He affirms that God’s “glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (3:3)—but that glory will swiftly lead to “the days of calamity” (3:16).

Habakkuk is best known for just one part of one verse, “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b), for this verse stands as the text upon which Paul developed his important theological statement in Romans: “in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). As well, Paul quotes this verse in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:11) and the verse is cited in the “word of exhortation” sent to the Hebrews (Heb 10:38).

In the context of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity, this verse is the word that God gives to the prophet, responding to his complaints about what sufferings are taking place. God is “rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation,who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own” (1:6), and through their dreadful and fearsome activities, God is “destroying nations without mercy” (1:17).

Habakkuk laments and complains; God instructs him to “look at the proud—their spirit is not right in them”, and to be assured that “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The theme of righteousness that is signalled here by the prophet is a central motif in Hebrew Scriptures. It appears in the ancestral stories concerning the key figures of Abraham (Gen 15:6), Saul (1 Sam 26:23), David (2 Sam 22:21–26; 1 Ki 3:6), and Solomon (1 Ki 10:9).

Further, Job exults in his righteousness (Job 27:6; 29:14) and the psalmists petition God on the basis of their righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:8; 112:1–10). Righteousness is praised in assorted proverbs (Prov 1:3; 8:20; 11:4–6; 12:28; 15:9; 16:8; 21:3, 21) and figures in numerous prophetic oracles (Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3). The message given to Habakkuk holds throughout Israelite history.

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Nahum starts with a clear declaration: “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). He expands on this with a series of images showing how God’s power is manifested in punishments (1:3–11). Idolatry, once again, lies at the root of the problem: “Your name shall be perpetuated no longer; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the cast image; I will make your grave, for you are worthless.” (1:14).

The Prophet Nahum, 18th century Russian Orthodox icon
(Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church,
Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia)

His oracle contains a long and troubling list of “devastation, desolation, and destruction” (2:10) which is enunciated in dramatic imagery: chariots and horsemen charging, piles of dead bodies, and the debaucheries of a prostitute (3:1–4). Because of this, says God, “I will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame; I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle” (3:5–6).

The people who are the recipients of Nahum’s words are not from Judah, for he addresses the people of Nineveh (1:1), the capital of Assyria. Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and conquered Thebes in 663 BCE (3:8–10); there, as in other places, they demonstrated a savage brutality. However, in 612 BCE the Assyrian dominance had given way to the new power, the Babylonians (this seems to be reflected in 3:7).

Nahum holds firm to the claim that that God will punish Nineveh: “the fire will devour you, the sword will cut you off, it will devour you like the locust” (3:15). The die is cast; “there is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal” (3:19). His final words are scathing: “all who hear the news about you clap their hands over you; for who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (3:19).

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Zephaniah also does not mince words; his opening statement is “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord” (Zeph 1:2), cataloguing a complete cosmic catastrophe. “Be silent before the Lord God, for the day of the Lord is at hand”, he exhorts (1:7). Those who complacently assert, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (1:12), will find that their trust in that mantra will be shattered, for “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast” (1:14).

The Prophet Zephaniah, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
of Antioch and All the East

The familiar declaration of the “day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom” (1:15) shapes the oracles that Zephaniah delivers; the prophet itemises the punishments on Israel’s enemies (2:1–15) and on Jerusalem herself (3:1–7). On “Canaan, land of the Philistines”, God declares, “I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left” (2:5). To the south-east, “Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever” (2:9).

Looking north to Assyria, Zephaniah hyperbolically claims, “what a desolation it has become, a lair for wild animals!” (2:15). In Jerusalem, corruption is rife: “the officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning; it’s prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law” (3:3–4).

Yet he ends with a declaration of hope (3:8–13) and a psalm-like celebration of the ultimate restoration which God promises: “sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (3:14), for this will be a time when “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth … when I restore your fortunes before your eyes” (2:19–20).

The prophecy echoes what Micah, a century before him, had seen: “I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted: the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation” (Mic 4:6–7). It’s a wonderful vision!

It also resonates with Isaiah’s vision of when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa 35:5-6)—a passage which itself inspired the way that the ministry of Jesus could be reported: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).

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Finally, in the shortest book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Obadiah repeats the message of his contemporaries about the punishment of God; however, he has in view the people of Edom, to the south of Judah (1:1), whom God will make “least among the nations” (1:1–4). The oracle of judgement that Obadiah delivers is directed to the Edomites, who helped to capture Israelites who were fleeing when the might of the Babylonian army took control of their territory (2 Kings 24–25).

Because they share a common ancestry with Judah—the Edomites descend from Esau, the Judahites from Jacob (Gen 25:21–26, 30)—God is angered with them for not assisting the fleeing Judahites (see the repeated “you should not have …” in verses 12 to 14).

Obadiah describes the day when “strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem” (1:11), when the Edomites gloated over the misfortune of the Judahites, looted their cities, and “handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (1:12–14). For these people, too, there is “a day of the Lord” in which retribution will be enacted (1:15–16). Punishment is severe and complete: it shall be “as though they had never been” (1:16).

Yet, as with other prophetic voices, Obadiah too foresees that God will not abandon his holy people; the book ends with a short recitation of the geographical areas which are to be allotted to returning exiles, and “those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (1:17–21). There is still hope.

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Footnote: Ten of the Minor Prophets, and all four Major Prophets, appear in the Revised Common Lectionary—some of them (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) appear many times. The two Minor Prophets who miss being in the lectionary are Nahum and Obadiah. 😢

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See also

Justice and kindness, and walking humbly (the prophet Micah)

Continuing my series on the prophets in ancient Israel … this blog relates to Micah. Although this prophet offers significant passages for reflection (as noted below), no excerpts from this book appear in the Year C sequence of Hebrew Bible readings on the Prophets. (There are three excerpts at other times in the lectionary, as noted below, but none of Micah appears in the current sequence of readings from the Prophets.)

The prophet Micah is introduced in the opening chapter of the book bearing his name, as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah” (Mic 1:1). This places him in the second half of the 8th century BCE. As he was active in the southern kingdom, he does not directly experience the conquest and exile of people in the northern kingdom in 721 BCE, although he must have been aware of the disasters falling his countrymen to the north. His prophetic activity is thus a couple of decades after Amos and Hosea.

Indeed, the southern kingdom of Judah directly experienced a military attack from the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701, attacking several towns in Judah (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16) before retreating from Jerusalem. As Micah says, “the sins of the house of Israel” (1:5) have reached down and infected the house of Judah; “her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem” (1:9, 12).

Under Hezekiah, the economic patterns in Judah changed from a reliance on barter, to an international trading society. Literacy rates rose, and the size of Jerusalem grew to be a large city with a population of around 25,000—which is considered to be about five times larger than the population of Jerusalem under Solomon!

Associated with this growth was the development of corrupt practices and the rise of hypocrisy amongst the people. The rulers in Jerusalem “give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us’” (3:11).

Micah, like many other prophets, conveys God’s deep concern about the way that some in society were profiting unjustly from their mistreatment of the poor. He rails against those who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (2:2). Their haughty demeanour will swiftly turn to lamenting, as they cry out “we are utterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me!” (2:4).

In another oracle, he dramatises the state of the people, attacking the heads and rulers of the people as those “who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (3:1–3).

Micah decries their selfish actions in very specific terms: “its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” (3:11). (This particular condemnation of leaders in Judah appears in the lectionary towards the end of the Pentecost cycle in Year A, to accompany the strident words of condemnation of the leaders of his day, uttered by Jesus in Matt 23:1–12.)

Still later, Micah remonstrates with the people for “the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed” (6:10). He conveys God’s displeasure: “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:11–12). He laments that “the faithful have disappeared from the land” (7:2); of those who are left, he says, “their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice” (7:3).

The people are accused of following “the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab” (6:16)—two kings who are condemned for their idolatrous and evil ways (on Omri, see 1 Ki 16:25–26; on his son Ahab, see 1 Ki 16:30, 22:37–39).

Micah, like Amos before him, declares that punishment will come on the people in a time of deep darkness: “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation; the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” (2:6; cf. Amos 5:18–20). Because of the evil deeds of the heads and rulers, “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (3:12).

In a future time of anger and wrath, says the prophet, God will wreak vengeance: “I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots; and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds; and I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers; and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you” (5:10–15). The disdain with which the people have treated their covenant with the Lord, described in some detail here by the prophet, will merit this savage punishment.

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Although this is a short book (with only seven chapters), Micah is best known for a number of his oracles; first, the vision of universal peace that he utters: “many nations shall come and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:1–4). This oracle is found also in Isa 2:2–4 (although because of the canonical order of books, the Isaiah oracle appears first in reading order). For an interesting discussion of “which came first, Isaiah 2 or Micah 4 ?”, see https://abramkj.com/2012/12/11/which-came-first-isaiah-or-micah-comparing-isaiah-22-4-with-micah-41-3/)

In Matthew’s Gospel, another oracle from Micah is cited: “you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel” (5:2–6; see Matt 2:6). This oracle is set in the lectionary for Advent 4 during Year C.

In the context in which Micah speaks these words, they refer to a coming ruler of Judah. In Matthew’s narrative, the prophetic word provides support for the notion that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3–5; also John 7:42), which then means that the story of the birth of Jesus needs to take place in Bethlehem. Two evangelists work hard to tell stories that, in different ways, adhere to this requirement (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4).

The third oracle of Micah which is well known appears within an extended scene that reads like a lawsuit being prosecuted in court. It begins with the charge: “rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice … for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1–2). Then it moves through some argumentation, before the famous rhetorical question is posed: “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). This oracle is offered by the lectionary at Epiphany 4 in Year A.

This verse has gained a life of its own; it is regularly quoted to support people of faith undertaking acts of social justice; and as you can see, it adorns a multitude of t-shirts as a succinct “quotable quote”.

It has also been the inspiration for many organisations bearing the prophet’s name—locally, there is Micah Australia (“empowering Australian Christians to advocate for global justice”; see https://www.micahaustralia.org), which is part of the Micah Challenge International (birthed by the World Evangelical Alliance and Micah Network; see https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2015-03/micah-challenge-international).

The closing verses of this short book reiterate the central nature of God, in the mind of this prophet, and indeed of many of the authors of the material in the Hebrew Scriptures: “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? [God] does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency” (7:18). This recalls the recurring scriptural refrain that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; see also Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; as well as 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).

Many scholars consider that this more hopeful ending (7:11–20), and indeed some other parts of the book, come from years well after the time of the prophet Micah (indeed, some date some oracles to a time when the exile was ending, in the 520s BCE). Yet the way the book is presented conveys the message that Micah does not give up; despite his fierce words of judgement, he inspires the people to hold on to hope.

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See also

Undoing the stereotype of “the vengeful God of the Old Testament” (Hosea 11; Pentecost 8C)

As we follow the various readings from the Prophets during this season after Pentecost in Year C, we encounter a striking passage this coming Sunday. It contains an impassioned love poem, in the words of God, concerning the people of Israel (Hosea 11:1–11).

The poem depicts God as a human being, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent.

This is a striking passage. It confronts us in two ways: first, by depicting God in human form, and second, as it is a passage in the Old Testament which depicts God in a way that is quite different from many other passages that are often cited, where God’s anger with Israel bubbles over into aggressive punishment. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard this aspect of God used to characterise (or, indeed, caricature) the God of the Old Testament as violent and vengeful.

First, let’s consider the depiction of God in ways that indicate the deity is acting like a human being. Even thought there are clear injunctions against having any images (or idols) representing God (Exod 20:4, 23; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Num 33:50–52; Deut 5:8; 27:15; Isa 42:17), God is nevertheless portrayed in the scriptures as being human-like.

In Deuteronomy, Moses had reminded the the Israelites of what had taken place on Mount Horeb (Sinai of Exodus 19): “the Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12). He continued, “since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deut 4:15–18). That’s a comprehensive list of what is prohibited!

Nevertheless, at many places in Hebrew Scripture, God has eyes and ears (2 Chron 6:40; 7:15; Ps 34:15; Dan 9:18), a mouth (Deut 8:3; 2 Chron 36:12; Isa 1:20; 34:16; 40:5; 58:14; 62:2; Jer 9:12; 23:16; Mic 4:4) and nostrils (Deut 15:8; 2 Sam 22:9, 16; Ps 18:8, 15; Isa 65:5), as well as hands (Exod 9:3; 16:3; Josh 4:24; Job 12:9; Ps 75:8; Isa 5:25; Ezek 3:22) and feet (Gen 3:8; Ps 2:11–12; 18:9; Isa 63:3; Ezek 43:7; Nah 1:3; Zech 14:3–4).

God speaks (Gen 1:3; Exod 33:11; Num 22:8; Ps 50:1; Ezek 10:5; Jer 10:1; listens (Exod 16:12; Ps 4:3; 34:17; 69:33; Prov 15:29), and smells the aroma of sacrifices as smoke rises to the heavens (Gen 8:21; Lev 1:13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 11, 16; 4:10, 31; 6:15; 8:21; 17:6; cf. Lev 26:31). God even whistles (Isa 7:18) and shaves (Isa 7:20)!

This depiction of God in human form is despite the polemic of Psalm 115, which derides idols as “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.” (Ps 115:4–7; see also Deut 4:28; Isa 44:18; Hab 2:18).

The God with eyes and ears, then, laughs (Ps 2:4), has regrets (Jer 42:10), feels grief (Ps 78:40) and joy (Isa 62:5; Jer 32:41; Zeph 3:17). God experiences jealousy (Exod 20:5; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:19–21; Josh 24:19; Job 36:33)—jealousy so intense that his wrath “burns like fire” (Ps. 79:5). “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces”, says Nahum (Nah 1:2).

Which brings us to the stereotype I noted above: that the God of the Old Testament was always violent and vengeful. To be sure, we can see intense flashes of God’s anger in incidents told in the historical narratives (Num 25:1–9; Deut 28:15–68; 29:19–28; Judg 2:11-23; 2 Sam 6:1–11) and in the regular refrain, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against XX” (Exod 4:14; Num 11:33; 12:9; 32:13; Deut 6:15; 7:4; 11:17; 29:27; Josh 23:16; Judg 2:14, 20; 3:8; 10:7; 2 Sam 6:7; 24:1; 1 Ki 16:7, 13, 26, 33; 22:53; 2 Ki 13:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:19, 26; 1 Chron 13:10; 2 Chron 21:16; 28:25; 33:6; Ps 106:40).

The prophets proclaim that judgement will fall with a vengeance on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5) whilst the psalmists invoke the wrath of the Lord upon their enemies (Ps 2:5, 12; 21:9; 56:7; 59:13; 110:5–6), note that God’s wrath punishes Israel (Ps 78:49, 59, 62; 88:7, 16; 89:38; 90:7–11), and petition God to turn his wrath away from them (Ps 6:1; 38:1; 79:5; 89:46). Such punishment is the consequence of breaking the covenant (Lev 26:14–33; 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:31–32; Jer 5:7–9; Ezek 7:1–4).

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However, this is not the sum total of God’s character in Hebrew Scriptures; there is much more to be said about God. The prophets, for instance, not only proclaim the coming “day of the Lord”, but also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Mic 4:1–7; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).

The psalmists praise God for the steadfast love (heșed) that he expresses to Israel (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–10; 26:3; 31:7, 16, 21; 33:5, 18, 22; 36:5–10; 40:11; 42:8; 44:26; 48:9; 51:1; 52:8; 57:3, 10; and so on) and prophets recognise this same quality in God (Isa 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Dan 9:4). As Jeremiah sings, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22).

Micah asks, “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?” (Mic 7:18). The answer to that question is sounded again and again in the refrain, “the Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2).

This steadfast love (heșed)—also translated as loving kindness, or as covenant love—is a consistent characteristic of the God found in the pages of the Old Testament, along with the God who executes judgement and inflicts punishment. Like human beings, the God of Hebrew Scripture is complex, with multiple characteristics, exhibiting a wide range of behaviours.

Hosea 11 not the only passage where the deity is depicted as acting a human being. God is occasionally imaged as a woman, such as in the palmist’s comparison, “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until [God] has mercy upon us” (Ps 132:2–3).

God is described as being “like a woman in labour; I will gasp and pant” (Isa 49:15); she gives birth (Deut 32:18) and comforts her child “as a mother comforts her child” (Isa 66:13). The psalmist compares themself to “a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Ps 131:2). Such female descriptors for God emerge in the New Testament as Jesus evokes the image of “a hen [who] gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34), as well as in the parable of the woman searching for her lost coin (Luke 15:8–10).

In the love song of Hosea 11, God exudes heșed, loving kindness, or covenant love. In return, God expects that Israel will demonstrate that same covenant love (Hos 4:1), for “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). The prophet calls to the people, “return to your God, hold fast to covenant love (heșed) and justice (mishpat), and wait continually for your God” (Hos 12:6).

The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people; it stands in stark juxtaposition to the many passages that describe the anger of the deity. It reminds us that the mercy of God, expressed in deep covenant love, must always be held alongside the justice of God, expressed in angry punishments meted out when that covenant is broken. Indeed, Hosea describes the covenant relationship between Israel in this manner: “I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hos 2:19).

Mercy and justice are two sides of same coin, two key aspects of the character of God. Accordingly, God requires of us both mercy and justice, as Jesus notes: “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).

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See also

Cords of kindness, bands of love: the prophet Hosea (Pentecost 7C and 8C)

As we continue to follow the prophets in the readings from Hebrew Scripture that the lectionary offers, we hear from Hosea this coming Sunday (Hos 1:2–10) and the following Sunday (Hos 11:1–11). The two passages offer quite a contrast.

In the first selection in the lectionary, the opening chapter of the book, we hear about the prophet’s own situation. Hosea receives direction from God as to how he is to behave. The actions he undertakes provide a series of signs to the people of Israel concerning their fate (1:2–10). The future looks grim. In the second section offered by the lectionary (11:1–11), the prophet speaks on behalf of God to the people, reminding them of God’s persistent love for them. There is hope for the future, he tells them.

Jeroboam II from Guillaume Rouillé’s
Promptuarii Iconium Insigniorum
(published 1553)

Hosea was active as a prophet in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, over six decades, from the reign of Jeroboam II to the time of Hoshea. He seems to reflect an awareness of the war between Syria and Ephraim, a northern tribe (see 5:8–15), but his oracles do not indicate any knowledge of the defeat of the northerners by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and their subsequent exile (2 Kings 17).

The name Hosea means “salvation”, and the oracles in this book provide occasional glimpses of that desired outcome (1:7; 2:24; 6:2–3; 10:12; 11:3–4, 8–9; 13:4–5) before the final oracle assures Israel, “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (14:4–9). The love song of chapter 11 represents the height of this aspiration. However, the predominant tone of the book is a relentless condemnation of Israel for her sins. This fate is signalled in striking fashion in the opening chapter, through the names of Hosea’s children. They indicate exactly what fate is in store for the people.

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The opening chapter presents a challenge to orthodox views of morality and the nature of God. God commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (1:2). Let’s note that: God commands behaviour that is generally regarded as immorality!

Hosea’s wife is named as Gomer, from the verb gamar, which means “to complete or bring to an end”. Is she the one to bring to completion the salvation to which Hosea looks? The promiscuity of Gomer is noted at 3:1; Hosea wins her back with “fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine” (3:2). Her behaviour seems to signal the infidelity and then return to God of the Israelites (3:3–5). Hosea regularly pleads with Israel to “return to the Lord” (2:7; 4:5; 6:1; 12:6; 14:1–2).

Not only does Gomer signify the behaviour of Israel; the names of her children are similarly significant. The first son, Jezreel (“God sows”) signals punishment (1:4). A daughter, Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) signals God’s continuing refusal to forgive Israel (1:6). A second son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) seals their fate, it would seem: “you are not my people and I am not your [God]” (1:9). The names tell a story; a story that does not bode well for Israel.

Wrath infuses the whole book, from the opening series of names and in the indictment set out in legal form, “the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land” (4:1), with the threat from God that “I will punish them for their ways, and repay them for their deeds” (4:1–11). It is present as the prophet tells of the wrath poured out on Ephraim like drowning water (5:8–11) and in his words about God’s smouldering anger over idol worship (8:1–6). It climaxes in the threat of destruction and the removal of the king (13:9–11). Paradoxically, for a book bearing the name “salvation” (Hosea), the message is consistently about punishment for wrongdoing.

The metaphor of Gomer’s behaviour as a whore (1:2; 2:5; 3:1) permeates the book: the divine accusation is that Israel has “played the whore” (4:10–14; 5:3; 9:1), that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (4:12; 5:5), that “they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom” (4:10–11), that because of this whoredom, the nation is defiled (6:10).

Yet in the opening chapter, Hosea strongly affirms that all is not lost; there is hope. “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea”, says Hosea, “which can be neither measured nor numbered” (1:10a)—and more than this, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (1:10b). The new name for the people signifies the promise that Israel will be saved; “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give to her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (3:14–15).

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This fluctuation between the threat of punishment hanging over Israel, and the alluring words of love that God speaks to her, takes us into a deeper level of concern, for this is precisely the kind of behaviour that is experienced by women caught in abusive relationships. Is the Lord nothing more than a manipulative, power-wielding tyrant of a husband, inflicting damage, driving his woman away in fear, then pleading for his woman to come back to him, offering all manner of blandishments and promises of transformation? “Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up” (6:1)

How we answer that question determines how we read the second passage offered by the lectionary (11:1–11). Is this a truly loving, gracious, ever-forgiving God? or a violent, devious, never-changing tyrant?

Certainly, the larger context of the prophetic literature and of the whole sweep of the story told in scripture encourages us to see God in a good light. This is surely the God who is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6, and a number of other places in Hebrew Scripture). Hosea plays out in one specific time what God and Israel enact time and time again, over the centuries.

Indeed, the words of promise (“after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”, 6:2) were even cited by church fathers and scholars as the place in Hebrew Scripture which provides a prediction of the gospel affirmation, “he was raised on the third day” (2 Cor 15:4; and see Acts 10:40; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46).

These words were not, of course, intended to point forward in this way in the time of Hosea; they are poetically non-specific (“after two days… on the third day” is typical Hebraic parallelism with a linguistic variation), and are spoken by Hosea into the context of his own time, as an insight into the divine offer of hope that he senses, for the Lord “will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:3). This is forthtelling, and not foretelling.

So the “cords of human kindness … bands of love” (11:4) depict God in an anthropomorphic manner, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent. The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people, to set alongside our concerns about the nature of God.

As we noted in considering the prophet Amos, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s, while Hosea was still alive. Two decades later, after Hosea’s death, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).

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See also

Pondering the prophets (during Pentecost Year C)

Elizabeth and I are leading a weekly study on The Prophets, because excerpts from these books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary as the Hebrew Scripture selection each week during the current church season (the long season of Pentecost). See

Our study series kicked off last week with two sessions of robust, engaged discussion (one on Thursday morning, the same session repeated on Thursday evening). I’ll be blogging material relating to this series and these readings 8n coming weeks.

The concept of a prophet was widely-known in the ancient world. Marvin Sweeney writes that “prophets were well known throughout the ancient Near Eastern world as figures who would serve as messengers or mouthpieces for the gods to communicate the divine will to their human audiences.”

He notes, in particular: “Mesopotamian baru priests who read smoke patterns from sacrificial altars, examined the livers of sacrificial animals, read the movements of heavenly bodies … ecstatic muhhu prophets from the Mesopotamian city ofMari drew blood from themselves and engaged in trance possession as part of their preparation for oracular speech … the assinu prophets of Mari were well known for emulating feminine characteristics and dress as they prepared themselves to embody the goddess Ishtar of Arbela to speak on her behalf … Egyptian lector priests (see image) engaged in analysis of the worlds of nature and human beings in preparation for the well-crafted poetic compositions that gave expression to the will of the gods”. (“The Latter Prophets and prophecy”, pp.234–235 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, ed. Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney, CUP, 2016)

Egyptian lector priests

The Hebrew Prophets typically claim that the word of the Lord came to me and pepper their speeches with the interjection, thus says the Lord. They often report visionary experiences which provide the divine authorisation for what they speak. Some are reported as having had ecstatic experiences where they travel out-of-body and, they say, see things from God’s perspective. A number of prophets engage in symbolic activities which underline the message delivered by their words. Woe to you is a standard introductory phrase, leading to condemnations on nations or people for their sinfulness.

Adherence to the covenant of the Lord lies at the root of all that the prophets say—they recall Israel to their distinctive task of being a holy people, dedicated to the Lord. “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”, Isaiah declares (Isa 42:6); “cursed be anyone who does not heed the words of this covenant”, cries Jeremiah (Jer 11:3); “I pledged myself and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine”, Ezekiel declaims (Ezek 16:8).

Daniel prays, saying, “Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong … turning aside from your commandments and ordinances” (Dan 9:4–5). Amos announces that Israel has “rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes” (Amos 2:4); Hosea denounces the people, for “you have forgotten the law of your God” (Hos 4:6); Malachi berates the people in the name of God, for “ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them” (Mal 3:7).

Similar declarations of the sinfulness of Israel, turning away from the covenant, recur in other prophetic books (Isa 30:9–11; Jer 2:20–22; Ezek 18:21–22, 24; Hos 8:1; Mal 2:4–17). So many of the oracles of judgement pronounced by the prophets are built on the assumption that the sinful behaviours being described indicate that Israel and Judah have turned from the covenant and are ignoring the commandments that God gave.

Ezekiel also notes that God says “I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60), whilst Jeremiah says that God promises “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–33). Hosea declares that God promises, “I will make for you a covenant … I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18).

The prophetic call for repentance is heard often (Isa 1:27; 45:22; 59:20; Jer 15:19; 18:11; 22:1–5; 35:15; 36:5–7; 44:4-5; Ezek 3:19; 14:6–8; 18:21–32; 33:8–9; Mal 4:4–6). This call is based on the premise that God will relent, and redeem those who turn from sinful practices. Sadly, Jeremiah notes that “the Lord persistently sent you all his servants the prophets”, but “you did not listen to me, says the Lord” (Jer 25:4-7). The work of a prophet is often thankless.

In the course, we are exploring each of the named prophets in our Bibles: the four Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea—Joel—Amos—Obadiah—Jonah—Micah—Nahum—Habakkuk—Zephaniah—Haggai—Zechariah—Malachi); the latter ones are collected together in one scroll by Jews, who call this The Book of The Twelve. Some merit more detailed attention than others (because their works are longer), but all of them share a common concern to “set right” the people of Israel and Judah.

We have noted that there are others in scripture who are declared to be prophets, but who do not have a book dedicated to them. We’ll be paying some of them some attention as we work through the books. The first prophet mentioned in scripture is Miriam, the sister of Moses, who led the women of Israel in song, to celebrate victory over the Egyptians; the short Song of Miriam (Exod 15:20–21) was then attributed also to Moses, and placed at the head of a much longer song in his name (Exod 15:1–18).

Such musical leadership is recognised as an act of prophecy in the story of Saul: “you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy” (1 Sam 10:5). Both males and females were able to serve as musicians who prophesied (1 Sam 18:6; 1 Chron 25:1–8).

Miriam is described as a prophet at Exodus 15:20 and again at Micah 6:4. She shares this designation with Deborah, who is introduced as a prophet “who was judging Israel” (Judg 4:4);. Deborah sits under a palm tree, the place for exercising judgement (Judg 4:5). However, the function of a “judge” was more akin to that of a military leader—a tribal elder who led military activities to protect their tribe from enemies and to establish justice within their group.

Deborah exercises such military leadership against Sisera, who led the army of King Jabin of Canaan. She recruits Barak to lead the fight (Judg 4:6–7); persuaded by her oracle, Barak insists that he will not fight unless Deborah goes out with him (Judg 4:8). When the Israelites gain victory over the Canaanite general (Judg 4:23–24), Deborah sings a song to celebrate her victory (Judg 5:1–31), maintaining the musical connection already noted in Miriam.

After the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan, Samuel and Nathan figure significantly in the historical narratives about Israel. Samuel anoints Saul as the first king (and one interesting story about Saul ends with the question, is Saul also among the prophets? (1 Sam 19:18–24). Nathan, of course, is the prophet who promises David that “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:14). This is the oracle that assures the Davidic dynasty in Israel.

Nathan also is the one who confronts David about his adultery with Bathsheba, ending his famous parable of “the poor man [who] had nothing but one little ewe lamb” with the scathing denunciation: “you are the man” (2 Sam 12:1–7). Still later, Nathan tells the dying David of the plot by Adonijah to become king (1 Ki 1:11–14), leading to David’s final machinations which saw Solomon appointed as king (1 Ki 1:15–53) and the death of Adonijah (1 Ki 2:13­–25).

Later in the time of the divided kingdoms, Elijah and Elisha serve as prophets to call the king to account for the sinfulness of the court, and of all the people. Elijah spectacularly defended Yahweh against the might of the prophets of Baal, who were being worshipped in Israel, even by King Ahab. The prophets of Baal were unable to call down fire for the sacrifice (1 Ki 18:26–29), but Elijah, building an altar and drenching it with water, was able to call down “the fire of the Lord [which] fell and consumed the burnt offering” (1 Ki 18:30–40).

Elisha raised the son of a Shunnamite woman (2 Ki 4:8–37), turned a poisoned pot of stew into an edible meal (2 Ki 4:38–41), and fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley (2 Kings 4:42–44); these stories evoke Jesus.

Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Ki 2), passing his mantle to Elisha. The last words of the prophet Malachi indicate that Elijah would return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5–6); this prophecy plays an important role in New Testament texts. Just as it is not said that Enoch dies, but “walked with God, because God took him” (Gen 5:21–24), so this ascension of Elijah is believed to indicate that he did not die.

The final words uttered over Elisha were the same as those uttered over Elijah: “my father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Ki 13:14; cf. 2 Ki 2:12). His miraculous power lived on after his death; it is said that the body of a Moabite soldier killed in battle was thrown into his grave, and immediately “he came to life and stood on his feet” (2 Ki 13:20–21).

We might also include the woman of Endor as a prophet; despite the condemnation of divination (Deut 8:10–11), this woman provides Saul with guidance at the point where traditional means have failed. She consults with the ghosts; she sees “an old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe” (1 Sam 28:14), and Saul recognises this as the ghost of Samuel. The deceased prophet thus directs the terrified king (1 Sam 28:15–19).

Later, we meet Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikva, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34). Both narratives tell of the reforms that took place under King Josiah, when a “Book of the Law” was discovered, and the king ordered that its prescriptions be followed. It is striking that Huldah, a female prophet, was consulted in relation to this book (not a male prophet). In a detailed oracle (2 Ki 22:16–20; 2 Chron 34:23–28), she speaks the word of the Lord to the king. Huldah validates the book that has been discovered.

Another female prophet is the wife of Isaiah, noted (without name) at Isa 8:3, who become the mother of one of Isaiah’s children; all of these children are given to be “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (Isa 8:18).

There were many more prophets active alongside Elijah and Elisha. Throughout the historical narratives, there are regular refences to “the prophets” (1 Sam 10:11–12; 1 Ki 18:4, 13, 20; 20:41; 22:6, 13; 2 Ki 23:2), “my servants the prophets” (2 Ki 9:7; 17:13, 23; 21:10; 24:2), a “band of prophets” (1 Sam 10:5, 10), a  “company of prophets” (1 Sam 19:20; 1 Ki 20:35; 2 Ki 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1), 2 Chron 18:5, 12), and “all the prophets” (1 Ki 19:1; 22:10–12; 2 Chron 18:9–11).

Indeed, later Jewish tradition refers to the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people. The relevant section of the Talmud reads: “In fact, there were more prophets, as it is taught in a baraita*: Many prophets arose for the Jewish people, numbering double the number of Israelites who left Egypt. However, only a portion of the prophecies were recorded, because only prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down in the Bible for posterity, but that which was not needed, as it was not pertinent to later generations, was not written. Therefore, the fifty-five prophets recorded in the Bible, although not the only prophets of the Jewish people, were the only ones recorded, due to their eternal messages.” (Talmud, Megillah 14a)   [* A Baraita is an ancient teaching that was not recorded in the Mishnah]

That would make the sum total of prophets a whopping 1,200,000 prophets! (This assumes the number of 600,000 “men on foot” as given at Exod 12:37—a gross exaggeration, by any account—-and also overlooks the complicating comment, “besides children”, and the complete omission of any reference to women!) We can at least say that there were more people undertaking prophetic activity than are named or designated in the scrolls of Hebrew scriptures. Whether each of them would meet the criteria that is set out for a true prophet (Deut 18:15-22), we will never know!

The seven female prophets are identified by later rabbis as Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hilda, and Esther. To read a brief contemporary Jewish discussion of the seven female prophets, see https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4257802/jewish/The-7-Prophetesses-of-Judaism.htm

In the New Testament, the words of Joel that Peter cites on the Day of Pentecost indicate that the gifting of prophecy continues in this new era: “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).

So we find Anna described as a prophet (Luke 2:38), as is Zechariah (Luke 1:67) and his son, John the Baptist (Mark 6:15; Matt 11:9; 21:26; Luke 1:76; 7:26; 20:6), while Jesus himself is recognised as a prophet (Matt 14:5; 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 6:14: 7:40–42; 9:17).

There were prophets active at the time of Jesus, as we see in his saying about welcoming a prophet (Matt 10:41). The movement that continued after the time of Jesus had prophets active such as the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) and Agabus (Acts 21:10), as well as those gifted by the Spirit with the gift of prophecy (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28–29; 13:2; 14:1–5, 22–25, 29, 37; Eph 2:20; 4:11; 1 Tim 4:14), although the activity here described as prophecy may well differ in significant ways from what is found throughout Hebrew Scripture.

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See also

This is what the Lord showed me: the visions and messages of Amos (Pentecost 5C and 6C)

Over the next five months, the lectionary is taking a dive into the books of the prophets. These are offered as companions to the Gospel readings from the “orderly account” of Luke that we are hearing, week by week. It is, after all, Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).

In turn, over the coming months we will read and hear excerpts from the northern kingdom prophets, Amos and Hosea; then from the southern kingdom prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of the “major prophets” of Israel; followed by three “minor prophets”, Joel, Habakkuk, and Haggai; and then a section from the closing vision in the much later set of oracles collected at the end of the book of Isaiah. We should buckle up for the ride; the prophets pull no punches and speak in ways that can confront, accuse, and terrify!

We have these books in our scriptures and read and reflect on them in our services of worship because, although these voices sounded forth long ago, their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”, through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and in the various “minor prophets” that we will encounter.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

Justice is the common theme in these prophetic books—God’s justice; the justice which God desires for the people of God; the justice which God speaks through the voice of the prophets; the justice that God calls for in Israel; the justice that provides the measure against which Israel will be judged, and saved, or condemned.

In the later scriptures of the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages of Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century.

As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.

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This Sunday, we will hear the vision of the plum line (Amos 7:7–17); next Sunday, the vision of the basket of fruit (Amos 8:1–12). Amos, who came from Tekoa in the southern kingdom (1:1), was active in the northern kingdom (Israel) during the reign of Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of Israel, who reigned for four decades (786–746 BCE; see Amos 7:10). It was a time of prosperity, built on the trading of olive oil and wine with the neighbouring nations of Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. But the sinfulness of the time was too much for Amos.

Although the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus for religious activity in the southern kingdom (Judah), there were a number of religious sites in the northern kingdom—Dan, Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba (Amos 5:5; 8:14)—where not only was the Lord God worshipped, but idolatrous images were used in worship services (5:26). Amos is trenchant in his criticism of the worship that the people offer (5:21–27); embedded in this crisis is a doublet of poetry, words most often associated with Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

Indeed, it is the perpetration of social inequity within Israel that most causes him to convey the anger of divine displeasure. He admonishes the rich for the way that they mistreat the poor: “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7); “you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain” (5:11).

Again, Amos rails: “you trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land … buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat” (8:4, 6). In a biting oracle, he criticises the “cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria” for the way they “oppress the poor, crush the needy” (4:1).

Bashan was the mountainous area to the northeast of Israel (Ps 68:15), which rejoiced in majestic oaks (Isa 2:13) and extensive pasture lands (1 Chron 5:16). The luxurious lifestyle of these people can well be imagined. The reference to “winter houses … summer houses … houses of ivory … and great houses” (3:15) is telling. Luxury and opulence is evident amongst the wealthy.

So, too, is the description of “those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (6:4–6). The extravagance of the wealthy is obvious, juxtaposed against the plight of the poor, as we have noted.

Amos indicates that God had given Israel a number of opportunities to repent, “yet you did not return to me” (4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). God pleads for Israel to “seek me and live” (5:4), “seek the Lord and live” (5:6), “seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14).

But this is all in vain; ultimately, the prophet insists, the Lord God will bring on the day of the Lord—a day of “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18–20). God is determined; “the great house shall be shattered to bits, and the little house to pieces” (6:11); later, he insists again, “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place” (8:3).

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In a series of visions, Amos sees how the judgement of God will be implemented. He sees a plague of locusts (7:1–3), a shower of fire (7:4–6), a plum line (7:7–9), and a basket of summer fruit (8:1–6). Finally, he sees “the Lord standing beside the altar” (9:1–8).

The first two visions give Amos an opportunity to intercede on behalf of the people: “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!” (7:2), “O Lord God, cease, I beg you!” (7:5). On both occasions, God relents, declaring, “it shall not be” (7:3, 6).

Not so with the following visions, however. The vision of the plum line signals that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:8). The vision of the basket of fruits signals that “the end has come upon my people Israel” (8:2). In the vision of the Lord at the altar, God declares a definitive judgement on Israel: “those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1).

Interrupting the sequence of visions, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, confers with King Jeroboam of Israel, informing him that the prophet has spoken of the king’s imminent death and the people’s exile (7:11). Amaziah, disturbed by this pronouncement, commands Amos to flee south, to Judah (7:12-13).

Amos responds with what we recognise to be the humility of a true prophet: “I am no prophet” (7:14; cf. Moses at Exod 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13; Jeremiah at Jer 1:6), yet then he proceeds to reiterate his prophecy: “you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (7:16-17).

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Returning to the sequence of visions, Amos notes that the day will come when God “will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight” (8:9–11). On that day, “the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst … they shall fall, and never rise again” (8:12–13).

Resolute in the intention to punish those who have perpetrated social inequity and religious idolatry, God insists that “I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good” (9:4); “the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth” (9:8).

Yet, at the very end, Amos relays the news that God has modified this intention: “I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord” (9:8); “on that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (9:11). This final oracle from Amos (9:11–15) envisages a restored and rebuilt Israel, a land once again productive, and ends with a strong expression of confidence in the people: “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord” (9:15).

Little did the prophet actually know what lay ahead; soon after this oracle, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s; two decades later, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).

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See also