Let justice roll down like waters

It’s easy for people who consider themselves chosen to forget the basic principles of justice and and mercy

Waterfall at Banias

When we think of prophets, it is common to see them primarily in terms of those who make predictions. This is however only part of the story. A common way in which to remember the purpose of prophecy is to see them as forth-tellers, rather than foretellers. A prophet certainly would predict doom, or future restoration, but this was usually in the context of berating the nation for failing to adhere to the terms of the covenant with God. When we look at it this way, one prophet certainly comes to mind, and that is Amos.

Amos was an unlikely prophet in that he was not part of the school of the prophets, and was not prophesying to his fellow Judeans, but to members of another country – Israel. His agricultural background is clear from the opening verse that refers to him being a shepherd, and Amos 7:14 in which he denies being part of the official prophetic guild and states that he harvested figs and was a cattleman.

Arguments that he was a poor manual labourer come from a belief that a wealthy man would not be criticising the prosperous for oppressing the poor, but this is hard to maintain as the word for shepherd in Amos 1:1 also occurs in 2 Kings 3:4 to refer to the Moabite king Mesha whose sheep herding activities were on a large scale. Furthermore, the word is used in the Ugaritic texts found at the ancient Ras Shamra archaeological site in NW Syria to refer to a cultic official responsible for maintaining temple flocks. A man who owned both sheep and cattle would have been a man of some wealth, even if we discount the information from the word for shepherd that implies official or large-scale sheep ownership. As for sycamore figs, they were used mainly as feed crops for animals. His knowledge of the religious and political structure both of Israel and the regional international scene implies that he was quite knowledgeable, while his masterly rhetoric suggests that as Brice Willoughby writing in the Anchor Bible Dictionary notes, he “was a very gifted, highly educated individual, not a poor shepherd.”1 Amos may not have been born to the life of a prophet, but as he said in Amos 3:8, “the Lord GOD has spoken, who can but prophesy?”2

Amos prophesied in the reigns of Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah, a time of prosperity for both countries given that the decline of the regional powers allowed Israel to take over Gilead and the trans-Jordan region, securing the major trade routes and with that considerable wealth. There is considerable archaeological evidence both for this wealth, and considerable economic inequity3:

  • Hundreds of ivory relics from the 9th and 8th centuries at Samaria and Megiddo (Amos 3:15)
  • Hewn stone (ashlar masonry) houses at Samaria (Amos 5:11)
  • 10th century Tirzah shows uniform size of dwellings, but by 8th century, considerable size disparity existed.

In addition, there is also the internal evidence from Amos in Amos 4:1 with his reference to the women of Samaria who oppressed the poor and needy while obsessing with acquiring more material goods, and Amos 6:4-7 which attacked the self-indulgent feasting common among the upper class:

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

What makes this behaviour even more damning is that the people of Israel saw themselves as being faithful to God, a point that Amos makes by noting that they were meticulous in keeping all the feasts and sacrifices and rituals required by God:

Amos 4:4-5 “Come to Bethel—and transgress; to Gilgal—and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days;  bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord God.

Amos 5:21-22 “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.”

Amos 5:18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

While Amos’ denunciation shows that they were far from God, it is clear that in terms of faithful adherence to the ritual, and in nominal adherence to YHWH and not Baal, the people of Israel quite likely saw themselves as being not just followers of God, but by their prosperity, being abundantly blessed by him.

Amos’ criticisms of Israel fiercely attacked the social corruption at the core of the nation:

  • Debt slavery (Amos 2:6; Amos 8:6)
  • Sexual abuse (Amos 2:7)
  • Stealing collateral (Amos 2:8)
  • Charging the poor high taxes (Amos 5:11)
  • Corruption in business (Amos 8:5; Amos 8:6)
  • Corruption in law (Amos 2:7; Amos 5:10; Amos 5:12)
  • Disdain for justice and truth (Amos 5:10)
  • Israel fundamentally broken as a just nation (Amos 3:10, Amos 5:7, Amos 5:24, Amos 6:12)

His criticisms not only reflect the magnitude and scale of the problem, but are deliberately chosen to show how they were violations of the principles in the book of the covenant:

  • Sexual abuse (Exodus 21:7-9)
  • Debt slavery (Lev 25:29)
  • Charging interest to poor (Exodus 22:25)
  • Stealing collateral for loans (Exodus 22:26-27)
  • Perversion of justice (Exodus 23:6-8)
  • Fraudulent weights and measures (Deut 25:13-16)

Amos 5:21-23 voices criticism of cultic ritual alone as source of blessing, and in verse 24 specifically declares, “but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, underlining his message that justice and mercy were the real source of divine blessing and salvation. By implication, the lack of mercy and justice meant that divine condemnation would follow.

Through its covenant with YHWH, Israel became the chosen people, and along with benefits came obligations, which as Amos pointed out had been completely ignored. Amos 3:2 harks to the fact Israel was the chosen of YHWH, and would be punished for its breach of covenant: “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”

Significantly, Amos’ concern for other nations shows a move away from narrow nationalism. OT scholar John J Collins notes:

“the oracles are formulaic (“For three transgressions and for four” is an idiom meaning “for the numerous transgressions”). The grounds for the denunciations are generally [referring to crimes against humans]. Damascus threshed Gilead (in Transjordan) with sledges of iron. Gaza sold entire communities as slaves to Edom. The Ammonites ripped open pregnant women in Gilead. Each of these cases could be read as instances of aggression against Israel, but Amos’s concerns are not nationalistic. So he condemns Moab “because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom” (2:1). This is a crime of one Gentile against another and can only be viewed as a crime against humanity. Amos operates with a concept of universal justice, such as we often find in the wisdom literature. His horizon is broader than the specific revelation to Israel.”4

What is meant by the Day of the Lord?  Israel’s longing for the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-20) raises the possibility that Israel considered their prosperity a sign not only of Divine blessing, but impending destruction on their foes, which makes Amos’ reversal of this expectation all the more powerful. It could also refer to a celebration of YHWH’s greatness and by implication the greatness of his people. As Amos saw no good in the nation (Amos 3:10, Amos 5:10), his prediction of complete destruction for Israel was likewise complete and final, with no remnant of Israel left after its destruction (Amos 4:2, 6:10)

Once again, it is telling that Amos’ criticism of Israel is not that it has not been deficient in religious practice – he is not criticising them in that area – but rather because they have failed to practice justice and righteousness in their daily life. Their religion was orthodox, but it did not change who they were at all. Collins puts it well:

“The critique of the cult puts in sharp focus the question of what is important in religion. For many people, both in ancient and modern times, to practice a religion means to go to the temple or church and to participate in the rituals. For Amos, however, to serve God is to practice justice. The slaughter of animals, and the feasting and celebration that accompanied sacrifice, did not contribute to that goal. On the contrary, it gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their god when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the service of God, but actually an impediment to it. To call for the reform of the cult might still give the impression that it was important and perpetuate the misplaced values of Israelite society. Consequently, Amos is radical in his rejection. The service of God is about justice. It is not about offerings at all.”5

While the book offers hope to Judah, its condemnation of Israel is savage, bleak, and without any offer of hope. Collins again:

“The message of Amos is summed up concisely in 8:1–2. The vision involves a wordplay in Hebrew. He sees “a basket of summer fruit” (Hebrew qaytz) and is told that “the end” (Hebrew qetz) is coming on Israel (the Hebrew root, qatzatz, means “to cut off”). The expectation of “the end” later comes to be associated especially with apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Daniel. (The word eschatology, the doctrine of the last things, is derived from the Greek word for “end,” eschaton.) Eventually it comes to mean the end of the world. In Amos it means simply the end of Israel. In fact, a few decades after Amos spoke, the kingdom of northern Israel was brought to an end by the Assyrians and was never reconstituted.”6

The last divine-sanctioned theocracy died in 586 BCE when the Babylonians overthrew the kingdom of Judah. Christianity was never intended to become the kernel of a new theocratic kingdom, at least not prior to the return of Christ. However, for most of European history, the church has wielded considerable power, and with that power has come considerable suffering. Therefore, it is possible for us to find a modern-day parallel to the Israel which Amos criticised, and see what we can learn.

The modern era has seen government become avowedly secular, and even in countries such as the UK that have a state church, power remains with the state. The US is something of an aberration in that it constitutionally separates church and state, but has a high level of Christian religiosity. During its life, the evangelical faith has been politically engaged to varying degrees, with two-time Democratic presidential candidate W. Jennings Bryan representing a populist, progressive tradition of evangelical activism in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, with the religious right of the late 20th century representing a return to political activism by evangelicals after a period of quietism from the 1930s onwards.

The issue drawing evangelicals back into the political domain in the 1970s was mainly abortion with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision serving as an official trigger, though as the historian and Dartmouth College professor Randall Balmer writes in POLITICO magazine, evangelical anger at losing tax-exemption for failing to integrate their schools and university was also a considerable factor in dragging them back. His article neatly highlights the hypocrisy of the religious right:

“Weyrich saw that he had the beginnings of a conservative political movement, which is why, several years into President Jimmy Carter’s term, he and other leaders of the nascent religious right blamed the Democratic president for the IRS actions against segregated schools—even though the policy was mandated by Nixon, and Bob Jones University had lost its tax exemption a year and a day before Carter was inaugurated as president. Falwell, Weyrich and others were undeterred by the niceties of facts. In their determination to elect a conservative, they would do anything to deny a Democrat, even a fellow evangelical like Carter, another term in the White House.”

Evangelicals have remained closely linked with the political right since them, with one of their main political aims being the overturning of Roe v. Wade. This aim is so deeply entrenched that no less a figure than evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem, in a recent editorial at the right wing blog Townhall urged evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump, dismissing concerns about his decidedly un-Christian behaviour by declaring:

“Under President Obama, a liberal federal government has seized more and more control over our lives. But this can change. This year we have an unusual opportunity to defeat Hillary Clinton and the pro-abortion, pro-gender-confusion, anti-religious liberty, tax-and-spend, big government liberalism that she champions. I believe that defeating that kind of liberalism would be a morally right action.”

Astounding as this sort of language is in the ears of people such as us who refrain from active participation in politics, this is moderate compared to other evangelicals, with some such as Christian activist David Barton declaring that Christians who did not support Trump were simply looking for excuses, and would have to answer to him for failing to vote for Trump. Barton represents the extreme fringes of the US right, but Grudem is mainstream evangelical Christian, which is why his comment has triggered a considerable amount of controversy online.

Arguably the most polemical, but no less effective for that came from evangelical philosopher Randal Rauser:

“Grudem’s article is a luminously clear example of a conservative that sold his soul to the GOP. Trump’s psychopathic behavior, no matter how debased, can all be forgiven so long as we don’t elect Hillary Clinton, a candidate who would surely nominate a “liberal” justice to the Supreme Court.

Grudem then goes on to explain how important it is to avoid a “liberal” justice. For example, he has the gall to suggest that a vote for Trump would protect “religious freedom.” That, of course, is code for evangelical Christian religious freedom. Grudem clearly cares nothing for the religious freedom of Muslims or any other minority group outside his own tribe

Grudem’s self-centered concern is even clearer on his next point, the desire to protect “Christian business owners.”…Grudem then adds that Trump would also protect Christian schools and churches. Again, it’s clear the man cares nothing about non-Christians schools and non-Christian places of worship…This is an example of a man who has sold his soul to a political party such that he is simply unable of thinking beyond the confines of his own idolatry.

Perhaps the most insightful and damning observation comes from Amy Gannett, a young evangelical writer who notes:

What Grudem effectively does, then, is sets up a hierarchy of morality. He is willing to hold some moral values (religious rights for Christian schools and businesses, support of traditional marriage, and pro-life notions) above others (the equality of races, genders, and ethnicities). All are moral concepts, all require a moral stance, and Grudem has chosen which he prefers over others.

I know he is not alone in this hierarchical approach to morality. We all have things that we prioritize over others for no reason other than the way they effect and affect our lives. But Grudem has chosen to be old guard, predominantly upholding political issues that are less felt by our generation. Now, please don’t misunderstand, it’s not that we don’t think these things are important, but we are currently grappling with other moral imperatives that infiltrate the ebb and flow of our daily lives. Yes, we value the rights of the unborn, but we want leaders that are pro-life in all areas of society. Millennials feel the daily pangs of racial tension, a deep desire for equality for all, and a propensity toward the social justice issues surrounding the refugee crisis.

Evangelical leaders like Grudem are using their political and social weight on issues close to their generation, and are neglecting the moral imperatives to seek justice, peace, and equality for the Black community, the immigrant community, and the refugee community (and a slew of others). My generation will not identify with this. We cannot call a candidate “good,” as Grudem does with Trump, who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television. We will not buy into the hierarchy of Grudem’s proposed morals over others. Because Grudem (and others) are making this hierarchy of morality intrinsically related to the Christian life and theology, we will not stand with them.

There are of course major differences between the kingdom of Israel and the evangelical right. The former was a theocratic state and as heirs of the Exodus tradition bound to the Sinai covenant. As the US is not a theocracy, the latter is not a theocratic state, but instead is a conservative part of the Protestant faith tradition. There are however strong thematic parallels and contrasts. The nation of Israel considered itself to be God’s people and regarded its prosperity as evidence of Divine favour and evidence that it was fulfilling the cultic requirements of the covenant. The Evangelical Right believes that the US has gone astray, and that it is the obligation and duty of its members to directly intervene in the political process in order to ensure that a government is elected that will bring the US morally in line with what they regard as God’s will.

Their view of God’s will, as Gannett ably notes, is one with a hierarchy of morals that privileges a narrow subset and ignores questions of social justice. And it is here that the two examples converge. Amos castigated Israel not because it was failing to perform the cultic obligations of its faith – quite likely they were following the letter of the law – but because their professed faith in God vanished once they left the cultic centre at Bethel and resumed their crushing oppression of the poor. The Evangelical right obsesses over electing a government that will keep the Supreme Court conservative, preferentially protect Christian businesses, schools, and other institutions, and tear down ‘big government’, overlooking the fact that in the process, they are favouring a political philosophy that in its obsession with trickle-down economics and neo-liberalism makes the lives of the ‘fatherless and widows’ miserable. Like Israel, the Evangelical right – has overlooked the fact that no amount of self-congratulation about being God’s people makes up for ignoring the plight of the ‘fatherless and widows’. It is in the treatment of the most vulnerable and marginalised that a religious community truly shows whether it is the embodiment of justice and mercy.

We are not the nation of Israel, nor are we members of the activist branch of US evangelical Christianity. We are a small, quietist Christian denomination that has no political power and does not seek it, so we cannot make direct comparisons with either. However, in Israel’s failure to ensure that their loyalty to the letter of the law was reflected in how they treated other people, and in the evangelical right’s obsession with gaining political power to secure Christian privilege, we can see how easy it is to see people that consider themselves chosen to forget the basic principles of justice and mercy.

Proverbs 21:3 cannot be clearer when it says that “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” This commitment spans both testaments as Matt 5:6-7 notes with the back-to back beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

If there is a NT analog to Amos, I would argue it would be James, whose reminder that faith without works – analogous to the Israelite failure to transfer their adherence to cultic ritual to their treatment of the weak – is dead, and whose fierce denunciation of injustice and religious hypocrisy apply just as well to the evangelical right’s prioritising of Christian ethics. I am more than happy to let him have the final words: From James 2:8-13

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.  For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.7

Footnotes

  1. Bruce E. Willoughby, “Amos, Book of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 205.
  2. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Am 3:8.
  3. Bruce E. Willoughby, “Amos, Book of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 205.
  4. John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books (Second Edition.; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 308.
  5. Ibid., 311-312.
  6. Ibid., 312.
  7. The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jas 2:8–13.

Author: Kenneth Gilmore

Ken is a Brisbane-based medical practitioner whose interests include Syro-Palestinian archaeology, Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Second Temple Judaism, Historical Jesus studies, and cats.