Lesson Focus We are the people of God because of God’s grace and mercy. We are called to remember who we are as God’s people so that we can live in covenant faithfulness with God and others.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the historical context for the book of Amos.
Understand that God’s judgment always takes place in the context of a covenant relationship.
Understand that we are the people of God because of His grace and mercy, and so we are required to live in covenant faithfulness to God and others.
Catch up on the Story In the way of biography, we do not get much concerning Amos. Unlike Hosea’s contemporary, we only get a few lines about the man Amos. We are told, in the beginning, that Amos is a sheepherder or breeder from the town of Tekoa. The traditional location for Tekoa is about 10 miles south of Judah’s capital city of Jerusalem. This area would have been ideal for raising and keeping sheep. We are also told that he begins his ministry during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam, son of Joash in Israel. This places his ministry during the 750s BCE. Scholars believe that his ministry was not long, perhaps five years.
Unlike Hosea, Amos is likely not part of the priestly class, nor is he part of the religious establishment. There has been some discussion regarding the nature of Amos’ job as a sheepherder or breeder. If he were the owner of a large flock or trader of these sheep that he may have owned, then he would have likely traveled the region in the execution of his business. In this way, he may have had some personal knowledge of the injustices he reports in the oracles against the nations later in chapter 1. Amos’ exact job is ultimately unimportant for his mission as a prophet and mouthpiece of God.
While Amos is a resident of Judah, the southern kingdom, his ministry is to the northern nation of Israel. You will remember that once upon a time, the nation of Israel was a united whole under King David and Solomon. Unfortunately, after King Solomon’s death around 930 BCE, Israel split into two countries, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. By the time of Amos’ writing, Israel is at the height of its economic and political stability. Things are good in Israel. There is relative peace and stability, and profitable trade with its neighbors.
Peace and stability, not to mention economic fruitfulness, as they often do, caused Israel to become comfortable and forget just how much the God who brought them up out of Egypt had provided for them. An elite economic class grew up, and with that group came a steady stream of injustice against those not belonging to this affluent class. Amos is predominately concerned with these social and economic injustices. However, peace and stability will be threatened by the rising power of Assyria to the north. Eventually, Assyria will be God’s agent of judgment on Israel.
The pronouncements of doom in Amos are almost always set in the context of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The judgment that Amos pronounces is not some willy-nilly decision from God. It is, instead, the terms of the covenant that Israel agreed to at Mt. Sinai. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we find a long list of curses and blessings that are tied to Israel’s behavior. For a long time, Israel has engaged in the type of behavior that would trigger these covenant curses. Now Amos is charged with bringing God’s case and his pronouncement of judgment to Israel.
The Text After the opening introduction that gives us the book’s author, where he was from, and the time he was active, we are given another short inscription that announces that what will follow is a word from God. This word from God will be no still small voice. Rather, the words that will issue from God’s mouth will be more like a lion roaring in the wilderness. This roar will have devastating effects on the area around it. This opening poem amounts to a curse announcement. The curses laid out in the covenant God made with Israel and Moses at Sinai will now be enforced. This poem also identifies God’s earthly dwelling place, like Jerusalem, often referred to as Zion (Stuart, 300-301). For Israel’s part, after the split with Judah, they had set up their own shrines and places of worship, which led to the infiltration of pagan practices and rituals. Because of this infiltration, Israel had lost most of the idea of what it meant to be God’s chosen people.
Oracles Against the Nations: Amos 1:3-2:5 After the text establishes that what will follow is a pronouncement of judgment issuing from God, Amos begins by speaking against cities and nations that surround Israel. Verse 3 starts with, “Thus says the Lord…” This reinforces that Amos is just a mouthpiece for what God wants to say to the nations. Contrary to popular opinion today, the role of the prophet is not so much to predict the future but to speak God’s truth.
While we won’t take much time with the specific content of each of these oracles against the nations, it will be important to note a few things. First, all of these oracles rest on the same theological assumption: God is the God of all creation and has power over all creation and will not tolerate unrighteousness from anyone. This view that a god could be the god of all creation is a minority one with Israel’s neighbors. Deities were supposed to reign over a geographical area. Nations would have their own gods. With these oracles of judgment for injustice and unrighteousness, God proclaims that he is not just the God of Israel and Judah but the God of all creation. God has an implicit covenant with all people in all places, and he expects obedience to this basic understanding of law and morality. God will enforce these covenantal sanctions on the nations (Stuart, 308).
Covenant The essence of covenant is found in a particular kind of relationship between persons. We also understand covenant as taking place between individuals and God as well as whole families and nations and God. Mutual obligations characterize these kinds of relationships. Thus a covenant relationship is not merely a mutual acquaintance or friendship but a commitment to responsibility and action toward the other. A keyword in Scripture to describe that commitment is “faithfulness,” acted out in a context of enduring friendship.
Covenant relationships take work on the part of both parties. The vows that are exchanged at a wedding are a perfect example of this. With these vows, husbands and wives pledge a level of commitment and accountability to their spouses. When the vows are violated, so is the covenant, and there are always repercussions for those types of violations. Just as in a marriage covenant, when one is unfaithful, the other partner can offer grace and forgiveness, so it is with God’s covenant with us (Beitzel and Elwell, 531).
This leads to the second thing: the infractions listed in the oracles against the nations are sins that would be considered wrong to most people.
The specific accusations in the first six sayings all have to do with crimes in war. Damascus has treated the people of Gilead with extreme cruelty, grinding them as grain ground on a threshing floor. The Philistines and the people of Tyre have been involved in large-scale programs of deportation. Tyre has violated an international treaty, the “covenant of brother-hood.” The Edomites are accused of pitiless and ongoing cruelty against a “brother” people. The atrocity of the Ammonites is especially reprehensible: Innocent civilians, pregnant women, are killed by the sword, taking two lives at one blow….The Moabites are accused of extending their atrocities beyond death, burning human bones to make consumer products… (Limburgh, 89).
These crimes were not isolated incidents. They were part of repeated patterns of violence and injustice committed by these neighboring nations. As we will see in just a minute with Judah and Israel, God often allows us to go a very long way off from his covenantal plans for us before bringing about the required judgment for our sins. These nations did not just commit one sin but have been engaged in systematic and repeated abuses against other people since at least the time of Solomon’s death.
Another thing to note about these sayings against the nations is that God himself will be the one who brings judgment and destruction. Notice the first person singular in seven of the eight phrases: “I will bring….” The destruction will come in the form of fire, presumably the fire of war set by nations that God will use to bring his punishment. None of the countries cited will be able to stand the impending destruction.
Finally, the list of nations creates a circular pattern that begins to come closer and closer to Israel (see map). Each country mentioned is or was at some point enemies with Israel. Some, Edom, Ammon, and Moab, all have historical kinship relations with Israel. The Edomites were considered descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau (Genesis 36:1), while the citizens of Ammon and Moab came from Lot’s descendants (Genesis 19:36-38). Finally, of course, Judah and Israel were once one united country. They were both direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
As Amos rounds out the first six oracles, we can begin to imagine that the crowd who has been listening to him is getting very excited. After all, God is pronouncing judgment on a good many of Israel’s neighbors. This is good news for Israel, right? Then things get even better. Amos moves on to Israel’s closet neighbor, Judah.
Judah’s oracle is much like the previous six in form and style. It begins with the same formulaic saying as the others have, “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke punishment….” Why will they be punished? They will be punished because they have not kept the laws and statutes that God had given them. Secondly, Judah has fallen into the same traps as their ancestors had, following false teaching and the lies of the religions of surrounding nations.
This would have been music to the Israelites’ ears as Judah had constantly charged Israel with the same kind of infidelities (2 Chron. 13:5-12; 1 Kings 14:22-24; 2 Kings 17:19). With gleeful anticipation, Amos’ hearers would have waited for what was next. However, what would come next would not bring them joy or excitement!
The Oracle Against Israel: Amos 2:6-16 This eighth and final oracle begins the same way the rest of them have; God unequivocally announces his judgment on Israel. There will be no relenting, no changing of God’s mind about what will befall Israel. Israel’s systematic and consistent unfaithfulness, just like the surrounding nations, has not gone unnoticed and will not go unpunished.
This next section, 2:6-16, follows a similar yet elongated format to the previous oracles. It can further be split into three sections. Verses 6-8 detail the crimes that Israel has committed. Verses 9-12 are intended to remind Israel, albeit ever so briefly, what God has done for them in the past. Finally, verses 13-16 line out the judgment that will soon transpire in Israel. We will look at each section in turn.
The Charges: “Thus says the Lord….” This first section, consisting of verses 6-8, details God’s charges against Israel. There are four separate charges, which are unlike the charges that have been brought against the nations. They are specific to the covenant that God has made with Israel. They are not war crimes but rather transgressions against the harmonious and peaceful ordering of Israelite communal life (McBride Jr, Janzen, and Wolff, 165). These are issues of socio-economic justice.
The first charges concerns selling an individual into slavery. Now, slavery was a carefully practiced and regulated practice among God’s people (Exodus 21:2ff; Leviticus 25:39ff; and Deuteronomy 15:12ff.). Slavery, in the form in which God’s people were allowed to practice it, was meant to protect the lives and well-being of those who found themselves in poverty and unable to pay their debts. The ultimate aim was always that the person enslaved would return to an independent existence. Amos is not taking issue with slavery, per se, but with the way, it was being practiced in Israel at the time.
Who is being sold into slavery is the important part. Amos uses two words, “righteous,” which the NIV translates as “innocent,” and “needy.” Those who are being sold are upright and who are the most vulnerable segments of society. They are being sold “for a pair of sandals.” The image that Amos is seeking to evoke is that of a prosperous person taking advantage of a minimal debt, the worth of a pair of sandals so that he might sell a living person into slavery and make a profit. The “needy” in Israel were to be protected. The standard civil and judicial laws would never have allowed this kind of injustice. Nevertheless, the guilty have used and abused the legal system to profit personally.
The second charge is the oppression of the poor. In verse 7, we get a further picture of what the injustice rampant in Israel looks like. The rich and powerful trample on the heads of the poor. The image of trampling a person’s head had long been a familiar symbol in illustrations that depicted Mesopotamian kings subjugating their conquered enemies. It is an image of complete dominance.
Furthermore, they “push the afflicted out of the way,” which the NIV better translates as “deny justice to the oppressed.” This is less about harmlessly pushing someone out of your way on the street, and more of a violent obstruction of justice through the bribing of judges (Jeremias, 36). The judges were the elders of the town or village who sat in the gate of the city to adjudicate disputes in the community. If the judges could not be counted on to provide justice, then justice would not be had.
The third charge deals with sexual abuse. There is much ambiguity concerning the nature of this charge. Some argue that the girl in question is a maid, a young woman who still may be a minor in service to a wealthy family. On the other hand, some think that the girl in question is just a young woman in the community. Or, she might be the son’s lover mentioned in the text. Ultimately, what is at stake in this charge is the elevation of sexual desires over against the dignity and humanity of a young woman. “Amos sees before him a society in which sexual desire determines a person’s actions, desire shamelessly selecting socially dependent persons as victims.” (Jeremias, 37).
The final charge of exploiting debtors rounds out the section. Two separate things are happing in this charge. First, Amos speaks against the misuse of things that have been taken in pledge. The law allowed for items to be taken from a debtor as collateral until the debt might be paid. There were certain items and certain situations in which things could not be taken as a pledge. A handmill or grindstone could not be taken at all (Deuteronomy 24:6). The cloak, the outer garment, which was used as a covering during the night, of a poor man, could not be kept overnight (Exodus 22:25). A widow’s cloak or garment could not be taken at all (Deuteronomy 24:17). The spreading out of the cloak likely alludes to using it as a place to lay on at night. Or, it could mean that the garment would be used to recline on at a meal. Either way, it was improper to use the object that way. Secondly, the accused are getting drunk in God’s house with wine that was bought with fines levied on people who had offended or harmed them. These fines were a normal part of the law. They could be imposed on someone who, while fighting with an adversary, accidentally hit a pregnant woman so that she miscarried. The fine was to be restitution for the infraction. Amos, for his part, believes that exorbitant fines are being levied on the poor for the slightest of infractions. What is at stake here is not so much the drunkenness, but the way in which the drunkenness is achieved, through the oppression of the poor.
While these charges are more specific they are not comprehensive or exhaustive. A common thread is beginning to emerge. God is angry at Israel for the injustice that runs rampant because of their prosperity that led to greedy lifestyles.
“I brought you up out of the land of Egypt…” The “yet” at the beginning of verse 9 provides a pivot on which the passage turns. The charges against Israel have been laid out and the verdict will be announced shortly. Before that, however, God sees fit to remind Israel where they came from. These three verses are important for us as well. They remind us that Israel’s judgment does not take place in a vacuum, but rather is based on the many blessings and rich covenant that God has with Israel. Israel acts in shameful ways despite the fact that God brought them up out of slavery in Egypt, and in pretty spectacular ways, too. God uprooted the Amorites who were a large and powerful people. They were like strong trees, but God destroyed their fruit and uprooted them.
Israel was not left to their own devices in this new land. God raised up for them prophets who would help guide them and correct them. Some became nazirites who were not to cut their hair or drink wine or come into contact with the dead. They were to be totally and utterly dedicated and committed to the service of God. Verse 11 ends with the asking of a rhetorical question. God wants to know if Israel remembers that God did all these things for them. But, in Israel’s greed and wickedness they defiled the nazirites and commanded the prophets to cease speaking. They silenced the ones who could help them get back on the right track. I imagine that the crowd, which had likely been rejoicing at the oracles pronounced on the nations, has now become silent.
“So, I…” It is apparent that Israel has forgotten who they are and who rescued them from slavery to plant them in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land with houses they did not build and cisterns they did not hew. “So, I…” begins the final section of the oracle. Once again God will be the agent of judgment. Israel will be crushed like grass that finds itself under the wheel of a fully loaded cart carrying grain. There will be no escaping it either. Just like the grass has no ability to run away from the crushing weight of the oncoming cart, so will all ability to flee be removed from Israel.
The judgment that God visited on the Amorites in verse 9 will now be the judgment that befalls Israel. “At one time Yahweh waged holy war on Israel’s behalf against its enemies (2:9). Now Israel has joined their enemies, becoming likewise a target of Yahweh’s attack. The people of God has despised the privilege of compassion and has itself thus become Yahweh’s enemy” (Wolff, 173).
So What…? It will be difficult, in the weeks that follow, not to get bogged down in the rather melancholy and judgmental tone of the book of Amos. What we must not miss, however, is that the message that Amos declares is for us, too. This message, while dark and foreboding, can enlighten us to our own possible sins and crimes against humanity (personally and corporately). The one thing that is clear from these oracles, specifically the oracle against Israel, is that Israel is just as guilty if not more guilty than the others because of the circumstances from which they rose. It was out of God’s compassion for the poor, the barren and the oppressed that Israel became a nation. It is in an act of judgment against a people who had mistreated the poor that God carves out a place for Israel to live. Simply, Israel owes their existence to the grace and mercy of God.
We, like Israel, are a people who owe our existence to the grace and mercy of God. It is out of the bondage of sin, out of the oppression of death, that we have been saved and constituted a people. But unlike Israel, we must not forget how and by whose hand we became a people. If we forget, in our prosperity we will fall prey to the same temptations as Israel did, the temptations to use and abuse our neighbor instead of becoming extensions of God’s grace and mercy. To whom much is given, must is expected.
Specific Discussion Questions Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story. Remember, you will need to guide your group through the answers to these questions.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story. Remember, you will need to guide your group through the answers to these questions.
Who was Amos and where was he from? Where did he minister?
Why does Amos use the image of a lion roaring to depict the way in which God will speak in the following lines?
Who are these nations that Amos speaks against? Where are they located? How might they be related to the nation of Israel?
What point does Amos make by pronouncing oracles of judgment on nations other than Israel? How might those hearing Amos’ speech react to such oracles?
Verses 6-8 of chapter 2 identify 4 charges leveled against Israel. What are the specific charges and how might they be connected thematically?
In chapter 2, verses 9-12 detail a little bit of Israel’s history. Why would it be important for God to remind Israel of where they came from?
Like Israel, as a church, we have become God’s people because of God’s mercy and grace. How might these words to Israel speak to us today?
In what way might we be like Israel (personally or corporately) in the way we have treated others? How might we guard against receiving the same kind of judgment that Israel eventually receives?
Beitzel, Barry J., and Walter A. Elwell. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988. Jeremias, Jorg. The Book of Amos, trans. Douglas W. Scott, First American edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Limburg, James. Hosea: Micah: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta, GA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988. Stuart, Douglas. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 31, Hosea-Jonah. Waco, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1987. Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel, and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos. Trans., S. Dean McBride Jr, and Waldemar Janzen. Philadelphia, PA: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1977.