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“The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” – Amos 8:11
Full Pockets and Empty Hearts
When considering the wonder of the world and the bounty of nature, we can all be grateful for fruit. We love familiar fruits such as strawberries and pears, blue-berries and grapes, apples and bananas, oranges and raspberries, cherries and figs. We enjoy tropical fruits such as mangos, papayas, and pineapples. Given the chance, we might learn as well to appreciate more exotic fruits such as the rambutan, mangosteen, and dragonfruit of Southeast Asia.
Fruits come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, colors and tastes. We enjoy fruit most when it is perfectly ripe, but we also know that even the most delicious fruit can quickly go from ripe to rotten. Limp bananas, moldy strawberries, and mushy apples are more likely to be candidates for the mulch pile or garbage bin than the snack bowl or dinner table.
In a prophet’s eyes, ripe fruit can be more than a tasty treat. For Amos, a basket of fruit became a powerful metaphor.
Ripe fruit(vv. 1-3)
Amos was a visionary – not in the manner favored by leadership gurus – but in the sense of one who sees divinely inspired visions. The previous chapter described visions of locusts, fire, and a plumb line that marked Israel’s failure to remain true. Chapter 8 describes yet another vision: a basket of summer fruit.
The book of Amos was not written with great artistry, but its straight-forward nature has a power of its own. “This is what the Lord GOD showed me,” Amos said, “a basket of summer fruit.” When God asked Amos what he saw, he replied “a basket of summer fruit” (vv. 1-2a).
The repetitive dialogue may not be scintillating, but it does include an intriguing play on words. God pronounced: “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by” (v. 2b). The word translated as “summer fruit” is qāyits, which basically means “summer,” and by extension crops that ripen in the summer. In Amos’ day, those would have included grapes, figs, and olives. The word that describes Israel’s coming “end” is the similar-sounding qēts (pronounced qayts). Israel had produced its fruit (qāyits), and would soon meet its end (qēts). The fruit was ripe, so the time was ripe for judgment.
Note the similarity to the previous vision, in which Amos had seen a vision of God holding a plumb line against the people, declaring “I will never again pass them by …” (7:8). In today’s text, God showed Amos a basket of ripe fruit and proclaimed “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”
The image recalls the Passover story from the Exodus, when God instructed the Israelites to slaughter a lamb at twilight on a certain day, daubing blood from the lamb on the doorposts of their homes before eating the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. When God struck down the firstborn throughout the land that night, Hebrew homes bearing the mark of blood were passed over (Exodus 11-12). Now, however, God declared “I will never again pass them by.”
Instead of redemption, the people would face judgment, beginning at their places of worship: “the songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” God said: “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place.” The sentence concludes with a single, surprising word: “Hush!” (v. 3).
Judgment was coming, but why?
Rotten people(vv. 4-6)
Having revealed four devastating visions, Amos paused to explain God’s motivation. The people were ripe for judgment because their lives had become rotten, with the nation’s greed-enhanced economic disparity standing at the top of the list. As one example, the prophet pointed to conniving merchants who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (v. 4). They scrupulously observed religious festivals and Sabbath days, but saw them less as opportunities for worship than as obstacles delaying their ability to open their shops and take advantage of the poor.
Unethical merchants could use various stratagems for cheating their customers (vv. 5-6). They could “make the ephah small” by using containers that held less than the standard measurement of about three-fifths of a bushel. They could also “make the shekel great” by using weights that were heavier than they appeared as a way of overcharging customers when weighing their payment.
A third strategy for cheating customers was to simply rig the scales so that they weighed in the merchant’s favor, and a fourth method was to mix low quality grain or trash (“the sweepings of the wheat”) with what the customer received.
When impoverished people ran out of money and credit, they could be forced to surrender their land, or even sell themselves or their children into slavery to ward off starvation. Amos spoke of merchants who brokered such arrangements, “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
Israel’s covenant called for the Hebrews to extend special care to widows, orphans, and immigrants. They were to leave grain in the fields for them to glean (Lev. 19:10). If neighbors or relatives ran into financial difficulty, the Hebrews were to come to their aid and prevent their land from being lost (Lev. 25:25-53). They were not to be “hard-hearted or tight-fisted” with their neighbors, but open-handed and generous (Deut. 15:7-11).
But was this happening? No. Can you conceive of people so crooked that they would cheat their own neighbors into the depths of poverty, take their land in lieu of debts, and then sell them as indentured servants or slaves? Is it any wonder that judgment was due?
Coming judgment(vv. 7-14)
With v. 7, Amos launched into a litany of woes that God had sworn to bring against such disappointing people. The list begins with upheavals on a cosmic scale, eschatological judgments reminiscent of other prophetic works.
A day would come, Amos said, when the land would “tremble on this account,” suggesting an earthquake that would cause the land to heave up and down like the waters of the Nile, which famously rose and fell with the seasons (vv. 7-8).
On that day, Amos declared in God’s behalf, “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight” (v. 9). A total eclipse would not damage the land, but could cause considerable fear among people who believed the world had come to an end – and for many, their world would end when judgment came. Feasts normally given to celebration would be turned into mourning as bitter as that for the loss of an only child.
As troublesome as those woes may sound, Amos saw an even worse thing coming. There would be a famine, he said, not caused by the lack of food or water, “but of hearing the words of the LORD” (v. 11). This suggests that God would abandon the people in such a way that they would feel God’s absence viscerally and wander the world over in search of the prophetic word that indicated God’s presence, but would not find it (v. 12).
Why would God turn away from the very people chosen to live in covenant relationship? Because they had already abandoned God. We gather this from Amos’ charge in v. 13 that even beautiful young women and young men – those who were most physically fit – would faint from thirst. Like other Israelites, they were among those “who swear by Ashimah of Samaria, and say ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’ and ‘As the way of Beer-sheba lives.’” Here Amos probably has in mind a literal as well as a figurative famine. Such people would faint and fall, never to rise again (v. 14).
The problem reflected in v. 14 is that the people were swearing oaths by deities other than Yahweh. Ancient oaths typically consisted of a promise reinforced by an appeal to a god who might punish one’s failure to keep the oath. Swearing by Yahweh was acceptable, but the Hebrews had begun swearing by entities associated with Samaria, Dan, and Ber-sheba that they presumed to be divine.
Though we are guided by many of the same principles and worship the same God, followers of Christ do not live under the same covenant as did the Israelites of old. The church exists in a new covenant through Christ, a body of believers scattered throughout the world rather than identified with a single nation. We do have modern doomsday prophets who think of America as a new Israel and claim to connect every natural disaster with national sin, but we have no reason to expect the same sort of judgment that Amos predicted.
What, then, might the passage say to us? Even more so than Israel, Christian believers are called to practice justice, to care for their neighbors, to love others as Christ loved us. Yet, we live in a nation as economically divided as ancient Israel. We may not have the wherewithal to change the system, but Amos would challenge us to practice justice in our own business dealings and personal relationships. We can work to see that all people are treated fairly rather than being shut out of an economic system that is rigged against them.
Each of us must answer for our own actions. What will the answer be? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for July 17, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Amos 8:1-12
We all want our children to be better and to do better than we have. But, at what price are we willing to go to so that our children will be and do better than we have? What corners will we cut? Who will we look over? Maybe the better change our question: how can we help our children become the people that God has called them to be. Praise them for who they are. Challenge them to live into the lives they have been called to live. Help them when they begin to stray. If we help our children live into the life they have been called to live, they will be better because they will have lived their life for Christ.
Teaching Resources |Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“It’s All About Color” from Freedom Writers
Read Scripture online: Amos 8:1-12