“Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they threshed Gilead with implements of sharp iron.” – Amos 1:3 NASB
I remember once hearing a great quote by Ghandi when an American reporter asked him, “So, Mr. Ghandi, what do you think of Western Civilization?” Ghandi replied, “I think it would be a great idea.”
God expresses the same sentiment, interestingly enough, in Amos 1:3. The clue to unlocking this passage is not so much understanding the politics of the time and age of Amos, but understanding the insinuations made by the two locations in the passage – Damascus and Gilead.
As with many ancient Hebrew texts, specific names and places usually operate as symbols of their specific existence. For example, if someone were to ask, “When I say “Las Vegas“, what comes to mind?”, most people’s response would be “Gambling”. The same things works in scripture. So what does Damascus represent? Well the history lesson here is that Damascus is the oldest city on Earth by historical accounts. It was the birthplace, shall we say, of systematic society or civilization. In this passage then, we can safely consider that the focus of God’s judgement does not just refer to Damascus, but in a broader context, man’s attempts to be “civilized” and the sinful oppression that most often results.
Gilead is a little trickier to decipher, but the basis of what it refers to is more in the meaning of the title itself, then its history. Gilead, in this context, refers to the Hebrew notion of meddling unduly in another’s affairs – to draw attention to someone or “expose” or shame them by disrupting their culture and daily life. The word Gilead stems form the Hebrew word for “hill or mound of witness” or in modern terms, “the place where you are made an example of”.
So what about the sharp iron instruments? In history, there was a time when Damascus (Syria) attacked Israel under the Aram-Syrian king Hazael (2 Kings 10:32-33). There was a barbaric custom during this time in terms of war crimes, where people would literally be put on farm threshing floors, and torn to pieces by the iron prongs usually used to break the wheat from the chaff (grass stalk). In a more symbolic sense, God’s referring to this situation is indicative of the oppression of the innocent and righteous by stronger people who simply think they know better – much like us today saying that someone is unduly “raking someone over the coals”. In this case, the figure of speech used is, unfortunately, not just figurative, but literal as well.
After taking a look at these elements, it’s not hard to put together God’s sentiment here. He’s not just simply talking about Damascus. He’s talking about the ultimate failure of man’s attempts at creating a just and balanced society. And God, being an individual who defines justice, will not sit on His laurels and do nothing. He acts. But, in being merciful as well, He first warns – “This being the case, unless you change your actions, I will have to correct and re-balance things for you.”
Thankfully, we have a God that cares enough to do so. For believe you me, our Lord does answer, and answer, with vigor.