Shiur #91: The Prophecies of Amos: DAY OF DOOM

  • Rav Yitzchak Etshalom
Sponsored by Adam and Nurit Lerer 
in loving memory of Adam’s grandfather, 
Murray Lerer / Moshe Yitzchak Ben Avraham Aryeh Z”L
In last week’s shiur, we took a broader view of verses 2-4, which detail the envisioned flight of the people (priests?) fleeing God’s wrath on the day of judgment. We pointed out the chiastic structure of verses 2-3, enveloping the heights (heavens, Mt. Carmel) with the depths (She’ol, depths of the sea), which led to verse 4, “fleeing” by being taken captive by the enemy (!?). I suggested that we might read verses 2 and 3 as alluding to the flights of two agents of God – Yona, who tried to escape God at the depths of the sea, and Eliyahu, who also tried to abandon his mission, only to find himself in a cave atop a mountain, and who ultimately was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. We also noted that the frightening rhythms of “kill here, and those who escape, find them and kill them as well until they are all slaughtered” is evocative of Hashem’s threatening promise to Eliyahu (while in that cave!) that Chaza’el will kill many and those who escape will be killed by Yehu (the king he was to anoint) and those who successfully flee Yehu’s sword will be killed by Elisha (whom Eliyahu was to anoint in his place).
We move from the bird’s-eye view to a worm’s-eye view. As promised in the last shiur, this shiur (and the next two) will be focused on a detailed analysis of these three verses; we will reference the last shiur throughout. I have kept the refrain of this bit of terrifying poetry marked as such.
Im yachteru ve-she’ol
Though they dig into Sheol,
The root chatar appears only 10 times in the entire canon – twice as a noun (machteret) and the rest as a verb. As a noun, it takes on the meaning of a “break-in” of sorts, although it may allude to the actual act of forcing an opening into a wall. The most famous machteret in Tanakh is in Shemot 22:1. To get a better sense of its use and meaning, we will quote the entire passage:
Ki yignov ish shor o seh u-tevacho o mekharo, chamisha bakar yeshalem tachat ha-shor ve-arba tzon tachat ha-seh. Im ba-machteret yimatzeh ha-ganav ve-huka va-meit, ein lo damim. Im zarcha ha-shemesh alav damim lo; shalem yeshalem im ein lo ve-nimkar be-gneivato. Im himatzei timatzei ve-yado ha-geneva mi-shor ad chamor ad seh chayim, shenayim yeshaleim.
If a man steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep. If the thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt of bloodshed for him. If the sun has risen on him, guilt of bloodshed shall be for him; he shall make restitution. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen property is found in his hand alive, whether it is ox, donkey, or sheep, he shall pay double. (Shemot 21:37-22:4)
Rashbam (at 22:1) concisely notes: “Im ba-machteret – at night.”
Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) provides a more expansion explanation. He uses Iyov 24:16 – chatar ba-chosekh batim” (they dig into houses in the dark) – to prove that a machteret can only happen at night:
Once the text follows it by saying “if the sun has risen on him,” we understand that a person who digs into a house will only do so at night, for he cannot do so during the day, as there are passersby who will see him…
R. Chezekiah b. Manoach (Chizkuni ad loc.) identifies the machteret as a pirtzah – i.e. a breach. It isn’t clear whether the burglar made the breach or found it.
Parenthetically, Chazal famously read the follow-up verse about the sun rising as metaphorically referring to clarity – i.e. “if the matter is as clear as day that the burglar is not a threat to the homeowner’s life, then his blood will be reckoned (damim lo).” The example given by the gemara (Sanhedrin 72b) is that of a father coming to steal from his son. This interpretation leads to a dispute, with far-reaching consequences, between Rambam and Raavad as to the staying power of peshat in the face of Midrash Chazal (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Geneiva 9:8, and Raavad there).
The other mention of machteret is in Yirmiyahu, and it apparently plays off of the machteret in the Law Code of Parashat Mishpatim. Yirmiyahu chastises the people for their sinful behavior and for innocent blood they have spilled:
Gam be-khnafayikh nimtze’u dam nafshot evyonim nekiyim
Lo va-machteret metzatim, ki al kol eleh
Even your clothes are stained with the lifeblood of the poor who had not done anything wrong; you did not catch them breaking into your homes. Yet, in spite of all these things you have done,[1]
Rashi, R. Yosef Kara, and Radak all explain the word metzatim as meaning “you found” (as per the translation here). Kara points to Yechezkel 16:58 for support of that suffix being used for the feminine second person.
All of these Rishonim, along with more recent commentators (e.g. Shadal), relate the mention of machteret here to Shemot 22:1. To quote Radak:
Lo ba-machteret: As it says: “If the thief is found breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt of bloodshed for him.” Yet you did not find them breaking in; why did you kill them? They were innocent people!
As a verb, chatar appears eight times, all but one in the oratory of the prophets. Five of these are found in Yechezkel (8:8 [x2], 12:5, 7, 12). All of them make reference to burrowing into a wall. All are “visionary.”
Yechezkel is brought, via a vision, from Bavel to Yerushalayim, and we see a city and a Mikdash that is at once familiar while quite strange. He is told to burrow through a wall of the courtyard in order to see for himself the abominations committed there (chapter 8). In a rather obscure set of commands, Yechezkel is told to sneak in “like a thief” and take the vessels of the Mikdash “before their eyes” and remove them (chapter 12). However we understand these difficult passages (somewhat par for the course in many sections of Yechezkel), the meaning of the verb is clear. It means “to break in surreptitiously” – i.e. like a thief. It involves making some sort of a breach in a wall and then using that opening to enter without being seen. The irony in chapter 12 is that he is to break in in this manner le-eineihem – before their eyes.
The one mention in Ketuvim is one we’ve already seen. Iyov’s final response to Eliphaz takes up chapters 23-24 and continues to decry the apparent lack of Divine justice in the world. In describing the activities of the wicked, he states:
From out of the city the dying groan, and the soul of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
There are those who rebel against the light, who are not acquainted with its ways, and do not stay in its paths.
The murderer rises in the dark, so that he may kill the poor and needy; and in the night he is as a thief.
The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight, saying, “No eye will see me”; and he disguises his face.
In the dark they dig through houses (chatar ba-choshekh batim); by day they shut themselves up; they do not know the light.
For deep darkness is morning to all of them; for they are friends with the terrors of deep darkness. (Iyov 24:12-17)
Again, the meaning of the verb is to burrow into a house secretly, with the aim of stealing from the house. In other words, all eight of the usages of machteret-chatar that we’ve seen so far have a consistent meaning – to dig, unseen (typically under cover of darkness), into a place in order to steal something from that house. Yechezkel 8 is the one minor exception, as he is told to burrow in in order to see something that would normally be inaccessible to his eyes – a form of hezek re’iyah, to borrow from the beginning of Bava Batra. Either way, the meaning is consistent.
All of which brings us to the other two usages, both in prophetic rhetoric. One of those is ours and the other is in Yona; neither of which fit the meaning we’ve established so far.  In our passage in Amos, the people are envisioned as burrowing into She’ol (metaphorically or otherwise) in order to escape God’s eyes, as it were. This is consistent with the meaning we’ve established in one sense – they do not want to be seen. On the other hand, they are not looking to get to somewhere, in order to steal something. They are, rather, looking to get away from somewhere, to hide in the dark place. Why does Amos use chatar here? He could have used the verb chafor (dig) or chavo (hide), both of which are attested in the text. The latter, although it may be more apt,[2] might be rejected on grounds of repetitiveness, since it is used in the next verse (im yeichavu be-rosh ha-Karmel), but im yacheperu le-She’ol would have seemingly fit more smoothly here.
Before proposing a solution, I’d like to point out one more anomaly about this phrase. The preposition that we would expect here would be “if they tunnel into She’ol” – im yachteru le-She’ol – but our verse reads im yachteru be-She’ol – “if they tunnel within She’ol.” It is possible that this unexpected preposition is used to match the rest of the double couplet:
Im yachteru be-She’ol…
Ve-im ya’alu ha-Shamayim [note – not la-shamayim]
Ve-im yeichavu be-rosh ha-Karmel
Ve-im yeisatru mi-neged einai be-karka hayam
The two verbs used in verse 3 of necessity take the preposition be (one cannot “hide to the top of the Carmel” or “hide from My eyes to the bottom of the sea”), and that impacts on our clause as well.
Yet there may be something else lurking below the surface here. Let’s first take a look at the one remaining use of chatar. It is certainly the one that is the poorest fit with the meaning we’ve established so far.
When the heroic sailors in Sefer Yona, insistent on saving their boat without sacrificing the Hebrew prophet, try in vain to navigate the stormy waters back to shore, the text reports:
Va-yachteru ha-anashim le-hashiv el ha-yabasha ve-lo yakholu, ki ha-yam holeikh ve-so’er aleihem
Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not; for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. (Yona 1:13)
The consensus of English translations (as well as the Aramaic Targum Yonatan) is represented here – “rowed hard” – which is a far cry from any meaning associated with the verb in the original. Yet it seems the only one that contextually fits.
The Rishonim attempt to explain how “rowing” can be represented by yachteru.
Rashi sees the use of the word as an analogy: “They toiled and worked hard like someone who was digging a tunnel.
R. Yosef Kara sees it literally: “They were digging with their oars in order to bring the boat back to dry land due to the strong wind, but were unable”  (similarly, ibn Ezra).
Radak expand on the use of the word: “They held onto the oars in order to bring the boat out (?) to dry land; for someone who holds the oar and moves it in the sea is like someone who is “digging in the sea”…
R. Eliezer of Beaugency has an intriguing observation:
“Va-yachteru – this way and that to find some way to bring the boat back to dry land so that [Yona] wouldn’t go with them and wouldn’t flee [with them] from the presence of God, because they thought that in that way they would repair the sin of his flight and that God would favor them.
It seems that he is sensitive to the unusual verb here. We would have expected va-yashutu (a boating term) or a word depicting hard work, as the translations would have it. He apparently feels that the choice of va-yachteru is intended to bring us back to that original machteret, a breach where someone is sneaking in and to avoid being seen. As such, the use of that verb tells a story about the sailors and their efforts. They are trying to remove the “thief” who is trying to escape into – and within – their boat (va-yered bah– “he went down into [the boat]” – Yona 1:3).
R. Eliezer echoes that approach in his commentary on our verse:
Im yachteru: A machteret is in the depths; similarly, it is the way of boatmen, since they operate in the depths of the waters like people tunneling into houses, he calls it chatira, as in “the men ‘dug” to return to dry land” [the verse in Yona].
I would like to suggest that this is the background behind Amos’s deliberate use of this verb here. Yona effectively gave a new wrinkle to yachteru – it not only means sneaking in, but also sneaking away. This also offers a local explanation for the unexpected preposition be-She’ol. Someone who is trying to break in in order to take something and get out – the classic machteret – is trying to get in there; that’s where the desired item is to be found. On the other hand, someone who is trying to get in to get away isn’t aimed at that particular place – le-She’ol – but to just find somewhere within which to burrow ever deeper and remain interminably out of sight – be-She’ol.
Mi-sham yadi tikachem
From there shall My hand take them;
The image of God’s hand coming down into She’ol to take these aspiring fugitives is something of an ironic twist on Hoshea 13:14, mi-yad She’ol efdeim – which is broadly translated as a rhetorical question: “Shall I redeem them from the grave?” All of the classical commentaries, however, render it as a statement of past kindnesses: “I did redeem them from the grave.”
What isn’t clear is what God will do with them after He has taken them. This will be true in the first three of these images – until we meet the snake that will bite those who try to hide at the bottom of the sea. As suggested in last week’s shiur, perhaps this all leads to the “real” punishment, stated in verse 4:
“I will command the sword and it will kill them”
It is also possible that the verb lakach here is leading us to the next prophetic figure whose story plays a role in Amos’s poetry – see the next section.
Ve-im ya’alu ha-shamayim
And though they climb up to heaven,
In Melakhim II 2, the story of Eliyahu’s ascent to heaven is presented within the literary pattern of 3+1 with which we are already familiar from Amos (chapters 1-2). Elisha doggedly follows Eliyahu from Gilgal to Beit-El to Yericho, each a stop where Eliyahu bids farewell to his students, until they reach the Yarden, where he will leave this earth. In that story, which is titled be-ha’alot Hashem et Eliyahu ha-Shamayim – “When Hashem raised Eliyahu up to the heavens” – the verb lakach is used six times, in three pairs. Twice, the students tell Elisha that Hashem is “taking your master from your head today” (vv. 3, 5). Twice, Eliyahu talks about his own impending ascent as “my being taken” (elakach – v. 9; lukach – v. 10), and twice, the word is used in reference to “taking” Eliyahu’s cloak – once by Eliyahu (v. 8) and once, after Eliyahu’s ascent, by his disciple Elisha (v. 14). In both cases, the cloak is used to effect a split of the waters.
I would like to suggest that the use of yadi tikachem at the end of the previous clause leads into this clause and connects the Yona-image to the Eliyahu-image of going up to heaven.
Even though Eliyahu did not go up to heaven to escape from God, he did demonstrate a willingness to run away from his mission and even, like Yona, a desire to be rid of his mortal coil rather than continue his mission (Melakhim I 19:4).
These two figures, Eliyahu from two generations before Amos and Yona, an older contemporary of his, were well-known for the stories of their attempts to flee God’s mission. They serve as extreme examples and are useful, rhetorically, for Amos’s purpose in describing the impossibility and futility of flight from God.
Mi-sham orideim
From there I will bring them down.
This final verb – orideim – says it all. This is not merely (if at all) a vertical direction; their high post will not stand for them and they will be brought down.
One final point before leaving this verse. The two stories of Yona and Eliyahu, as we see, are subtly interwoven into this verse, as well as the next (as we will discover in next week’s shiur). Just as the use of yadi tikachem in the “She’ol unit” bridges to the Eliyahu allusion, similarly the ominous orideim turns us back to She’ol.
Another obvious and powerful example of the 3+1 literary pattern in Tanakh is found in the opening verses of Yona. When he gets up in response to God’s command, instead of going “up” towards Nineveh, his commanded destination and intended audience, he “goes down” three times:
Va-yered Yafo…va-yered bah…yarad el yarketei ha-sefina…va-yishkav va-yeradam. (Yona 1:3, 5)
The first three all mean “go down” using the same root as ours – yarad. Yona goes down to the port, down into the boat, and down into the hold. The final word – the “+1” – is “went to sleep,” but instead of using the expected va-yishan, the text deliberately uses va-yeradam, where the root is radam. The near homophone produces the desired effect – (1) down, (2) down, (3) down…to (4) sleep (wishing to die).
God promising to “bring down” anyone who tries to escape to heaven is a clever way of reintroducing the Yona story into the second clause, just as Eliyahu was subtly brought into the first clause via the use of yadi tikachem.
In next week’s shiur, we will examine verse 3 and see how the themes and allusions of verse 2 are brilliantly continued.

[1] See Shadal ad loc. for a survey of approaches to this abstruse phrase.
[2] See, e.g. Shmuel I 13:6; 14:11, 22.