Amos of Tekoa, sometimes referred to as ‘The Prophet of Justice’, was a shepherd in a small town in Judah, with a mighty message from God for Israel and some would suggest for today.
In this essay I am going to look at the historical context in which Amos is speaking and whether there are any sociological parallels in today’s globalised society and therefore whether the prophet’s message may be relevant in the 21st century.
Amos 1:1 sets the prophet at a time of relative security for the people of Israel and Judah, around 760BCE, during some of the longest reigning monarchs in Israelite and Judean history, however it is at a time of low devotion to God, albeit observing the sacrifices, handed down by Moses, in an attempt to appease God.
Amos was not a statesman, politician, king or nobleman, but a shepherd. He was among the lowest rungs of society. Yet God decides to use him to pass on his judgement and anger against the people. He says in 7:14-15 ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Amos was one of the earliest written prophets and brought a message that would terrify the people listening to it. The first two chapters of Amos are spent giving ‘Oracles against the Nations’, all the nations around Israel. This would have been expected of a prophet of God. God telling his people that he will bring judgment against the people who are not his people. However, where Amos differs from other prophets of the day is that he then spends the next few chapters telling of God's judgement against his people. What’s more, that yhwh may not just be the God of Israel but the God of the other nations also.
At the time Amos is speaking religion was closely associated to the different nations, with each nation having a god or gods that they worshiped and who they sought after to protect them from other nations and gods. Israel was no exception. There was an understanding that God was only the god of Israel. Barton says that ‘YHWH was the god who was in a relationship of mutual commitment to Israel’, at least that’s what Israel thought. And if their god was the god who would look after them and was committed to them, then they could do almost as they liked.
Amos however delivers a message that God was not only the God of Israel but of all nations.
‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?’ (Amos 9:7).
If then God was not only the god of Israel but was also the god of other nations, then how they acted and what their relationship with God was like, mattered. ‘They sell the needy for silver and the innocent for a pair of sandals…’ Amos describes the depths to which the nation has reached, in chapter 2. People, according to a Biblical understanding of creation, were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), yet the rich and powerful of society were abusing the last and least, treating them as no more than commodities to be bought and sold at will.
One could suggest the poorest in today’s world are treated in the same manner. On 23rd April 2013, the Savar building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,129 people and injuring approximately 2500. Target, Primark, Mango, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Tesco and Matalan are just some of the many retailers who sourced clothing and fabric from this factory. Some of the world’s largest retail companies, the rich and powerful of society, sourcing goods from unsafe factories where people are paid less then £1 per day. Amos was speaking to a small part of the world in the Ancient Near East, the problem of exploitation of the poor today, reaches far beyond, into every corner of the world. Amos accused the people of selling others for a pair of sandals; today people are being paid virtually nothing so we can wear sandals. Primark, a UK company that is consistently damned for their treatment of workers, was the only company to give any aid to the workers and the families of workers who had died, including food aid and 6 months’ worth of wages whilst the factory was rebuilt. Whilst not condoning the treatment of workers by Primark, and others, I do draw the stark observation that a retailer that buys a t-shirt for 5p and sells it for £2.50, gives aid and help, where as others who buy clothes for the same price and sells them for £60, does not. One could suggest that this is what Amos was talking about when he said that those who trample on the head of the poor profane his holy name. Globalised companies, those with the wealth and power to change society, exploit the poor for major profit gains, rather than using some of their increasing profits to alleviate the poverty their workers.
One could also argue on the other hand that society today is a more just and fair society than in any other point in history. We have more democratically elected governments than ever before, a decline from 1.9 billion people living in extreme poverty to 1.3 billion people in the last 30 years. Individuals such as Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation have worked tirelessly over the last 25 years to try and eradicate polio in the world. In 1988 Polio was an epidemic in 125 countries, today, 25 years later, because of the work that they have done, it is an epidemic in only 3. Much of this is off the back of entrepreneurs, like Gates, creating great wealth and multi-national companies and then using them as a force for good.
Motyer defines justice as the ‘correct moral practice in daily personal and social life, and righteousness is the cultivation of correct moral principle for both self and society.’ One could argue from the examples given that society is becoming more socially just and is cultivating righteousness. Individual people and governments are taking initiative to elevate the plight of the world’s poorest. The UK on its own has dedicated to give £11.2 billion in international aid. This, however, is on a backdrop of austerity where many families, even in the UK, are finding it hard to feed themselves and pay their bills. During the Parliamentary debate on the use of Food Banks in the UK on 18th December 2013, Maria Eagle MP stated that 4.8 million workers in the UK were paid less than a living wage of £7.65 and that over half a million people now rely on Food Banks weekly to feed themselves and their families.
Amos condemns policies of governments that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in their society. Amos, in 4:11, says “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain…you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.” Wine is consistently used as a metaphor in the Jewish scriptures as a symbol of joy and Yhwh’s blessing. Amos warns the people will not receive that joy or blessing as they put themselves, their wellbeing and their comfort above that of the poorest in society. It could be argued that that message is very much applicable today. In a nation where those on the lowest income have to pay an extra 14% rent if they have a ‘spare’ bedroom and those who earn £1 million get a 5p in a pound tax cut, Amos’ message of the withdrawal of God’s protection could be particularly apt.
With regard to Food Banks, nonetheless, one could argue that they are the church’s response to a social injustice and that those church’s are taking the message of Amos to heart and is doing all of can to help those at the bottom of society. The Trussel Trust, a Christian Organisation, has set up 400 Food Banks around the UK. They state that they are ‘motivated by Jesus’ teaching on poverty and injustice.’ Jesus would have known the teachings of Amos, he was a fierce advocate of not going through the motions, as the Israelites were doing at the time of Amos, to appease God in the way other nations tried to appease their gods, but in relationship with their God.
‘Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.’ (Amos 5:23) Yhwh is saying here that he doesn’t want offering and music for the sake of it and that going through the rituals is not enough. We could be accused of a similar attitude to God today in the UK. We have our children christened, then confirmed, we have a wedding in a church and a funeral in one too, in the hope that by going through the motions and by doing the rituals we will appease God and then when our end comes we will get a ticket to eternal life with God. ‘But let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). ‘Like an ever-flowing stream’ suggests whole life transformation. It suggests that the pursuit of justice and righteousness should consume us, just as fierce water flowing down a mountain consume all that is in their path.
Revelation 3:16 states that God hates lukewarmness. His people are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, and so God says that he will spit them out of his mouth. We see God here again condemning those who state they are rich and have prospered, without having concern for those around them. Amos is talking about lukewarmness, he is preaching about having an attitude of ungratefulness toward Yhwh and an attitude that suggests that as long as you say the right things and offer the right things to Yhwh then all is well.
In conclusion, looking at the evidence presented and even seeing the great works done by so many organisations, individuals and governments to tackle social injustice around the world, one would have to come to the opinion that Amos’ message can most certainly be applied to society today.
The Oxford Bible Commentary, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001)
J. A. Motyer, ‘The Message of Amos’, (Leicester Inter-varsity Press, 1974)
J. Barton, The Theology of the Book of Amos (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012)
W.J.Doorly, Prophet of Justice: Understanding the book of Amos. (New York, Paulist Press 1989)
J Barton, Amos’s Oracles against the Nations: a study of Amos 1:3-2:5. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980)
The Trussel Trust, Mission and Vision’, http://www.trusselltrust.org/mission-and-vision, as viewed on 07/01/14
Maria Eagle MP, Hansard Report on the Parliamentary Debate on Food Banks, 18/12/13, p. 808-810.
Claire Provost and Mark Tran, Aid: How much does the UK spend?, The Guardian, 20/03/13, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/mar/20/uk-aid-spend-important-works, as viewed on 07/01/14
Bill Gates Foundation, ‘Polio, the Strategy’ http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/Global-Development/Polio, as viewed on 01/01/14
Simon Moss, Global Citizen, ‘Ending Extreme Poverty…in a Generation’ http://www.globalcitizen.org/Content/Content.aspx?id=c8d76971-f218-4fcd-80b3-751239ec7b2b, as viewed on 30/12/12
Heather Saul, ‘Primark offers compensation to Bangladesh’, The Independent, 24/10/13, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/primark-offers-compensation-to-bangladesh-rana-plaza-collapse-victims-8901572.html, as viewed on 06/01/14
Zahid Hussain, World Bank Blog, 08/03/2010, http://blogs.worldbank.org/endpovertyinsouthasia/financing-living-wage-bangladesh%E2%80%99s-garment-industry, as viewed on 07/01/14
 (Doorly, Prophet of Justice)
 (Dines, Amos. 582)
 (Barton, The Theology of the Book of Amos. 54)
 (Sarah Butler, The Observer)
 (Death Toll from Rana Plaza building)
 (Zahid Hussain, World Bank Blog)
 (Heather Saul, Primark offers compensation to Bangladesh)
 (Simon Moss, Global Citizen)
 (Bill Gates Foundation, Polio, the Strategy.)
 (Motyer, The Message of Amos. 129)
 (Provost & Tran, Aid.)
 (Maria Eagle MP, Hansard Report. 808-810.)
 (The Trussel Trust, Mission and Vision)