Gene Tucker in his HarperCollins Study Bible commentary on Amos is not kidding when he calls Amos 6:9-10 a “mysterious and ominous little scene.” The New Revised Standard Version translates vv 9-10 as follows:
“If ten people remain in one house, they shall die. And if a relative, one who burns the dead, shall take up the body to bring it out of the house, and shall say to someone in the innermost parts of the house, ‘Is anyone else with you?’ the answer will come, ‘No.’ Then the relative shall say, ‘Hush! We must not mention the name of the LORD.'”
What exactly is going on here? And what does not mentioning the name of the LORD have to do with any of this?
As is my custom, I checked the HarperCollins Study Bible and the Jewish Study Bible to find come historical-critical interpretations of this passage. And, as is usually the case, I walked away disappointed. The HarperCollins Study Bible merely said that this was a scene of “survivors hiding among the ruins and the bodies of the slain.” Thanks a lot! I couldn’t have figured that out on my own. So how does not mentioning the name of the LORD fit into all of this? But, to its credit, at least the HarperCollins Study Bible tried to offer an interpretation. The Jewish Study Bible didn’t even comment on the verses.
And so I decided to consult the old E-Sword commentaries and that famous Jewish exegete of exegetes, Rashi. All of them made a good-faith effort to uncover the passage’s plain sense meaning in light of its immediate context, or its peshat. But they arrived at various and interesting conclusions.
Here are what some of the commentaries have to say:
1. Albert Barnes envisions this scenario: There are ten people dying of pestilence in the house. One of their relatives, an uncle, comes to burn their dead bodies, since his function as a kinsman is to take care of their corpses. Barnes asserts that the Israelites ordinarily did not practice cremation, for they preferred burial places as an indication of their belief in the bodily resurrection. But they were burning the dead bodies at this time to contain the rampant pestilence that was sweeping the land.
The uncle notices that one of the people is barely alive, so he pulls him out of the house and asks him if there are any other survivors. He answers “no,” then the uncle tells him not to mention God’s name. According to Barnes, the Israelites were bitter with God because he had brought all of this wrath upon them. They had wanted nothing to do with God in their lives, when things were going well, and so they never really identified God as beneficent. Now, they want nothing to do with God at their deaths, since they only know him in terms of his vengeance. They shake their fists at God in the midst of their own punishment.
Barnes’ interpretation looks reasonable, except when he projects later Jewish belief in the resurrection onto the time of Amos.
2. John Calvin offers a similar interpretation in his Geneva Bible, only, for him, the Israelites at one time boasted about God’s name and their status as God’s people, but they came to abhor God when they experienced his wrath. As far as the cremation is concerned, Calvin argues that there were few people to help with the burial of the dead, so someone burned the bodies at their homes so that he could dispose of them more easily. Calvin also seems to view cremation as out of the ordinary for the Israelite people, so he says that they only practiced it in emergency situations.
3. Gill sees another scenario. The uncle asks one of the survivors if there is anyone else who is alive in the house. The answer he hears is “no.” Just as the survivor is about to curse God, the uncle tells him to be quiet, for they all deserve their punishment. So Gill views the uncle as an advocate for quiet acceptance rather than continued rebellion against God.
4. John Wesley offers the possibility that the uncle feels the time for seeking God has passed, since they are experiencing God’s wrath. Therefore, he discourages the dying person from doing so.
5. Matthew Henry gives another option: “Perhaps it was forbidden by some of the idolatrous kings to make mention of the name of Jehovah, as by the law of Moses it was forbidden to make mention of the names of the heathen-gods: ‘We may not do it without incurring the penalty.'” This is possible, since the Bible does portray certain rulers (e.g., Jezebel, Manasseh) getting rough with the Yahwist population. At the same time, why would a person who is about to die care about what an idolatrous king thinks of him?
6. Like other commentators, Keil and Delitzsch posit some practical reasons for the cremation, namely, logistics and germ control: “The description of the burier as mesârēph (a burner) therefore supposes the occurrence of such a multitude of deaths that it is impossible to bury the dead, whose corpses are obliged to be burned, for the purpose of preventing the air from being polluted by the decomposition of the corpses.” Regarding the uncle’s desire to avoid the name of the LORD, Keil and Delitzsch contend that he does not want the dying man to draw God’s attention. “God is slaying the Israelite population!” the uncle is thinking. “It’s best if this God does not know we are here.”
7. Rashi presents this scenario: The enemy has just set a house on fire. There is an uncle and a person who is removing a body from the burning house. Rashi apparently takes the mesareph to be someone who rescues bodies from burning, not the burner himself. The rescuer asks the survivor if there are others in the house who are still alive, and he answers “no.” In accordance with Targum Jonathan, Rashi interprets the rescuer to respond, “For this comes to them because they did not want to mention the Name of the Lord.” For Rashi, v 10 means that God is punishing the Israelites because they had never cultivated a relationship with God. And Rashi’s interpretation is one possible way to see that part of v 10, for it only says, “for not to mention in the name of the LORD.” Interpreters and translators can fill in the gaps in a variety of ways.
So we have all of these understandings of Amos 6:10. They all present plausible interpretations, along with insights of how people respond to God in the face of their punishment.