Spiritual Policy: The Emergence Of Prophetism, Elisha and Amos
THE ASSYRIAN INVASION AND THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEN TRIBES OF ISRAEL (885-721)
The Prophet Elisha; chosen successor of EliYah
EliYah was coming to the end of his career. While returning from his mysterious journey to Sinai he crossed the region of Bashan in the valley of the Yarden (Jordan), and there, on a large farm he observed a young man named Elisha who was ploughing a large field. EliYah threw his goatskin cloak over Elisha's shoulders; by this ritual gesture the old prophet was showing that he had chosen his successor. At once Elisha left his plough and followed in EliYah's footsteps, hanging on his words when he preached (1 Melechim 19:19-21).
A few years after this scene and under the very eyes of his disciple, EliYah was to be miraculously taken up to heaven; according to popular tradition, this took place in a fiery chariot, drawn by horses of fire in the midst of a whirlwind. Henceforward, the defense of Yahwism was laid on the shoulders of Elisha.
The story of the new prophet is still, of course, in the epic form. Here again the writer takes pleasure in relating marvelous deeds. Some of the episodes are a repetition of the marvels previously related of EliYah. It was thought right and proper to show the listener to the poem, and, later on, the reader of the chronicle that the new envoy was the genuine heir to the great prophet EliYah.
In spite of all this Elisha appears to us as a very different figure from that of his master. Elisha's ministry was usually in urban centres. While preserving his independence he remained in close contact with the few bodies of Yahwist prophets who had survived Jezebel's persecutions and who still existed in certain highly venerated spiritual centres, Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho.
Jehu, chosen by YAHWEH, strikes down the family of Ahab
An original side to the new prophet was his eminently political role. The dynasty of the Omrides, far too ready to allow the Phoenician gods to be worshipped in Yisrael, could no longer be tolerated on the throne of Samaria. So Elisha took action. He sent one of the 'sons of the prophets' to Jehu, one of the great leaders of the royal army; Elisha's disciple poured oil over his head, declared that he was chosen by YAHWEH and invested him with supreme power. He then ordered him to go and strike down the family of Ahab..., in order to avenge the blood of the prophets and of all the servants of YAHWEH on Jezebel and the whole family of Ahab (see section 4 Assyrian invasion).
Jehu did not need telling twice; he at once set off with all speed for Jezreel where the king was. A terrible massacre then took place. Jehoram and his mother Jezebel were mercilessly butchered. Ahaziah, king of Yahudah, was visiting his relation just then 1; he too was killed. Next, at Samaria, the seventy sons or grandsons of Ahab were put to the sword. Jehu finally rounded off his wholesale massacre by the systematic killing of all the upholders of the dead king and also of several of the kohens of Molech.
There is no doubt that it was the survival of Yahwism that was at stake. But the methods used for this purpose appear to us to be exceedingly hasty and of inexcusable barbarity. The men who carried out the unpleasant task were uncouth and primitive; it was hardly surprising, therefore, that their bloodthirsty character was condemned by the prophet Hosea (740-720) who a century later was to herald the coming of YAHWEH of Love.
EliYah and Elisha both belong to the same epic story. But the two prophets should not be regarded as equals. EliYah remains the unrivalled figure dominating the whole of prophetism.
After their death an interesting change occurred. EliYah and Elisha, who left no written works behind them, are known to us, as a matter of fact, only through an oral tradition which has embellished the fundamental theme. But after these accounts, whose uncertain and imaginative nature is sometimes to be regretted, there came the long and brilliant line of 'writer prophets' who left us a literary work which was composed by them or their disciples. And their actions occurred within a political context which endows them with undeniable authenticity. With Amos and Hosea, to begin with, we are on the firmest of ground.
1 Ahaziah of Yahudah married Athaliah. Jezebel's daughter and Jehoram of Yisrael's sister. Thus Ahaziah and Jehoram were brothers-in-Law.
The Prophet Amos with language rich in powerful and vivid images (About 750)
About fifty years after the death of Elisha a strange figure appeared in the land of Yisrael. This was Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa (in Yahudah), a small village some six miles south of Bethlehem. In the spring it was his habit to go down to the plain where he was employed in tapping sycamores (Am. 7:14). He tells us the astonishing way in which YAHWEH took him from herding the flock and ordered him, 'Go, prophesy to my people of Yisrael' (Am. 7:15).
It was the time of Jeroboam II (783-743). Then, as has been mentioned, the kingdom of Yisrael experienced a period of great prosperity. The country grew in power and wealth. On the other hand, imposing ceremonies took place at the national tabernacle at Bethel. All seemed prosperous and full of hope for the future, but this was only a fine facade concealing numerous shortcomings. Actually, the great fortunes were in the hands of a single class -the royal officials and military leaders, the great landowners, merchants and moneylenders. The poorer classes were exploited without mercy. The Yahwist religion also was in the hands of a ke hunnah-(priesthood) whose only concern was the strict observance of the sacrificial ritual. Thus the Judaean shepherd Amos had a twofold objective in view: he had to oppose both social oppression and the errors which had crept into Yahwism.
Amos, who was a real peasant from the wilderness, went to Bethel, the tabernacle of Yisrael (later, perhaps, he went to Samaria). His language was rich in powerful and vivid images as he inveighed against those in power who, in the hardness of their hearts, reduced the poor to slavery. He blamed the judges because they have sold the virtuous man for silver and the poor man for a pair of sandals. He denounced the mercilessness of the money lenders who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor of the country by shameful speculation and falsification of measures. But what particularly enraged Amos was the insolent luxury of the aristocracy: while the peasants and the craftsmen were literally starving fine houses were built of dressed stone (Am. 5:11) in which there were finely-cooked meals and perfumes in profusion and orchestras to entertain the guests:
They bawl to the sound of the harp.
and use the finest oil for anointing themselves.
But about the poverty of the people they do not care at all (Am. 6:4-6).
It would be wrong to look on Amos as a revolutionary leading the poor to pillage the fine houses. He merely desired that in the name of YAHWEH Yisrael should give up its luxurious way of life and return once more to those ideals of justice befitting a worshipper of the true YAHWEH.
He spoke with equal vigour against the kohens. He blamed them for their formalism. He inveighed against those ceremonies in which the heart was not lifted up to YAHWEH. By the mouth of his prophet Amos YAHWEH thundered against the entirely external form of worship that was offered to him:
I hate and despise your feasts
I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals.
I reject your oblations
and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle.
Let me have no more of the din of your chanting,
no more of your strumming on harps.
But let justice flow like water
and integrity like an unfailing stream.
(Am. 5: 21-24)
Here again we must be careful not to see in Amos a declared opponent of organized religion. Although we can detect in him a certain lack of charity, it is true nonetheless that he was a harsh critic of the way in which worship was organized in his day. He called for the urgent reform of spiritual practices, only too often assimilated by the kohens to magic ceremonies which they thought worked automatically. The kohens themselves believed that when beasts were sacrificed to YAHWEH he was bound to protect his people and to bestow his favours upon them. Yisrael had lost sight of the moral character of the Covenant of Sinai and of the fact that YAHWEH required, before all else, the practice of justice.
Amos proclaimed to the sons of Yacob that, despite their erring ways, they were not to think that YAHWEH would protect them because they belonged to the Chosen People. YAHWEH was to show himself more exacting towards them because he had chosen them from 'among all peoples'.
'You alone, of all the families of earth, have I acknowledged therefore it is for all your sins that I mean to punish you.' (Am. 3:2)
And punishment was on its way. While the wealthy classes in the kingdom of Yisrael went on their thoughtless way Amos foretold, though without actually giving it a name, the Assyrian invasion. Even then the Assyrians were making ready to engulf the country and carry out their terrible deportations of the inhabitants:
'Listen to this word, you cows of Bashan
living in the mountains of Samaria
oppressing the needy, crushing the poor
saying to your husbands, "Bring us something to drink!”
The days are coming to you now
when you will be dragged out with hooks,
to be driven all the way to Hermon.
It is YAHWEH who
speaks. (Am. 4:1-3)
It was to be a terrible punishment. But one hope still remained: 'a small remnant' could be saved, for in regard to Yisrael YAHWEH's plan was still in existence.
It may be that YAHWEH, the Almighty One of Sabaoth, will take pity on the remnant of Yoseph. (Am. 5:15)
Amos had gone too far. At Bethel, the schismatic centre of the kingdom of Yisrael, preaching of this kind could no longer be borne. Amaziah, the kohen of the tabernacle, began to grow weary of the forebodings of this prophet of gloom. Amos would have to return home to Yahudah, or it would be the worse for him.
Amos was obliged to leave. His mission was over; the shepherd of Tekoa had proclaimed that YAHWEH, the Almighty, the Master of the world, required from his faithful followers a wholehearted and complete application of justice.