This blog supplements my previous “Amos and American Christianity.” If you read that first, this blog will make more sense to you.
Amos’s radical criticism of the way the powerful and wealthy of his time and place had structured their social world in their own self-interest got him in trouble with the powers that ruled his world.
Amos 7.10-17 contains one of the Bible’s most vivid encounters between the ruling elites of the ancient world and “the Word of the Lord.” Only the stories of Moses and Pharaoh, Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah and the kings of their time, and, especially, Jesus and the powers of his time are serious rivals.
The encounter begins with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, one of the two major temples in the northern kingdom, sending a message to King Jeroboam charging Amos with conspiracy against the king and the kingdom, including threatening the king with death.
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” (7.10-11).
Then Amaziah threatened Amos and ordered him to leave the Northern Kingdom:
And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer [a term of contempt] go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (7.12-13).
Amos defiantly responded with a further indictment, perhaps against Amaziah but equally as likely against the king. Amaziah had sent a message to the king about Amos. What follows in 7.16-17 may be Amos’s message back to the king:
Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the LORD: “Your wife [the queen?] shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters [the princes and princesses?] shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself [the king?] shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”
A Jewish biblical scholar, Julius Morgenstern, suggested in his book on Amos published in 1941 that the authorities then killed him. We do not know that. There is no historical evidence for the martyrdom of Amos. But Morgenstern’s suggestion accurately reflects the danger that faced Amos. Imagine the courage that it took to be Amos. Imagine his passion for God and God’s passion for a different kind of world.
So far as we know, Amos is about “words.” We do not know whether he also did “deeds of compassion” – did he feed the poor, take care of lepers, minister to those with other diseases and infirmities? But I do imagine that Amos was not simply about anger but also about compassion.
Words are not unimportant. They can change the world. Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, he was a man of action. His campaigns of active non-violent resistance were instrumental in bringing about civil rights for African-Americans. If he had simply written books instead, we probably wouldn’t even know his name. But it was also his words that changed this country. Without his words, how much would have changed?
It is important not to reduce the passion of the prophets to being compassionate, important as that is. Mother Teresa is a classic example of devoting one’s life to compassionate care of those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” She is much to be admired. But she was not a prophet. We need Mother Teresas. And we need prophets who criticize systems that intensify human suffering.