Amos’s response to such questions was not grounded in the modern concepts of fairness, rights and equality. Rather, he incorporates a vision of social justice within an explicitly spiritual frame. For Amos, indifference to the pain of others was one aspect of an enormous ethical transgression, indicative of a failure to appreciate the sanctity of God’s creation. His mindset was anchored in the universal human experience of wonder, which leads to compassion as well as, for some, a sense of the divine. The connection between wonder, compassion and the divine is woven throughout the Book of Amos and, once understood, is a primary source of its power and relevance for us today.
I. AMOS IN HIS TIME
Many nations have experienced eras of glory and prosperity after years of struggle—ancient Athens during the “Greek Awakening,” Great Britain when it dominated the seas, the United States following World War II and then again at the end of the Cold War. The result typically has been a fervent belief in the nation’s greatness, its special destiny and, often, a feeling of divine favor. However, this faith was often belied by behavior that constituted horrible ethical transgressions: slavery, mistreatment of women, colonialism. People who were pillars of their societies and who fervently worshiped their gods were blind to wrongs that later, and even to some at the time, seemed quite obvious.
In the eighth century BCE, Israel had recently emerged wealthy and victorious after decades of agony at the hands of the Arameans. Throughout this tumultuous period of defeat and revival, the people of Israel had been sustained by the conviction that they had a special bond with their god, known as YHWH. Among the Israelites there was a firm belief that YHWH had intervened in the history of their ancestors—most spectacularly in the liberation from Egypt—and now had intervened again to bring about the nation’s triumph.
Despite the aura of resurgence and rebirth, the prophet Amos believed that Israel would soon face utter destruction. In fact, according to Amos, Israel was an affront to the divine order of the universe, and did not deserve YHWH’s help at all. This was for one reason above all: the horrifying treatment of the poor.
Amos accuses wealthy Israelites of exploiting the poor by relying on taxes, fines and robbery to take what is not theirs. But that is just one part of an oppressive relationship that consigns the poor to destitution and humiliation. According to Amos, the system has been rigged against the poor in every way: the rich have bribed those who arbitrate financial disputes to favor them over the poor; grain is measured inaccurately to benefit the sellers; a “dishonest scale” is used to increase the payments of the poor. Even the food that the poor purchase is in fact a fraud, “grain refuse” sold as grain.
Moving beyond unjust transactions, Amos presents the oppression of the poor as an ongoing physical assault perpetrated by the wealthy of Israel:
You who trample the head of the poor
Into the dust of the ground
And make the humble walk a twisted course. (2:7)
Amos goes on to accuse the rich of “annihilating” the poor, and that is the appropriate summary of all that he describes.
Amos is particularly outraged that the wealthy—despite their abhorrent behavior—continue to vaunt themselves as guardians of religious practice, and asserts that YHWH rejects their worship: “I loathe, I spurn your festivals, / I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.” (5:21) Repeatedly, Amos declares that YHWH will destroy the wealthy and all that they value: “I will wreck the winter palace / Together with the summer palace; / The ivory palaces shall be demolished, / And the great houses shall be destroyed” (3:15). A vivid parable describes a man running from a mortal threat and, just when he finds safety, discovering death and a frightening end.
Ah, you who wish
For the day of the Lord!
Why should you want
The day of the Lord?
It shall be darkness, not light.
As if a man should run from a lion
And be attacked by a bear;
Or if he got indoors,
Should lean his hand on the wall
And be bitten by a snake. (5:18-19)
Like the man fleeing a ravenous animal only to be bitten by a poisonous snake at a moment of respite, the leaders of Israel would learn that nothing was as it had seemed. Their liberation from foreign invaders was transitory, their outward worship of YHWH fatally undermined by their treatment of the poor.
But the Book of Amos is more than a blistering depiction of oppression and hypocrisy, or an invocation of the apocalypse that awaits the wicked. It offers, in addition, a pathway for restoring justice and righteousness. This pathway may not initially be obvious to a modern reader, as Amos does not rely on linear argumentation, favoring shorter passages (called “oracles”) of singular poetic intensity. In some of the most disjointed parts of the text, the literary device known as chiasmus illuminates Amos’s central message.
A chiasmus is a series of concepts that typically lead up to a central statement, at which point similar or complementary concepts lead away from that central statement in the same order. It is through a chiastic structure that Amos explicitly links together his criticism of his society with an invocation of the wondrous and the divine.
One significant chiasmus begins by announcing a terrible breach: YHWH’s protection has been converted into punishment, placing the nation of Israel on the brink of apocalyptic destruction:
(Destruction of Israel)
Hear this word which I intone
As a dirge over you, O House of Israel
Fallen not to rise again,
Is Maiden Israel;
Abandoned on her soil
With none to lift her up.
For thus said my Lord God
About the House of Israel:
The town that marches out a thousand strong
Shall have a hundred left,
And the one that marches out a hundred strong
Shall have but ten left
The nation’s oppression of the poor has made its destruction all but inevitable. Still, it is possible for those who are willing to shun the official state-led cult of YHWH—represented most powerfully by the corrupted cities of Bethel and Gilgal—to survive:
(Seek good and shun evil)
Thus said the Lord
To the House of Israel:
Seek Me, and you will live.
Do not seek Bethel,
Nor go to Gilgal,
Nor cross over to Beer-sheba;
For Gilgal shall go into exile.
And Bethel shall become a delusion.
Seek the Lord, and you will live,
Else He will rush like fire upon the House of Joseph
And consume Bethel with none to quench it.
(Oppression of the defenseless)
[Ah] you who turn justice into wormwood
And hurl righteousness to the ground!
The Lord of Amos—revealed in the passages that surround the central statement of the chiasmus—is not found in the palaces of the rich, but rather encountered on the plane of time and endless transformations: the change in seasons; the annual rotation of the stars; the cycles of tides, floods and rain; the progression of days; the rise and fall of empires.
(God of wonder)
[Seek the Lord,]
Who made the Pleiades and Orion,
Who turns deep darkness into dawn
And darkens day into night,
Who summons the water of the sea
And pours them out upon the earth—
(Central element of the chiasmus)
His name is the Lord.
(God of wonder)
It is He who hurls destruction upon strongholds,
So that ruin comes upon fortresses.
This central element of the chiasmus is crucial to understanding the Book of Amos. Amos was not a proto-economist depicting the inequitable distribution of wealth, or appealing to abstract notions of rights or fairness. His denunciation of the Israelite form of worship was not an attempt to minimize the role of faith in human lives. YHWH was the organizing element of Amos’s life and thinking, including his attention to the suffering of the poor. His call for compassion was inextricable from his invocation of YWHW’s fearful judgment.
But how can we think of YHWH as indicating a path away from injustice and oppression? One way we might try to understand Amos’s sense of YHWH in the central passages of the chiasmus is with reference to the notion of wonder. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent twentieth-century theologian, rooted his theology in the teaching of the prophets and particularly in his observation that “to the prophets wonder is a form of thinking … it is an attitude that never ceases.” Importantly, for Heschel, wonder is a real-world experience—one that is latent in every person—resulting from even the most mundane aspects of life. “We do not come upon it only at the climax of thinking or in observing strange, extraordinary facts but in the startling fact that there are facts at all: being, the universe, the unfolding of time,” he writes in God in Search of Man. “We may face it at every turn, in a grain of sand, in an atom, as well as in the stellar space.” In another passage, which could describe many key parts of the Book of Amos, Heschel writes:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
With wonder and awe as the context for our lives, according to Heschel, we inevitably begin to question how to live “in a way that is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living.” It is this quest to discover how to respond that moves us beyond ego and self-centeredness.
Put another way, to Heschel, the wonder of the prophets results in a radical change in perspective, one less focused on personal needs and desires and more oriented toward awe, compassion and a sense of the divine. This can help us make sense of the abrupt shifts in the chiasmus, from concrete descriptions of the suffering of the poor to that which “turns deep darkness into dawn / And darkens day into night.” For Heschel, a sensitivity to the suffering of others is intrinsic to the encounter with wonder and with God.
It would be a mistake, however, to treat Amos’s prophecy as purely abstract or detached from human events. Amos, according to Heschel, was interpreting a “particular moment in history, a divine understanding of a human situation.” Part of what makes the prophetic books so compelling today is their intimate engagement with the realities—and the injustices—of their time. Wonder, awe and compassion are not passive sentiments. They are a call to action. This is brought vividly to life in Amos’s personal confrontation with the religious leadership of ancient Israel.
At some point, Amos’s prophecies became intolerable to the political and religious elite. From Bethel, the holiest sanctuary in Israel, the high priest Amaziah sent a dire message to King Jeroboam II:
Amos is conspiring against you within the house of Israel. The country cannot endure the things that he is saying. For Amos has said, Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall be exiled from its soil. (7:10-11)
The king apparently agreed and had Amaziah order Amos to leave Israel immediately, including a demand that he “not ever prophesy again at Bethel,” which had been a holy site as far back as the time of Abraham, when the land was known as Canaan. By the time of Amos, Bethel had become an important locus of the official state religion, the site of national religious festivals and a storehouse for the rulers’ riches. In short, Amos chose to deliver his prophecies at a spot that was central to the nation’s glorification of itself.