The Hemlock in Amos’ Prophecy

Conium maculatum flowerAmos’ comparison of the Northern Kingdom to a poisonous hemlock plant is found in Amos 6:12.

Amos is the third book of the Minor Prophets.  The minor prophets were considered minor in the sense that their books were much smaller than those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, not because their messages were less important.  Amos prophesied over a 10 year period, 760-750 B.C.

Amos’ home was Tekoa, a town about 12 miles south of Jerusalem.  When God called him to be a prophet, Amos was a herdsman and tender of sycamore trees.  Amos completed most of his ministry in the area of Bethel, the Northern Kingdom’s main sanctuary.  At Bethel, Jeroboam I set up one of the golden calves soon after the 10 Northern tribes formed an independent kingdom.  All manner of pagan worship practices occurred at Bethel.  At the time of Amos’ prophecy the Northern Kingdom was politically secure and prosperous under the rule of Jeroboam II (sole reign 782-753 B.C.).

Amos was a vehement spokesman for God’s justice.  He argued that true righteousness and piety were displayed through social justice for all citizens.  Although Amos did not identify Assyria as the means of God’s judgment on the Northern Kingdom, he warned them that God’s judgment was fast approaching.  The judgment would be more than military conquest and tribute to a foreign conqueror.  It would involve total destruction of the Northern Kingdom as a nation and dispersion of its citizens to foreign lands.  Amos accused leaders and ordinary citizens of turning justice into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock (Amos 6:12, TEB).  Hemlock was a poisonous plant.

The Hemlock Plant

The botanical name for the hemlock plant is Conium maculatum, also known as the poisonous hemlock. It is indigenous to Eastern Mediterranean countries where it is classified as a toxic weed.  In about 399 B.C., the Greek philosopher Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock poison as a means of committing suicide.  Poisonous hemlock is found on banks of streams and rivers, along roadsides and hedgerows, in wasteland, pastures, and meadow lands.  The poisonous hemlock should not be confused with the Canadian hemlock tree  or the American water hemlock tree.  A single plant can produce 35,000-40,000 seeds.  Leaves and seeds are harvested for medicinal purposes are the leaves and seeds; however, medicinal uses of hemlock are limited because of the closeness of therapeutic and poisonous levels.  Sometimes childrenay see the plant top, mistake it for carrots or parsley, and eat it.  Because hemlocks are rare in North America and initially hemlock signs and symptoms mimic other acute conditions, physicians may not immediately diagnose hemlock poisoning when children present in emergency departments.

Symbolism: Poison

At times the hemlock plant has been associated with bitterness, calamity, and sorrow.  In Amos, the Hebrew word laʽǎnâh was used as the word for hemlock; the word laʽǎnâh comes from an unused root meaning “to curse.”  All these words are good candidates for the symbolism of poisonous hemlock; however, I am going to associate the hemlock plant with poison or poisonous.  A poison is a substance that kills, injures or impairs; it is destructive, harmful, and corrupt. Poisonous described the hemlock plant and best depicted the words and behaviors of the Northern Kingdom leaders and citizens in the book of Amos.

When I looked at the behavior of the Northern Kingdom people, I thought, “I’m never going to act like they did; nor say and do the things they did.”  Then, I recalled some Bible teachings on poison and the tongue.  In Psalms (140:3), we read that evil men make their tongues as sharp as the poison of snakes.  Similarly, James pointed out that man has tamed all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea, but man cannot take the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of poison (James 3:7-8).  James said that the tongue is set on fire by hell which is a figuratively way of saying by the devil (James 3:6).

Reflection:  Some days my tongue is so sharp that I am embarrassed by what comes out of my mouth.  On those days, my words are not from God; but, from the Devil. Have you ever wished words unsaid? How can we prevent poison from coming out of our mouths?

I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/

Copyright July 7, 2012; carolyn a. roth

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