“…the prophets are relevant not because they are realistic but because they taught that the test of justice in a nation is how the weakest are treated.”
This statement by Walter Houston has really challenged my way of thinking about the Old Testament prophets. My opinion of the prophets has always been based upon my limited engagement with reading them. I can’t say they have ever been my favorite writers in the Bible. However, after reading the books of Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest, I have always thought their main objective was to convince the Israelites to stop worshiping foreign idols.
Of course, if you have read one prophet, you have read them all, right?? “Stop worshiping Baal, turn back to Yahweh, or you will be destroyed by and invading army.” I guess that is why my current study of the Book of Amos has been so enlightening. I have learned a number of things, not only about Amos, but about the other prophetic books as well.
Before we get started, make no mistake friends, these are not my own ideas. As I share some of the things I have learned, I will share where these ideas came from. I think that is important lest some of you think that I have become a Bible scholar ! Actually, I am taking a class on the Old Testament, and the majority of what I share comes from either my lectures, or my text book, The Hebrew Bible, by Christopher Stanley.
First of all, when we speak of prophets, we normally think of people that predict the future, right? Wrong! (most of the time.). Prophets in the ancient world could more correctly be described as intermediaries (Stanley.). These folks were people who had a special connection to God, and were believed to be messengers for Him.
From time to time, acting in this messenger capacity, the prophets would speak about things to come, but only in the sense that “these things will be the eventual outcome of your behavior.”(lecture.) Much like when your mom says, “Stop touching the stove. You are going to get burned!” We get a good sense of this whenever we see the words, “Thus says the Lord!” Whenever we see these words, the prophet is acting as a messenger for God and is reminding us of what God wants us to hear. So listen up.
Prophets were very many times associated with the kings in ancient Israel. We see many prophets such as Nathan, Elijah, or even John the Baptist that were willing to speak truth to power. These, and many more, had more fear of God than of man. So they were willing to speak God’s truth to those in leadership and powerful positions (lectures.)
Along with speaking truth to authorities, many times the prophets were called to a form of internal criticism, meaning they would speak or confront their peers or societal contemporaries (lectures.)We see this function appear in the Book of Amos.
The Book of Amos contends with an 8th century BC prophet from Judah – although his messages were aimed at the northern kingdom of Israel. He was not a “professional” as he did not belong to any of the prophetic guilds (lectures.) By trade, it appears Amos was somewhat wealthy, and indicated to own livestock and possibly vineyards or gardens. The occasion for his prophetic statements was undergirded by a rising disparity in the economic classes of Israel.
A very rich, creditor class arose in Israel in this time and Amos felt compelled by God to go and admonish his contemporaries for their unfair and unjust treatment of their poor countrymen. As he addresses them, Amos continues to assert his station as one speaking for the Lord. By his repeated use of the term, “Thus says the Lord,” Amos reminds people that his words and warnings are given by Yahweh (lectures.)
What exactly does Amos believe is wrong with Israel?
Amos accuses the wealthy of cheating and taking advantage of the poor. In verse 2:7 we see him speak of the elite “trampling on the heads of the poor,” and in chapter 5 we see the exploitation of the poor being addressed in two-part sayings common to prophets of this time (lectures):
“…because you have trampled on the poor, you have built houses of hewn stone but you will not live in them.”
“you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.” (v. 11)
The message for the Israelites is clear. If they do not turn from their greedy and dishonest treatment of others, they will lose the very things they value. Is there any hope for these people? Is there anything they can do to remedy their past actions?
Amos does give them some hope. In 5:14-15, we see the prophet show them a way out. “Seek good and not evil…establish justice in the gate…it may be that God will be gracious to you…” It doesn’t sound much like he believes that will happen, however, as a prophet, I suppose he sees his job as an instrument to herald God’s redemption as well as conviction.
From a literary standpoint, Amos uses many traditional conventions of the ancient prophets to make his point. Along with acting as a messenger, we also see the elements of lamentation and the sharing of visions from God (lectures.) Amos pulls out all the stops to get his point across. However, in the end, he makes clear that God will follow through on his promises of destruction for the disobedient people, he speaks in chapter nine of the coming exile for his people. However, fortunately our God is a faithful God, remembers his covenant with David, and promises to make good on it in the time to come.