Amos 5:18-27 — The Temple In The Desert

This short piece comprises the first of two “הוֹי” (“Woe unto…”) sections which follow the kinah of 5:1-17, centering around a theme already initiated in 5:13-14, the nation’s mistaken premise that God remains a dependable ally, re-introduced in v18-20. This transitions into v21-25 which discuss ritual temple practice in a particularly interesting and nuanced way, following which v26-27 concludes with foretold consequences.

יוֹם יְהוָה

Amos 5:18-20:

יח הוֹי הַמִּתְאַוִּים, אֶת-יוֹם יְהוָה: לָמָּה-זֶּה לָכֶם יוֹם יְהוָה, הוּא-חֹשֶׁךְ וְלֹא-אוֹר. יט כַּאֲשֶׁר יָנוּס אִישׁ מִפְּנֵי הָאֲרִי, וּפְגָעוֹ הַדֹּב; וּבָא הַבַּיִת--וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל-הַקִּיר, וּנְשָׁכוֹ הַנָּחָשׁ. כ הֲלֹא-חֹשֶׁךְ יוֹם יְהוָה, וְלֹא-אוֹר; וְאָפֵל, וְלֹא-נֹגַהּ לוֹ

18 Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! Wherefore would ye have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light. 19 As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; and went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20 Shall not the day of the LORD be darkness, and not light? Even very dark, and no brightness in it?

The section opens with the language of “הוֹי”, “woe unto”, directed towards those among Amos’ corrupt audience who believe they still live in God’s grace, responding to the same misconception prevalent in the previous kinah. Here, the people desire the “יוֹם יְהוָה”, the standard prophetic term for the doomsday on which God will elevate his chosen and wreak destruction and retribution upon his enemies1. Amos’ audience believes that the יוֹם יְהוָה will save them from foreign threats, and this truly seems to be the case. However, the Northern Kingdom will only escape one threat to fall into another, as God will seek judgment against them as well. In v18 and v20, יוֹם יְהוָה is predicted to be a dark day for the North, and in v19 the Kingdom is compared to one who escapes the lion and the bear, meaning the foreign nations, to fall into a subsequent danger within the security of his own house at the bite of the snake.

In this manner the inescapable snake could be said to represent God. Alternatively, as the snake is known from Bereishit as a particularly cunning animal, the snake could potentially represent one or all of the many conspiratorial assassinations which destabilized the Northern Kingdom in its final years2. The latter would be particularly meaningful, as the snake here is said to strike from within the man’s own house, similar to the sequence of assassinations and political upheaval weakening the Kingdom from within. If the snake represents God, than the house would correspond to the fortified אַרְמְנוֹת (fortresses/palaces) of 3:10-11 and the rich houses of 3:15, which offer only illusions of safety against the will of God. Significantly, the man who falls prey to the snake in v19 is “סָמַךְ יָדוֹ” on the walls of his house, and while the simple reading of the term סָמַךְ here means to physically lean, the word’s alternative definition of “reliance” connotes this underlying prophetic message.

The negation of light and prevailing of darkness on יוֹם יְהוָה in v18 and v20 connect to similar imagery found in 5:8 and 4:13, within both Cosmological God pieces. As those pieces highlight the Creator aspect of God, and light and darkness are the original staples of creation, our section befittingly employs the imagery of prevailing darkness to illustrate the final doom of יוֹם יְהוָה.

The Temple in the Desert

Amos 5:21-25:

כא שָׂנֵאתִי מָאַסְתִּי, חַגֵּיכֶם; וְלֹא אָרִיחַ, בְּעַצְּרֹתֵיכֶם. כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט. כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע. כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. כה הַזְּבָחִים וּמִנְחָה הִגַּשְׁתֶּם-לִי בַמִּדְבָּר, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה--בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל.

21 I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Yea, though ye offer me burnt-offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. 23 Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. 24 But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. 25 Did ye bring unto Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?

The underlying cause of the nation’s misconception lies in their faithfully meticulous upkeep of ritual temple law, which they believe will ensure divine favor. v21-26 enumerate the divine rejection of ritual temple practice — including centralized holidays, karbanot, and music — opting instead for (shocker) tzedek u’mishpat, a theme we have been persistently discussing. This brings us to v24, wherein God sarcastically asks if there were karbanot during the forty years in the desert, implying the optimal non-ritualistic purity of the wilderness experience, as in 2:10. The implication is not that the wilderness lacked sacrifices per say, as we know very well that sacrifices were regularly brought in the mishkan, but that those sacrifices were accepted due to the correct context and circumstances of their offering — factors which cause the same sacrifices to be rejected here. The verse distinguishes between the established service in a permanent temple from the nomadic mishkan, that the heightened ceremony and ostentation of the Northern Kingdom’s ritual centers within the context of an oppressively corrupt society creates a hypocrisy not found by the simple and pure mishkan.

v23 illustrates tzedek and mishpat flowing like water, leading into the desert reference of v24. The juxtaposition of this imagery might imply that righteous behavior can add the vital water to the desert of sheer ritual practice. Despite the fact that — within the context of the piece — the wilderness ritual serves as the preferable option relative to Northern ritual, the waters of genuinely righteous behavior remain as vital as hydration in a desert, even the preferable desert. The idea is reminiscent of at least one desert episode from the Torah:

Shemot 15:22-26:

כב וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף, וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל-מִדְבַּר-שׁוּר; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת-יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא-מָצְאוּ מָיִם. כג וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה--וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה, כִּי מָרִים הֵם; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמָהּ, מָרָה. כד וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה. כה וַיִּצְעַק אֶל-יְהוָה, וַיּוֹרֵהוּ יְהוָה עֵץ, וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל-הַמַּיִם, וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם; שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ. כו וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְוֹתָיו, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל-חֻקָּיו--כָּל-הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם, לֹא-אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, רֹפְאֶךָ.

22 And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. 23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. 24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying: 'What shall we drink?' 25 And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them; 26 and He said: 'If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His eyes, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD that healeth thee.'

Following Yam Suf the nation comes to Marah, where the bitter waters are made sweet and drinkable. After the nation is divinely sustained with water, the conditionality of this continued sustenance is established, dependent on the nation acting properly. Our section seems to be picking up on this idea, equating life-giving water with the correct behavior on which its delivery depends3.

Idolatry and FedEx

Amos 5:26-27:

כו וּנְשָׂאתֶם, אֵת סִכּוּת מַלְכְּכֶם, וְאֵת, כִּיּוּן צַלְמֵיכֶם--כּוֹכַב, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם, לָכֶם. כז וְהִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם, מֵהָלְאָה לְדַמָּשֶׂק: אָמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי-צְבָאוֹת, שְׁמו

26 So shall ye take up Siccuth your king and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves. 27 Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith He, whose name is the LORD God of hosts.

The climax of the section in v26 harshly equates the ritual practice under discussion with the worship of other gods. Despite the meticulous upholding of technically correct ritual law, its hypocritical nature aligns it with idolatry, an idea we have discussed before. Alternatively, the nation is actually worshipping other powers, in this case certain constellations, along with God. This latter option finds evidence in the verse’s opening, which, read along with v27, depicts the nation physically carrying their idols into a future exile. The imagery is thematically relevant when read in light of a similar section found in Yeshaya 46:1-7.

Yeshaya 46:1-7 :

א כָּרַע בֵּל, קֹרֵס נְבוֹ--הָיוּ עֲצַבֵּיהֶם, לַחַיָּה וְלַבְּהֵמָה; נְשֻׂאֹתֵיכֶם עֲמוּסוֹת, מַשָּׂא לַעֲיֵפָה. ב קָרְסוּ כָרְעוּ יַחְדָּו, לֹא יָכְלוּ מַלֵּט מַשָּׂא; וְנַפְשָׁם, בַּשְּׁבִי הָלָכָה. ג שִׁמְעוּ אֵלַי בֵּית יַעֲקֹב, וְכָל-שְׁאֵרִית בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל--הַעֲמֻסִים, מִנִּי-בֶטֶן, הַנְּשֻׂאִים, מִנִּי-רָחַם. ד וְעַד-זִקְנָה אֲנִי הוּא, וְעַד-שֵׂיבָה אֲנִי אֶסְבֹּל; אֲנִי עָשִׂיתִי וַאֲנִי אֶשָּׂא, וַאֲנִי אֶסְבֹּל וַאֲמַלֵּט. {ס} ה לְמִי תְדַמְּיוּנִי, וְתַשְׁווּ; וְתַמְשִׁלוּנִי, וְנִדְמֶה. ו הַזָּלִים זָהָב מִכִּיס, וְכֶסֶף בַּקָּנֶה יִשְׁקֹלוּ; יִשְׂכְּרוּ צוֹרֵף וְיַעֲשֵׂהוּ אֵל, יִסְגְּדוּ אַף-יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ. ז יִשָּׂאֻהוּ עַל-כָּתֵף יִסְבְּלֻהוּ וְיַנִּיחֻהוּ תַחְתָּיו, וְיַעֲמֹד--מִמְּקוֹמוֹ, לֹא יָמִישׁ; אַף-יִצְעַק אֵלָיו וְלֹא יַעֲנֶה, מִצָּרָתוֹ לֹא יוֹשִׁיעֶנּוּ.

1 Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth; their idols are upon the beasts, and upon the cattle; the things that ye carried about are made a load, a burden to the weary beast. 2 They stoop, they bow down together, they could not deliver the burden; and themselves are gone into captivity. 3 Hearken unto Me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, that are borne [by Me] from the birth, that are carried from the womb: 4 Even to old age I am the same, and even to hoar hairs will I carry you; I have made, and I will bear; yea, I will carry, and will deliver. {S} 5 To whom will ye liken Me, and make Me equal, and compare Me, that we may be like? 6 Ye that lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance; ye that hire a goldsmith, that he make it a god, to fall down thereto, yea, to worship. 7 He is borne upon the shoulder, he is carried, and set in his place, and he standeth, from his place he doth not remove; yea, though one cry unto him, he cannot answer, nor save him out of his trouble.

This excerpt is part of a broader prophetic mocking of artificial idols and their worshippers, who employ an absurd double-think to worship that which they themselves have created. The excerpt states that while the true living God carries His nation, lifeless Babylonian idols cast into exile (following the conquests of Koresh [Cyrus]) need to be carried by their worshippers. This imagery is present in our section, where the Northern Kingdom will carry their artificial idols into exile, with similar sardonic connotations.

Author’s Note

Our series has returned with the spectacle and fanfare which usually warrants prophetic critique. I know that, like a supernatural oasis, this series provides a vital life-granting resource for those traversing the wilderness of prophetic analysis. This return, coinciding with the conclusion of winter break, a particularly revelatory and clairvoyant time, shall revitalize our mission as we approach what nears the conclusion of our first level of study. The whole team here apologizes for this post’s noticeable dearth of charts, but stick with it, because after another Woe section we are treated to some fun prophetic visions, with a brief and iconic confrontational narrative as a bonus.

1. See Yeshaya 2:12, 13:6, Yoel 3:4, etc.

2. See the Introduction to this series.

3. This conditionality continues from the desert into the settlement of the land in Devarim 11:13-17, the second paragraph of Shema.

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