Amos: A Prophet For Our Time
Amos was an ordinary shepherd or farmer in Judea, the southern Jewish kingdom. At some point, he became convinced that the behavior of the Jewish religious and political elites was against God's will--even though they claimed to be God's messengers--and he decided to speak up about it. Unlike the religious and political elites, God did not care about his humble background. One did not need to be born to a specific social class in order to know God.
"I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores [an occupation of a common peasant]. The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel. Now hear the word of the LORD!" (7:14-16)
It's difficult to understand the radical nature of Amos' message today. Amos was one of the earliest prophets, and his message was beyond shocking. Previous and subsequent prophets (like Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah) wrongly insisted that the Jewish people could never lose a war because God was always on their side. God would strike down the enemies of his people, and anyone who was not Jewish was simply expendable or worse. At this point in history, Jewish armies had a very successful military history, and this appeared to be the case.
But Amos brought a terrifying message. God would not always be on Israel's slide. Israel did not have exclusive access to God. The self-destructive foreign policy that the Jewish states of Israel and Judah were engaged in would bring disaster. Amos even attacked the Exodus story--the Israelites' treasured national epic--saying that God had liberated the Philistines (a hated rival of Israel) from the land of Caphtor* and the Arameans, another hated group from present-day Syria, from Kir*. God says that Israel is not special, that the Ethiopians, a people who lived in a land far away from Israel, were just as important to him as the Jews.
"Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O men of Israel, says the LORD? Did I not bring the Israelites from the land of Egypt as I brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (9:7)
This, too, was completely radical and shocking. While religion in his time was tightly associated with national exclusivity--each nation had their own religion and their gods did not look with favor upon other nations--Amos preached religious inclusiveness that was unheard of in his time and place. Israel was not special. God was the protector of the weak, wherever and whomever they were, even if they were people of other religions. God would help all oppressed people. He favored no nation or religion, but was always on the side of the oppressed.
But Amos went further still. Amos preached that God had seen the decadence of the Jewish religious and political elites, and knew that they derived their care-free luxury from the suffering of others. God knew this, and was furious.
They sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way. (2:6-7)
Yes, I know how many are your crimes, how grievous your sins: Oppressing the just, accepting bribes, repelling the needy at the gate! (5:12)
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! "When will the new moon be over," you ask, "that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah [a dishonest business practice], add to the shekel [another dishonest business practice], and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell! [another dishonest business practice]" The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! (8:4-7)
Gather about the mountain of Samaria [near the border of Israel], and see the great disorders within her, the oppression in her midst." For they know not how to do what is right, says the LORD, storing up in their castles what they have extorted and robbed. (3:9-10)
Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! [economic struggles of ordinary Jews] (6:4-6)
God was in fact so furious, Amos contended, that he was prepared to punish Israel. This was not "prophecy" as we think of it today--someone who can see into the future. A prophet in Amos' time simply meant someone who brought God's message. In Amos' lifetime, the Assyrian empire was reaching the height of it's power, and was poised to conquer Israel and Judah. Any casual observer would have noticed that only the most cautious of diplomacy could possibly avoid invasion and genocide at the hands of the Assyrians. This did not require some magical ability to see into the future. Amos took a realistic look at events and concluded that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in a perilous foreign policy position. Nevertheless, Jewish high priests and prophets such as Isaiah naively assured the political leaders and populace as a whole that God would intervene supernaturally to protect them from invasion. Amos realized this attitude was suicidal and took a sober, realistic perspective. He was correct--Assyrian armies eventually invaded and brought genocide** to Israel. Amos lived in a different time, and felt the need to read some meaning into the history that was quite obviously about to unfold to the detriment to his people. The natural conclusion was that Assyrian conquest was a direct result of Israel's failure to protect the poor, orphans, and widows of their society. Yet this was a radically new idea--even outside of Israel and Judea. State deities never favored their adherents' enemies. Yet, according to Amos, even the violent Assyrians were a part of God's vision.
By the sword shall all sinners among my people die, those who say, "Evil will not reach or overtake us." (9:10)
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD: An enemy shall surround the land, and strip you of your strength, and pillage your castles. (3:11)
Beware, I am raising up against you, O house of Israel, say I, the LORD, the God of hosts, A nation that shall oppress you. (6:14)
Therefore, because you have trampled upon the weak and exacted of them levies of grain, though you have built houses of hewn stone, you shall not live in them! Though you have planted choice vineyards, you shall not drink their wine! (5:11)
Then will I strike the winter house and the summer house; The ivory apartments shall be ruined, and their many rooms shall be no more, says the LORD. (3:15)
God's top priority, according to Amos, was that the vulnerable of society were cared for. Luxury was unacceptable when so many could not afford basic amenities. Displays of "piety," like religious festivals, when the poor continued to be marginalized, were a disgrace. Foremost in God's mind was the suffering that was caused by other people's excessive greed. Whereas the Jewish religion (and other Mesopotamian religions) until this point was marked by ritual, Amos insisted that God was more concerned with an individual's own ethical behavior. Rituals were meaningless and even scorned by God when the powerless of society were ignored. Devotion and sacrifice was meaningless in God's eyes. God was only interested in a just society.
I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream. (5:21-24)
Make no mistake--it was within the power of the political authorities to imprison or even execute political or religious dissidents. Amos believed his message of social justice was worth his life.
So should we. In our own time--nearly 3000 years later--Amos' incisive words have only become more relevant. 2 billion people are forced to live on less than a dollar per day. 1 billion people have inadequate food (more than the population of the United States, Canada, and European Union combined). 1 million infants die each year because of vitamin A deficiencies. 2 billion people worldwide have iron deficiencies. One child dies of malnutrition every six seconds. 1.5 million children die of diarrhea each year (more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined), while treating such a condition costs pennies. 29 million people worldwide toil as slaves. In America, 1% of people earn 23.5% of all income, and 10% earn 88% of all income. The inequities are staggering. Additionally, religious exclusivity and intolerance are endemic problems. Religious virtue is determined by political agendas, and not by personal ethical behavior. These problems are not new. Though he lived nearly 3000 years ago, we need Amos today, perhaps more than his own people did. We are turning to static teachings of the past for our ethical guidelines, and misinterpreting their actual intentions, rather than trusting God's voice in our own lives for ethical behavior. Like Amos, it is the responsibility of those even with ordinary backgrounds to speak out against injustice. Our times are like Amos' times, where great injustice is commonplace and those who demand change are ignored.
Note: Keep in mind the nature of Amos' ministry. He was a commoner, and thus no one would listen to him unless he shocked them. His only way to spread his message was to stand on a street corner and shout his message. Thus, he was forced to use violent and imminent doom-filled imagery in order to accumulate an audience. This affects what he says; the imagery must be shocking and violent or nobody would have listened. In other words, if you sat down with Amos and said, "I'd like to hear what you think," his choice of words would be entirely different since he has no need attract attention. Thus, it is important to look past the words he uses to figure out what point he is trying to get across.
* Where Amos was referring to by Caphtor has been lost to history, but an educated guess places it somewhere near the north-central Mediterranean Sea. Kir simply means a walled place.
**It should be noted that the Assyrians failed to conquer Jerusalem, but this can hardly be considered a victory for Israel. The Assyrians left nearly all of Israel in ruins, destroying cities, villages, farms, and crops, and killing thousands before turning to Jerusalem. As they were poised to conquer Jerusalem and execute every inhabitant (which was customary of conquering Assyrian armies), a large portion of the Assyrian army fell victim to an epidemic. Because of this, Jerusalem and all its inhabitants were spared, but the massive loss of life and damage done to the rest of Israel would take centuries to recover from.