The cows of Bashan
The punishment of the cows
‘Sexist!’ some would say.
‘Offensive!’ others would add.
That’s the problem with God - He isn’t too concerned about hurting our sensitivities by singling out a section of society and calling them ‘cows’ (which, in today’s language, is actually more offensive than it was then) but He is concerned when His own sensitivities and those of His people are offended. Then God will stand up and point out the oppression, the callousness and the greed of those who refuse to face up to their own actions before Him.
In an age that’s gone mad for political correctness, it’s good to know that God’s as forthrightly spoken as He’s always been - that He isn’t afraid to speak of the sin of a section of society and call them to account, to characterise a people with offensive imagery and announce His imminent judgment upon them.
It also helps gain a person’s attention in a way that a softly spoken word could never do. After all, which is more shocking and mind-catching? To say
‘Listen to me, you cows of Bashan!’
‘If you’ve got the time, come and hear what I think a lot of you ladies are inadvertently doing’
Which would catch the attention of the prophet’s listeners more? So, also, when Jesus was posed a question on the resurrection of the dead by the Sadducees (Mtw 22:23-28), He doesn’t respond with
‘Hey, guys! I really understand your theological position on this one, however..’
but with the precise (Mtw 22:29)
‘You are wrong’
going on to object to the very foundation of their beliefs by observing that
‘...you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God’
And that was quite some accusation to level against the leaders of God’s people, the religious leaders of His day (see also my web page here).
So, the Israelite women are cows - let them wake up to the fact and put matters right.
The cows of Bashan
Bashan was an area located to the north and east of the sea of Galilee and is always referred to in the OT (according to Zondervan) with the definite article - that is, the writers refer to it as ‘the Bashan’.
The meaning of the term is a little uncertain even though most interpreters aren’t too far different from one another. Zondervan translates the term as meaning
‘fertile, fruitful, stoneless plain’
while NIDBA opts for
‘smooth, fertile or fruitful’
which removes the idea of a ‘plain’ from its literal translation. The area of Bashan is difficult to be precisely defined and it probably had no hard and fast boundaries in ancient time. Zondervan gives the rough area as being
‘...Mount Hermon on the north, Salecah on the east, Gilead on the south, Geshur and Maacah on the west...a broad, fertile plateau ranging from 1600 to 2300 feet in height’
The fertility of the area was renowned, however, and there was much water here for agriculture, the Yarmuk river running through the southern lands. The north, though, seems to have been best suited for a more nomadic way of life (as NIDBA) and I can personally testify that the area around Mount Hermon about twenty years ago looked more like a wilderness - there were extensive orchards here, however, and it would seem to have been a good land on which to graze flocks of sheep.
The southern area was the place where the fertility of the soil was renowned and which both Jehoash and Jeroboam (in whose reign Amos prophesied - Amos 1:1) began to recover from the control and rule of Syria (II Kings 13:25, 14:28). It does seem to have been an area that was continually fought over, however, whenever hostilities flared up between the two kingdoms.
The Bible uses Bashan’s livestock as a picture of great strength, fertility and stature. When David speaks of those who have surrounded him to attack, he mentions, firstly, about the numbers gathered and then goes on (Ps 22:12) to observe that
‘...strong bulls of Bashan surround me’
Again, in Ezek 39:18 (my italics - see also Deut 32:14), God calls the scavenger birds to eat at the feast He’s prepared for them and commands that they’ll be filled with the flesh of
‘...rams, of lambs, and of goats, of bulls - all of them fatlings of Bashan’
The oak was also a tree that was used figuratively to denote strength and stature and is employed in a number of passages where the cedar is also mentioned (I dealt with this on a previous web page under the header ‘Amos 2:9’).
There’s a simple parallel intended, therefore, between the cows that roamed the fertile areas of Bashan - who fed on the richness of the land - and the women of Samaria. Amhub comments that the parallel exists
‘...both to the luxury that the wealthy women enjoyed and to a certain voluptuousness and sensuality which their extravagant life-style afforded them’
but neither of these seem to be the fundamental truth that YHWH is trying to convey. The latter idea of sexual attraction is nowhere stated in the text and it seems more an insertion of our own choice to make it mean this. Neither is the former really the point - while it’s true that the wealthy would enjoy their riches, it would mean that all wealthy women within the Church are being condemned (and, besides, Amos would also be condemning all the attractive in the present day Church! Could attractive women ever hope to be saved, in that case?!).
The idea, rather, is surely that the women of Samaria were growing fat on the goodness of the land but, more than this, that their hunger and appetite was only being satisfied by their oppression of the poor and their crushing of the needy. It’s not that their luxury was the reward of hard work and laboured toil, of doing ‘an honest day’s work’ but that it had come about through taking from those who had no right to be taken from.
Wealth and luxury may be the result, but the foundations of their lives were built upon sin. Their ‘Incredible Bulk’ was testimony to their violation of God’s expected care for His people (and, before anyone takes offence at me, saying that I’m stating all believers should be thin, I must point out that God’s point wasn’t that you mustn’t be fat but that the way you become fat is the problem. God loves fat people just as much as He does thin ones - in fact, He has more room in His heart for fat people than thin ones cos they’re bigger and need more space).
Amstu sees the talk of the cows of Bashan as being an allegory based on Deut 32:15 (which, in itself, is an allegory) in which
‘...the fattened animal [of the nation of Israel] rebels against its master and must be punished by deprivation and destruction...’
But, again, the point seems to be missed that it isn’t because the cows of Bashan are fat that they now rebel but that they’ve rebelled against God and so have become fat (bulk doesn’t determine the size of the rebellion or make it inevitable). Their mansions are built over the skeletons of the needy who have had their bread stolen from them - they haven’t obtained their mansions and then decided to rebel.
Amstu further thinks that Samaria’s women are guilty of
pointing out that
‘...they demand household service [they say to their husbands ‘Bring, that we may drink!’] that, according to normal practice, they themselves should be providing. They are, in effect, arrogantly dominating their families...’
Again, though, this has an application that’s unwarranted, for any woman in the present day Church who rings their husband up at work and says
‘Darling, how about going to the liquor store and bringing home a Cotes Du Rhone for the meal tonight?’
would fall foul of the prophet’s words. And, besides, the rich of Amos’ time would hardly likely to be thought of as not having servants who were responsible for the maintenance and care of the house so that the wife would be freed up from her chores.
The point is, surely, that they have no care for those who are a part of God’s people, for those who are in need, self-centredly thinking only of themselves and the pleasure they can have, funded by their sinful acquisition of wealth.
This verse is much better understood to be comparing the cows of Bashan - those that grew fat on the land - with the women of Samaria who also grew fat on the rich pickings they had when they forsook compassion and mercy and, instead, choose to oppress those under them that they should, rather, have been caring for.
There’s no doubt that women hold influence in the present day Church - even though many denominations will forbid them to hold positions of leadership or authority (though see my study on the function and role of women in Biblical times here) - a wise one can influence the way a fellowship goes as they meet with the ‘actual believers’ in a way that their leadership husbands very often don’t.
But influence can too often turn to manipulation and a woman who stays in the presence of those who are considered to be of the same ‘spiritual’ standing within the church as herself is more likely to win friends and influence the real ‘power house’ of what’s determined to be brought before the fellowship.
However, Amos isn’t speaking about these problems here - instead, he’s concerned to point out the exploitation of the poor and needy by the rich and influential within the children of Israel, the people of God, where any advantage won is used for self-satisfaction, self-gratification and self-aggrandisement.
God isn’t concerned that they grow richer, fatter or stronger - he’s concerned that, in so doing, His people grow poorer, thinner and weaker, where the divide between them and others grows ever wider until it eventually becomes unbridgeable by the structures that have been put in place.
The language is similar to that which we encountered in Amos 2:6-7 where YHWH observes the problem within Israelite society and I’ve dealt with these concepts on a previous web page under the headers ‘Amos 2:6’ and ‘Amos 2:7’.
However, a direct parallel in the Church today in which the women of a fellowship have materially exploited the poor has been unknown in my own experience except in the incessant plea for money from the front from the titled ‘pastors’, ‘evangelists’ and ‘teachers’ who are so careful to draw believers into giving through the pictures they conjure in the minds of their hearers that it couldn’t be labelled as anything other than exploitation (a friend passed on to me what he saw at one meeting when a leader asked the congregation for many thousands of dollars and, amazingly, received a word of knowledge from God that anybody who contributed would be given back more than they gave within sixty days. Isn’t it good to know that God will lend His voice to extortionate appeals?).
This is the pitfall of more men than women, however, and the sin spoken of here by the prophet Amos isn’t a specific one that we’d normally associate with women believers. It is, however, a definite risk that remains as a warning against all who are in the position of having the power over fellow believers to extract money from them for their own benefit and selfish ends.
The rich believers who sit on the poor brethren below have a lot to answer for - and it’s God who won’t forget. A day will come when they’ll be summoned before Him to give an account of themselves, whether through a direct judgment that’s poured out against them in this life or at the end of their lives when they stand before His Throne.
If revival is to come to this generation, however, judgment will have to be poured out imminently.
The punishment of the cows
It was all fairly impersonal stuff until the beginning of chapter 4.
Sure, God had spoken about the nation of Israel and, even though corporate sins were singled out with phraseology that had them transgressing as individuals, it was fairly general without singling out a specific section of Israelite society.
That all changed with Amos 4:1 for it was there that YHWH speaks specifically to the wealthy women of the capital Samaria and calls them to realise His displeasure.
His judgment against them also gets personal - or, better, much more personal than it has done before. Now God takes an oath upon Himself to show His commitment to the irreversability of the action He’s about to detail.
Oaths are normally taken by reference to someone greater than themselves but, because there’s no one greater than the One who’s taking the oath, God has to swear by either Himself or by one of His attributes to demonstrate how irrevocable and how committed to outworking the judgment He is (Heb 6:13).
This seems to be the reason for the oath, just as YHWH swore by His holiness to David in Ps 89:35-36, affirming that
‘...I will not lie to David. His line shall endure for ever, his throne as long as the sun before Me’
God leaves Himself no opportunity for repentance, here - where, by ‘repentance’, I mean that God makes no opportunity for Himself to consider the response of the people to whom the message comes and to turn from His intentions towards them. To God, what He’s about to do is certain to come about and it’s this that’s being conveyed by Amos’ words.
He records two other places where YHWH takes an oath upon Himself - in Amos 6:8, He swears by Himself as one would expect Him to do to show His commitment towards His revealed will but, in 8:7, He swears ‘by the pride of Jacob’, a strange phrase and one that I’ll deal with at the appropriate place in the commentary (it needs a fair deal of thought that isn’t warranted to explain this current passage).
Swearing by His ‘holiness’, though, is well summarised by Amhub as being a vehicle to emphasise
‘...His intrinsic excellence that separates Him from the way all His creatures behave...’
and His perfection and righteousness is therefore being compared to the opposite characteristics that have been found in the women of Samaria under scrutiny. Although they deal with their own brethren impurely and criminally, God Himself will deal with their sin on the basis of His purity and uprightness, bringing upon their own heads only what His character demands is done - they won’t be dealt with unjustly or unfairly but receive only that which is fitting for the transgressions committed.
The passage bears a striking parallel with the prophecy of Isaiah against the ‘daughters of Zion’, the women of the southern Kingdom of Judah, in Is 3:16-4:1. Here, too, the women had flaunted their wealth in the midst of the city, even though YHWH doesn’t call them to account for any oppression against the poor and needy as He does here in Amos.
His judgment upon them is to take away their external fashions and beautifications (Is 3:18-23), their
‘...finery of the anklets, the headbands and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets and the scarves; the head-dresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks and the handbags; the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans and the veils’
replacing them with (Is 3:24)
a picture that their decadence would be withdrawn from them in the day of battle and overthrow (Is 3:25-4:1) in much the same way as the cows in Samaria would be stripped of their wealth and power (and of which the finery is an evidence that they’ve the resources to live above simply satisfying their needs).
The bottom line is that, whether it be the daughters of Zion or the wealthy and decadent women of Samaria, what they trust in will be taken from them. Their wealth will be stolen from them by a people who will overcome the land just as they’d stolen others’ possessions to support their own selfish will and desires. The security of their houses and their empires won’t deliver them in the day that God Himself will fight against them.
The exact nature of their exile is difficult to be precise about because the two Hebrew words from which the RSV gets the English ‘hooks’ (Strongs Hebrew number 6793, M1936b) and ‘fishhooks’ (Strongs Hebrew number 1729, M401e) are both words that have uncertain meanings. The former exists in the OT with the meaning of ‘shields’ but this seems hardly to be the concept that’s intended here while the latter occurs only once in the OT and TWOTOT links it to a root from which the word for ‘fish’ is obtained.
The point is, though, that we wouldn’t be going too far wrong if we understood the words to be terms that were employed either in the transportation of live cattle or in the despatch of dead meat after slaughter, for the concept of the women being ‘cows of Bashan’ (Amos 4:1) is surely what’s being developed here.
Amhub is correct, therefore, when he observes that
‘The captors pull and prod their corpulent prey like a balky, bovine herd...’
The idea, then, is that like a cattle herd, the decadent women of Israel will be rounded up in the city and removed from the palaces and strongholds in which they took their delight, being exiled away from any chance of using their stored up wealth for their own selfish ends.
The RSV’s ‘Harmon’ is also impossible to be certain about and every interpretation of the word I’ve seen has to make emendations or very large interpretative jumps to yield any truth from it.
Is it a place? Perhaps a place where exiles were taken after the conquest or a place where the rubbish of Samaria was thrown (in similar fashion to ‘Gehenna’ in the NT outside Jerusalem and which Jesus used as the label to be placed on ‘hell’ - that is, God’s rubbish tip)?
Or was it a mythical place spoken of in Israelite society that would be instantly recognisable by the women to whom the message comes? Unfortunately, we have nothing definitive - not even remotely illuminating - that can be said.
Amstu points out, though, that the word from which the RSV translates ‘you shall be cast forth’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7993) is used not only with regard to the exile of men and women in Jer 22:28 but also to deal with the removal of the dead (Is 34:3, Jer 14:16, Ezek 16:5) and it may be that the word is specifically chosen to bear both possible meanings to Amos’ hearers. If we knew what ‘Harmon’ was, though, it may narrow the meaning down to a specific interpretation.
The bottom line is that they’ll be stripped of their wealth and security - and that opportunity for them to continue oppressing and exploiting the poor and needy of the land will be cut away.
God speaks of the ‘breaches’ made in the city walls, making them realise that Samaria isn’t to be conquered to preserve some of its defences for immediate occupation. The picture here is of a violent assault that breaks down the protection in numerous places, symbolising the violence of the overthrow that must also take place within the city itself.
That the women are exiled through the walls ‘straight’ from where they are shows just how many breaches have been made - they don’t have to look for a gate or a hole that’s suitable because there’s hardly anything left standing. They simply head for the nearest defence rampart (or are taken there by their captors), knowing that there’ll be a gap through which they can exit the city.
But, what does this mean for those within the Church today?
On a previous web page (under the header ‘What God would do’) I pointed out that God’s judgment upon His people is based upon His withdrawing of the Holy Spirit, His own presence, from His people - just as it was with the children of Israel who found that they were either killed or exiled away from their Divine inheritance.
There is, in my experience, no quick temporal judgment that God pours out upon people who exploit their position of power and control over His people and they continue in ‘office’ for a great many years before He seems to decide to step in and remove them from having control over His people (and, just as well - for we who have sinned would be given no opportunity to repent and would be struck down instantly if we did the same. But God is merciful in that He desires all men and women should come to a place of repentance - Ezek 18:23, II Peter 3:9).
More importantly, God withdraws His Spirit from them - and yet, even here, God will still do works through them so that His people aren’t left without His presence and provision. God’s mercy is so incredible that He allows false, wayward or wicked men and women to continue being the channels through whom His blessing flows to His people because, like lost sheep, they know no other way to reach out to Him.
But a person who controls and manipulates God’s flock won’t do so guiltlessly - God will withdraw both His life from that person and that person from their inheritance in Christ and, if they don’t wake up to their condition, there must remain the possibility that He’ll step into time and forcefully remove them as He did through the Assyrian conquest of Samaria at least thirty years after Amos had delivered YHWH’s words to the nation.
Because a leader falls by the wayside, it doesn’t mean that satan has won a victory - God will often give His enemies (even those who have His name upon them) into the hands of others and, in so doing, cause their own transgression to be echoed in the way that they themselves are transgressed against.
God will fight against His own and conquer them if they continue to pursue those matters which are in opposition to His will (see my notes here), by flaunting their power and oppressing those for whom Jesus Christ died.
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