01. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Amos)

Let Justice Roll (Amos 5:10-15, 21-24)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (May 21, 2007)

Beginning with this lesson from Amos, we will focus on key Old Testament prophets this quarter.  Biblical prophetic literature begins with the book of Amos during the final years of the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. and concludes with the book of Malachi following the exile and rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the fifth century.

The prophetic writings combine a critical, even radical, dissenting attitude toward status quo political and religious sensibilities with a deeply conservative rooting in the Hebrews’ founding charter–the Law (Torah) given through Moses.  They challenge their present-day Christian readers to do the same: Resist unjust social and religious practices, and base your resistance on loyalty to God’s revelation in Torah–and in Jesus, who based his message on “the Law and the Prophets” (see Matthew 22:34-40 and 5:17-20).

Prophets, not kings, are heroes

The prophet Amos briefly entered the pages of history during a time of prosperity in Israel.  The Hebrew nation-state, originating in the time of Joshua as a Torah-centered counter-cultural alternative to the Egyptian empire, had tragically divided at the time of King Rehoboam (son of Solomon), at least in large part due to Rehoboam’s oppressive labor practices (see 1 Kings 12).  The rebels founded the northern kingdom, called Israel, separate from Judah.

In one of the Bible’s terrible ironies, the northern kingdom itself evolved into the kind of nation-state that God had delivered the Hebrews from.  The historical books base their evaluation of the northern and southern kingdoms on their faithfulness to the commands of Torah.  Almost without exception, Israel’s and Judah’s kings turn the people from Torah.

These stories set a clear tone for the Bible as a whole.  Jesus’ words ring true for nearly all powerful leaders within the people of God and among the Gentiles: “Their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mark 10:42).

The true heroes in the Old Testament, hence, hardly ever are the kings.  Much more, they are the prophets, the ones God raised up to speak truth in the face of the kings’ injustices.

The message: corruption to the core

Amos entered the scene in Israel from “among the shepherds of Tekoa” (a community in Judah).  That is, Amos had no authority beyond the words he uttered.  But what words!

Though Israel in the mid-eighth century had thrived for some time in peace, Amos zeroed in on corruption at its core.  Whereas Torah had strongly emphasized the Hebrew peoples’ calling to live with genuine justice (characterized above all by the welfare of vulnerable people in the community–widows, orphans, and resident aliens, see Leviticus 19), the actual society had gradually dispossessed these people for whom Torah made special allowance.

In spite of its prosperity, Israel was a diseased society.  Powerful people “trample on the poor” and “push aside the needy in the gate” (5:11-12).  The key institution established to protect the welfare of the vulnerable, “justice in the gate,” had been corrupted by bribery (5:12).

Amos, speaking for God, predicts Israel’s doom.  “You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them” (5:11).  The problem has strictly to do with social injustice.  No criticisms of the content of the Israelites’ religious practices are uttered; apparently their religiosity was “doctrinally correct.”  But their very acts of worship were sinful (4:4; 5:21-23) because they assumed they could hold together injustice and sincere piety.

The powerful imagery of Amos’s most famous statement, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24), captures the core message of this first of the great “writing prophets”: Life-giving worship of God and social justice are inseparable.

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