Commentary on Amos 2:6-10, 13-16
For the next eight weeks we shall be reading from Old Testament prophets. The first of these is the prophet Amos. He was a shepherd from Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah. From there he travelled north to Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and to the great cult centre which was the shrine of Bethel. There around 750 BC he scolded the people for their hypocritical religious devotions while ignoring the demands of social justice around them. He was finally expelled from the sanctuary by the priest in charge.
His poetry is filled with imagery and language taken from his own pastoral background. The book we have is an anthology of his oracles and was compiled either by the prophet or by some of his disciples.
Amos is a prophet of social justice. He is strongest of all in his condemnation of those who make ostentatious displays of religious piety while acting abominably with their less fortunate brothers and sisters. For a small amount of wrongdoing, the prophet says in God’s name, God’s promises will not be revoked from his people. But he then goes on to list what seems to be widespread and outrageous behaviour, especially towards the more vulnerable members of society.
They are willing to sell an otherwise good man into slavery just for the money they can get and they will sell off a poor man and be happy to take just a pair of sandals as payment or sell him into slavery when he could not repay a debt for which his sandals had been given in pledge. They constantly trample on the poor and the weak and hold them in utter contempt.
The avarice of the already rich and of men in power is a constant preoccupation of the prophets. That avarice is still with us. To care for the poor and the oppressed and to protect them from injustice were clearly commanded by Israel’s law and, indeed, throughout the ancient Near East, kings were supposed to defend such people.
He further charges that there are cases where both father and son have sexual relations with the same woman. She might have been a slave in the household or perhaps a temple prostitute. Sacred prostitution was a feature of Canaanite worship which contaminated Israel.
Or it may even have been an incestuous relationship: father with wife and daughter, son with mother and sister. According to the law, to have sexual relations with a woman meant an obligation to marry her, while father and son having sexual relations with the same woman was strictly against the law and there were severe sanctions for such behaviour.
Clothes which have been taken as a pledge against borrowed money are then worn by the lender during religious ceremonies. There may even be an implication here that the borrower was left with nothing to wear. The law prohibited keeping a man’s cloak overnight as a pledge, or taking a widow’s cloak at all.
Wine demanded of those against whom (perhaps false or extortionate) charges of damages were made is then piously drunk at the ceremonial banquets following the offering of sacrifices. The “house of God” then is effectively reduced to the “house of their god”.
Such behaviour, Amos says, is a flagrant act of ingratitude to their God who helped them wipe out the Amorites, that is, the inhabitants of Canaan, on their arrival in the Promised Land. It is a display of thanklessness to Yahweh who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of Amorites after accompanying them for 40 years in the desert. God’s care and providence for them should now be reflected in their care and providence of their community, most of all, the weak and the vulnerable.
Because of their shameless behaviour, they can expect the worst to happen to them. They will be crushed as a heavily laden wagon of corn crushes what is beneath it. Those who can run fast will find they cannot escape from the approaching disaster. The strong will find themselves weak. The soldier will lose his life and the archer be unable to release his arrows. Even the bravest of warriors will not have time to dress and will flee the approaching threat naked.
“On that day” – the day God comes in judgement, as he as he did through the Assyrian invasion that swept the northern kingdom away never to recover.
Obviously, the prophet is saying that there is a remedy and that is to heed the prophet’s warnings and to change their ways.
This is a very powerful passage and is as meaningful today as when it was first written. Allowing for some changes of time and place, there is a distressing familiarity with the prophet’s accusations for things have not changed very much in nearly 3,000 years (this was written about 750 BC).
At least, let us look into our own lives and see if any of these accusations could even be remotely thrown against us. And, where we can, let us work together with others to remedy the situation. Our relationship with God is not measured just by our attendance in church or the carrying out of religious obligations. There can be no love of God, there can be no true religion where there is no practice of justice and loving concern for the weak and marginalised.