Politics Magazine

Books of the Bible: Amos

Posted on the 29 March 2013 by Erictheblue


Begins with the prophet denouncing, in formulaic phrases, the wickedness of nations that experts in ancient Mideast geography will recognize as neighbors of Israel.  The first auditors would have nodded in dull agreement.  You don't think twice about agreeing with your enemies' critics.  But then, without warning:

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 shoes--
they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and turn aside the way of the afflicted. . . ."

It is as if, when the revolving light lands upon Israel itself, the high beams click on.  For its neighbors, the language is flat and general: even upon repeated readings, you receive no vivid idea of the nature of the offenses.  Then Israel is called out, and now if you read twice or three times it is not to try to extract meaning.  God's chosen people have sold the needy for a pair of  shoes!  They have trampled upon the poor, grinding their  heads into the ground!  Amos is only warming up.

"Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are in the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, 'Bring, that we may drink!'
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches,
every one straight before her;
and you shall be cast forth into Harmon,"
says the Lord.

This is the Revised Standard Version; I haven't chosen a translation that strives to be colorful.  Since no place called "Harmon" has ever been identified, and the Hebrew characters that spell out that  place name diverge only slightly from those for  "dung-heap," some scholars have suggested that a better translation would have these Israelite women of ease suffering a distinctly shitty demise. 

So Israel cares not for the plight of the poor.  What does it care about?  Religious observance, worship services, displays of religiosity.  According to Amos, it fills God with disgust:

"I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

The book states, at 7:10, that Amos was active when Jeroboam was king of Israel, which places it in the middle of the eighth century B.C.  In The Oxford Annotated Bible, the introduction to the book of Amos, by Old Testament editor Herbert May, notes that this was a period when "israel attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never again reached."  It is hard to refrain from drawing historical parallels, and I'll save time by not even trying.  It seems unlikely that Amos would approve of Israel's treatment of the non-Jewish population of Palestine.  In our country, he would denounce the growing chasm between the wealthy and the poor; the alternating thumping of the Bible and coddling of the rich that characterizes the modern Republican party he would regard as an abomination.  Certain trends in evangelical Christianity, such as the preaching of a "prosperity gospel" by the pastor of a suburban megachurch here in Minnesota, would trigger a torrent of judgmental abuse. The book includes a biographical snippet that, as it describes Amos's brush with the political authority of his day, is in this regard of interest.  One Amaziah, priest of a sanctuary at Bethel, complained to Jeroboam that "the land is not able to bear all [Amos's] words," which of course included the prediction of Israel's--and therefore the king's--ruin. This may have been beneath Jeroboam's notice, but Amaziah, referring to Amos sarcastically as a "seer," bid him to "never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."  Amos had earlier in the book expressed his opinion of the activities at these "temples":

"Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
and proclaim free will offerings, publish them;
for so you love to do, O people of Israel!"
says the Lord God.

He now answers Amaziah:

"Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say,'Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.'
Therefore thus says the Lord:
'Your wife shall be a harlot in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'"

When conservative, upstanding Americans speak of the infallible and inerrant word of God, they do not have in mind the prophet Amos.

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