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Politics of Scripture

Hospitality or Harm?—Genesis 18:1–10 and Amos 8:1–12

Just as asylum seekers fill US migrant detention centers, so too this week’s lectionary readings address social injustices faced by the stranger and the poor. Both readings present consequences for those who fail to extend hospitality to the vulnerable other.

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures* of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.

Genesis 18:1-10

This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel;
   I will never again pass them by. 
The songs of the temple* shall become wailings on that day,’
says the Lord God;
‘the dead bodies shall be many,
   cast out in every place. Be silent!’ 
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practise deceit with false balances, 
buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ 
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
   and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
   and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 
On that day, says the Lord God,
   I will make the sun go down at noon,
   and darken the earth in broad daylight. 
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
   and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
   and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
   and the end of it like a bitter day. 
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
   when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
   but of hearing the words of the Lord. 
They shall wander from sea to sea,
   and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
   but they shall not find it. 

Amos 8:1-12

This week’s lectionary texts feel as if they were written in direct response to the migrant detention centers at the border between the United States and Mexico. These camps are detaining people who have come to seek asylum in the United States and often separate families in the process. That, on the surface, is bad enough but the conditions in these camps are even worse. These concentration camps deny their prisoners proper nutrition, hygiene, and sleeping arrangements. Due to this lack of care and disregard for human rights, several children have died in US custody.

What makes the matter all the more horrific is that the United States is directly responsible for destabilizing the nations people are fleeing in order to seek the asylum they are ultimately denied.

Just as the US has refused to offer hospitality to those seeking asylum, both Genesis 18:1–10 and Amos 8:1–12 address similar content. Indeed, both texts raise the consequences for what happens when people abandon hospitality and care for others.

The Genesis text exhibits the importance of hospitality. Abraham seems to know right away that the visitors are not ordinary men. Whether or nor not he knows specifically that these are messengers of God, Abraham hastens to care for his guests. He initially offers a simple meal, but it quickly turns into a much larger meal with curds and a slaughtered calf. Maybe consequently to the hospitality he shows or maybe not—the text doesn’t indicate one way or the other—one of the men promises Abraham that his wife Sarah will bear a son.

For the majority of the rest of Genesis 18 and Genesis 19, the focus of the text shifts to the destruction of Sodom. Sodom, famously, is destroyed because of its wickedness and the lack of hospitality shown to Lot’s guests (Genesis 19:1–13). It might seem odd to read these texts together, but the reason these chapters are viewed as a single unit is because the people who visit Lot are the same messengers of God who visit Abraham in the lectionary text. These same messengers visit Lot and experience the other side of hospitality from the inhabitants of Sodom: threats of violence and harm. For Sodom’s wickedness exemplified, but certainly not begun, in this incident, it is destroyed.

So, while this pericope begins with the benefits of hospitality: progeny, it ends with the consequences of what happens when people decline to show hospitality: destruction.

Looking forward canonically from Genesis to the prophets, Amos demonstrates a similar message. The Amos text shows the consequences of a nation who has abandoned the notion of caring for the poor in favor of making the rich prosper. Amos was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom prophesying in the Northern Kingdom 30 to 40 years before the destruction of Israel. This was a time of prosperity for the nation of Israel, but there was a large gap between the poor and the rich. Amos sought to correct this gap by prophesying a message of social justice in order to remind them of God’s laws.

In Amos 8:1–2, the prophet decries the habit of the people of trampling on the poor and needy. The passage begins with Amos seeing a vision of a basket of summer fruit (Amos 8:2). The word for fruit here (qayits) is a play on words because of its relation to the word for end (qets). So, Amos sees a basket of fruit that symbolizes the end. The end is coming for Israel because of their focus on prosperity over and against caring for the poor and needy.

The rest of the passage confirms this message, explaining the wrongs of the nation: bringing ruin to the poor (8:4), disrespecting the Sabbath by wishing it to be over so they can sell grain (8:5), purchasing the poor as slaves and selling the wheat that was meant for the poor (8:6). After laying out these wrongs, Amos speaks the consequences for Israel. In addition to destruction from earthquakes (8:8), Amos says a time of famine is coming when the word of God will depart from them (8:11). People will seek the word of God, but they won’t find it (8:12).

So, Amos points to the fact that while things might seem to be prosperous now, this prosperity will not last when the rich take advantage of the poor and needy. Indeed, destruction and the departure of the word of God are coming.

Genesis 18:1–10 highlights the importance of hospitality, and the following context emphasizes that the consequence of not showing hospitality is death. Similarly, Amos 8:1–12 addresses the vast gap between the rich and poor. In both cases, abandoning God’s command that insists people show care for others, particularly those who have less power or money than you, leads to widespread destruction and the departure of God.

This analysis brings us back to the current situation at the border of the United States. People have come to the United States to seek asylum from situations that have made their home countries uninhabitable. They bring with them stories of rape, domestic violence, persecution, and other horrors. Legally they are allowed to seek asylum. However, they are unlikely to get it. Due to current laws, they are separated from their families and locked in these concentration camps until their cases can be processed.

Asylum is already difficult to receive because it’s often hard to prove and the US administration has sought to narrow the definition of asylum even further.

So, unlike Abraham offers hospitality and much like Sodom threatens violence and harm to visitors, the US is denying asylum to those who have come to seek it. And, to make matters worse, just like Israel in Amos 8:1–12 these concentration camps are exploiting for a profit those who are most in need of protection.

The text says that the punishment for Sodom was destruction and, for Israel, destruction and the lack of the word of God. Maybe the United States deserves the same.

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