Amos’ Basket of Summer Fruit
“This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit” (Amos 8:1 NRSV).
A couple summers ago we took a family vacation to the Indiana Dunes. We had a great time playing on the beach and climbing dune mountains at the local state park, while also hiking trails and observing bird life at the national lakeshore (which was recently upgraded to our nation’s newest national park). On our last morning in the area, we visited a local blueberry farm. As with any activity involving small children, blueberry picking quickly evolved into a drama-filled adventure. Our youngest had a five alarm temper tantrum because the farm’s cat ran off before she could pet it, but we still managed to come away with quite a haul of blueberries without losing any children in the maze of bushes. The blueberries were amazing, some of the best we have ever had. We ate as many as we could over the next several days (and also gave some to my sister’s family). See, the one problem with a basket of summer fruit is just how quickly it becomes overly ripe and moldy. Anyone who has gone strawberry picking or bought a box of peaches from a truck knows that ripe summer fruit only lasts so long. If you don’t freeze it, share it with others, or use it in a recipe, it can quickly go to waste. So when the prophet Amos sees a vision of a basket of summer fruit as a metaphor for God’s chosen people, I can’t help but connect my personal experience of fruit going bad with the biblical text.
There are few culinary pleasures that can match the enjoyment of ripe fruit. Even a savvy grocery store shopper can be hit-or-miss when it comes to buying fruit. For me, cantaloupe is one of the hardest. More often than not, I pick one that is not quite ripe enough so the taste is bland and unappealing. But a really ripe cantaloupe? What an explosion of sweetness on the tongue! Herein lies the problem, though. In a few more days, that same cantaloupe will make its way to our compost bin. The shelf life of ripe fruit is so limited.
Is this what God is trying to say to Amos? Is God saying that his people, in spite of their appearance of prosperity and fruitfulness, are close to going bad? Reading the whole book of Amos, that feels like an appropriate interpretation of the vision. Yet, the text itself does not necessarily explain the visual metaphor. However we decode the vision, God is clearly creating a wordplay in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for summer fruit (qayits) sounds quite similar to the word for end (qets). God makes this wordplay clear when he says, “The end has come upon my people Israel” (Amos 8:2). Like overly-ripe, rotten fruit, God’s people have reached the end of their goodness and must be thrown out.
How Did God’s People Go Bad?
Amos does not merely condemn the people of Israel without justification. Throughout the book, he explains why the people have reached their end. Interestingly, the book opens with words of judgment on the surrounding pagan nations (Amos 1:2-2:3). Their sins are a combination of cruel violence, military expansion, war crimes, and enslavement of conquered peoples. Then in Amos 2:4, the prophet shifts his focus to Judah and Israel. The sins he names are, in general, different than the sins of the nations. God’s people are held to a different standard because they know God’s laws and have experienced God’s covenant faithfulness. The sins of God’s people are injustice, exploitation of the weak, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality, idolatry, and luxurious indulgent living (Amos 2:4-11). While the nations have violated the natural order through their inhumane actions, God’s people have violated God’s divinely revealed order with its special concern for equity and justice amongst all people.
In particular, Amos spends much of his time pointing out the gross exploitation of the weak that fuels the luxurious living of the rich and powerful. For example, Amos 5:11 states, “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.” Here the connection between injustice and prosperity is made clear. For Amos, this is a direct affront to the righteousness of God.
In the next chapter, Amos issues a series of harsh words to those who enjoy a comfortable and prosperous lifestyle:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:4-7)
It is important to understand these words in the context of Amos’ whole message. The luxuries themselves are not somehow inherently sinful or immoral. However, luxuries are often acquired at the expense of another. This is the true sin in God’s eyes–one portion of God’s people enjoy a high quality of life while simultaneously reducing another portion of God’s people to abject poverty and slavery (Amos 2:6-8).
The Purpose of Prophecy: That You Would Return to Me
In order to disturb the Israelites in their comfort, God sends both prophet and a series of ecological/economic troubles–famine, drought, blight, locusts, and pestilence (Amos 4:6-10). These disasters are meant to disrupt the prosperity of the people so that, awakened from their stupor of luxury, they might seek God. In each case, though, God says, “Yet you did not return to me, says the Lord” (Amos 4:10).
In each of the biblical prophets, God’s first desire is that God’s people would repent of their sins and be restored to God (see Isa 1:16-20 for example). Yet, there comes a point when the people reach their end. Like a bowl of strawberries left on the counter for a few days, they have become totally rotten in their selfishness, greed, and injustice. At that point, there is no longer much hope for redemption. The old must be thrown out so that God can begin something new.