Saturday, July 10, 2010

An Obnoxious Visitor

Amos 7:7–17

Amos, an accidental visionary, is assaulted with a prophetic image: he is shown the Lord standing on top of a vertical wall, with a "plummet" ('anak) in his hand. In the South, we sometimes call this rudimentary construction tool a "plumb-bob" (or "plum-bob," from Latin plumbum, lead [weight]; the Semitic cognates are also related to lead or tin). When Amos has made some sense of this uninvited visual stimulus, the Word of the LORD then invades the ears of the prophet with an obvious question, "What do you see, Amos?" To which this Southerner and would-not-be prophet replies, "A plumb-bob."

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The Lord then brings Amos straight to the point: "I am placing a blumb-bob in the middle of my people, Israel. I will no longer forgive him." (`abar + lo, lit. "pass by ... to him," with the omission of `al-pesha`; see Micah 7:18 for an example of the fuller usage in a promise of salvation, rather than a judgment oracle. We have seen this verb recently, in the story of Elijah at Mt. Horeb.)

This oracle to Amos appears on the surface to contradict the words of Micah:

Who is a God like You, Forgiving iniquity And remitting transgression; Who has not maintained His wrath forever Against the remnant of His own people, Because He loves graciousness! (TNK, Micah 7:18)

Yet Amos persists in saying what he sees and hears, that the Lord will desolate (shmm) the "high places of Isaac" (bamoth yischaq, rather than yitschaq; see Jer. 33:26 and Psalm 105:9) and will destroy (chareb, lit. dry up, be laid waste, in ruins) the "sanctuaries of Israel" (miqdeshey yisra'el). In other words, the religious structures on which the Northern Kingdom of Israel depends are so out of plumb they will soon be falling down. And the Lord will attack the "house" (beth, synecdoche for the full power and rule of the king and his court/heirs) of Jeroboam with the sword (chereb; note the play on words with chareb, above). In other words, the political structures are also in trouble. Everything in the Northern Kingdom is so out of kilter that it cannot last. It will fall...or, more accurately, be pushed and toppled. Ancient cities, like Samaria, depended on strong walls for defense. Jeroboam II and his court were responsible for the upkeep both of the walls and the religious structures. But here is this trouble-making southerner, pointing out the obvious based on his visions and auditions.

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Amos, who is a border-crossing rabble-rouser, quickly gets into trouble with the powers that be. He has crossed over (barely) from the Southern Kingdom of Judah into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and is openly criticizing King Jeroboam on his own turf (albeit close to the border; he's not in Samaria, the center of the king's power base). Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, who is Jeroboam's agent, tells the king what Amos is doing (i.e., qashar, hatching a conspiracy [a league or covenant bond] in the "middle [qereb] of the house [beth] of Israel." In other words Amos is, by his act of speaking out, performing the function of the plumb-bob that God has set in the middle of his people. The prophet is the plumb-bob. According to Amaziah, the weight of the prophet's words is also the very thing that will bring down the house. Amaziah concludes his letter to the king with a couple of choice quotes from Amos, words designed to ensure a swift, harsh verdict and imprisonment or death for the prophet.

Amaziah also addresses Amos directly, telling him to go back home to Judah and to leave the people of the Northern Kingdom alone. After all, Bethel is the king's sanctuary (miqdash) and royal palace (beth). Amaziah seems maybe a little jealous of Amos and protective of his own privilege (as a priest at Bethel). Amaziah also seems oblivious and completely unconcerned about the veracity of the vision Amos saw--and that, if Amos is correct, this temple and palace are so out of plumb that they are falling down.

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Amos responds to Amaziah's command to leave by denying that he is a religious professional. He isn't into prophecy for money or as a result of heredity. He has a different (perhaps lesser) livelihood, as well as a different home. The only reason Amos has transgressed the border is that YHWH "took me" (laqach) and "told me" to go and prophesy to YHWH's people, Israel. Amos counter's Amaziah's claim of legitimacy from the king with a claim of legitimacy from God. The encounter ends badly for Amaziah, with a personal word of judgment to accompany the national calamity that Amos has seen coming.

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Amos is the quintessential bad guest. He acts like a mother-in-law wiping her white glove over the furniture. He takes a carpenter's level, square, and rule with him everywhere, pointing out the places where the walls are not plumb and, the walls not perpendicular and the corners not square. What are we to do with such a guest? Drive him away? ...or take his advice?

Luke 10:25–37

We encounter a similar confrontation in Luke 10 between a lawyer and Jesus. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, but traveling through Samaria. The lawyer wants to test Jesus with a question about how to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds (as usual), not with an answer but with a question that turns the tables on the lawyer: "What do you think?" The lawyer answers well, using the plumb-line of Scripture: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (NRSV, Luke 10:27) Everyone, Jew and Samaritan, would agree that adherence to this commandment would build strong, tall, straight (plumb) walls. Jesus affirms the lawyer's answer: "Indeed, do this and you will live."

But the lawyer wasn't satisfied with the Scriptural plumb-bob. He wanted to "justify himself," to judge what's plumb and what's not plumb using himself as the standard. So he asked Jesus another question: "And who is my neighbor?" To which Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus holds the plumb-bob provided by a foreigner, a Samaritan's love, to redirect the lawyer's question: "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" (Luke 10:36, NRSV) Again, the lawyer answers well, "The one who showed him mercy." To this, Jesus responds, go and do likewise. Go and be a plumb-bob.

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We are given the opportunity, like Amos was and like the lawyer was, or like the priest and the Levite and the Samaritan were, to respond to this call of God to be a "plumb-bob" in a world of leaning walls and unsafe structures. God takes us from whatever occupation we have and whatever place we call home to speak the truth about what we see and to love and show mercy both near at home and far away.

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