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What the Heck Is an 'Ephah'?

Rev. John M. Edgerton
Sep 18 2016


The prophet Amos shouts God’s judgment against society, saying “they use an ephah that is too small, and practice deceit with false measures, The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. I will turn the sky to darkness and your feasts to lamentations.”

You could be forgiven if you’re wondering: what is God talking about here? What is an ephah and why does God care so much about it? Remember that God goes full on judgment day with this – sun darkened, wailing and lamentations, all over an ephah that’s too small. What is this all about? What is an ephah anyway?

Well, an ephah was a unit of measurement used in the marketplace. It wasn’t very big, something like about the size of a five gallon bucket, give or take. And it really was a bucket, each merchant would have one of their own buckets, their own ephah behind the counter in the marketplace to measure out household goods being sold. I go to the market to buy flour to make bread, and the merchant would pull out their ephah from behind the counter, fill it up with flour, and that’s what I would pay for. Now in reality, it was only poor people buying flour this way. It was the poor who had to stretch to make ends meet every month who would buy flour for their daily bread one ephah at a time in the market. At any rate, that’s what an ephah is, but it still doesn’t explain why God should care.

The reason God cares was the merchants were using the ephah as a way to cheat poor people out of what little money they had. I can’t just bring my own bucket to the marketplace and say it was one ephah, the merchants didn’t allow it. No doubt citing the possibility of fraud and abuse perpetrated by the poor against the rich, the merchants would only sell goods that they measured with their own ephah, they kept it behind the counter.

And wouldn’t you know it, the rich merchants began to fraudulently tamper with their ephahs. One merchant would put a thick coat of wax on the bottom of the bucket and then paint it brown, so that the bucket looked the same but didn’t hold as much. They would still charge me full price, as if I was getting a full ephah, but I would really get 9 tenths. Every tenth ephah, that’s pure profit, money picked out of the pockets of the poor. And another merchant, seeing that this other shop seemed to be making so much more money than them, would maybe sand down the top of their ephah just a little bit every day so that at the end of six months it didn’t hold as much but you could never catch them in it. There were a hundred ways to make the ephah too small, a hundred ways for the rich merchants to cheat the poor. It didn’t happen all at once. But little by little, year over year, generation by generation, the rich merchants got richer and the poor got poorer. And it happened so slowly that one day people finally couldn’t take it and cried out to God, God how come I just can’t seem to get ahead? How did this happen?

God knew how it had happened. God knew why the poor couldn’t catch a break. So God sends the prophet Amos the thunder of God’s judgment, saying “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, using an ephah that is too small you practice deceit using false measures, buying the poor as if they were silver and the needy like they were a pair of shoes. By the pride of Jacob I will never forget what you have done. 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.”

This is why God cares about the ephah. Because God cares about the poor and needy and vulnerable. The minutest detail about weights and measures is not minutia to God, if it relates to how the poor and needy fare. Here in the prophet Amos, we see God’s true character. Here in the heart of the Bible we learn that God is horrified by an economic order where the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. This is the God we proclaim here at this church, the God we meet everywhere in the Bible. We proclaim the God of Joseph, the languishing prisoner, The God of Daniel the war refugee. We worship the God of David the farmhand with big dreams. We adore the God of Jesus, even Jesus himself, who was born poor and grew up poor – Jesus whose love for the poor would be no surprise to anyone who knows the Bible. The God who is angry as hornets if a rich merchant is cheating the poor every time they buy an ephod of flour, this is the God we meet in the Bible, this is the God we proclaim at this church.

And Christians, the world is hungry to hear about this God. More than that, the world is hungry for a community that lives out the values of this living God. That is what we are about here in the church. We are a community of people, rich and poor and everywhere in between, people trying to live by God’s values, the ones we read in the Bible. That is what we are trying to be about, anyway.

Because God cares about the poor, this church helps homeless seniors move into housing. Because God cares about the forgotten, we support programs for teen moms, and for after school programs for middle schoolers from the projects. Because God cares that people have to choose between rent and groceries, we are fighting to change the law at the ballot box and increase support for affordable housing by voting yes on question five. Because God redeems people from the depths of misery, this church is a true ally to people in recovery, where people with long term sobriety sit next to people shaky from their latest bout. Because Jesus died homeless and alone, we mourn the death of countless people on the street, and we started a mobile soup kitchen to go out into the streets to meet people where they are and eat with them.

I am proud of this, but God is calling us to do more. And we at Old South Church are recommitting to do more. We are committing to make a bigger difference than ever before in how our society treats the poor, to spread the good news of God wider than ever before, to raise up more new Christian leaders than ever before, to make this church more accessible than ever before. To do this we have just launched a capital campaign. Maybe you have been part of capital campaigns before that were about a new building or a new roof, that’s not what this is about. Maybe you’ve been part of campaigns before that were all about money, that’s not what this is about either. This campaign is about a new commitment to be a church that lives up to the highest values of the faith, the call to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. And we need everyone who will want to make this place their spiritual home to commit to this campaign. Whatever it is that you can give, whether what you can give is a financial gift, or the gift of prayer, or the gift of discerning a call to ministry, or the gift of dreaming up an ambitious new program that will require huge resources, because hear this – this campaign will take all of us if it is to be faithful to God, and only if it is faithful to God do we dare have confidence we will succeed.

Because make no mistake, humanity is no different today than it was when the Bible was written. It may not be the ephah that is being used to cheat the poor out of their money, but when a drug company can charge $700 for a single dose of life-saving allergy medicine the anger of God still thunders, when payday loans can charge 1400% APR and call it legal, the anger of God still thunders. God is not mocked and the minutest details of vicious greed are not minutia to God. The world needs people who will live out God’s call, who will strive to live by Godly values. The world is hungry for a church like the one Old South dreams of being. Will you join us? Do you dare?