Did Amos See a Plumbline?

plumbline

I read  a recent post making some notes on Amos 7:7-17. Although there is much I would care to comment on, one issue in particular caught my attention. As with the author of this particular post, most Bible translations render the Amos 7:7 something like the NASB: “Thus He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in His hand” (An exception appears in the NET Bible). While the idea of a “plumbline,” appearing four times in vv. 7-8, has become a cherished image (not to mention a controlling feature of many sermons!), I want to join those who raise a red flag on this translation.

As many commentators note, the Hebrew noun אֲנָךְ is woefully ambiguous. A host of interpretive renditions and emendations have been put forward, but no degree of consensus has emerged. The widely adopted “plumbline” has its roots in the Akkadian cognate annaku “tin,” which some view as interchangeable with the metal lead. The latter became the standard interpretation following Medieval exegesis. The logic of this interpretation is that the metal lead by metonymy represents a lead weight ie. a plumbline. The idea that this noun represented some type of metallic object is supported by several ancient versions such as the Old Greek and Symmachus (ἀδάμας “steel”?), Theodotion (τηκόμενον “molten”), as well as the Peshitta and Vulgate.

Yet is “plumbline” really what Amos envisioned? Granted, it does fit the context. Yet against this view is the analysis of Landsberger (“Tin and Lead: The Adventures of Two Vocables.” JNES 24 [1965]: 285-96″) and others, who have shown that אֲנָךְ cannot be understood as “lead,” and thus cannot mean plumbline. While one need not except Landsberger’s conclusions that “tin” is the preferred translation, we can agree that the Medieval interpretation itself stands on shaky ground.

I do not in anyway want to overly simply the text-critical problem in this passage, but I do want to voice a caution. Whether a clear alternative will win the votes of scholars is not likely. Indeed, plumbline may be here to stay. Yet, I would be hesitant to make too much of this point.

The focus of the vision is the inevitability of judgment for Israel. Yahweh will no longer pass by the people as he did for the exodus generation (v. 8b). Their guilt was self evident even without a plumbline. The idolatries of the high places and foreign sanctuaries were ripe for judgment and were destined for the same end as their chief patron, the king. Whatever Amos saw, he recognized it as an means of retribution. One that would do its work until Yahweh saw fit to rebuild fallen the booth of David (9:11).

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4 Comments

Filed under Amos

4 responses to “Did Amos See a Plumbline?

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. If “tin” were the accepted translation, what would the symbolism be? Frailty?

    • I’m not sure that tin is the best solution, but those who go that way generally assume frailty/impurity. Most do not consistently translate tin for all four occurrences but emend one or two.

      My reservations on tin are the connection it would have with judgment and if Amos would recognize a lump of tin in Yahweh’s hand.

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