The sting of Amos

I wanted to share some observations from reading the Book of Amos this week.

Amos opens with a litany of sins of the peoples. Damascus has threshed Gilead. Gaza and Tyre have taken whole communities captive and sold them to Edom. Edom — the land of Esau’s descendants — has taken the sword against its brother (Jacob’s people). Ammon has “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead.” Moab has burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king.

The particular accusations are likely worth careful study, but we see a litany of sins related to war against the people of Israel and Judah, and even against their brothers the Edomites.

Amos then moves on to list the sins of Judah and Israel. Judah has rejected the law of Yahweh, not kept the Lord’s decrees, and been led astray by false gods. Israel has sold the innocent for silver and the needy for sandals, trampled the heads of the poor, denied justice to the oppressed, engaged in profane sexual relations, refused to return garments taken in pledge, and gotten drunk in the house of God on wine taken as fines.

I’m not sure if Amos’ charges against Judah reflect a protest against the Davidic kingdom and temple or the more usual complaints of Baalism. In Amos 6:5 the prophet appears to take a jab at David and the luxury of his kingdom, so I don’t know if these accusations against Judah might reflect the tensions between the two kingdoms. In any event, the criticisms of Judah are remarkably different from the complaints against Israel, which the prophet repeats and deepens in chapter 5.

Here the list includes: turning justice into bitterness, casting righteousness to the ground, hating the one who upholds justice in the court, detesting the one who tells the truth, levying straw taxes on the poor, taxing the grain of the poor, oppressing the innocent, taking bribes, and depriving the poor of justice in the courts.

Amos lashes out at the leaders who indulge themselves in luxury and care little for the poor and weak. He mocks their outward piety. One of my favorite verses is 5:14:

Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.

That “just as you say he is” hits with a zing. I don’t think it should hit us with any less force than it hit Israel.

In 8:11, the prophet famously warns about coming drought of the hearing of the word of God among the people. Yahweh has attempted to discipline them with crop failures, lack of rain, and plague, but they have not turned from their evil ways. So, now they will be deprived of the very word of God. I have always taken this to be reference to the killing and carrying off of the religious elites and the prophets by invading kingdoms.

As I reflect on the church today, I wonder how we might hear Amos’ warning. In Amos the neglect and oppression of the poor and weak leads to a loss of the word. Retreat to empty ritual and blind luxury robs the people of God’s presence.

As the churches commonly known as the mainline have lost contact with the poor and the weak, I wonder if that has placed us under the judgement of Amos’ prophecy. Could it be that our struggle to grasp and proclaim the Word authentically and with power is the product of our treatment of the poor? Is God with us? Or is that merely something we are saying to ourselves?

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