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The Prophet Amos

In my previous post I started to give some of the background to the rise of Jewish apocalypticism by talking about the views of the classical Hebrew prophets, focusing, by way of illustration, on arguably the earliest, Amos.   Here I continue that discussion:

 

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The Message of Amos

The book of Amos begins by addressing nations outside of Israel, indicating that because of their multiple sins, God would enter into judgment with them (chs. 1-2).  This is an important beginning: it shows that God is not simply the God of Judah and Israel, he is the God of all nations, and holds all people accountable for their actions.  And it shows that national suffering comes not only when one nation mistreats another, but also when God intervenes and rains his judgment down upon them.  And so Amos starts by attacking the capital of Syria, Damascus:

Thus says the LORD:  For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron.  So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael… I will break the gate bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven. (1:3-5)

In other words, for three or four sins (meaning: a whole lot of them) committed by the people of Damascus, in Syria, God will judge them.  They destroyed the city of Gilead, and so God will reciprocate by destroying them by fire and military invasion.

Amos makes a similar proclamation six more times in chapter 1-2, against Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and even Judah.   One gets the sense, reading these harsh castigations of others, that the Israelite hearing these things must be cheering Amos on from the sidelines, since all of these other nations were thorns in Israel’s side, at one time or another.   But then the prophet turns on those cheering: they are not in a better position than these others, but in one that is much worse.  Now there is a proclamation against Israel:

Thus says the LORD:  For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way…. (2:6-7)

In many respects Israel is even more guilty than all the other nations.  Israel was the one chosen by God at the exodus, the one led by God through the wilderness.   Even though God had delivered them and called them to be his people, they had turned on him.   This was most evident in their failure to care for the needy and oppressed, whom they sold into slavery and on whose heads they trampled.  And now God will respond in kind and turn on them:

So, I will press you down in your place just as a cart presses down when it is full of sheaves.  Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives… and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day. (2:13-15)

The proclamations against Israel are delivered in rhetorically vibrant and powerful language.   “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities”  (3:2).  Amos wants to insist that it is precisely because Israel is the chosen people that their sins are so heinous before God.  Being members of the covenant not only brings privileges; it also brings ethical responsibilities for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.  If these covenantal obligations are shirked, punishment will follow, and Israel has only itself to blame.

Amos stresses that the coming suffering for the nation will derive not from the accidents of history, the misfortune of living near a mighty world empire, the bad luck of being a relatively weak and minor nation in the path of an aggressive foreign power.   The suffering will come because God is punishing the people for their sin.  It is all his doing.   Nowhere is this stressed more than in the rhetorical questions of 3:3-6.  Each of these questions is to be answered “no,” until the logic of the sequence forces one to answer even the final one “no.”  Do people walk together if they haven’t agreed to do so?  (Answer: no.)  Do lions roar if they don’t have any prey?  Does a bird fall into a snare if there isn’t a trap set for it?  Does a snare spring up if nothing falls into it?  Does the trumpet that indicates a military attack sound in the city without making people afraid?  And then the climax:  “Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (3:6).  Again, the answer must be no.   The disaster that is about to fall is not the doing of some foreign, hostile power.  It is the act of God.

And why is God so set on punishing Israel?  For Amos it is principally because of ethical violations involving issues of social injustice.  It is because you “oppress the poor… crush the needy”; it is “because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain…. You… afflict the righteous … and push the afflicted out of the way” (3:6-7)   Amos portrays Israel as rotten to the core:  “They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” (3:10).

And what will God do in response?  There will be military attack, and the nation will fall.  “Therefore thus says the LORD God: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defense; and your strongholds shall be plundered” (3:11); “they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away” (6:7).  And so, in Amos’s famous lament:  “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsake on her land, with no one to raise her up” (5:1).

The people of Israel cannot complain that they have not been given fair warning.  Not only have the prophets made proclamation, but God himself has brought suffering on the people in order to get them to turn back to him.  This is stated in a series of divine laments in 4:6-12.  God indicates that he brought famine, to try to get the people to repent: “yet you did not return to me”; he brought a serious drought: “yet you did not return to me”; he destroyed their crops with blight and mildew and locusts: “yet you did not return to me”; he brought an epidemic and military defeat: “yet you did not return to me.”  And since they have failed to return to him, despite everything that he has tried to do in order to get them to sit up and take notice, the outcome will be dire:  “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (6:12).   In this context, “meeting your God” is not a happy occasion.  At all.

Amos goes on to stress that what God wants is social justice and ethical behavior.  What he does not want is the attempt to thwart his purposes by performing seemingly highly religious activities, instead of caring for the poor and hungry.   Some people in Israel – probably like many other people in many other times and places – appear to have thought that what God wants is the proper worship: performing the sacrifices to God in the proper way, remembering to celebrate religious festivals, conducting proper worship services.  But for Amos, this is not at all what God really wants.  He wants a just society.  And so, Yahweh himself is portrayed as saying in no uncertain terms:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  (5:21-24)

Like other prophets, Amos often spoke using metaphors and parables.  In Chapters 7-9 he is said to have seen five visions, each of which were images of judgment – for example, an attack of locusts, a wild fire, and a “plumb line” (which is used to see if a wall is straight; if not, you have to tear it down and start again.  This is not a hopeful metaphor for the people of God, if they do not “line up” well.)

 

THERE is a bit more to say about Amos – I will pick up here in my next post.

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Amos as a Representative Prophet
The Prophetic Background of Jewish Apocalyptic Thought

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Comments

  1. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 12, 2016

    Out of all the prophetic books in OT, which one(s) do you consider the most historically accurate and why?
    Since you are a historian, it would be interesting to know how you approach John’s Revelation. Not as an overview but an in-depth study. Have you written about it in any of your books?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2016

      I’m not sure what you mean by “historically accurate.” The prophets are rarely giving historical narratives. When they do — as in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, they do indeed give us valuable historical information.

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  January 12, 2016

        if i am correct, amos is the one who doesn’t like bloody animal sacrificial rituals, right?

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  January 12, 2016

        If I wanted to know when a battle or war took place, who the reigning king was at the time, and the outcome of the war, could the Prophets be relied on for accuracy? I’ve read that Sennacherib’s Annals give a different account describing events surrounding Hezekiah than what’s written in the Book of Kings.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2016

          Yes, they tend to be fairly accurate about that kind of information. But the book of Kings is less so (it’s not a prophet)

  2. Avatar
    flshrP  January 12, 2016

    What is your take on the idea advanced by some scholars that these prophecies of Amos are actually postdictions?

  3. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 12, 2016

    I think Jesus had similar ideas to Amos. It’s not just about keeping the law, it’s about treating each other well- feed the hungry, give to the poor, help the homeless- or God will bring judgement. For Amos it was judgement on Israel, for Jesus it was judgement on YOU.

  4. Avatar
    plparker  January 13, 2016

    I think the statement from Amos ” let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” is the one that appears on the civil rights memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a beautiful saying. It was also in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and perhaps also in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

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