December 4, 2004
Amos’ prophecy against Israel is the culmination of eight reproofs against the various nations for transgressions against both God and human beings. After the prophet has captured the attention of the people by prophesying against Israel’s enemies, he feels assured of his ability to achieve his ultimate aim which is to contend with the wrongdoings of his own people. (S. Paul, Amos – Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 48)
This prophecy, as well as those which precede it, opens with the formula: “Thus said the Lord: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, Even for four I will not revoke it…’” (Amos 2:6) The meaning of this formula has been a source of debate among commentators since earliest times. Professor Shalom Paul has concluded that the plain sense of this formula (pshat) expresses the prophet’s revulsion at the exceptional depravity of the enumerated sins and God’s consequential punishment of their perpetrators. Amos chose typological numbers (3 and 4) to signify in a poetic way the absolute nature of the sins. The number 3 represents completeness and the number 4 which exceeds 3, implies an extending of the idea of completeness to a climax, leaving the sense that the evil being perpetrated is so awful that God has no alternative but to act upon it. (p. 10)
Earlier commentators saw a different message in this formula: It is taught [in a baraita]: Rabbi Jose ben Judah: If a person commits a transgression, the first second, third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven, as it is written: “This said the Lord: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not reverse it… (Bavli Yoma 86b) This teaching seems to indicate that God will be indulgent (long suffering) for up to three sins but after the third sin, a person suffers the consequences of his/her sins.
Rabbi Saadia Gaon (9th century Egypt, Israel, Babylonia) asserted that the formula referred not to sins but rather to messages of warning: “[The verse] refers to the question of whether punishment can be warded off after the dispatch of warnings. God might, for example, send a warning to the people, saying: ‘Repent or I will exact retribution from you…’ If, now, they repent after the first, second, or third warning, the threatened punishment is cancelled. If they do not, then the punishment is irrevocable. And even though, they might repent after the fourth warning, their punishment in this world cannot be averted, though it may avail to save them from punishment in the world to come.” (Emunot v’Deot 3:5)
It is clear from Amos’ message and from each of these interpretations that life offers us the possibility to change and fix ourselves. It is important to realize, though, that these chances, like life, are finite. There might always come a time when change, even teshuva (repentance), might not achieve ideal results. Real opportunities should not be passed up.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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