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Amos 3:1-4:3

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Lesson Focus God’s judgment is not just for those who actively participate in oppression and violence but also for those whose lifestyle perpetuates the system of violence and exploitation.

Through this lesson, students should

  1. Understand that Israel chose to walk with God in covenant fidelity.

  2. Understand that Israel had saved up oppression and violence, not

  3. earthly goods.

  4. Understand that God’s judgment is not just for those who actively oppress others but also for those who participate in oppressive systems.

Catching up on the story Amos, a prophet from the southern nation of Judah, has begun his work in and around the capital city of the northern nation of Israel. The book opens with a series of oracles spoken against Israel’s surrounding neighbors. These oracles would have been well received by those who first hear Amos. Slowly, though, Amos works his way closer and closer to Israel until he has pronounced judgment on Judah. The pronouncement against Judah would have excited the crowd. In that excitement, Amos lowers the boom and announces God’s displeasure with Israel.

With the crowd shocked and silenced, Amos reminds his hearers of their history. They were once a people who were oppressed and enslaved. God himself, the one who now speaks through Amos, rescued them from Egypt and established them in the land they now occupy. Only, Israel has not lived up to the conditions set by the covenant that God had established. Israel will be held responsible, even more so than their neighbors, because of the continued violation of their covenant with God.

The Text This week’s text can be split into several sections. The first section, 3:1-8, establishes a cause and effect relationship between Israel’s action and God’s forthcoming judgment. Verses 9-11 seek to call outsiders as witnesses against Israel. Finally, 3:12 through 4:3 begin to announce how God will bring about punishment on Israel. We will examine each section in turn.

Cause and Effect: 3:1-8 Chapter three begins with a formulaic pronouncement statement. The words of the previous two chapters should give Amos’ hearers an occasion to pause and consider what will happen. Amos stands and declares that what is about to follow is a word directly from God. They are not his own words but the word of the God who brought them up from the land of Egypt. In reality, the line, “O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt,” is meant to remind Israel, not just of their past salvation, but of the fact that they belong to a family much larger than themselves.

They are no less and no more God’s people than their neighbors Judah. God asserts that Israel and Judah, for that matter, have been in a special relationship with God. The “You only have I known” of verse 2 details this special relationship. In the Old Testament, “know” has two specific meanings. The first is used to describe intimate relations between a man and a woman. The second use belongs to the realm of covenants and treaties. Taken together, God has “known” Israel in both a close and intimate way because of their covenant relationship with them.

As Amos reestablishes that Israel exists as a result of God’s good grace and mercy, he begins to remind the people that they entered into this covenant relationship willingly. Verses 3 through 8 describe a series of questions that are put to the listener that describe some cause and effect relationships. Each question is meant to elicit the answer, “No, of course not.” The first, “Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment,” can be a little ambiguous. The NIV’s rendering, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” is more precise. The effect of the line of questioning is to get the hearers used to answer in the negative.

Verses 7 and 8 are where Amos wishes to make his point. At this point in his ministry, some might be wondering, “Who is this guy, and why is he talking like this to us?” Amos offers an answer. When it comes to God’s interaction with his chosen people, especially when it comes to correction and judgment in the light of covenant unfaithfulness, God speaks his intentions through a prophet. In these two verses, Amos declares that God is about to act, and he has revealed his plans to Amos. The prophet’s burden is so great that he cannot be quiet. Those who hear the words of God must speak them. Amos is a prophet of God. God’s plans have been revealed to him, and he cannot remain silent.

Inspection Time: 3:9-11 Now that Amos has established who he is and why he speaks, he will begin to deliver God’s message. The language in this section is mainly metaphorical. Amos commands the leaders of Israel to issue summons to Ashdod (a Philistine stronghold) and Egypt for their experts to come and inspect Israel’s fortifications. Only, what the inspectors are to inspect is not the strongholds themselves, but Israel’s treasures, which Amos declares are great tumults, oppression, violence, and robbery. This international review board is to come to Israel to see how Israel has gained all that they have gained through unrest, oppression, and robbery. Israel has not stored up for itself riches, as Israel has assumed, but has stored up for itself unrest and violence.

Because they have prospered through violence, unrest, robbery, and oppression, their land shall be surrounded, and their strongholds will be plundered. There is a sense here that the very violence and oppression which came to be housed in Israel’s metaphorical strongholds will now be unleashed upon themselves. As the rich and powerful in Israel have treated others, so shall they be treated.

Fat, Stubborn Cows: 3:13-4:3 Verse 12 begins a new section with the phrase, “Thus says the Lord.” In addition to their violent and oppressive lifestyle, Israel has also practiced a form of self-deception. Israel has fancied itself safe because of its wealth and continued religious practices. Israel never stopped worshiping God but has failed to remember precisely how true worship should shape their lifestyle. In this section, Amos strips away those self-deceptions noting that the things Israel trusts to save them will not.

The imagery of verse 12 is drawn from the life of a shepherd. A shepherd was responsible to pay restitution for any animal he lost while on watch. The shepherd, however, was not accountable to pay for the animal if he could prove that the death was unavoidable. If a predator carried off an animal, the shepherd would not be charged if he could produce a little of the animal’s remains. A small part of the ear, or a leg from a sheep, would have been sufficient. God declares that all that will be saved from Israel will be the small corner of a couch and part of a bed. The reality that the shepherd image evokes is stark. The destruction of Israel will be complete. Not much will be left, only bits here and there. The destruction of Israel will also be inevitable. Despite our stories of the shepherded David fending off a lion and bear, attacks and losses of animals due to large predators were unavoidable. So, due to their continued covenantal infidelity, Israel’s destruction will be inevitable.

In verse 13, an unnamed group is called to bring a warning to the house of Israel. The unnamed group may be those summoned to Israel earlier, or they may be those who have suffered at the oppressive and violent hands of Israel. They are called not as ordinary witnesses to implicate guilt or innocence but to warn Israel that judgment is coming.

Israel has continued to offer worship at the altars of Bethel. The horns of the altar were places of safety and asylum. “In a situation of blood vengeance and punitive pursuit, a fugitive could grasp and hold on to these horns. Because the altar also functions as a place of asylum, the fugitive was thereby safe from his pursuers (1 Kgs 1:50; 2:28; Ex 21:13-14).” If the horns of the altar were to be cut off, it would cease to function as a place of safety and asylum. The point is clear; the home where Israel has sought protection in times of trouble will be destroyed. Israel’s worship will not be able to save them. Neither will the wealth that has allowed them to maintain two residences.

The beginning of chapter 4 remains part of this section. Once again, the people are encouraged to hear what will be said. Only this time, the audience has been narrowed down. Amos now speaks to the women in the crowd. Bashan was a fertile plain known for its pasturelands, supporting cattle. These cows would have been fat and well-fed, lacking in nothing. Just who is Amos calling cows? Amos is referring to the wives of the political and social elite. Judgment is coming on them because they have pressed their husbands to provide for their every want. They say to their husbands while reclining on couches, “Bring something to drink!” “Amos charges that their lifestyle has been purchased at the cost of direct oppression and exploitation of the poor and needy (v. 1). Their excesses have denied the possibility of enough for others.” This affluent lifestyle was maintained by the oppressive and violent practices about which Amos had already spoken.

In verse 2, we get one of the first glimpses of exile. A power, which God has appointed to do his bidding, will destroy Israel and bust through its walls. They will take these cows and lead them away through the breach they created in the wall. They will be dragged away with hooks. The image here is not a pretty one but is clear. Those who oppress others so that their desires can be satisfied will not go unpunished.

So What…? Amos has reminded Israel that they have agreed to walk with God, which is why they are facing judgment. The future that awaits them is not a random event but the result of their constant covenantal infidelity. The Lord has spoken, and now, so must Amos.

What is the reason for this judgment on Israel? It’s because they have become fat and prosperous through violence and exploitation. They have done violence to others so that they might satisfy their own desires. All the while, they have continued to practice their worship of God.

However, the dominant image in this passage is the image of the inspection of Israel’s strongholds. While what the inspector might have imagined they would see were Israel’s affluence and strength, what they saw was their crimes and violence. As mostly affluent Americans, I wonder if we don’t identify with Israel. What Amos makes clear for us is that God’s judgment is not just for those who actively take part in exploiting the weak and powerless. God’s judgment will be visited on those who seek and maintain a luxurious and self-centered lifestyle without regard for how that lifestyle affects the well-being of the poor. It is hard for us to live what most would call a normal lifestyle without getting caught up in systems that exploit and oppress others. We may not intentionally seek to do harm, but we can, and often do, turn a blind eye to how our lifestyle hurts others.

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.

  1. Amos addresses the people of Israel as the “whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt.” Why does he do this?

  2. Verse two states that God had a special relationship with Israel. Why does he remind them of that here?

  3. What is the point behind Amos’ set of questions in verses 3-8? What is the common answer that they all share?

  4. Amos calls the leaders of Israel to invite outsiders (Ashbod and Egypt) to come and inspect their strongholds. Why does Amos think the inspection will reveal “tumults” and “oppressions?” These strongholds should have held treasures and wealth. Is it significant that they now hold violence and robbery?

  5. In verse 14, God says he will punish the “altars of Bethel.” Bethel was one of the places that those in the northern nation of Israel went to worship. Why would this place of worship be punished?

  6. At the beginning of Chapter 4, Amos brings a word against Israel’s political and social elite women. Why does he refer to them as “cows of Bashan?” Is this a compliment or a backhanded insult?

  7. What behaviors have these women engaged in that bring them under judgment? What will ultimately happen to them?

  8. These women aren’t actively engaged in the oppression and violence for which Israel is being punished. Why are they being punished as well?

  9. Like the women in 4:1-3, we may not be actively engaged in oppression and exploitation, but how might we be implicitly involved in it? Consider what we buy. Do they come from companies that oppress and exploit the poor?

  10. What role should the church play in opposing oppression and exploitation? Can you think of an example when the church made a positive impact in a situation of oppression and exploitation?