Amos 5 – Dividing by Ten

Amos 5 Bible with Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint

Today’s ChocolateEndangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint

Today’s PassageAmos 5

Today, seeing as we’re studying a Jewish prophetic work from the eighth century BC, let’s talk about the Roman Empire.

Specifically, let’s start with the word “decimate.” It has come to mean “to destroy utterly,” but it is rooted in Roman military discipline for units committing capital crimes (such as mutiny). The Latin verb decimo refers to the practice of punishing these units by having every tenth man executed. But God has a more severe punishment in mind for Israel:

For thus says the Lord God,
“The city which goes forth a thousand strong
Will have a hundred left,
And the one which goes forth a hundred strong
Will have ten left to the house of Israel.” (3)

Roman-style decimation? This is nine times worse than that. Roman officers took a tenth from their disobedient units. God leaves a tenth. Centuries before the Roman Empire even existed, God was pioneering nonadecimation.

And while the remaining nine-tenths of a decimated Roman unit were conventionally put on barley rations, rather than wheat, as punishment for their offenses, remember Amos 4:6: “But I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities and lack of bread in all your places.” God is putting his people on no rations.

Some of you may be impressed that God is out-harshing the Romans. Others may have serious questions about the severity of his punishment. As I noted before, we do tend to keep the Can o’ Theodicy Worms open 24/7 around here, so to the serious questioners, I would make a few notes.

First, the people of Israel merit their punishment. They “impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them” (11). They “distress the righteous and accept bribes and turn aside the poor in the gate” (12). They observe religious rituals and customs insincerely with no love for God or their fellow man, provoking God to tell them, “I hate, I reject your festivals” (21). They rampantly exploit the vulnerable and economically weak, they punish good behavior and reward dishonesty, and they turn their backs on their Creator. There’s no shortage of evil here.

Second, even after they’ve earned their own guilt with their bad behavior, God gives them an out. He tells them: “Seek the Lord that you may live, or He will break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph” (6). Later, he reiterates, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you, just as you have said!” (14). God offers mercy to his people, a second chance to do the right thing. Who are the tenth who will survive the onslaught? I’d hazard a guess that they’re the ones who repent and turn away from committing injustice.

I know there are plenty more handfuls of worms in the Theodicy Can, but I want to move on. Something struck me from the passage where God is urging Israel to seek him. He says, “But do not resort to Bethel and do not come to Gilgal, nor cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal will certainly go into captivity and Bethel will come to trouble” (5). The people of Israel can’t expect their cities or their heritage to protect them from judgment. They can’t rely on their own identity as a nation, the strength of their territory. God’s got his hand on the “hot” knob of the punishment faucet, and it’s only because of his mercy that he hasn’t cranked it up yet. He’s the only one they can count on.

Some things were only true at a certain point in history. Decimation isn’t something you do to disobedient soldiers any more; it’s a simple act of destruction. But some things are just as true today as they were in the past. And today, it’s as important as ever to seek good rather than evil, to search out the one who controls the flow. Seek the Lord, and you’ll find life.

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