Digging in Deeper: Amos 7:7-8

“He showed me this: The Lord was standing there by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ I replied, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will no longer spare them.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

This morning will be a bit of a different kind of reflection than we usually have together. This is a pair of verses that have been preached many times by many preachers over the years. And in nearly all of these sermons the point has been roughly the same. God is going to hold us accountable to His righteous standards, and if we don’t meet them, judgment is going to come. This is all based on Amos’s using the imagery of a plumb line. It makes for a compelling sermon, but the trouble is that it is almost certainly not the imagery he was actually using. Let’s talk about it.

One of the incredible things about the Scriptures is that we have been able to learn more about them over the centuries since their original composition. This may seem like not such a big deal, but it is a more significant thing than you might expect. For most ancient manuscripts of any significance we have a few copies (at least relatively speaking) that are all in the same language, and it is a language we have generally always known and understood. Or at least the knowledge of them has been effectively passed down over the centuries.

For the Scriptures, though, and especially the Old Testament, the original languages are old enough that we are beyond the point that our understanding has mostly passed into lore. What we do have are committed scholars who have worked very hard to grasp its nuances so that we can translate it correctly into other languages so that the meaning of the text can be preserved and made clear to anyone desiring to engage with it.

This actually points to another important aspect of the Scriptures. With other ancient documents, while we certainly want to understand them for the sake of knowledge and of the window they offer us into better understanding the ancient world in general, there’s nothing more significant than that at stake. With the Scriptures, on the other hand, literally everything is at stake if we don’t grasp them properly. As a result, scholars are generally much more motivated to have as firm and clear a grasp of the languages as possible so that we can understand and apply it faithfully.

One of the ways scholars pursue this is by studying other ancient languages in hopes they’ll give us better clues how to rightly understand the biblical text. In this, as archaeologists have done their careful work digging up the Middle East over the last hundred years or so, they have found more and more things that have broadened and deepened our knowledge of ancient Hebrew, but also other ancient languages that give us insight into translating it accurately and faithfully.

In the case of this particular text, for a long time scholars thought the Hebrew word translated here as “plumb line,” was the Hebrew word more literally translated “lead.” When they took that understanding and combined it with the context of God’s talking about a vertical wall and holding His people accountable for not measuring up to His righteous standards, they assumed that Amos was talking about a plumb line. After all, plumb lines – one of the simplest and most ancient building tools we still have around today in basically the same form they have always had – often use a lead weight as the plumb. Thus, the references to “lead” are references to a plumb line. Let the obvious applications ensue.

As modern scholars have come to a better understanding of another ancient language called Akkadian, though, this cousin to ancient Hebrew in a family of languages called the Semitic Languages (this is where we get the word “semitism” as in antisemitism), they have realized that the word that could be literally translated as “lead” here is actually referring to the metal tin, not lead. Tin is a much lighter metal and would not likely have been used to make plumb lines the way lead was (and still is). This means that the translation “plumb line” is probably not correct. Interestingly and in spite of their having this knowledge, most translation committees for the major English translations nevertheless still render the word “plumb line” here.

Yet if the word isn’t lead, why keep doing this? Tradition plays a big part in the answer to that question. We have trouble breaking away from what we have “always” done even once we have discovered that it wasn’t actually the right thing to be doing. Another part of the reason here is the fact that using the word “tin” makes interpreting and applying this passage much more difficult. There isn’t any kind of obvious, easily-preachable application you can make with the word tin like you can do with the idea of a plumb line.

So then, what are we supposed to do with the text here? I recently came across the most interesting proposal I’ve ever seen for this, and one I am increasingly convinced is the correct one. Most interpreters assume that Amos’s vision God’s holding the piece of tin (what is traditionally understood to be a plumb line) is the prophecy he is receiving from the Lord. But what if it isn’t? Ancient Hebrew was a language intended to be spoken and heard, not written. Yes, it was obviously written down, but in an oral culture, languages developed in ways that you could really get the most out of them by hearing them spoken, not reading them written. The word here best translated “tin” sounds like the word at the end of v. 8 where God declares He will no longer spare Israel. This is the prophecy.

The vision Amos has prompts him to say the word “tin” which God rhymes with the end of v. 8 to give him the prophecy. It is the sound play that conveys the message He wanted delivered to the people. A translation called The Net Bible captures this really well: “The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ I said, ‘Tin.’ The Lord then said, ‘Look, I am about to place tin among my people Israel. I will no longer overlook their sin.'” In this case, the word “tin” isn’t actually intended to mean anything. Instead, it simply creates the aural connection that allows God to announce impending judgment. This takes away the easy application of the plumb line, but it also means we don’t have to wrack our brains to come up with convoluted explanations for how the idea of tin applies to our lives. It doesn’t. But God’s judgment does. This is a literary technique God will use again with Amos in a later passage we’ll look at in a couple of weeks.

So…what do we do with this? The short answer is nothing. I told you this was going to be a different kind of reflection than usual. The more complete answer is that we invest time in studying the text carefully. Use available language tools to get a better sense of what the original language really said. There are plenty of these available for free online. One I use frequently is http://www.netbible.org. There is also a Net Bible App you can download onto your phone. Besides the translation’s being really good, the study notes are really helpful in terms of bringing out these kinds of textual nuances that most English translations simply can’t reveal. Engaging with the Scriptures requires more than merely reading them. Budgeting time for really studying them is a worthwhile endeavor. It takes a bit more effort, but it can help us better grasp what God was trying to reveal about Himself through the authors. It can also help us avoid making applications that the text simply doesn’t support. In the end, this effort can help us better understand our God. That is always going to be time well-spent.

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