The Rage of Amos

I’m reading through Amos right now in The Bible Podcast – I don’t think I’ve ever used “Mr. Angry Voice” so much in one sitting than reading through those 9 little chapters. You know that thing that God does where he gives himself different names depending on which aspect of his nature he wants to express? Yeah, in Amos, he calls himself “The God Who Commands Armies”, and he has his rage on, for sure.

Amos almost seems hesitant to be the messenger of such doom. He keeps interjecting the phrase “The Lord God is Speaking”, like you would if you were telling someone about the David Duke’s political platform, and as you got the section on racial purity, you kept saying, “Now, this is HIM speaking, not me! I want no part in this!”

Except that Amos has a brilliant moment of courage, when King Jereboam of Israel and Amaziah the priest accuse him of undermining the social fabric of Israel. They assume that he is a prophet for hire (a courtly profession, like a royal adviser, in the Ancient Near East), and they try tell him to move his business south, to Judah, where they go in for that sort of fundamentalism crap. Amos replies, “You think this was part of my career plan? I was not a prophet by profession – I was a shepherd, and a farmer. God ripped me away from my flocks and fields, and sent me here as his mouthpiece. (7:10-17) God does not bring down his hand of justice without warning. When a lion roars, everyone quakes in fear. God has spoken … who can possibly refuse to prophecy? (3:7-8)” (I pulled that second part out of an earlier section, but I think it’s certainly part of Amos’ same line of thought about his vocation as a prophet).

So, why is God raging? What great sin has Israel committed, for which God is bringing the Assyrians and Babylonians to lead them away with fishhooks in their mouth? The Old Testament gives plenty of reasons, and every prophet that God sent brought them fresh reminders of new ways that they had violated the terms of their lease agreement on the land. In Amos, though, the voice is singular in it’s implication.

the poor

Israel has abandoned her poor.

“They sold the innocent for a few pieces of silver, and they traded the needy for a new pair of sandals. They trample on the dirt-covered heads of the poor, they push the destitute away.” (2:7-8)

“Listen, you painted pigs, in Prada and Herm├Ęs, living on the coast of Malibu! You oppress the poor; you crush the needy. You whine to your husbands to up the credit limit on your cards, you lunch at Spago and spa at Amadeus, but the time is coming when you will be carried away in a rusted out shopping cart, through the rubble of your gated homes” (4:1-3)

“You hate anyone who speaks the truth to you, anyone who rules justly in your public courts. You levied taxes on the poor, to take away their food and their livelihood, and you used it to build houses of ornate stonework, and vineyards of fine grapes. You will enjoy neither.” (5:10-11)

“Woe to those who live in ease in Zion, to those who feel secure on Mount Samaria … They lie on beds decorated with ivory, the sprawl out on their couches. They eat choice lamb, and the best calves, they sing songs all day, they drink the best wine, and they soothe themselves in fine oils. Israel is in ruins, and they don’t care.” (6:3-6)

It turns out that undermining the social fabric of Israel was exactly what Amos was up to.

spare change

15 thoughts on “The Rage of Amos

  1. june

    Michael: I always like reading your posts. (Ok, except when you wax eloquent about technology….snoooorecity.)

    Corey: I feel like I should say something profound about social justice but all I can think presently is: Those photos are absolutely amazing!

    Aly and all: Living in L.A. (and working in Malibu) brought the reality of both America’s uber-wealthy and extremely poor home to me in a new way. Living in Venezuela as a youngster, I saw homeless and poor people everywhere and many families who lived in cardboard boxes beneath underpasses, horribly disfigured beggars at the open air market where my mom shopped and on and on. I wish I could roll all of these observances and experiences and my Bible knowledge (meager though it is) into some kind of personal manifesto about “the poor” but I’ve never felt like I can get a handle on it. The best I know how to do so far is to ‘do what I can’ which seems sooooooooo lame and leaves me consistenly wondering what more/different I could/should do.

    Help. Anyone?

  2. Morphea

    My friend Lisa enjoys and prefers to work with the world’s poor because she gets the feeling that they’re more like Jesus than anyone else she knows.

    I also have a big, fat, hairy WHAT THE HELL DO WE DO? sign hanging in my head every time I think about this. It usually keeps me from doing anything. Lame.

    Cerise

  3. harmonicminer

    In the USA, few taxes are “levied on the poor”… in fact, the taxes that affect the poor are sales tax and corporate income taxes… since the cost of these are built into every product, with the same price paid by poor and rich.

    Re: the theory that Israel was taken into slavery because its few rich oppressed its many poor, I guess I missed the part where the rich were taken, but the poor left behind to live nice lives at home. This requires us to believe that God punished the poor for the sins of the rich in oppressing the poor… not sure I’m buying that.

    I DO believe this: if the USA had not abolished slavery, with the price in blood the battle took (paid by some of my ancestors from Wisconsin who went south to fight), there would have been “hell to pay”.

    But we no longer “sell the innocent” or “trade the needy” as a matter of national or local policy, though of course there will always be abusers. Israel’s problem: the abusers WERE the lawgivers of the day. And they were punished for turning away from God (which may have been common enough among the poor, as well), of which abuse of the poor is a symptom.

    Previous comments on the lack of real poverty in the USA apply, of course…

    In the meantime, those evil abusers of the poor in Malibu are the ones who employ me and pay for my children’s education, every now and then… And I have never been stiffed by them, even once. Wish I could say the same for some of the churches I’ve worked for….

  4. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="46345"]
    In the meantime, those evil abusers of the poor in Malibu are the ones who employ me and pay for my children’s education, every now and then… And I have never been stiffed by them, even once. Wish I could say the same for some of the churches I’ve worked for….[/quote]

    Just trying to give some local context to the passages, without people having to flip open their bible dictionaries and figure out where Bashan is, and whether or not Mount Samaria was the 90210 of the day.

    Amos seems to be reviling a certain type of wealth, an entitled, slothful sort that expends all of it energy on fashion and self-aggrandizing luxury. I’m trading on the stereotype of the Malibu Trophy Wife, which seems like the closest thing we have today to the kind of luxuriate existence Amos is “woe-ing”. And of course, trading on stereotypes is reliably convenient, and just as reliably incomplete or false.

    [quote]Re: the theory that Israel was taken into slavery because its few rich oppressed its many poor, I guess I missed the part where the rich were taken, but the poor left behind to live nice lives at home. This requires us to believe that God punished the poor for the sins of the rich in oppressing the poor… not sure I’m buying that.[/quote]

    Well, this presents something of a problem, for two reasons. First, Amos makes very explicit the connection between the economic injustice practiced by the wealthy in northern Israel, and the coming of a mighty army to crush them. In Amos 4:1-3, he states that the oppression of the poor, and the self-gratifying luxury, will be ended by God when he brings a mighty army sweeping through the land to cart them off. 5:11 again makes the connection explicit, saying that because of their treatment of the poor, they will not enjoy the spoils of their wealth, instead they will be exiled. I’m not saying that’s the only reason, or even the most significant reason for the exile (idol worship has to rank up there pretty high), but it is certainly Amos’ reason. And, if you take him at his word for being a prophet, then it is also on God’s list of transgressions.

    The second problem with that argument is that it holds equally true for any of the reasons you might give for the exile. Israel broke covenant with God by worshiping idols. Well, surely not everyone did, but I don’t think the Babylonians formed two lines for the march, one for idol worships, one for orthodox. Israel broke covenant by profaning the temple, but that’s a crime that can only be committed by the priests. Regardless, the profaner and the non-profaner were both overrun by invading armies.

    As awkward as it is to admit, the narrative of the Old Testament shows time and again that God frequently treats people together as tribes, cities, nations, and often executes his judgment in broad strokes.

    As a footnote, Amos avoids assigning any sort of special piety to the poor here – he has no notion of the idealized nobility of the poor in their suffering, at least not any that his writing betrays. This is a fire and brimstone Old Testament prophet here, not Karl Marx. It may very well be (and history seems to show that it is likely) that the poor would be just as intemperate and oppressive as the wealthy, given the chance. They simply lack the means for expressing their injustice with the lever of wealth. The other prophets are sure to let us know that Israel’s craven nature is pervasive, and not limited to any one class.

    That does not, however, excuse those who do have economic means, and use it to unjust ends. And it is exactly that message that Amos is bearing.

  5. harmonicminer

    [quote post="1190"]the narrative of the Old Testament shows time and again that God frequently treats people together as tribes, cities, nations, and often executes his judgment in broad strokes.[/quote]

    Gotta agree with that. But I don’t think I see examples of God punishing the many for the sins of the few, at least not explicitly stated that way. Other than, of course, the fact that we all suffer for the sin of Eve and Adam.

    Do you think that the “rich” in the OT equate to the “rich” in the USA? That’s the crux. I think mostly not. Maybe you think mostly so. My opinion: the “rich” in the OT weren’t just those who “had more”. By and large, they were inheritors of wealth, and lived in a system that allowed them to abuse power constantly. Frequently they were political connected/protected so that they could literally steal, kidnap and murder and get away with it, if they were so inclined. Who has that kind of power in the USA? A few, I’m sure… but it isn’t part of the “system”, and is not accepted by the society.

    By and large, the “rich” in the USA have no more immediate, real physical power over the “poor” than you do. The “rich” can’t use violence to collect debts, can’t sell debtors into slavery, can’t refuse to pay for labor without consequence, can’t simply take the property of another, can’t steal your children as slaves and concubines, etc. The main power the rich have is the ability to hire lawyers and abuse the legal system, and there are limits to that…. though perhaps there should be more.

    Who do the Malibu trophy-wives crush under their heels? I know some of those folks… and as far as I can tell, their biggest sin (abuse of power) is employing illegal aliens as house-keepers and gardeners, whom they mostly treat better than I was treated working as a stock boy in a department store.

    Most of “the rich” in the USA live just like you do, but drive better cars, live in nicer homes, have more help in getting menial tasks done, have personal trainers, and eat better food. They employ more people… but precisely because there are so many “rich” here who are also employers, they have to treat employees well enough that the employees don’t go looking elsewhere for work.

    Drug lords, crime bosses, etc., are another category. But bashing someone because they made a bundle in economic competition, or married someone who did, is just not on. Should the “rich” give more? Probably. Are the typical USA rich the kind of people Amos described? Probably not. I’m not claiming that they wouldn’t be, if they got the chance… but our system just doesn’t allow it, for the most part.

    There are people abusing the kind of power I described above, in other societies, including our next door neighbor, Mexico, and in many other places in the world. Pick on them. They deserve it. Amos’ descriptions and accusations fit them perfectly. (Why do you think Mexico’s poor come here? Why do you think they stay, when they could go home and work for the rich people there? Why is it so hard to get a small business off the ground in Mexico?) The people who fight any attempt to change the system in more eonomically free directions probably deserve Amos’ opprobrium just as much.

    Take it easy on the dumb blondes who married direct mail entrepreneurs. They’re doing the best they can with the gifts God gave them. It’s challenging to brush that much hair.

  6. michael lee Post author

    I think the word “justice” often gets misused when it becomes part of an economic discussion – people say “economic injustices” when they really mean “economic inequality”. I hate the phrase “social justice” for exactly the same reason; it’s usually a shorthand for meaning social equality, instead of justice. Protest4 fights for social justice. The CPUSA fights for social equality.

    I think you might be reading that justice/equality equivocation into what I’m writing, and reacting to it. I don’t think Amos is raging against economic inequality. He is raging against injustice done through economic means – real harm done to others using the lever of wealth.

    The fact that we can afford DSL at home, but the neighbor who lives behind us keeps having her electricity shut off because she can’t pay the bill, that’s not economic injustice, it’s economic inequality.

    Let’s say I decided I wanted to use her apartment to store my collection of David Hasselhoff fan memorabilia. She doesn’t want to move, because her grandchildren can walk to her apartment from school in the afternoons. Now, if I had the economic means to buy up every energy company in the states, could bribe my way past the regulatory commissions, and told her I would permanently cut off the power to her dialysis machine unless she moved away from the apartment, I’ve committed an injustice, using wealth as the lever.

    You question is a fair one; does the same kind of unjust abuse of wealth exist in America today, in the way that it did in Israel at the time of Amos?

    I’ll agree that there’s not the same severity of physical harm – the basic protections offered to all people, even the poorest, in the western world are greater and more comprehensive than they’ve ever been at any time or place in history.

    But injustice done through economic power isn’t limited to physical harm. I think the Kelo ruling represents the ability of the wealthy to abrogate the property rights of the poor and poorly-connected. The ability of a few powerful persons to artificially manipulate energy costs for everyone in California caused real economic damage to small businesses in the state. The severity of the harm done (physical brutality, slavery, vs. displacement, loss of property) is worth noting, but I don’t think it changes God’s basic orientation toward the principle.

    Look, my conservative credentials are firmly in place here; I am by and large an economic libertarian, and I believe that an economy that rewards risk and productivity with wealth benefits all who participate, even those who are at the bottom. I’m not arguing for the inherent evil of the wealthy, or for the idealized nobility of the poor.

    What I am saying is what I think Amos is saying;

    1) God hates the use of wealth to cause harm to the poor;
    2) A lifestyle that places slothful luxury and self-indulgence ahead of compassion for others is contemptible;
    3) Everyone should get to have their own apartment to store their David Hasselhoff fan memorabilia collections.

  7. june

    Commercial break: A thank you to those with bigger brains for having discussions such as this. (And, I’d say more time as well, but you’d throw tomatoes at me. But secretly, I still think so. Be a wife and mom of little ones and then tell me how crazy-busy you are and how much mental space you have left.) As I once said to you, Michael, I enjoy hanging my silly noggin’ over the fence and getting educated and enlightened a bit.

    Please do carry on….

    Oh, and so far the rub for me is mainly in regard to this: “A lifestyle that places slothful luxury and self-indulgence ahead of compassion for others is contemptible.” I just wonder how much of that I’ve bought into without realizing it. Man, I can’t even think…someone small keeps saying “Mo cwackuhs? Mo cwackuhs?” as I try to assemble a sentence. Like I said…

  8. harmonicminer

    [quote post="1190"]1) God hates the use of wealth to cause harm to the poor;[/quote]

    CHECK

    [quote post="1190"]2) A lifestyle that places slothful luxury and self-indulgence ahead of compassion for others is contemptible;[/quote]

    CHECK

    [quote post="1190"]3) Everyone should get to have their own apartment to store their David Hasselhoff fan memorabilia collections.[/quote]

    WELL.. more like CHECK IN to the nearest mental health facility.

    Observations on your examples:

    In the end, Enron bosses didn’t get away with it. Well, most of them, anyway. The people hurt worst were those employees who lost everything, jobs, pensions, 401k, you name it. The rest of us lost some bucks, and some poorer people who were on the edge were really hurt by higher rates.

    The abuse of eminent domain is hateful, too… striking as it does at the very basis of economic freedom, namely the right to own property. But I’m sure the people were paid a reasonable price, which doesn’t make up for it totally, but is something that probably didn’t happen in Amos’ day.

    Re: the Hasselhoff example (is that really how it’s spelled?), in Amos’ day, I have the distinct impression that no such roundabout means would have been necessary. Send in the thugs and just take the place, sort of like the protection rackets that thrived in the USA for a time (are they still around?). Now THAT was oppression.

    Oh, the other main form of oppression deserves a mention here: making junior faculty work twice as hard for half the money.

  9. michael lee Post author

    We have ways of getting even.

    For example, I get to turn them into bitter, disillusioned automatons incapable any real creative thought or intellectual curiosity. Then I hand them off to you for Theory IV.

    Muaaahahahahahaha!!!

  10. june

    Mike, I think posting a large, permanent sign bearing the words “Junior Faculty” on both the outside and inside of your office door might help with the whole humility pursuit as per your other post.

    Just an idea. (Or maybe: Michael Lee, Faculty Jr.)

  11. harmonicminer

    As mentioned previously on this site… Mike’s and my roles are reversing… I think I depend on him more than him on me, in other words, for the stuff I need to know that I don’t already. And the balance is getting worse.

    I could be bitter…. or I can take pride. I choose the latter…. since Mike will probably be department chair at the age of 40…. and I’ll still be teaching Theory IV, a bitter, disillusioned, just plain crabby old man. (I know… some of you think I’m ten years late in that assessment. And your mother too.)

    Just remember, Mike… you get’em back for Production Techniques, and sometimes Projects in Theory, and probably for Senior Seminar, and…. you reap what you sow, my man.

    Did you know that the DECEPTIVE resolution for V6/vi sounds like IV6, but is REALLY VI6/vi? Put’s backwards masking to shame.

    Now, that’s faith integration, my friend.

  12. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="46759"]
    since Mike will probably be department chair at the age of 40[/quote]

    Take it back! I don’t want any of your administration witchcraft hoo-doo round these parts!

  13. harmonicminer

    When you’re 50, you’ll be President of the University, the first touring, gigging President we’ve had…

    Don’t worry… my crystal ball broke last week, and I haven’t had time to get it melted down and reblown.

Comments are closed.