An Indictment Against Vengeance: An Oracle Against Moab (Amos 2:1-3)
Yahweh says: For three transgressions of Moab, yes, for four, I will not turn away its punishment; because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime; – Amos 2:1 (WEB)
Out of all of Amos’s oracles, Moab’s is the most obscure and most difficult to understand. In comparison to the grand, national sins of the other nations, this sin of Moab seems relatively small in comparison. Unlike the sins of past indictments that called out the nations for their oppression and murder of entire people groups, this indictment against Moab is handed down due to Moab’s treatment of one particular person: a dead king from an enemy nation.
The sins of Moab were plentiful. Yahweh could have had his pick from any one of the murderous incursions into Israelite territory. He could have indicted them for their human sacrifices in their pagan worship of the false god Chemosh. He could even have pronounced judgment against their nation’s sinful beginnings. He doesn’t. Instead, Yahweh chooses to pick this very obscure sin—a sin that we don’t have any other clear record of in Scripture—to be the sin that finally brings Moab to judgment.
This indictment is also unusual in that Israel is not at all involved. While the rest of the indictments in Amos 1-2 involve sins against the people of Israel, this one is a sin by Israel’s enemy against Israel’s enemy. Under the common thinking of the ancient Near East, gods were territorial. Yahweh could be the judge of Israel and Judah—his covenant people—and the warrior god against the nations that would come against them, but this sin by a non-covenant people against a non-covenant people was outside Yahweh’s jurisdiction.
The inclusion of Moab’s sin in this list makes two important things manifest to the people of Israel:
Yahweh’s jurisdiction has no limit. He will exert his authority as judge over all the earth.
Yahweh’s judgment has no limit. He will exert his judgment against sins big and small, national and personal, systemic and specific, generational and momentary.
This indictment shows Israel that Yahweh’s punishment of sin is objective and not subjective. God judges not because of the subjective nature of the victim, but the objective nature of the offense. And that should give Israel pause. That should make the church stop and think. The covenant people are not immune to God’s judgment. The victims of sin can also be perpetrators of sin. Just because someone has sinned—even if it’s a sin against you—does not give you license to sin against them. To respond to sin with sin is to inappropriately attempt to exact vengeance, which Yahweh condemns.
Moab’s vengeance against the king of Edom was a very specific attempt to affect his eternal destiny. In much of the ancient world, burial practices were strictly tied to the afterlife. The body must be prepared to enter the afterlife. In Ancient Near Eastern thought, burning the body prevented the individual from attaining the afterlife.
For example, Jewish culture took their burial practices very seriously. Bodies were placed in caves and allowed to decompose, after which the bones were placed is ossuaries to be preserved. Even today, Jewish culture and faith explicitly condemns cremation as a sin because it burns the bones of one’s body to ash. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman writes:
One who willfully has his body cremated asserts his disbelief in the future reunification of body and soul. Regarding this our Sages warn, One who rejects the idea of resurrection will have no part in it.
The pagan version of this concept in Amos’s day was very similar. Most, if not all, ancient near eastern religions believed that burning the bones of a person kept that person from experiencing the afterlife. Assurbanipal, the Assyrian ruler of the 600s BC—one hundred and fifty years after Amos—wrote this concerning one of his victories:
Their bones I carried off to Assyria, thus imposing restlessness upon their spirits, and depriving them of food offerings and libations
When the bones of dead were burnt and taken out of the grave it meant that the dead were cursed, they would not be able to find rest and their spirit would not be able to go to the underworld. By burning the bones of Edom’s king, Moab is attempting to affect the eternal destiny of their enemy. The sin that Yahweh indicts Moab for is not burning the bones or even necessarily desecrating the dead, as awful as that is, but the attempt to exact vengeance that continues beyond the grave. If God judges sin meant to affect a person in this life, he will certainly judge sin meant to affect a person’s eternity.
Moab’s attempt at vengeance was ineffectual. They had no real means of affecting the Edomite king’s afterlife, but Yahweh condemns sin on its intent, not its success. Even though Moab’s actions were little more than burning some bones, it was their internal intent—the work of their heart—of affecting someone’s eternal destiny that God hated.
In this, we have quite the modern application, one that we see Jesus bring to the limelight in the Sermon on the Mount. Anger is akin to sin; lust is akin to adultery. Or, to go back to Yahweh’s words to Samuel: Man judges the outward appearance, but God judges the heart. God will judge not just our sins with major consequences, but our sins that are—to our mind—of no consequence at all.
However, there is another side to this. As Christians, we do have the ability to affect someone’s eternal destiny. How we relate to an individual, what we say to them, how we treat them, may very well affect their relationship with Jesus and their eternal destiny with him. People relate to Jesus through us long before they relate to him personally. So many individuals have turned away from Christ because of his Christians.
Amos’s warning to Moab here filters down to us through these cultural changes and caveats to remind us of our power to affect someone’s eternal destiny. We have a solemn responsibility to share the Gospel and show the love of Christ. If we do not, Yahweh says, we will have no place in his Kingdom.
Contempt for the Divine
Further, Yahweh’s indictment shows that he takes grave offense at anyone who would dare attempt to usurp his judge’s bench. Eternal judgment does not belong to humanity. It belongs to God alone.
In all likelihood, the Edomite king is in hell. With all probability, he never admitted to Yahweh as God and Savior. But that does not mean that his eternal judgment lies in the hands of any man or that any man or woman is justified in their attempt to command his eternal destiny.
Yahweh rules. Yahweh reigns. And he shall be the sole arbiter of eternal judgment. Moab’s attempt to displace God from his throne is an absolute abomination. We might wonder how this could have value or relevance for us? After all, I’ve never disinterred the bones of my enemy and burned them to ashes to keep him from heaven.
But how often do we place ourselves as judge of those around us? How often do we use war and death to send our enemies to hell rather than the light of the Gospel to send them to heaven? Conversely, how often do we simply assume that our “culturally Christian” friends are saved and never confront them with the power of the Gospel?
In both cases, we like to usurp the power of Yahweh and his authority to judge. Those who are like us are more likely to get in. Those different from us are often considered suspect. Christian Republicans are suspicious of the salvation of Christian Democrats. Cessationists question the validity of a Charistmatic’s salvation. White American Christians often see all Arabs as Muslim, forgetting that Christianity is the region’s indigenous religion.
What We Can Do
The practical application of Moab’s indictment differs radically from the other seven oracles. It focuses on the inward nature of sin rather than the outward action of sin. God judges the sin of Moab against one man’s bones like he judges Aram’s torture of a whole community or Edom’s hatred of an entire nation because the heart issue is the same.
Jesus makes this point effectively in his Sermon on the Mount when he compares anger to murder, lust to adultery. What God reminded Samuel of positively when it came to anointed David as King, Jesus reminds us of the flip side when it comes to our sins: man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart.
And with that, inconsequential sins on the outside might have incredible ramifications on the inside. Our unjust anger against a brother or sister holds the same weight as having stabbed them in the heart. We sin in our mind more often than we sin with our bodies. We sin “small” more often than we sin “big.”
We think that God will only judge us for those big ones. But this indictment against Moab proves otherwise. By contrasting a relatively small and insignificant outward sin, with the rest of these indictments, Yahweh subtly reminds his Israelite listeners that sin is primarily a heart issue that exists even if one is following the law.
Many times, when sin becomes inconsequential or accepted on the outside, when we cease to see it as sin, it becomes legal. Legality does not imply morality. You can fulfill the whole law and still sin. Ask the Pharisees. Just because it has been sanctioned by governmental authorities, just because it is celebrated by national culture, just because it is allowed by man, does not mean that is sanctioned, celebrated, or allowed by Almighty God.
Apartheid was legal. Slavery was legal. The Holocaust was legal. Legality is a matter of power, not of justice. Simply because the institutions of man look upon a thing and okay it—our actions in war, our treatment of foreigners, our economic policies, whatever it may be—that does not mean that it is moral and just. Quite often, what human governments promote is what Yahweh condemns. That’s why each of these nations found themselves destroyed.
Moab didn’t consider their actions sinful. They considered it a just and righteous retribution against an awful evil committed against them. Moab was just doing what they thought was righteous and just. Yahweh says that he has a different standard. Moab’s indictment should lead us to an internal reflection of ourselves to see if, we are guilty of these sins of the heart.