Opening The Old Testament
A Famine of the Word? Reflections on Amos 8:1-12
But why? What has Israel done? Verse 8:4 provides part of the answer. The description of the problem is grimly comic. "Listen, you that stomp on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, while saying, 'When will the new moon celebration be over, so that we can get back to selling grain again; when will the Sabbath finally end so that we can offer wheat for sale? (Now one sees them rubbing their hands and chortling low in their throats as they say), 'We will make the ephah small and the shekel large and practice our evil trade with false scales, buying thereby the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling the trashy parts of the wheat" (Amos 8:4-6). What monstrous characters these are! How dastardly their practices! They sit in the back of the sanctuary, whispering about cheating their customers and taking advantage of the poor, which they intend to do today if only these long-winded priests would just shut up! They have not heard YHWH paint the terrible scene of 8:3 where bodies pile up and silence finally envelopes the land.
But YHWH thunders on. "Surely I will never forget any of their acts!" But the problem is not theirs alone; foul deceit and chicanery affects all. "Shall not the land tremble because of this, and shall not everyone mourn who is in it. Shall not all of it rise up like the Nile, be tossed about, then sink like the Nile of Egypt?" (Amos 8:7-8) YHWH simply will not have behaviors like our business people at prayer, and instead of the blessings of YHWH on our rich offerings, what we will receive is a day "when the sun sets at noon, darkening the earth in broad daylight, feasts will become funeral events where joyous song turns to laments and fine suits and dresses will be ripped off, replaced by sackcloth. Finely dressed hair will be torn out until all are bald! The wailing will sound very like the despair over the death of an only son, a day that may only be seen as bitter beyond expressing" (Amos 8:9-10).
Israel's oppression of, lack of interest in, and thorough avoidance of the poor and needy among them will lead to their own terrible demise. Instead of abundant fruit there will be famine; instead of happy song, the darkest lament; instead of a bright future of riches and ease, lives given over to emptiness. But it turns out that material loss is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Loss of fruit is not the worst calamity. Have a listen to this. "The time is surely coming, says YHWH God, when I will send a famine on the land; but not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of YHWH. They shall wander from sea to sea, from north to east, to and fro, seeking a word from YHWH, but they shall not find it" (Amos 8:11-12).
The very worst evil that can befall us is no longer to hear a word from YHWH. What? Surely, we parade into our churches and hear a word from YHWH each week, do we not? In the churches I attend, and on occasion preach in, we read the Bible and upon finishing the reading intone in chorus, "This is the Word of God" and "thanks be to God." And the preacher then does her best to elucidate, expound, and illuminate that word for her people. Surely that is the word of YHWH, is it not? Well, is it? According to Amos, while the poor are bedeviled and rejected and forgotten, while the needy are shoved aside in favor of the rich, no amount of reading and preaching and singing and praying can ever lead us into the presence of God. These claims haunt me each week as I sing and pray and read and preach and turn my eyes away from those who walk near our church. God help me to avoid, or even participate in, the famine of the Word! God help me to see the people God calls me to see.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.