The Evolution of “My People” in Amos

INTRODUCTION

What exactly is understood by the term, “My people”, a label often used by God to refer to the Israelites.  As the book of Deuteronomy dictates, it is a community in which is privilege and responsibility to God and His law are part and parcel.  Scudder presents Deut 10:12-22 as the overall representation of this covenant relationship as God’s love for man paired with Man’s love for God (Scudder 36).  The prophet Amos contends that the Northern Kingdom has neglected this call to a Torah-based lifestyle which brings glory to God.  Ironically, the first indication of this coming indictment is the oracle against Judah.  In contrast with the specific and ethical crimes to the nations, this is a generalized critique on Judah’s unfaithful adherence to the Law.  Following this, the oracle to the Northern Kingdom begins a chapter by chapter critique on the contradiction between their culture and the mandates of the Torah.

Virtually every chapter in the book criticizes the culture of the people.  By mapping the prophet’s accusations to the Torah teachings, a cultural form appears that is based on the communities growing disconnection from social regard and from God.  Stuart confirms that the creation of the two-tiered class system in Israel was in violation of many Torah mandates (Exod 23:6; Lev 19:10, 13, 15; 25:25–53; Deut 15:7–11; 24:12–22) (Stuart 99).  This separation of class is a direct result of the society’s disconnect with God and social justice.  The first evidence of this is in Amos’s correlation between business and legal practices with the oppression of the poor.  The second is his treatment of the luxurious lifestyle in conjunction with their superficial religious practices.   Finally, the generalized pairing of the love of God with the love of justice and righteousness attests to the overall view that the individual has grown detached from God and society.  At each level, the connection to the Torah will reveal exactly how the Law was meant to protect from just such a situation.

THE BUSINESS OF OPPRESSION

The relationship between improper business practices and oppression of the poor is evident in Amos as well as the Torah.  The oracle against the Northern Kingdom opens with this indictment in 2:6-8.  The synonymous parallelism in verse 6 illustrates the low value placed on the lives of the needy and the righteous.  There is no mention of illegal practices, but the connection to the following two cola in verse 7 suggests a general amoral oppression of the poor for the sake of financial gain.  Herron suggests that the Law is designed to protect the poor wage-earner as illustrated by the statutes concerning prompt payment (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15) (Herron 80).  The oppression extends from the excessive burden of labor placed upon them presumably for the sake of profit to the complete disregard for those in need.  This, therefore transitions the thought of care for the poor from business to social concern.

This stream of thought continues in chapter 5:11-12.  The oppression of the poor in verse 11 parallels the same words in 2:7 while adding the unethical business practice of unfair taxation (5:11b).  This is a reversal of Deut 26:13, which associates taxation with caring for the underprivileged.  In 5:12b, the legal system is introduced into this economic calamity; bribes, a direct violation of Exod 23:8 and Deut 16:19, are now a part of the oppression.  The motive behind these laws, the protection of the righteous and innocent. is ignored.  McKay suggests the later Deuteronomic rendition is patterned after the form of wisdom literature (McKay 320), further alluding to the lack of wisdom in the culture.  These are not isolated cases of premeditated oppression but a culture of oppression stemming from opulence and self-justification.  In this context, the “pushing aside of the needy” (5:12b), through the synthetic parallelism with the previous cola regarding bribes, insinuates that they are pushed aside when seeking support, both economically as well as legally (Smith and Page 104).  The legal system favored the wealthy, the Torah favored equal justice for all in protection of the poor.

Amos’s closing remarks on this connection between business practices and oppression of the poor is found in 8:4-6.  This sweeping conclusion summarizes the entire predicament.  Once again, the “trampling of the poor” is the correlation between the indictments to follow with this general state of oppression.  In synthetic parallelism, this is now broadened to a more permanent crisis in which the poor are in a state of ruin.  What follows is the connection to business.  The focus is minimizing loss and maximizing profit (8:5b) at the expense of the poor (8:6).  The following verse 8:7 states the culmination of this correlation between the oppression of the poor and the improper business practices, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

INDULGENT SECURITY

The famous condemnation upon the “cows of Bashan” (4:1) suggests a situation in which the oppression of the poor has moved beyond business to a way of life.  The women referred would most likely have not had direct access to the poor other than servants or slaves.  Rather, as 4:1b suggests, the oppression of the poor was instigated through their husbands for the sake of their comfort.  The successful business practices had created a culture of opulence for which these women were the figureheads.

Chapter 4, the first instance of this opulent lifestyle, presents the false sense of security in worship that such a culture created. Immediately following the accusation of the women of Bashan, Amos condemns the false worship, not only in location, but in the sacrificial system itself.  None of three offerings referred were atonement offerings (4:4-5).  There was a lack of atonement in this sacrificial system.  Rather, the offerings were announcements of wealth justified as blessing by these communities. In return, Amos sarcastically asks them to הַשְׁמִ֑יעוּ כִּ֣י כֵ֤ן אֲהַבְתֶּם   (proclaim it as you love to do), insinuating that the offerings were performed primarily for the people’s own satisfaction.  Clearly, the sarcasm suggests that God was not satisfied.

The impression of an oppressive culture is further clarified in 5:11, 13.  Verse 11 is not stating a law against falsehood, but presenting a situation in which truth is not appreciated.  Though not literally violated, the spirit of Exo 23:1 is ignored.  The culture itself reflects a desire to suppress the consequence of the Law.  In verse 13, the concept of an oppressive culture is furthered in that the “prosperous” remain silent; they do not condemn nor promote such a situation.  They remain silent because they benefit from this culture, a testament to the truth that this indeed was an עֵ֥ת רָעָ֖ה הִֽיא (evil time).

The connection between false security and worship is again presented in 5:21-24.  In these verses, strong anthropopathism, שָׂנֵ֥אתִי מָאַ֖סְתִּי, is used to convey the LORD’s emotion towards such a self-serving sacrificial system.  Amos parallels cola after cola to suggest the LORD’s hatred for this form of worship.  In concluding this oracle, the LORD does not state a Law or regulation but a general word-pair of justice and righteousness, hallmarks of a culture antithetic to that of the Northern Kingdom.

Chapter 6 emphasizes the perceived control that these individuals believe they possess over their own fate (Smith and Page 117).  The strength they find in their leaders (6:1), the strength of their nation (6:2), and their ability to protect their future (6:3) is sorely misplaced.  Amos directly connects such false security to the indulgence of the culture.  In 6:4-6, the people are expressed as having excess in every form, through their living conditions – שֵׁ֔ן וּסְרֻחִ֖ים (beds of ivory), entertainment – כּדָוִ֕יד חָשְׁב֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם כְּלֵי־שִֽׁיר׃  (songs for themselves as David), food and drink – כָּרִים֙ מִצֹּ֔אן וַעֲגָלִ֖ים מִתּ֥וֹךְ מַרְבֵּֽק (lambs from the flock and cows from the middle of the stall) and בְּמִזְרְקֵי֙ יַ֔יִן (in bowls of wine), and vanity – שְׁמָנִ֖ים יִמְשָׁ֑חוּ (anount with oil).  Smith and Page suggest that the lounging of the wealthy, as specified in 6:4, depict a laziness or drunkenness with a predominantly negative connotation (Smith and Page 118).  The life of opulence is presented by Amos in stark contrast to the life of concern for the poor – נֶחְל֖וּ עַל־שֵׁ֥בֶר יוֹסֵֽף (not grieved over the ruin of Joseph).  The lifestyles are mutually exclusive, and Amos suggests that this community has picked the former over the latter.

The final statements of this culture of opulence and self-reliant security is presented in Amos 8.  The general climate of the society is destroyed in verses 8:9-10.  The sun, the central competitor to God in terms of provision and stability, will be removed (8:9).  Intense mourning is conveyed through the imagery of intensifying sorrow שָׂ֔ק (sackcloth), קָרְחָ֑ה (baldness), and כְּאֵ֣בֶל יָחִ֔יד (mourning of an only son).  These powerful images of sorrow bookend the reversal of the sacrificial system illustrated in 8:10a.  In the Day of the LORD, God will undo the security that the wealthy find in their opulence and that they justify through the misappropriation of the sacrificial system.  The ones who say לֹֽא־תַגִּ֧ישׁ וְתַקְדִּ֛ים בַּעֲדֵ֖ינוּ הָרָעָֽה (evil shall not overtake us) will be the ones whose security ends.

SIMULTANEOUS SUPPRESSION OF JUSTICE AND GOD

Where does this downward spiral end?  The Northern Kingdom, through the acceptance of business and oppression, has induced a culture of opulence and self-justification.  The next inevitable step is a suppression of all that could undo such an ideal social norm, namely God and justice.  Amos pairs these two constructs together as they are both targeted for silencing by this culture.

Amos 2:7b introduces the idea of profaning the holy name of God through sexual immorality, not to condemn sexual immorality, but to condemn the profaning of God.  This is seen by its connection to 2:8 in which the altars, the holy locations, have become places in which the rich lounge and make merriment, sponsored by their oppression of the poor through their business practices.  Smith and Page stipulate that such fines for misconduct were compensation for damages, not a source of income and revelry.  Further, the pledges mentioned were to be returned to the poor as needed (Exod 22:26–27; Deut 24:12–13), not be utilized for their personal comfort (Smith and Page 64).  The reverence for God, the fear that comes through the suzerain-vassal relationship, had been silenced.  This further attested in 2:13 as it conveys the silencing the voice of God through his prophets, again a violation of Deut 18:15.  As Porter conveys, the silencing of prophets is an attempt to pass the mechanism of self-evaluation from God to self-appointed legal specialists (Porter 190), in effect, silencing God.

The silencing of justice is first presented in 3:9-10 in which Amos uses the courtroom imagery to suggest that the Northern Kingdom is not even aware of the state of its oppressive and opulent culture.  As Smith and Page offered, a courtroom scene required two witnesses in the case of a death penalty (Deut 17:6); no less than Egypt and Ash’dod, two ruthless cultures in their own right, are witness to this cultural atrocity (Smith and Page 77).  As 2:10 asserts, the idea of justice itself has left their vocabulary, וְלֹֽא־יָדְע֥וּ עֲשׂוֹת־נְכֹחָ֖ה (they do not know how to do right).

Chapter 5 bridges the connection between justice and God explicitly.  Seeking Bethel is shown as the antithesis of seeking the LORD in 5:4-5.  In parallel with this is the silencing of justice vividly depicted in 5:7.   Justice is turned to wormwood and righteousness is thrown to the ground.  This is again repeated in 6:12. Climaxing this thought is the central verses of the entire book, 5:14-15.  God is desperately pleading for the people to seek him and in parallel seek justice.

Tragically, the Northern Kingdom was oblivious to the ultimate culmination of this silencing of God and justice.  The visions of chapter 8 and 9 depict this.  The Day of the LORD is a time in which justice will be completely silenced for all.  There will be none who can escape the injustice that is to come (9:1-4).  The Day of the LORD is not a silencing of material provision (famine and drought) but a silencing of God himself (8:11-14).  This is the inevitable outcome of a society that profanes God and justice.

CONCLUSION

The opening question to this review of the evolution of the people of Israel into a society that silences God and justice was, “Who are ‘my people’?”  The answer lies in the understanding of the pairing of justice with God.  As has been reviewed, practice of justice equates to practice of God-worship, a culture of justice equates to a culture of God-worship, and a community of justice equates to a community of God, or in other words, “my people.”  Through the Torah’s reflection in Amos, it is shown to be more than a list of rules.  It is a guide and a barometer for each society to measure itself in its own journey to becoming the people of God.  The Northern Kingdom believed that being “my people” equated to material blessing.  Amos has shown that the reversal of justice equates to the rejection of God.

WORKS CITED

Herron, Roy Brasfield. “The Land, the Law, and the Poor.” Word & World 6.1 (1986): 76–84. Print.

McKay, J W. (John William). “Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8: A Decalogue for the Administration of Justice in the City Gate.” Vetus testamentum 21.3 (1971): 311–325. Print.

Porter, Stanley E. Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation. Routledge, 2007. Print.

Scudder, C W. (Cleo Wayne). “Ethics in Deuteronomy.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 7.1 (1964): 33–40. Print.

Smith, Billy K., and Frank Page. Amos, Obadiah, Jonah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Reference, 1995. Print.

Stuart, Douglas. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 31, Hosea-Jonah. Thomas Nelson, 1987. Print.

 

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