Amos was the first of the so-called ‘writing prophets.’ The book bearing his name relates to the time around 760 bc.
The story starts in a small but significant market town, Bethel — then, the capital of Israel and location of an important altar. The book starts with a shrill denunciation: ‘Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment.’ The people would have heard this message with glee, delighted that God was angry with their old enemy. Few of them noticed the full implications of the prophecy they cheered so heartily: if God was announcing His punishment on Damascus, then He must be a God whose power extended not only over Israel but over other nations as well. The old idea of God as Israel’s own, exclusive, national God could no longer survive after Amos began to teach that God was supreme over all nations.
Amos then announced God’s anger against other traditional enemies such as Ammon and Moab — the location of the towns describing a spiral that gets ever closer to home. A roar of protest would have greeted Amos’ final statement: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away my punishment’ (Amos 2:6). It was unthinkable that a territorial God would punish His own people: what had they done to make Him angry? Surely they had not failed to offer sacrifices?
Into the shocked hush, Amos explained the Lord’s denunciations saying, for example: 'Because you have sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes’ (Amos 2:6). Amos continued: ‘[God says] I hate, I despise your feast days … though you offer me burnt offerings and meat offerings, I will not accept them’ (Amos 5:21). Who ever heard of a God not accepting the elaborate rituals of religion? The idea was surely preposterous. From the crowd, some one must have shouted, ‘Tell us, then, what does Yahweh want?’ Amos answered with words he received from God: ‘Let judgement run down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’ (Amos 5:24).
Amos was saying that God wanted right actions; wrong actions followed by a quick visit to the altar shrine could not placate God. To Amos, such action was trying to bribe God, effectively asking Him to turn a blind eye to the despicable treatment of their fellow Israelites. Rather, Amos saw God as being righteous and holy. This idea may be commonplace today, but it was a strange new doctrine to these people, and they struggled to understand it.
This message was so new, so subversive of the old ways of doing religion, that Amaziah the High Priest feared for the maintenance of his shrine. To him, Amos’ ideas were theologically unsound — sacrilegious even. After Amos den ounced the sanctuaries themselves (Amos 7:9), the high priest sent an urgent message to the King, Jeroboam, and had Amos thrown out.
Amos went to the mountaintop village of Tekoa, a day’s walk away to the south, where he dictated to one of his followers the prophecies he had spoken to Israel. The scribe somehow managed to capture the rhythm and form, and the tremendous power of the prophecies, which abound in judgements on national and international affairs.
Scholars believe the book of Amos was the first book in the Old Testament to be completed. The material in other books may be older, but has been edited, often heavily. Amos ushered in the prophetic movement of the eight century bc, which established a high-water mark in the spiritual history of Israel.
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