By Allan Boesak
“Nothing we know is sweeter than justice,” John Calvin writes in his commentary on Amos, “when everyone gains his own right; for this serves much to preserve peace. Hence nothing can be more gratifying to us, than when uprightness and equity prevail.” When justice is not done however, when “they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals;” when they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,” (Amos 2:6,7) when as a result of perpetual injustice and perpetual impoverishment life becomes bitter as wormwood for the poor and afflicted, then God’s judgment, as God’s justice in defense of the weak and the wronged, shall be “a violent stream,” writes Calvin:
The LORD will certainly show to you how precious righteousness is. It shall therefore run down as violent waters, as an impetuous stream. ‘Judgement,’ Amos says, ‘shall rush upon you and overwhelm you.’
There are good reasons why I find Amos so intriguing a prophet and what he says so resonant with our times. First, Amos presents a relentless contestation of two powers: the power of oppression and the power of justice, the power exercised by the elites of Israel and the power of Yahweh—for Amos, above all the God of justice.
Second, like our world, his world is filled with the incessant rhetoric of domination: the voices of power and privilege, of supremacy and control which dominate this world, drowning out the whispers of fear and cries of suffering which are seemingly heard only by Yahweh. The noise of power is backed up by the noise of official religiosity, on the one hand providing legitimation for oppression and exploitation, and on the other acting as opiate for the people whose deep need for God’s presence was not considered holy, but exploited as a useful tool for control. Religion flourished in the nation. “The populace thronged the shrines at festival time to practice an elaborate sacrificial ritual. Yahweh was trusted and patronized with presumptuous arrogance.”
Third, Amos depicts two drastically different worlds: one of abject poverty and unending misery, and another of wealth, comfort, bottomless prosperity and the endless pursuit of personal happiness at the cost of the life of the poor. In their prosperity they “were immersed, as it were, in their pleasures,” writes Calvin, “and satiety, as it ever happens, made them ferocious.”
Fourth, Amos’ time was celebrated as a time of peace and prosperity. Jeroboam was one of a long line of rulers who, in the judgment of the Deuteronomist, “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Kings 14:24). Yet under Jeroboam II, Israel knew her best years of prosperity and peace. The same is true for the kingdom of Judah. We are dealing with a period of both triumphant expansion and a series of military successes for both kingdoms. The international situation was auspicious; Assyria’s imperial power had waned, the kingdom of Damascus had not yet fully recovered from earlier defeats by Assyria, and Jeroboam had made excellent use of the favourable international situation. Yet the biblical judgement is not complimentary. The peace dividend does not benefit the whole population; it did not bring justice and equality and dignity to all, and precisely therein lies the “evil in the sight of the LORD.” The elites prospered while the impoverishment of the masses worsened. As in our day, the gap between the rich and the poor was unprecedented, unsustainable and, in terms of covenantal politics, intolerable. “The result was the stark contrast between the luxury of the rich and misery of the poor which Amos repeatedly indicts.” The peace and prosperity of the privileged came at the cost of the devastation and ruin of the weak and defenseless. As in our times, the politics of opportunism missed the opportunity for politics to allow peace and justice to embrace. However, the prophet does not make the mistake of equating the prosperity of the few with the justice Yahweh requires nor with the shalom Yahweh promises.
Fifth, Amos describes an obscene obsessiveness with making money. “The markets of Jeroboam’s kingdom traded in human misery,” James Luther Mays writes as if describing our 21st century global capitalist systems. The new moon and the Sabbath, when they could not carry on business, became an intolerable intrusion in the flow of business, and this while they have been instructed in the Sabbath economics Yahweh requires and that brings justice. Their greed makes the one day lost to doing business seem like a year, is Calvin’s interpretation. “If an hour is lost; they think that a whole year has passed away… ‘How is it,’ they say, ‘there is no merchant coming? I have now rested one day, and I have not gained a farthing!’” Calvin pushes beyond this and points at the core of the sin of profits over people and what today would be called “manipulation of the markets”:
[T]hey expected corn to be every month dearer; as those robbers in our day gape for gain, who from every quarter heap together corn, and thus reduce us to want; frost or rain may come, some disaster may take place; when spring passes away, there may come some hail or mildew; in short, they are, as it were, laying in wait for some evil… and the corn was then dearer, when there was no crop. Thus then there was a prey, as it were, provided for the avaricious and the extortioners.
Calvin’s choice of words here is unadorned and startlingly deliberate: robbers who gape for gain, who reduce us to want; disaster; laying in wait; prey that is provided. The evil purposefulness is undeniable and inescapable. He not only knows how the economic system works, he recognizes its greed, its inherently violent nature and despises it.
Sixth, all this prosperity, economic growth and peace, while the normal way of life for the elites, constituted a crisis of enormous proportions for the poor and vulnerable. In the eyes of Israel’s God it was a scandalous situation and this is what Amos comes to condemn. For the elites, however, the scandal was not in the gap between the rich and the poor, the oppression of the innocent, or in the hypocrisy of the national religion which Amos, in almost shocking terms, denounces as an affront to God. For them, the scandal was in the words of the prophet of the south who was not intimidated by might and power, not beguiled by wealth and status, not impressed with false religiosity.
As with the prophet Micah (Micah 2:6), they did not hear him gladly, the rulers in Jerusalem, the pay-rolled priests under the leadership of Amaziah, and those “cows of Bashan” who ate and drank and made merry while they “oppressed the poor and crushed the needy.” He was not polite, Calvin observes, “but proved that he had to do with those who were not to be treated as men, but as brute beasts; yea, worse in obstinacy than brute beasts…” They were “all stubbornness and wholly untamable…” The situation called for someone not ruled by diplomatic ambiguity, but who would “exercise towards them his native rusticity.” Their response was to get rid of him. “O seer, go; flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there…” (7:12)
They did not want to hear a prophetic word from the LORD. They wanted a prosperity gospel that suited their contented lives and their prosperous life style, uplifted their hearts and soothed their consciences; a gospel that praised the peace their politics had wrought, even though that peace was a slow death for the powerless and the excluded. They did not want to hear that their wealth was not a blessing from God but rather the result of shameless exploitation and greed. They wanted a gospel that blessed their conspicuous consumerism and their reveling in luxury while they had not a thought for the poor whose lives they have ruined: the “ruin of Joseph,” Amos calls them (6:4-7). They wanted a gospel that assured them that their “ebullient confidence” in their prosperous economy and their political success was a sign of their trust in Yahweh and that their religious fervor was pleasing to God. It is not even that they did not want prophets; like in our imperial reality, they only wanted them to be patriotic.
In the face of the overpowering bombast of the powerful, the oppressed and the downtrodden are made voiceless and powerless, their head “trampled into the dust of the earth.” It is not that the poor cannot speak for themselves or that they have nothing to say. They are made voiceless by incessant oppression. They are drained of life even as they are drained by life. They are crushed by taxes and levies from which the rich built “houses of hewn stone,” and they are brought to ruin by the insatiable greed of those who govern them. They do not count, are deemed the price of “a pair of sandals.” The law offers them no protection, for the judges take bribes, which means they profit from the systems of oppression and exploitation under which the poor suffer. There is no justice in their courts; their judgments are meant to uphold the system from which they benefit. As a result, the needy are “pushed aside at the gate.” It is not mere benign neglect we are seeing here; it is passionate, aggressive malevolence. One must feel the violence in that “pushed aside,” a phrase Amos uses more than once. Amos is talking about the law being turned into systemic lawlessness in the eyes of God, before the very eyes of God.
In their defense against the outrage of the poor and the judgment of God, the powerful are throwing up the barricades. The poor, whose heads are “trampled into the dust” are speechless in the face of this rhetoric of the barricades and hearing their wordless cries is the beginning of justice. But those who dare to step into the breach, who speak up for truth and righteousness in the gates are “hated” and “abhorred.” The religious festivals in which they revel are not worship; they are a raucous assault upon the holiness and worthiness of God. These are evil times, and “the prudent” are counseled to “keep silent,” an unknown voice, perhaps reflecting on the nature of such times seems to warn, as if – deliberately creating an intrusive pause in the text – wanting to hold the prophet, of Amos’ time and for all such times – back for her own good (5:13). This cautionary note out of nowhere is not for nothing: All that clamor of cacophonous consent has but one purpose: to “command” the prophets, “You shall not prophesy” (2:12).
Into this din of oppressive falsity and arrogance Yahweh speaks. And it is for this reason that Amos does not begin his prophetic ministry with the customary formula, “This the LORD has whispered into my ear.” In Amos, the LORD does not “whisper;” Yahweh “roars.” The word invokes the sound of rolling, growling thunder that reverberates throughout the book. It is a sound that rends the heavens and scorches the earth. As in every kairos moment, the stakes are high. Yahweh speaks for the silenced and the voiceless, determined that they shall be heard. Yahweh speaks for justice and against injustice. Therefore Amos’ language is strong, passionate, vibrating with holy indignation. Yahweh’s voice conjures up searing droughts, withering pastures, all-consuming fires. The poetic, rhythmic repetition of the “woes” and the condemnations is compelling and relentless: “For three transgressions… and for four…” It is a prophetic word that pulsates with divine power, divine anger and divine lamentation. Again, as with Micah, this is an outraged, wounded, mourning God who speaks. God is outraged at injustice; God is wounded in the wounds of God’s wounded people; God laments the unrelieved pain, the ruined lives and the hardened hearts. This divine voice pulverizes all excuses, all justifications, all resistance. By the time Amos takes a breath with his rhetorical question, “Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?” (2:11) the reader is already left almost breathless.
In arguably the most well-known oracle from this book, Amos speaks of justice (sedaqa) that should, and will, rush down “like waters,” and righteousness (mishpat) like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). What is striking here in his dream of another, different world is the juxtaposition with the omnivorous greed of the elites, their wealth and insatiable hunger for power; the omnipresent but false religious fervor which Amos describes as in all ways extravagant and in screaming contrast to the silenced misery of the people, their paucity of life and their trivialized dignity. Over against this is the justice Yahweh demands which must “roll down like waters.” It is an exuberant abundance that will sweep away the injustices, set things right in the courts, in the community and in all relationships.
Here there is no room for a theory of “trickle-down” economics. “Justice and righteousness must roll down like the floods after the winter rains, and persist like those few wadis whose streams do not fail in the summer drought.” This is the life in all its fullness Jesus speaks of as he fulfills the promise made to the prophet Isaiah not to rest or grow weary until justice is established in the earth (Is. 42:1-5; Matt. 12:15-21). Here, there is no talk of small “windows of opportunity” the privileged grudgingly hold open for those from the “middle class” if they will only work hard, pull themselves up by their boot straps, “play by the rules” and not challenge the systemic oppression that excludes the poor, and not believe that greed is violence against the poor. No, here is the image of the doors flung open wide by a God “who opens and no one will shut” (Rev. 3:7,8).
So in the celebration of the coming of justice Amos is unrestrained: “The one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed” (9:13). The hyperbole of the prophet’s language – “the mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with it” – says Calvin, means that “there will be no common or ordinary abundance” of God’s blessings. They will “exceed belief.” This is the vision of a different world that prophet sees despite the present, and God’s people should not be allowed to forget this. In their present state of oppression the people may find that hard to believe, and the powerful may think it absurd even to imagine, but the prophet, in holding up an alternative reality, insists, “The time is surely coming, says the LORD…”
John Calvin, commentary on Amos 5:8, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets.
Calvin, commentary on Amos 5:24, emphasis original.
See James Luther Mays, Amos, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 3
Calvin, Commentary on Amos 1:1
See Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Amos, The Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 21ff.
See Mays, op. cit., 2. “Taking advantage of these favourable circumstances, Jeroboam had pursued a vigorous policy of expansion east of the Jordan with great success. Along with political success came a burgeoning prosperity for many in the nation. The older homogenous economic structure of Israel gave way to sharp distinctions of wealth and privilege.” See also Andersen and Freedman, Amos, 22-23: “Israel and Judah has few if any worries about the great powers to the northeast and southwest, Assyria and Egypt.”
Cf. Mays, op. cit., 2, 3
See Mays, op. cit., 142. “Amos speaks of men who miss no trick of trade; they sell refuse for profit… [they] are blind to the reality of the man whom they exploit,” 144-145.
“Sabbath economics requires faith: a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that God is willing and able to provide enough for the good life. Sabbath promises seven days of prosperity for six days of work. It operates on the assumption that divine providence surpasses human productivity.” See Shanta Premawardhana, “Greed as Violence, Methodological Challenges in Interreligious Dialogue on the Ethics of the Global Economic Crisis,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 2011, 39.2:223-224, 231, quoting Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999, 342-347.
Commentary on Amos 8:5
Commentary on Amos 8:5
Commentary on Amos 1:2
Mays, op. cit., 2.
Mays, op. cit., 109
See Shanta Premawardhana, op. cit., 224. Premawardhana cites from a report of the World Council of Churches’ Churches’ Commission on International Affairs, reinforcing my earlier point that these crises are often manufactured: “The accumulation of wealth and the presence of poverty are not simply accidents, but are often part of a strategy for some people to accumulate power and wealth at the expense of others. As such, greed is a form of violence which on personal, community, national, regional, and international levels isolates and injures us.”
Commentary on Amos 9:13