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AmosJan2014 4th Talk, January Adventure, St. Simon’s Island Marcus Borg

(four pages)

I Wish Every Christian Knew Amos:

A Case Study of Justice in the Bible

From Previous Lecture: Recall what ancient (pre-modern) domination systems were like. That is the historical-cultural context/matrix for understanding the Bible’s passion for justice.

*Justice in the Bible is almost always about economic justice/fairness – about the fair distribution of God’s earth ("distributive" justice, not "punitive" or "retributive" justice or what we call "criminal justice")

*In the Torah/Pentateuch: laws about debt forgiveness and land restoration

I. Amos as a Case Study

*Why Amos. A personal reason: responsible for my political conversion

*More than personal. The book of Amos can be a great Bible study that helps people to see the Bible’s passion for justice; there’s hardly anything else in Amos. And it can introduce people to the power of prophetic language.

1. Introducing Amos (some of what follows generally applies to the prophets)

*The first/earliest prophet to have a book named after him (commonly called the "classical" prophets, even though there were earlier prophets: Nathan, Elijah, etc.)

*Spoke around 750 BCE in the time of the divided kingdoms of Israel (the north) and Judah (the south). Though he was from Judah, he spoke in Israel.

*He spoke – he did not write his message. Prophetic messages were oral (commonly called "oracles"), typically brief, and couched in memorable language.

*His oracles were remembered and collected later

*What had happened in Israel (and Judah) since the exodus (in the 1200s). Around 1000 BCE, a monarchy emerged (Saul, David, Solomon). By the end of Solomon’s reign (927? 922?), the monarchy had created a domination system within Israel: Egypt had been recreated within Israel, the king a new Pharaoh (Brueggemann)

*In Amos’s time: the king of Israel (the northern kingdom with its capital in Samaria) was Jeroboam II. His high priest was Amaziah.

*Amos tells us he was not an "official" prophet – not a "court" prophet

2. His Passionate Indictment of the Economic Injustice of the Domination System: see texts on separate handout…..

3. Amos 1 -2. A striking example of prophetic rhetorical strategy. Using the formula, "For three transgressions of ____ and for four," a series of oracles indict the kingdoms bordering Israel, her traditional enemies: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab and Judah (often an enemy of the Northern Kingdom). In vivid imagery, they are condemned for their brutality and violence in warfare. Then Amos indicts the elites of Israel for their mistreatment of their own people.



4. Amos and Amaziah. Amos 7.10-17 contains one of the Bible’s most vivid encounters between the ruling elites of the ancient world and "the Word of the Lord." Only the stories of Moses and Pharaoh, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the kings of their time, and, especially, Jesus and the powers of his time are serious rivals.

The encounter begins with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, one of the two major temples in the northern kingdom, sending a message to King Jeroboam charging Amos with conspiracy against the king and the kingdom, including threatening the king with death. Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’" (7.10-11).

*Then Amaziah threatened Amos and ordered him to leave the Northern Kingdom:

And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer [a term of contempt] go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom." (7.12-13).

*Amos defiantly responded with a further indictment, perhaps against Amaziah but equally as likely against the king. Amaziah had sent a message to the king about Amos. What follows may be Amos’s message back to the king: 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 [the queen?] shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters [the princes and princesses?] shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line;

you yourself [the king?] shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land." (7.16-17)

*Imagine the courage and the passion for God and God’s passion that this took…

5. Amos and Israelite "Exceptionalism." Many in ancient Israel believed that they had been chosen by God and were thus God’s special people. To them, in the name of God, Amos said:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? …. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (9.7).

That Ethiopians, Philistines, and Arameans were the same as Israel would have been an extraordinary claim to Amos’s hearers. The indictment of "exceptionalism" occurs elsewhere in the Bible: Jonah; Jesus’s sayings about "the people of Nineveh" and "the queen of the South" ((Matt. 12:41- 42, Luke 11.30-32)

Reflecting about what Amos might mean for American Christians in a time of the twin ideologies American individualism and exceptionlism….

AmosTextsJan2014 4th Talk, January Adventure, St. Simon’s Island Marcus Borg


Indictments in Amos. Some of his oracles indicting the ruling elites use "they" language and thus may have been spoken to the peasant class and sought to raise their consciousness that their oppression was not God’s will. Some use "you" language and may have been spoken to the elites directly in public places.

In "they" language he painted a picture of the luxurious life style of the wealthy and powerful:

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,

and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music;

who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils,

but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph [the ruin of the poor]! (6:4-6.)

Another oracle focuses on what they have done to the poor:

They sell the righteous [the innocent, those who have done no wrong] for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the … poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (2.6-7).

In "you" language, he indicted the ruling elites directly:

Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.(5.11-12)

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain;

and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah [a unit of measurement] small and the shekel [a unit of money] great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." (8:4-6)

He called the wives of the wealthy elites in the capital city Samaria "cows": "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’" (4.1)

He indicted Israel’s worship in "you" language - their festivals, solemn gatherings, sacrifices, hymns and music. In this text, as often in the prophets, the "I" is God – that is, Amos speaking in the name of God.

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 everflowing stream. (5.21-24)

The issue was not that they were worshipping "other gods," but what we might call their "orthodox" worship of the God of Israel. Note the final verse: what God wants instead is justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. The verse is a classic example of prophetic speech known as "synonymous parallelism": the second half of the sentence says the same thing as the first half but in different language. What God wants is not justice plus righteousness; rather, they are the same.

Threats/Judgment. Amos not only indicted the elites of power and wealth but also threatened them with God’s judgment. The threat was not hell, not judgment and punishment beyond death. Rather, the threat was within history: destruction of their social order, loss of their privileged status, and exile.

His oracle indicting those who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on fine couches and eat lambs and calves (the cuisine of the wealthy) ends: "Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. " (6.7)

The text indicting those who sell the righteous for silver and trample the poor into the dust of the earth continues: "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; those who handle the bow shall not stand, and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves, nor shall those who ride horses save their lives. And those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day" (2.13-16)

To the wealthy of Samaria, he said: "The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks." (4.2) The imagery of hooks/fishhooks refers to a known practice of the Assyrian Empire, the major threat to Israel in the time of Amos: herding their prisoners of war into exile strung and roped together with hooks through their noses. The meaning: God will not intervene to save you, but will allow you to be taken into exile because of your injustice to the poor. You claim to be faithful, think yourselves to be faithful, but you are not.