Of Pride & Self Worship: A Theological Exegesis of Amos 6:1-8

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Introduction This exegesis is meant to explore the oracle of Amos 6:1-8 while also having an attentive mind to the ways in which God may be speaking to us today. It is Amos who states, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?”[1] A rhetorical question that the prophet asks early in his letter so that those who would hear his words would recognize the deep calling he felt in proclaiming God’s judgments to the nation. While Amos walked with the Lord in this calling, let us also walk together as we listen to God’s words of judgment through his prophet and seek a deeper discernment to what God may reveal to us today.

Amos the Man and the Backdrop of Israel

The prophet Amos was an average Judean countryside herdsman and caretaker of fig trees near a small town called Takoa, which was about 10km south of the city of Jerusalem.[2] This was probably a family vocation and homestead that he inherited from his father, who was neither a priest nor a prophet himself, and could have included a small heard of sheep and cattle that grazed on the fig plants.

The oracles and actions of Amos were probably recorded between the reigns of king Jeroboam II of the northern kingdom of Israel (760-750 BCE) and king Uzziah of Judah in the southern kingdom (783-742 BCE). Israel and Judah, although divided, had both established equitable and profitable economic ties with the Assyrian and Egyptian Empires while serving as a trade route between the two nations. As Theresa Lafferty points out, “The presence of Assyria as a serious threat to Israel and Judah was a constant background for the messages of the eighth-century prophets. Isaiah and Micah prophesy that YHWH is going to use Assyria as a punitive means to correct the problems within Israel and Judah.”[3]

It was during this economic boom and social state of peace that two shifts were taking place in the kingdom of Israel. “The prophets' message concerning the poor and their oppressors included but involved more than the problem of individual greed or covetousness.” As Stuart Love expands the thought, “Their message was shaped by a shift in the very structure of Israelite society -- old tribal patterns of life were dying, being abandoned or replaced by the new powerful social organization of two developed, exploitive and corrupt dynasties, Israel and Judah.”[4] Power was beginning to shift from a social covenant community practice to a capitalistic elitist few who had political and economic standings. Power was then also being maintained in the favor of the elite few through a politically corrupted legal system that would oppress the poor through enforced land acquisition and prolonged dept.

Along with several other prophets including Elijah, Joel, Micah, and others, Amos is given a vision from YHWH in judgment over Israel and Judah. “Although Amos engaged self-consciously in the activity of prophesying, he explicitly denied the vocation of a nabi (7:14), a professional prophet supported by a cultic or royal shrine. He was at effort to show that he prophesied only by divine compulsion under extraordinary circumstances (3:8; 7:15).”[5]

With the conviction of God on his heart, Amos would begin his ministry in Aram and move through Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. Ted Grimsrud articulates that, “Amos preaches a transcendent ethic—God is not identified with Israel per se. God is identified with justice and righteousness. When Israel itself is unjust, it also is judged.”[6] It was a prophetic perspective that, “the land was rightfully theirs. But now, the courts had become centers for the seizure and redistribution of moveable and unmovable property.”[7] As Grimsrud would state it, “The land was for the sake of the good of everyone, not for the sake of the profit of a few.”[8]

Amos’s relationship with YHWH found significance and authority apart from the institution of state and temple while defining God’s Truth and character in the recognition of justice and righteousness for all people and nations. In dramatic example we see in his opposition while in Bethel, Amos is confronted by Amaziah who told him, “Don’t prophesy here at Bethel any more. This is the king’s place of worship, the national temple.”[9] Ironically, even Israel’s king had lost his vision for the Hebrew identity in YHWH and the rightful place of worship being in Jerusalem. This loss of national and cultural identity to YHWH and His charisma of justice and righteousness was in no way segregated to the prophets alone as there would be no doubt a deep recognition of the loss throughout both kingdoms.

A Bigger Picture to the Book of Amos

The book of Amos is divided into three distinct sections with the first being the prophets beginning proclamations of judgment against the kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1-2:16). Stuart Love identifies 6 crimes that the prophets speak of to which the kingdom had perpetrated:

  • Land Seizure (Micah 2:2; cf. 2:9; Amos 2:7a; Isaiah 5:8)
  • Debt Slavery (Amos 2:6b; 8:4b)
  • Perversion of Legal Procedure (Amos 5:10, 12; cf. 2:7a; 5:15; Isa. 5:23; 10:2; Micah 3:9-11)
  • Sexual Oppression (Amos 2:7b)
  • Security On Loans (Amos 2:8)
  • Deceitful Merchants (Amos 8:4-6)

Amos then begins to give a greater explanation and reasons for God’s judgment (Amos 3:1-6:14). As Stuart Love expounds, “Israel did not ‘know how to do right’ (3:10). Justice had been turned to wormwood, righteousness had been cast down and obedience to God's righteousness forsaken.”[10] This was of course envisioned not of the people overall but the elitist leaders who were ideologically circumventing Hebraic justice and righteousness.

Theresa Lafferty comments on Amos’s repeated focus, “The thrice repeated word pair ‘justice and righteousness’ serves to make clear that whereas just and righteous conduct should be having the same effect as life-giving water (5:24), the people have turned justice into poison (6:12) and have forcibly thrown righteousness to the ground (5:7).”[11] The effect being in essence that they have thrown YHWH to the ground and trampled the very covenant that has given them identity as a nation and called people.

In the last section of the book of Amos are the visions of judgment to which is being revealed to the prophet (Amos 7:1-9:15). With the contrast being drawn by Lafferty, she illustrates, “Justice and righteousness in the people’s lives, hospitality toward their neighbours, right judgments at the city gates, proper weights and measures in the markets, these ways of worshipping YHWH were far more important than offering an unneeded sacrifice.”[12]

Despite God’s judgment of the people of Israel being led off into exile, His faith endures and hope is established for the future as Amos’s oracles close; “I will plant my people on the land I gave them, and they will not be pulled up again.” The Lord your God has spoken.[13]

A Closer Look at Amos 6:1-8

Amos 6:1-8 also revels three distinct sections through the spoken proclamation of God. The first being found in verses 1-3 as a set of woes to a great and prideful people.

1 Woe to you who are at ease in Zion, And trust in Mount Samaria,

Notable persons in the chief nation, To whom the house of Israel comes!

2 Go over to Calneh and see; And from there go to Hamath the great; Then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory?

3Woe to you who put far off the day of doom, Who cause the seat of violence to come near;[14]

The depiction of a ruling class is inlayed upon the wording as it describes the prideful nature to which they use in distinguishing themselves set apart from others. Grimsrud describes how, “book of Amos gives glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (6:1; 8:3) and their popular religiosity that saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.”[15] These were a people that became blinded by their own greatness while masking it as God’s blessing upon them.

It was this institution of false blessing that they would attempt to forcibly perpetuate and maintain, putting off the prophets calls for YHWH’s judgment, that would ultimately lead them to the “seat of violence” and the coming exile. Within all, “political circles there was tumult and oppression, violence and robbery (3:9–10). People hated any judge who would reprove them or speak uprightly (5:10).”[16] Ellen Davis so rightly contradicts this culture stating that, “The prophetic demand for moral, economic, and religious integrity in human communities and the recognition that human integrity in these several dimensions is fundamentally related to the God-given integrity of creation.”[17] Authentic blessings come through the justice and righteousness of a living God and not the institutions of a political or religious human entity.

The second section of God’s proclamation in Amos 6 is in verses 4-6 where the people’s complacency and moralistic slumber within their idle riches are detailed and revealed.

4 Who lie on beds of ivory, Stretch out on your couches, Eat lambs from the flock And calves from the midst of the stall;

5 Who sing idly to the sound of stringed instruments, And invent for yourselves musical instruments like David;

6 Who drink wine from bowls, And anoint yourselves with the best ointments, But are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.[18]

The segregation of the richer and poorer classes are highlighted as the upper ruling class is found to be in a life of luxury while the lower class are not even bereaved or thought of in their lacking and suffering. “The problem in Israel,” as Grimsrud writes, “was not that the people did not know intellectually the precepts of the law and their concern for the needy. The problem was the unwillingness on the part of the leaders and judges to administer the law fairly.”[19]

The ruling elite had become complacent in their present standing and turned to inner justification for self morality and ethical pursuits. J. E. Smith gives five descriptions to the rulers and elitists[20] found within Israel at this time:

  • “First, they were guilty of hardened unbelief.”
  • “Second, heartless oppression characterized these sinners.”
  • “Third, they were guilty of sinful self-indulgence”
  • “Fourth, they indulged in profane revelry.”
  • “Finally, the leaders of Israel showed calloused unconcern.”

The third section in verses 7-8 of Amos 6 details God’s final judgment for the people of Israel while foreshadowing the coming fall of Judah as well.

7 Therefore they shall now go captive as the first of the captives, And those who recline at banquets shall be removed.

8 The Lord God has sworn by Himself, The Lord God of hosts says: “I abhor the pride of Jacob, And hate his palaces; Therefore I will deliver up the city And all that is in it.”[21]

It is hard to see but as Grimsrud shares, “These verses add a sense of God’s ultimately redemptive purpose in his judgments. The book as a whole, it seems, makes the point that God’s people need to live according to God’s justice. Those who do not will be judged (and self-destruct), those who do are given hope for the future. If there were no judgment, the poor would have no hope since their oppressors would never be called to account.”[22]

Textual Nuances, Theological & Historical Implications

The revelations revealed within Amos’s writings hold many nuances and theological implications to not only our historical understandings but also the truths that transcend time. In witnessing their authority we can constructively discern God’s voice into the contexts and situations of today. Although I do not want to exhaust my observations, these are a few that I have found to be of significance.

We Must Always Seek Justice over Pride & Self Service

Both Jeroboam II and Uzziah historically sought to exploit the perceived weaknesses to the Assyrian and Egyptian empires as regional superpowers in need of a trade route. By doing so the two kingdoms would attain political stability and territorial expansion as excavations in, “Samaria have yielded archeological evidence of urban population growth and the development of an economic elite possessing large houses furnished with imported luxury items.”[23] But this would only be a temporal state of peace and economic growth because it depended on the favor of the surrounding nations and not the God given identity YHWH had bestowed on His people.

With civil unrest growing the, “moral condition of the nation was clearly revealed by the prophet’s shock at the cruel treatment of the poor by the rich, at the covetousness, injustice, and immorality of the people in power, and at the general contempt for things holy (2:6–8).”[24] It would not be long and both kingdoms would fall, first to the Assyrian army and then Judah, to the Babylonian forces.

While human institutions can offer positive gain through economic growth and social status, we can also become complacent and blind to the realities of objective righteousness and justice for all creation. Health and wealth propositions serve a self-giving proportion that outweighs and out measures authentic human integrity and moral and ethical character. As Walter Brueggermann states, “When we suffer from amnesia, every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.”[25]

Moving From Consumerist Institutional Idolatry to Authentic Communal Worship

Amos identifies two pagan deities as God pronounces to the Israelites:

25 “People of Israel, you did not bring me sacrifices and offerings while you traveled in the desert for forty years.

26 You have carried with you your king, the god Sakkuth,and Kaiwan your idol,and the star gods you have made.

27 So I will send you away as captives beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God All-Powerful.[26]

Referencing the Hebrews 40 years in the desert, Amos identifies them worshiping the deities that were introduced to them by the Moabites. It was a pagan practice of worshiping the dead and as the Psalmist identifies, “They joined in worshiping Baal at Peor and ate meat that had been sacrificed to lifeless statues.”[27]

Throughout the Old Testament this pagan worship was described in a festival known as the marzeah, which, “is probably derived from the root word rzh which in Arabic means, ‘to fall down from fatigue or other weakness and remain prostrate without the power to rise.’”[28] In essence, it was a pagan feast of gluttony, over indulgence, and drunkenness.

With the description of the Israelites being stretched out on ivory couches, feasting on lamb and veal, drinking wine by the bowl full, and indulging in the profanity of perfume and oils, Amos witnesses to their idolatrous worship through the practices of marzeah (Amos 6:7). It does not seem to be too big of a stretch in seeing the Israelites here foreshadowing the story of the bloody finger writing on the Babylonians wall during the coming exile (Dan. 5:1-12).

Intriguingly, the Greeks would also practice the marzeah in connection to the worship of Dionysius and the pagan rituals around sacred marriages and funerary feasts. John Garstang writes, “The conception of the Great Mother as goddess of the dead is by no means strained or unnatural, for the resurrection and future life is a dominant theme in the universal myth associated with her. And just as the dead year revived in springtime through her mediation, so she may have been entreated on behalf of the dead for their well-being or their return to life.”[29]

The Israelites of the 8th century had become so enamoured by the pagan gods of their economic, political, and religious global counterparts that they had consumeristically embraced their practices and rituals while completely loosing all communion with YHWH, the God who truly formed them as a people and nation dedicated in His identity.

With such a strong connection to worship and the belief in resurrection through marriage, the theological implications to the Last Supper and Christ’s resurrection are insurmountable. Identifiably, “Later, Jesus would comment to His disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ (Luke 18:24) Prosperity promotes values in deep conflict with what God Himself says is important.”[30] The practice and ritual of the Eucharist and communion enters us into a completely new imagination of kingdom and citizenship, one that Walter Brueggermann identifies as meaning, “to [actually] live inside God’s imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ.”[31]

When the illusions of economic success and global standing foster a culture of consumerism, the social consequences create a moral and spiritual numbness or empty drain that completely erodes the fabric of societal function. With no responsibility for neighbour or common other, it is only a matter of time before the self-serving nature and ideology of consumerism completely destroys communal abilities. “Thus consumerism,” Ellen Davis shares, “is the death of Christian eschatology. There can be no rupture with the status quo, no in breaking kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty.”[32]

I think it is important to recognize the funerary practice of mourning as well. While revelry and celebratory feasting can dull one’s senses to the recognition of loss, mourning allows the soul to grieve the wrongs within society and the losses of human identity. Juliana Claassens writes that the, “tears of the people serve as an important—quite often the only—tool to counter injustice. The tears of God, as embodied in the wailing women, call on us to resist those instances where contemporary manifestations of the empire abuse their power—be it in instances of war and genocide, or where big business and oil companies abuse their power, or where unjust governments trample upon whoever is in their way.”[33]

By stripping away consumeristic institutional idolatry and embracing authentic communal worship, the individual can and will find a true fulfillment of purpose and deep understanding of belonging that connects them with meaningful practices in the present as well as discernment into the economic, political, and religious communities around them. As Davis shares, “Any ‘little economy’—that is, a human economy—may succeed and endure only to the extent that ‘it justly and stably represents the value of necessary goods, such as clothing, food, and shelter, which originate ultimately in the Great Economy.’ When economies and cultures fail to recognize the Great Economy or kingdom in which all value originates, ‘they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value’.”[34]

Conclusions Not Withstanding The Works Of The Miraculous To Come

Sitting at the eating bar with a coffee next to me, I began reading a book I had just picked up called ‘A Common Ground: Lessons and Legends from the World’s Great Faiths’. Figuring I would read a bit before beginning my dwelling time, I opened it to a beginning fable:

“A man who wrote fables was passing through a secluded forest when he met Fortune. The Fabulist attempted to flee, but Fortune pursued until he captured the Fabulist. “Why did you try to run away?” asked Fortune. “And why do you regard me with so much animosity?” “Well,” answered the Fabulist, “I don’t know what you are.” “I will tell you what I am,” said Fortune. “I am wealth. I am respectability. I am beautiful homes. I am a yacht and a clean shirt each day. I am leisure and I am travel. I am fine wine and a shiny hat and a warm coat. I am enough to eat.” “Very well,” said the Fabulist in a whisper. “But for goodness’ sake speak softer.” “Why?” asked Fortune. “So as not to wake me,” replied the Fabulist.”[35]

Reaching deep into the Spirit during my dwelling time, I couldn’t help but sense the great slumber of the Israelites while they lounged on their ivory couches, feasted on the elaborate banquets, drank freely and had little need for anything. It seemed as though the soft spoken riches of their present condition was about to be abruptly woken up to the excruciatingly laud realities of brutal conquest and humiliating exile.

While finding great reflections in global and local economies and institutions, what struck me the most in that moment was the incredibly long shadow it cast over the Christian church. With such a consumer driven culture of personal salvation, institutional pride, moral and ethical elitism, and self-serving salvific pride; has the church fallen madly asleep in the face of certain coming insignificance at best, and total obliteration at worst?! In the words of Walter Brueggermann:

“The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act… The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture.”[36]

If we are to learn anything from the oracles of Amos and the history of the Israelites, it is that we cannot remain in a consumeristic culture of pride and self-worship. We must wake up and endeavor to pursue the works of the miraculous as it is defined by Davis as, “not an interruption of an order, but rather the irruption of the true order—the order of the creator God—into the demonic order of the present world…. It is an announcement that the new order is at hand, that ultimately power belongs to the God of creation, of true order, freedom, and justice.”

Notes

[1]The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Amos 3:3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Ibid. (Amos 1:1 & 7:14).

[3] Lafferty, Theresa V. Prophetic Critique Of The Priority Of The Cult: A Study of Amos 5:21-24 & Isaiah 1:10-17. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012) Kindle LOC #660.

[4] Love, Stuart. "Failing To Do Justice: The Quandary Of The Poor In Eigth Century Israel & Judah." Leaven, Article 4, Volume 1, no. Issue 2 Ministry To The Poor (1990): 11-17. http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss2/4) Page #12.

[5] Freedman, David Noel, Astrid B. Beck, and Allen C. Myers. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) Pg. #56.

[6] Grimsrud, Ted. "04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice." Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[7] Love, Stuart. "Failing To Do Justice: The Quandary Of The Poor In Eigth Century Israel & Judah." Leaven, Article 4, Volume 1, no. Issue 2 Ministry To The Poor (1990): 11-17. http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss2/4) Page #12.

[8] Grimsrud, Ted. "04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice." Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[9] American Bible Society. (1992). The Holy Bible: The Good news Translation (2nd ed., Am 7:13). New York: American Bible Society.

[10] Love, Stuart. "Failing To Do Justice: The Quandary Of The Poor In Eigth Century Israel & Judah." Leaven, Article 4, Volume 1, no. Issue 2 Ministry To The Poor (1990): 11-17. http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss2/4) Page #16.

[11] Lafferty, Theresa V. Prophetic Critique Of The Priority Of The Cult: A Study of Amos 5:21-24 & Isaiah 1:10-17. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012) Kindle LOC #845.

[12] Ibid. Kindle LOC #1578.

[13] American Bible Society. (1992). The Holy Bible: The Good news Translation (2nd ed., Am 9:15). New York: American Bible Society.

[14]The New King James Version. (1982). (Am 6:1–3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[15] Grimsrud, Ted. "04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice." Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[16] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[17] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #327.

[18]The New King James Version. (1982). (Am 6:4–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[19] Grimsrud, Ted. "04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice." Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[20] Smith, J. E. (1994). The Minor Prophets (Am 6:3–6). Joplin, MO: College Press.

[21]The New King James Version. (1982). (Am 6:7–8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[22] Grimsrud, Ted. "04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice." Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[23] Freedman, David Noel, Astrid B. Beck, and Allen C. Myers. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) Pg. #56.

[24] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[25] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001) Kindle LOC #284.

[26]The Everyday Bible: New Century Version. (2005). (Am 5:25–27). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[27]The Everyday Bible: New Century Version. (2005). (Ps 106:28). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[28] Arcalog. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.arcalog.com/baal-peor-and-the-marzeah-feast/.

[29] "INTRODUCTION." The Syrian Goddess: Introduction. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/tsg/tsg04.htm.

[30] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[31] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001) Kindle LOC #219.

[32] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #2602.

[33] Claassens, L. Juliana M. Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God's Delivering Presence In The Old Testament. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) Kindle LOOC #851.

[34] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #2207.

[35] Outcalt, Todd. A Common Ground: Lessons and Legends From The World's Great Faiths. (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2015) Kindle LOC #34.

[36] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001) Kindle LOC #277 & #281.

[37] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #1367.