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There is dual conflict here: God and Israel; prophet and priest. God and the prophet both win. In literary study, generations pore over the significance of symbolism. Shake-speare may be thought to be transparent; his symbolism is deep. T. S. Eliot may often be opaque; his symbolism too is deep. When it came to symbolism, the ancient Israelites were no slouches either.

The oracles of Amos 1–2 were clear: like its neighbours, northern Israel had been found guilty of wrongdoing and sentenced (=‘for three transgressions … and for four’), Israel’s appeal had been denied (=‘I will not revoke the punishment’), as a consequence northern Israel will be destroyed (=‘flight shall perish from the swift’). The symbols of Amos 7–9 spell out the same message.

In Amos 7–9, the symbols are in the visions. The first two are transparently benign. The second two are opaque and their interpretation malign. The less said about the fifth the better; more than symbolic, it is gruesome.

The first two visions that Amos reports God showed him are transparent: locusts and drought mean starvation and death. Amos appeals: ‘LORD God, don’t!’ The appeal succeeds; God says: ‘It shall not be’. The third and fourth visions are opaque: a plumb line and a basket of summer fruit. Both builders and wreckers use plumb lines and the basket of summer fruit is uncertain but hopeful. Until Amos knows what the visions symbolise, appeal is out of the question. So Amos is mute. God asks what Amos sees. Amos answers. God interprets the symbol seen; it is malign. The plumb line is for destruction; the basket of fruit echoes the end (a pun in Hebrew). God has shown it, but opaquely. The prophet has named it. God has interpreted it. Appeal does not happen.

In the fifth vision, the shattered temple (of Bethel) and the slaughtered people symbolise the destruction and the end.

If those hearing this appalling sequence want to know why such a fate was in store for them, those putting the collection together threw in a few of Amos’ oracles that make the point. They are at the end of chapter 8, in 8:4-14. First the causes (vv. 4-6); then the consequences (vv. 7-14). The causes can be summed up as injustice: trampling on the needy, bringing ruin to the poor, putting greed before God, practising deceit, and exploiting the poor and needy. A society that is rotten collapses. It did in the time of the prophets; it does now.

At the end of chapter 7, there is an anecdote. It comes between the third and fourth vision, probably because it is associated with Amos’ proclamation of God’s word against northern Israel and its king (the high places of Isaac, the sanctuaries of Israel, the house of Jeroboam). Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, a royal sanctuary, sends a message to the king telling him what Amos has been saying and the trouble such prophetic words have been causing.

Without waiting for instructions from the king, the text has the priest (Amaziah) give Amos orders to move on; he has no licence to prophesy at Bethel where the king’s authority holds sway. Poor Amaziah, it was a mistake; he was going one-on-one against God. Amos spells out the opposition clearly. You, Amaziah, say: ‘Never again prophesy at Bethel’. God said: ‘Go, prophesy to my people’.

Not a good position to be in; a little like lying down in front of the unstoppable. The consequences that Amos predicts for Amaziah and his family (wife, sons and daughters, land, himself) form probably the harshest indictment of an individual in the Bible. Authorities beware!