Amos is full of powerful, telling metaphors. In today’s OT reading (Amos 9:1-10), buried amidst all of the hard-to-read language about death and destruction, there is an image that the prophet uses to describe God’s work that jumped out away from all the rest of the collateral damage. It’s in the last three verses of the lesson:
The eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth-except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD. For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, "Evil shall not overtake or meet us."
What does it mean to shake the house of Israel as one shakes with a sieve?
One summer, I spent a long, hot week working with an amateur archeology team. In different spots in Mobile County, Alabama, we sifted and shook pile after pile after pile of dirt. Mostly in places of scant academic value, we used two-person sieves to separate plain dirt from any object that might be worth keeping. Among the very few pieces of pottery or building material were a great many pebbles and stones. Picking through them and throwing them out was a reminder of how tireless and futile our work was. But it served an important purpose: as long as the pebbles and rocks ended up in the sieve and not on the ground the other objects of value (coins, jewelry, etc.) also stayed in the sieve.
Separation. In the midst of chaos and devastation, God seems to be interested in preserving his relationship with those who still love him. I’m not sure Amos’ approach to covenant and grace fit well into contemporary expressions of theology, but I still like the sieve image. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t much else to hold on to from this passage. But I choose to think of the sieve as a sign of careful, discriminating love.
What does it mean for God to remember us and separate us and preserve us in a time when it seems as if God has turned away from everyone else? Well, I’m not really sure that’s how God works—destroying the wicked and preserving the good. But, when we’re surrounded by that much destruction, I think it’s worth holding on to whatever image of protection we can.
God doesn’t dispense with his people indiscriminately—even though terrible things like hurricanes, warfare, famine, and flood do. Behind every tragedy is God’s sieve. Even if we are subject to real tragedy, God is plucking us out and holding on to us. Although, in the original image, it’s the pebbles that get tossed out and the wheat that falls through and is kept, I choose to think about God discriminating in the other direction—much like we did that hot summer. As the sieve is shaken, God retains those whom he loves even through dusty, dirty, bumpy times.