A "woe" oracle, with the accused and their actions described by a string of participles (vv.1, 3-6) and a judgment introduced by laken "therefore" (v.7).
The final line of verse 1 can be rendered in several ways it reads something like:
"they come to them the house of Israel"
The traditional understanding takes this to mean that the first "they" refers to the "house of Israel" and translates: "the house of Israel comes to them".
Andersen & Freedman (550-551) have argued convincingly for understanding "house of Israel" here as a reference to the "royal sanctuary" (cf. 7:10 & 13) of Bethel to which "they" come. That is one of the two groups mentioned the "comfortable" from Zion come to the Israel's temple at Bethel to meet with the others, the "secure" of Samaria.
The last line of v.2 is also problematic. It reads: "is their territory greater than yours?" However, until recently, a majority of scholars and translators have reversed the comparison asking "is your territory greater than theirs?" Since the whole point is that they are comparable emendation is not necessary, even though it reverses the sense of the previous question. (The emended version expects the answer "no", while the only honest answer to the question as phrased in the text is "yes".
The ease and arrogance of the elite of Judah is summed up by one ambivalent word: "comfortable".
For they and their colleagues in Samaria are "secure". At least for the privileged few life is easy, while ordinary folk have difficulty repaying the loans incurred during the last drought and slavery is a permanent possibility.
These "notables" from the twin kingdoms are happy to claim that Israel is "first of nations"!
In relatively few words the prophet pictures the elite in ways that imply but do not speak of the gap between them and the poor. They have met in Bethel, for a feast (v.7) probably to cement an alliance.
They are invited, verse 2, to journey to the kingdoms around ("cross over", "go", "go down") and to compare their might with Israel's. Calneh and Hamath, were Aramean states north of Israel, and Philistine Gath, bordered Judah to the West.
Amos implies that neither singly nor in alliance are such states any match for imperial powers. No more is Israel!
(The rhetoric of this verse implies that these cities have recently fallen, either to Jeroboam II or to the Assyrians. However, Calneh seems to have been the first to fall in 738bce, with Gath and Hamath falling to Sargon II a decade or so later. Many scholars interested in the history of the biblical text therefore conclude that this verse has been reworked in some way in the process of recounting Amos preaching.)
The notables of Judah and Israel have met at Bethel, by collaborating they seek to push away the "evil day", only to bring near the "reign of violence".
The expression יוֹם רָע "evil day" is unique to Amos though the plural "bad times" is found in Ps 49:5 (v.6 in Hebrew) and 94:13. The opposite of יוֹם רָע is יוֹם טוֹב"good day", in 1 Sam 25:8 and in Esther (8:17; 9:19, 22) it refers to a feast or festival. this echo adds a nice touch of extra irony to Amos' words.
The feast these notables attend is now described, in terms that gradually (and subtly) build up an image of decadence:
v.5 is not easy to translate, however the reference is evidently to the music that accompanies their feasting. The reference to inventing new musical instruments suggests how far their desire for more and better takes them. Such consumption of novelty is not unknown to the contemporary world elites (neither to the local elites of the two-thirds world, nor to the larger Western "elite").
The scorn poured on their drinking wine from bowls is probably not so much concerned with the quantity, as with the use of vessels otherwise associated with worship - mizrachim are always temple vessels in the Bible. Though, concerning the quantities involved, notice the picture of a mizrach from Tekoa, right, which is about 30cms diameter (from Clifford).
They also use for themselves the finest oils, contrary to religious claims that the best produce should be offered to God. The word rendered "finest" is that used in v.1 to describe Israel as the "first" of nations neatly rounding off the description of those to be accused.
For this catalog of luxury is not itself the accusation - that follows - for despite all this they are not troubled by the ruin of Joseph. As Jeremias (95-96) rightly points out, using "Joseph" for the northern kingdom avoids the word "Israel". It may suggest the hill-country rump left after the Syro-Ephraimite war in 733BCE however this not a necessary conclusion, in the context of v.1, and the dream of a united kingdoms of Israel which these leaders are meeting to sustain, the reference to "Joseph" simply draws attention to their disunity.
In any case the echo of 5:15 is powerful. We have moved in the course of a chapter:
These notables of the "first of nations" (v.1) who used "first quality oils" (v.6) are now to be "first of the exiles".
The last line of this paragraph is scathing, even at their most important "feast" they "sprawl" but this will "end".
Mirzach ("feasting") were organized associations holding feasts, attested widely throughout the Semitic world from the 14th Century BCE to the 6th Century AD. Feasting lasted for days, with a "president" appointed to supervise the proceedings. Although drinking and eating were the most remarked upon activities, these were religious occasions. Membership was exclusive, with the local elite invited.(Jeremias, 110-112)
In view of the reference to the leaders of both Israel and Judah in v.1 we may suspect that this mirzach functioned to cement an alliance between the twin kingdoms.
This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.