By Ted Grimsrud
Let’s now look at a place where the Bible uses the explicit language of justice. The fullest discussion of justice in the Old Testament shows up in the book of Amos. However, Amos treatment of justice echoes what we also find elsewhere in the Bible.
Amos’s Time and Place
Amos addressed his words to the ruling elite of Israel, the “northern kingdom” that had split off from Judea due to King Rehoboam’s oppressive practices (1 Kings 12). When Amos enters the scene several generations later, Israel lives in peace and prosperity. We get glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (Amos 6:1; 8:3). Their popular religiosity saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.
However, all was not well—as Amos came from Tekoa in the south to proclaim. Israel had originally been an egalitarian society. Torah’s social blueprint contained made concern for vulnerable people (such as widows and orphans) central. Torah sought to minimize the gap between a few wealthy and powerful elite and a mass of poor, even landless, peasants.
Torah’s inheritance system served as a means for common people to control their own resources. Israel confessed that Yahweh owned the land. The land served the good of everyone, not only the profit of a few. A decentralized legal system—the court in the gates of the villages—joined with the inheritance system to insure full participation in community life for everyone; we could call this full participation “justice.” The court system helped the weaker members of the society who otherwise had no power and influence. Without the justice of the court they would not be able to maintain themselves in the social order.
This social ordering arose from the Israelites’ covenant with God. God established their nation in gracious love and desired the people to live in communion with one another. The covenant community was accountable to God—if it did not maintain its faithfulness, it was liable to be judged. Amos came onto the scene to announce that God was indeed about to carry this threat of judgment out. The social transformation of Israel had decisively moved away from covenant faithfulness.
Poverty and distress plagued the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Control of the land had shifted to a few centralized owners who exploited the people for their own gain. This process cut to the heart of the covenant-community concept. Israel’s God had cared for the Israelites in their enslavement in Egypt. The exodus from Egypt and the gift of Torah established Israel as a community meant to embody God’s justice. Increasing injustice profoundly jeopardized this witness to God’s healing agenda.
Amos’s General Message
In chapters one and two, Amos prophesies against Israel’s neighboring nations. This sets his listeners up for the challenge that begins in 2:6. In speaking against the nations, Amos gains the sympathy of his listeners—who agree that, of course, those nations are terrible and unjust. Amos then charges Israel with major crimes. He focuses on transgressions against harmonious ordering of Israelite communal life: (1) the sale into debt slavery of the innocent and needy; (2) the oppression of the poor; (3) the abuse of poor women; and (4) the exploitation of debtors.
Amos turns Israel’s complacent view of its place as God’s covenant people on its head (3:2). He insists that privilege entails responsibility; the Israelites have been irresponsible. Therefore, they are even worse than the despised pagans who never knew God. Consequently, Israel’s salvation history will become judgment history. Amos preaches that God has to do with justice and righteousness, not with Israel regardless of Israel’s way of life. When Israel itself is unjust, God will judge Israel.
Because of its past history as the recipient of God’s gracious acts, Israel uniquely knew God’s concern for the vulnerable. Because their leaders forgot this about God, the society will suffer. The whole book drives this world-shattering thought home.
Israelites did indeed know Torah’s concern for the vulnerable on an intellectual level. However, their leaders failed to administer the law fairly, and justice went disregarded. Worse, this happened in the midst of thriving religiosity. People flocked to the shrines but disregarded God’s call for justice for the vulnerable. Amos insists that religion made things worse for Israel. Ritualistic “faithfulness” masked ethical unfaithfulness.
In Israel, a veneer of peace and prosperity covered a corrupt reality. Rather than being a sign of God’s favor, this reality (even with its “peace and prosperity”) will be judged by God. Many people live in poverty while a few gain great wealth. In fact, the rich contribute to the problems of the poor. Even the one refuge of the poor, the court-system, has been corrupted and turned on its head to serve the rich instead of the poor.
Amos gives an example in 2:6. For rich creditors money has more value than people. Even more, the people who are needy are victims for insignificant reasons. Amos here implies, the needy are sold “because they can not pay back the small sum they owe for a pair of sandals.”
This covenant disloyalty will result in judgment. We are given an image of a plumb line in 7:8—likening the Israelites to an out of line wall. Disalignment characterizes injustice, life distorted and at variance with its intended dynamics.
Amos says that Israel, despite its chosenness and special relationship with God, will be judged due to its injustice. Israel especially embodies injustice toward people at the bottom of the social ladder. The nation deprives vulnerable people of their rightful status as full members of the covenant community.
We must note, though, that Amos does not use the term “justice” to describe judgment. As we will see, “justice” speaks to the solution, not the problem. Justice has to do with life, not judgment. Do justice and live—do injustice and face judgment.
The key to the book of Amos lies in its final few verses (9:11-15). This conclusion portrays restoration and healing. Many scholars see this vision as added on to the book later, arguing that it contradicts the book’s central punitive message. I believe, to the contrary, that this final vision tells us of the purpose of justice—restoration not punishment.
In light of this vision of healing, the message of the book as a whole centers not on punishment but on healing. Even amidst the injustices and poison of the present social order, God’s message of justice remains truthful: turn to justice and find healing. Justice as restoration.
Amos’s View of Justice
Four texts in Amos specifically speak of “justice”:
“Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth” (5:6-7).
Amos links justice and righteousness here with the presence of God as the life-bestowing force. By calling the evil good (i.e., the so-called “justice” at the gate that had become injustice, and the people’s wealth, that was gained at the expense of the poor and weak) and the good evil (abhorring the one who speaks the truth, 5:10), the Israelites transform what should be sweet (justice) into something bitter (wormwood).
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:14-15).
When speaks of hating the advocate of the right and abhorring those who speak “the whole truth,” he refers to opposition to the court-justice system. Such opposition, in God’s eyes, leads to death. True life in Israel can only flourish when God’s concern for the vulnerable finds embodiment in its social life. Such embodiment requires that the justice at the gate truly be justice, correcting wrongs done.
Concern for such justice goes back to the legal code itself: Exodus 23:6-8—“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit. Keep far from a false charge and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.”
To experience the presence of God, in Amos’s view, Israel must practice justice. Religiosity does not matter. Amos makes this point in our next passage.
“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 overflowing stream” (5:21-24).
Again, Amos connects justice with life. Life in the desert requires scarce water. Life in the community requires justice. When Israel does not practice justice, the community withers—and its worship rings false. Life departs the community. To have life in the community, justice and righteousness must roll down like floods after the winter rains and persist like those few streams that do not fail in the summer draught.
“Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12).
The first part of this verse asks if the impossible could happen and the second part says that indeed in can. The impossible happens; the leaders of Israel do it. Amos finds it incredible that the rich could be content in their luxury and not grieve over the ruin of “Joseph.” Their injustice destroys the covenant community (6:6). A place of justice (the court at the gate) has become unjust, poison. This violation of God’s world staggers the mind. Amos can only compare it with some incredible perversion of the natural order of things.
Key Points Regarding Justice in Amos
For Amos, most foundationally, justice links inextricably with life. Do justice and live, Amos asserts; do injustice and die. Amos does not see justice as an abstract principle but rather as a life force. An unjust society will die; it cannot help but collapse of its own weight. Genuine justice cultivates life.
More particularly, justice seeks life for everyone in the community. Because life is for everyone, justice pays particular attention to the people denied life. Justice provides for access by all to the communal “good life.” None can justly prosper at the expense of others, or even in the light of the poverty and need of others.
Amos sees justice as part of the created order. Injustice defies nature, like a crooked wall or an ox plowing the sea. To be unjust is thus inherently self-destructive. Injustice poisons its practitioners.
Chapters one and two show that Amos saw God’s justice as intended for everyone, including the pagan nations. The covenant people have a special responsibility due to their special awareness of God’s justice. Serious as their failure may be, still they are not judged more harshly than the other nations. Those too met with destruction, only Israel retains a remnant. However, Israel’s failure to practice justice, in Amos’s eyes, destroys the hope of the nations. God calls Israel to be a blessing to the nations, to witness to God’s justice and love. When Israel is unfaithful, no blessing comes forth.
Amos sees justice as something to be done: relationships established, needs met, wrongs corrected. Justice, in Amos, has nothing to do with a meaningless cult. Justice links with specific acts and people. It is not abstract nor ahistorical.
God’s justice, we see from 9:11-15, ultimately seeks redemption. God’s critique of Israel hopes that Israel’s self-destructive injustice might be corrected. God does not inspire Amos’s threats and warnings for the sake of repaying rebellious Israel an eye for an eye. Amos voices them in order to inspire transformation—recognizing that should Israel not respond the death of her nation-state will come.
Amos sees justice as the solution; it is what the community should (must) seek. Let justice roll down like waters, like an ever-flowing stream that brings life. Injustice poisons like wormwood. Judgment is not “justice”—it is what happens when there is no justice. Justice is about healing; justice is about transformation—justice is not about punishing.
Thoughts on Old Testament Justice in General
We may conclude, based on Amos’s teaching—and the rest of the Bible’s—that genuine justice serves life. God’s justice in the Old Testament centers not primarily on retribution but on salvation. God’s justice does not punish so much as correct. The justice of God saves, manifesting God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant. God created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships. God continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to encourage those relationships.
The Old Testament does not treat justice primarily as a legal concept. Justice tends to merge with “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “salvation.” Justice has to do with how a loving creator has made the world. To be just means to live according to the creator’s will, to be in harmony with God, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation—and not to rest until everyone else also finds such harmony.
The Bible pictures justice as part of the created order. The Old Testament connection between justice and life follows from some of its ideas regarding creation. The Bible confesses “creation” to be an act of the covenant-making God of Israel. Creation harmonizes with the values of the covenant—love, justice, peace, compassion—that sustain and nourish life. We find no disjunction between the creator God and the covenant-making God.
Human life originated as an expression of God’s covenant-love. All human action that harmonizes with that love has meaning, the basic meaning of creation—and is thereby “just”. Because humankind has been created in the image of this God, all people need relationships—with each other and with God. Human activity finds its purpose in facilitating these relationships. Because all people share in the “image of God,” they have dignity and value. Discrimination and disregard of any human life can thus never be justified. Injustice severs relationships; justice establishes and/or restores relationships.
God created the cosmos created good; evil enters as an aberration. It can and must be resisted. To conquer the power of evil—a power especially manifested in the severing of relationships—defines doing justice.
The Bible portrays creation in terms of love. Faithfulness to the “creation mandate” equals living lives of love. Hence, people of faith have the calling to shape their social lives according to the values of love. This love motivates efforts to do justice. God’s love provides the motivation and the model for God’s followers.
Love applies to all areas of life according to the biblical teaching. Love should shape decisively the means and ends of all activity of the people of faith. We only become loving by practicing love at all times. Love gives those who shape their lives by it a hopefulness to believe that God’s justice and God’s love can be a reality in the world—and thus to act to make it so.
Biblical justice equals conformity with the will of the loving, covenant-making creator God. Justice links with love, rather than standing in tension with love. We see God’s justice in how God’s intervention has always sought the salvation of God’s people and the restoration of covenant relationships—for the sake of blessing all earth’s families.
God’s love works to set right that which has been corrupted. That is, God’s love works for justice. We may define God’s justice as how God expresses love in the face of evil. Love expressed in the face of evil acts to stop the evil and to heal its effects.
Old Testament people believed that God’s justice served as the norm for the nations as well as for Israel. Amos legitimately condemns the nations for their injustices, based on Torah. Torah revealed God’s will for all people, and God holds all people accountable for how they respond to that will.
God created everything, embedding justice into creation. Amos speaks, then of the unnaturalness of injustice, comparable to an ox plowing the sea or a wall being crooked. All people exist as part of God’s creation, as created in God’s image, and as accountable to God.
These beliefs primarily led to negative conclusions (such as Amos’s) regarding the actual practice of justice on the part of the nations. The nations too will be judged by God for being unjust. However, scattered examples of just people outside Israel (e.g., Rahab the harlot; the repentant people of Ninevah in Jonah; even, to some extent, Cyrus, the Persian leader) practice justice. God’s justice could be known and done by anyone—by virtue of their humanness.
God’s covenant people have responsibility to practice whole-making justice. This responsibility stems from their potential to bless all the families of the earth. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 powerfully portray people from all the nations learning the ways of peace, of genuine justice, from Israel.
In Amos one and two, the prophet speaks in general terms of blatant injustices. From 2:6 on he speaks more specifically to Israel. He does so, not primarily because the nations lacked the capability of perceiving the need to be just in the ways Israelites were. Rather Amos’s focus reflects the idea that Israel’s calling entailed a closer relationship with God at this point. God expected more of Israel—for the sake of the nations.