The prophet Amos

I’ve just finished running through the prophecy of Amos once more and realised that I haven’t put up an article about this minor prophet yet, so here’s something. Amos is also along with Osee (aka. Hoshea) among the earliest of the Hebrew prophets of whom we have record in the Old Testament. Aside from a few condemnations of the unfaithfulness of the people of Juda, this book is directed squarely at the northern kingdom of Israel and the syncretist king Jeroboam II of Israel. However, he seems to speak of Israel in general, as all the twelve tribes, including Juda, and has a clear idea of who the God of Israel is, Who judges all of the children of the patriarch Jacob, and where His chosen seat is:

“Here tells Amos, one of the shepherd folk at Thecue, what visions he had concerning Israel. In Juda, Ozias was then reigning, in Israel, Jeroboam son of Joas, and it was two years before the earthquake. Loud as roaring of lion, said he, the Lord will speak in thunder from His citadel at Jerusalem; forlorn they lie, yonder pastures the shepherds loved once, the heights of Carmel all shrivelled away.”

Amos, 1: 1-2

Carmel was the mountain range to the north-west of the Holy Land, where the prophet Elijah had made his home (which is why the Carmelite Order count him as the first of the Saints of that Order). Like much of the prophecy against the practices of the northern kingdom of Israel, this book is a lengthy condemnation of idolatry and a call to repentance and reconsecration to the one God, and a condemnation of the immorality that accompanied the fall from God’s grace:

Ground in the dust, the poor man’s rights, shouldered aside, the claim of the unbefriended! See where father and son, to My name’s dishonour, bed with one maid! See where they lie feasting beside the altar, at the very shrine of their God, no cloak there but is some borrower’s pledge, no stoup of wine but is some debtor’s forfeit! Was it for such men as these I exterminated the Amorrhites, a race tall as the cedar, hardy as the oak, root and fruit of them doomed to destruction? These are the men I rescued from Egypt, guided them, all those forty years, through the wilderness, to make the domain of the Amorrhites theirs!”

Amos, 2: 7-10

Thus does God repent even of removing the Amorrhite people from the Holy Land, in order that the Israelites would possess it for their own. But the Israelites had fallen into idolatry, using a mixture of Egyptian and Amorrhite religions, together with the religion of the God of Israel. That’s why I used the word ‘sycretist,’ which describes the observance of a mixture of religions. The complaints about immorality continue and God promises that such behaviour is begging for social distress and siege by oppressive powers:

“Raise a cry from the house-tops, there in Azotus, there in Egypt’s land: To the hills about Samaria betake you, and look deep into the heart of her, what turbulent doings are there, what wrongs men suffer! In yonder palaces, the Lord says, that are store-houses of oppression and rapine, honest doing is all forgot. This doom, then, the Lord God utters: Distress and siege for such a land as this! All thy fastnesses shall be dismantled, all thy palaces spoiled.

Amos, 3: 9-11

Amos is foretelling a terrible destruction for Israel, which we know occurred not long after his ministry. Within twenty years of the end of the reign of king Jeroboam II of Israel, the northern kingdom was permanently ended, and hundreds of thousands of people were transplanted from their homeland and moved far into Assyria. Why? Because they had fallen away from their only Protector:

“you would not come back to Me, when ruin threatened, swift as the divine stroke that ruined Sodom and Gomorrha, and you yourselves were like a brand saved from the burning. Now I have worse, Israel, in store for thee; when that worse comes, prepare thou must, Israel, to meet thy God. He is here, that fashioned the hills and made the winds; He is here, that gives man warning of His designs, that turns dawn into darkness, and sets His feet on the highest heights of earth; the Lord God of hosts is the Name of Him.

Amos, 4: 11-13

And soon comes a rather strong condemnation of the superficiality in religion, which is wonderfully reminiscent of Psalm 49(50)‘s similar condemnation: 

“And for you, that day brings darkness, not the light you craved for; no radiance haunts about it, only gloom. Oh, but I am sick and tired of them, your solemn feasts; incense that goes up from your assemblies I can breathe no longer! Burnt-sacrifice still? Bloodless offerings still? Nay, I will have none of them; fat be the victims you slay in welcome, I care not. O to be rid of the singing, the harp’s music, that dins My ear!… And like waters rolling in full tide, like a perennial stream, right and justice shall abound …”

Amos, 5: 20-24

Religious rites are empty and futile, if there is no evidence of God’s grace working within the hearts of men, if there is no sense of justice and righteousness in society. Such was the meaning of the apostle Saint James and the constant warning of the Catholic Church, that faith without works is dead. It had got to the point where Israel was making military conquests and claiming that they had thus succeeded because of their own personal quality (as the Chosen people of God?). But they continued in immorality, and now destruction was nigh:

“A word from the Lord, and all shall be a gaping ruin, palace and cottage both. Strange, if yonder mountain-crags men should climb on horseback, or plough with oxen! Stranger still, that people of Mine should poison the springs of right and justice, all wormwood now! And still you boast over some conquest of little worth; ‘To what greatness,’ you say, ‘valour of ours has brought us!’ Trust Me, men of Israel, the Lord God of hosts says, I mean to embroil you with such an enemy as shall crush the life out of you, from Emath pass to the brook that bounds the desert.”

Amos, 6: 12-15

A prophet who foretells doom is never welcome, and in chapter seven Amos tells of the opposition he received from the priest Amasias in Bethel, who tried to have him kicked out of the kingdom and back to Juda. That suggests that the shepherd Amos preached at Bethel, and fell afoul of the professional prophets, especially when they were all yes-men to the king. But there was no getting rid of the dreadful tidings, when even God’s voice would finally vanish from among the people. The sentence is final:

“‘A time is coming,’ says the Lord God, ‘when there shall be great lack in the land, yet neither dearth nor drought. Hunger? Ay, they shall hunger for some message from the Lord, yet go they from eastern to western sea, go they from north to south, making search for it everywhere, message from the Lord they shall have none. Thirst, ay, they shall thirst, fair maid and brave warrior both. Fools, that by the shame of Samaria take their oaths, pin their faith to Dan’s worship or Bersabee pilgrimage! Here is fall there is no amending.'”

Amos, 8: 11-14

Dan’s worship refers to the Egyptian religion established at Bethel and Dan by the first king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam I. It had persisted until the end, in spite of the office of great prophets like Elijah and Elisha. And finally, God declares that the exceptionalism of Israel as His Chosen People was connected to His Commandments. This voice has sounded throughout the Old Testament so far: God has given every people their own home, but His choice of Israel was always bound by faithfulness to Him, and the guilt of infidelity could not fall away. But the promise remained. Punished they would be and the kingdom of Israel destroyed, but a remnant would be preserved and the house of Jacob would be rebuilt one day.

“‘Ethiop or Israelite, what care I?’ the Lord says. ‘God that brought you here from Egypt was God that brought the Philistines from Caphtor, brought the Syrians from Cir! Divine regard that watches ever this kingdom, marks ever its guilt; I will blot it out, believe me, from the face of the earth. And blot out the name of Jacob altogether? Nay, not that, the Lord says.”

Amos, 9: 7-8

Oh, no, not that, because God is faithful. The book ends with a line of comfort. The punishment would not last forever, and the people would return.

I will bring back My people of Israel from its exile, to rebuild ruined cities and dwell there, plant vineyards and drink of them, till gardens and eat the fruits of them. Firm root they shall take in their native soil, never again to be torn away from the home I have given them, says the Lord, thy own God.

Amos, 9: 14-15
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