Monday, June 22, 2015

Amos 6:1-14 –Arrogance and Apathy

Lesson Focus:
Those who are affluent and apathetic about the needs of those around them will be the first to experience God’s judgment.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that Israel is being judged for her over inflated sense of importance and apathy toward the needs of others in the midst of her own affluence.
2.     Be encouraged to examine their own life for arrogance and apathy.
3.     Discover ways to fight apathy.

Catch up on the story:
Amos has lamented the current state of Israel. He has sung a funeral dirge over the loss of Israel, even though her downfall has not yet happened. For Amos, Israel’s destruction is as good as done. Yet, Amos still calls Israel to seek God so that they might live. Israel is encouraged to seek God, not as she has done in the past, by engaging in ritual worship services at special places of worship, but in returning to living lives of justice and righteousness. God has rejected Israel, and her worship because she has rejected justice and righteousness.

The Text:
This week’s passage can be split up into two sections, verses 1-3 and 4-7. Amos continues to speak using the same themes he has previously used. The affluence of Israel is her main source of trouble. Although in this passage, Amos does not focus on how Israel got to be affluent, but on her attitude in the midst of her affluence.

We’re #1: 6:1-3
The opening, “Alas” (“Woe” as the NIV renders it) of chapter 6 tells us that Amos is continuing his lamenting over Israel. This “woe” would have been a common cry when someone had died. The effect on the hearers would have been one of chill and sorrow.[1] Amos continues to speak to Israel from a place of solidarity with them. While he does not participate in Israel’s injustices, he offers prophetic speech and mourns their fate as one of them. Amos does not stand on the outside looking in, judging from a place of superiority. Rather, he mourns for them and with them.

Amos is mourning because he sees the self-deception that has fallen over Israel. Israel, and Judah too (Zion) have come to believe that they are the “first among nations.” By all accounts, Israel was not the largest or richest or most powerful nation in the world, or even the region. Yet, in their affluence and comfort they began to see themselves as more important then they actually were. Perhaps they even thought of themselves as invulnerable. They “feel secure on Mt. Samaria.”

To counter this over confidence, Amos encourages his hearers to go to Calneh, Hammath and Gath. These three cities were important cities in the region. Calneh and Hamath were important city-states and trading centers to the north of Israel in Syria. Gath was one of the important Philistine cities.[2] Amos wants Israel to have a dose of reality. Israel is small and insignificant compared to her neighbors. In a rhetorical question, Amos asks, is Israel’s territory better than any other? Amos probably would have received a positive answer from his hearers, but the question itself demands a negative answer. In Israel’s affluence she has come to understand herself as overly important and invulnerable.

This first section ends with a lament. Amos laments over the fact that Israel, because she has deceived herself into thinking that she is important and invulnerable to the calamity that fast approaches. “O you that put far away the evil day…” Here Amos laments because Israel’s self deception, her unwillingness to believe that God’s judgement is near, has actually brought that day ever closer. Her arrogance has led her to reject any possible notion of repentance.

Oh Apathy!: 6:4-8
Next, Amos turns to describing, once again, the lifestyle of those who have plenty in Israel. Again, he begins this lament with “Alas.” Woe to the one who sleeps on a bed made of ivory, or who has time to spend lounging often on couch. Woe to those who have the luxury of eating lamb and calf. Keep in mind here, that eating meat was a privilege for only those who had significant means. To have a choice between two different kinds of meat was even more significant. The average person would have only been able to afford a little meat once or twice a year. Woe to those who sing idle songs and have and drunk so much wine that a normal wine glass is not sufficient to satisfy their thirst.

Amos offers these woes, not because fine furnishings, or meat or singing songs are wrong in and of themselves, he offers these woes because the wealthy in Israel enjoy these things while there is great need and suffering around them. The end of verse 6 is the kicker for these two sections of chapter 6, Israel engages in this opulent lifestyle but they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Joseph is another name for the northern nation of Israel. A little more literal translation of this phrase would go something like this, “Are you not sick…?” Amos wonders why Israel does not have a strong reaction that compels them to action when they are confronted with the needs of others around them. The point is clear, affluence that is enjoyed at the cost of less privileged people and while ignoring the need and suffering all around is affluence that is to be condemned.

The section ends with Amos declaring that Israel will indeed be first. They will be first to be carried off into exile. Their arrogance, their presumed importance and invulnerability, along with their apathy toward those in need while enjoying great wealth, will lead them to be the first to experience God’s coming judgment. God hates their pride.

So What…?
I wonder if here in America we don’t suffer from the same arrogance and apathy from which Israel suffered? We are indeed an affluent nation. We are indeed an important country in the global scene. It’s not sin to be proud of our country and the things that we have accomplished. We have been truly blessed with what we have, and we should be constantly mindful of those blessings.

But do we think more highly of ourselves than we ought? Like Israel, do we think we are invulnerable? Do we think that because we are who we are that God’s judgement may be a long way off? More importantly, do we enjoy the comforts of our material success while neglecting the needs and cries of pain all around us?

I think we do. Our affluence easily leads us to a misplaced conception of our on importance. Our affluence leads us to become apathetic about the needs of others, even while we have more than enough to share. While our church is moving in the right direction, as we allocate more time and resources to tending to the needs of others, I wonder how much more we might be able to do, personally and as church family?

The challenge of this chapter is very clear. Those who over value themselves, those who become apathetic about the needs of others while enjoying life’s comforts, they will be the first to experience God’s judgment. That judgment might not come for us until the hereafter, but it will come.

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?        
    1. God is speaking clearly about what our priorities should be as his followers. Our priorities should be toward those around us, especially those who are in need. Those who think they are safe, because they worship rightly, or because they have amassed a sizable fortune, are not safe. God will judge those who think that they are. God is judging those who do not have their priorities straight.

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness in this text is using the gifts that God has given us in a proper way. The gifts God has given us are not just for our own enjoyment but so that we might alleviate the pain of others. As it has been said, there is no holiness except social holiness.

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. I think this story should lead us to a good deal of self-reflection. If in that reflection we find that we have an over inflated sense of self worth, or that we are apathetic toward the needs of those around us, then we should seek the Spirit’s power to change our attitudes and actions.
    2. Shifting from a place of apathy to one of active engagement is not easy. It takes practice and intentionality. If you cant pray that God would help you not be apathetic, at least pray that God would help you want to not be apathetic.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Why would Israel have feelings of security? Why would she think that she was one of the “first nations,” first being most important?
2.     Why would Israel’s belief that the day of judgment is far away actually bring it closer (verse 3)?
3.     Amos describes Israel’s behavior as laying on beds made of ivory, lounging on couches, singing idle songs, drinking wine out of bowls because they have so much of it. Is there anything inherently wrong with these things? If not, why does Amos decry their behavior?
4.     Why does Amos say, in verse 7, that Israel will be the first to go into exile?
5.     Israel’s sins seem to be arrogance and apathy. They believe that their affluence has made them very important. Their affluence has also led them to turn a blind eye toward those in need. As Americans, are we guilty of the same sins? If yes, how so?
6.     Does Jesus take up these same themes? Read Luke 16:19-31.
7.     We are an affluent people. How might we guard against the apathy for which Israel was being judge?

[1] James Limburg, Hosea: Micah (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988). 110

[2] Bruce C. Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 225.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Amos 5:1-25 –The Dark Day of the Lord

Lesson Focus:
Worship and justice go hand in hand. Worship without justice lacks substance.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Be able to define the biblical concept of justice.
2.     Be able to define the biblical concept of righteousness.
3.     Understand the connection between justice and right worship.
4.     Seek to examine our church’s worship and seeking of justice.

Catch up on the story:
Amos has made it abundantly clear that God’s judgment on Israel is coming. It is coming because Israel, among all the people of the world, were God’s chosen and special people. They were God’s covenant people. But they have engaged in oppressive and exploitative behavior so that they might live in prosperity and luxury. It’s not just those who actively engage in those behaviors who will be punished, but also those who benefit from Israel’s ill-gotten prosperity. No one is innocent. Even though Israel has been warned, even the clearest of warnings have not caused her to change her ways.

The Text:
This week’s text can be split up into two large sections, 5:1-17 and 5:18-25. Each section is likely composed of a collection of smaller speeches made by the prophet Amos and compiled by Amos or later editors.[1]

A Funeral Dirge: 5:1-7
Chapter 5 begins in the style of and poetic meter of a lament for the dead given by lamenting mourners. The voice here is that of the prophet. Later on in the passage the voice will switch to God’s. Here Amos lifts his voice and calls the “house of Israel,” the entire northern nation of Israel, to hear the sad words he is about to speak.

Amos begins his funeral dirge declaring that Israel is fallen. There is no more chance that she would raise from the dead then there would be for a virgin maiden who has been tragically struck down. In fact, Amos likens Israel to a maiden, an unwed woman who was in the prime of her life with so much ahead of her. Israel is a virgin maiden who has died. It is always sad when a person dies, but it is even sadder when someone so young with so much unfulfilled potential dies. Israel is here pictured as a young woman who has collapsed in a desolated land with no hope of help. Since the following images will be that of military defeat, the image of Israel as a maiden is meant to heighten the sense of Israel’s powerlessness and vulnerability in the face of an enemy army.[2] What may have been equally startling to those who first heard these words was that Amos is not speaking in a future tense. Rather, Amos is mourning as if Israel were already dead.

As we move on to verse three the image shifts to the aftermath of a battle. A city engaged in conflict with another power has sent out a thousand men to fight the battle. When the battle is over they will only have a hundred left. It will also be that way for the city that marched out a hundred men, only ten will be left. The image here is of an utter and complete defeat. Only one out of ten men survives. Indeed, it would be very hard to go out and fight another day with only one tenth of your original army. Israel’s defeat is as good as done. They are dead before the battle even begins.

In verse 4 the tone changes from that of a funeral dirge to that of a summons to seek God and live. If God has already determined Israel’s fate, why then do we have these words of hope? It may be that Amos is introducing a glimmer of hope, perhaps knowing that Israel will not change her ways. It also could be that Amos is using the phrase “Seek the Lord and live” as a segue into a section which talks of ineffectual ways to seek the Lord. For Israel, to “seek the Lord” was often associated with going to the sanctuary or Temple. This was particularly true in times of trouble. If God is in the Temple, then it seems logical that one should go there if one were in trouble. Even now this is not uncommon. Families or individuals often return to church in times of trouble, hoping that some good may come of it. Often times, when the trouble is over, commitment to church wanes.

The verses immediately following verse 4 challenges Israel to seek God, not in the ways they have become accustomed to, i.e., engagement in religious services, but in other ways. By the end of the chapter we will have a clearer understanding of what it truly means to seek the Lord. Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-sheba are all places of religious practice for Israel. They will be destroyed or will go will into exile. It is not that Amos, or God for that matter, believes that engagement in regular worship activities has become unimportant, rather, for Israel these religious engagements have become ends unto themselves. Israel believes that if they engage in worship enough, it will not matter how they engage in life outside of the sanctuary. There is a disconnect between worship and moral and ethical living, as the next set of verses will display.

Amos is quite clear at this point. There are two possibilities for Israel. The first is death and destruction at the hand of God. The second is life as a result of doing justice. In verses 7-9 Amos describes why this judgment is coming. Israel has turned justice into “wormwood.” Wormwood is a plant that is well known for its bitterness and has often been used as an image for bitterness and trouble. Israel, because of her oppressive and exploitive ways, has turned justice, something that should be sweet and life giving, into something bitter. Justice often denotes a right and ordered society. It refers to the “claim of all persons to full and equitable participation in the structures and dealings of the community, and especially to equity in the legal system.”[3] In God’s eyes, Israel has ceased to be a right and ordered society. The one who will bring the judgment is the very one who ordered the universe in the first place. The one who made the constellations, brings rain upon the mountain, and brings day from the dark night. The God of order now brings punishment on a people who have brought about disorder.

Verses 10-13 again stress Israel’s sins. The city gate was a place where the elders of the town mediated disputes. It has ceased, however, to be a place where justice could be found. Those who speak truth at the gate of the city are hated. Part of a right and ordered society is that justice could be found for all, especially the poor and powerless. Israel, however, has actively denied justice to those who need it most. What is worse, they have denied justice to the poor and powerless so that they could increase in wealth and power themselves. Consequently, they have built houses of stone and they have planted vineyards (a crop of the wealthy because of the time investment needed). Because they have obtained these things in an unjust manner, they will no longer live in these houses they have built for themselves.

Once again, in verse 14, Israel is encouraged to seek the good and reject evil. Israel has claimed that God is with them, only because of their unjust ways, he has not been. But, God proclaims, that if Israel rejects the evil and seeks the good, he will be with them. Seeking good here is establishing justice and righteousness in the gate so that there might be an honest and equitable court system where the exploited and wronged my seek relief.

The Dark Day of the Lord: 5:18-25
The first section, 5:1-17 mourns the loss of Israel because of her lack of justice and righteousness. While she has been encouraged to seek God and reject evil, her fate is all but sealed. The remainder of chapter 5 deals with the Day of the Lord, which for Israel, expressed hope and expectation for the day when God would descend and bring judgment on Israel’s enemies. The Day of the Lord was to be a glorious time, when Israel would be vindicated and all would once again be right.

Amos turns this idea of the Day of the Lord on its head. This day will not be a day of light, as they had expected, but will be a day of darkness and fear. Verses 19 and 20 describe the day as going from bad to worse. The Day of the Lord will be like a man who is fleeing from a lion. He narrowly escapes the lion only to be met by a bear. Or, the man escapes the lion by running into a house. As he rests his hand on the wall to catch his breath a snake reaches out and bites him! The image is clear; the Day of the Lord will not be a good day, and just when Israel thinks she finds safety and respite from danger, she will be confronted with a fatal threat. Trouble will follow trouble and death will not be far behind. Israel thought she was safe and protected because she was God’s people. Only she has forgotten that God’s protection of her has always been contingent upon her faithfulness to the covenant, of which justice and righteousness are the cornerstone.

Verses 21through 24 forms the climax for this section of Amos, if not the book itself. Here God himself speaks to Israel declaring that because Israel has not paired justice and righteousness with her worship, her worship is meaningless. God hates her religious festivals and takes no delight in her worship gatherings. They offer the right sacrifices at the right time and in the right amount but God will not accept them. He will not listen to their songs. They are a useless noise. “God has become numbed to Israel’s efforts to draw God’s regard toward them.”[4]

Instead, God says, justice should roll down like the water of a waterfall. Justice and righteousness should flow through the land like an unrestrained and unending river. Water, even small amounts, has the power to dramatically shape the landscape. Even very hard rock can be shaped by the constant application of water. Righteousness and justice, even in small amount, have the ability to radically reshape our world. What God makes very clear, here in chapter 5, is that Israel, even though she engages in right worship, has neglected justice and righteousness, therefore her worship has been rejected and so has she.

So What…?
This passage should give us pause. It forces us to ask ourselves a very crucial set of questions, Are we like Israel? Have we neglected justice and righteousness? Has our material comfort been purchased at the expense of the ability of others to live above poverty? Do we help perpetuate a justice system that is more accessible to the wealthy? Do we place more emphasis on our worship than we do living lives filled with justices and righteousness?

If we answer yes to any of the above questions, and I think as Americans we have to, then we are in danger or ending up like Israel. The good news is, even though we may live in a land where injustice seems to rule the day (maybe not for us directly, but for many Americans), as the church we are called to work for justice and righteousness. Our worship will be pleasing to God when we are challenged to examine the ways in which our consumption of material goods affects the lives of others. Our worship will we be pleasing to God when we are sent out from our sanctuary to seek justice and to live in righteous and right relationship with our neighbor. Through the work of the Holy Spirit we have the ability to go forth like an ever-flowing stream of justice so that the landscape may be dramatically altered!

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?        
    1. God is just as concerned that we live with justice and righteousness, as he is concerned with our engagement in worship. God is bringing judgment on Israel because she had not lived lives of justice.

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like allowing our times of worship to prepare us to go forth into the world to seek justice and righteousness. The perfected love of holiness propels us to seek for the good of those who are poor and powerless. Sometimes this means the sacrifice of comfort and wealth on our part.

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. Justice and righteousness are extremely important to God. Our worship becomes meaningless if we do not live lives that seek justice and righteousness. Therefore, we must constantly examine the ways in which we live to see if we are seeking after justice and righteousness.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Why does Amos tell Israel not to go to Bethel, Gilgal and Beer-sheba, all centers of religious activity, to seek God?
2.     What does Amos mean when he says that Israel has turned “justice to wormwood?”
3.     The city or town gate was where the elders would gather to mediate disputes between people. What kind of activity does Amos say is taking place in the gates? What kind of place should the gate be?
4.     What is the Day of the Lord and why would Israel want that day to come? How does Amos understand what the Day of the Lord will be?
5.     In verse 21, God says to Israel that he hates their festival and solemn assemblies. What has caused God’s hatred? Why has completely rejected their worship?
6.     Instead, God wants justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Why does God use this water imagery to illustrate what justice and righteousness should be like?
7.     Define both justice and righteousness.
8.     In what ways might we be like Israel in this passage? Do we work toward justice? How do we ensure that our worship is acceptable to God?

[1] Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos, trans. S. Dean McBride Jr, and Waldemar Janzen, (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1977), 231.
[2] Bruce C. Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 212.
[3] Birch, 215.
[4] Birch, 219.

Amos 1:1-2:16 –You Fat Cows…

Lesson Focus:
God’s judgment is not just for those who actively participate in oppression and violence, but also for those whose lifestyle perpetuates the system of violence and exploitation.

Through this lessons students should:

1.     Understand that Israel chose to walk with God in covenant fidelity
2.     Understand that Israel had saved up oppression and violence not earthly goods
3.     Understand that God’s judgment is not just for those who actively oppress others, but also for those who participate in oppressive systems. 

Catching up on the story:

Ok, so I’m not sure where this went.  The entire file went missing but I’ve managed to find this much, minus this section.  I’ll have to work on it later. 

The Text:
This week’s text can be split into several sections.  The first section, 3:1-8, establishes a cause and effect relationship between Israel’s action and God’s forthcoming judgment.  Verses 9-11 seek to call outsiders as witnesses against Israel.  Finally, 3:12 through 4:3 begin to announce the ways in which God will bring about punishment on Israel.  We will examine each section in turn.    

Cause and Effect: 3:1-8

Chapter three begins with a formulaic pronouncement statement.  The words of the previous two chapters should give Amos’ hearers an occasion to pause and consider what will happen.  Amos stands and declares that what is about to follow if a word directly from God.  They are not his words, but the word of the God who brought them up from the land of Egypt.  In reality the line, “O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt.” is meant to remind Israel, not just of their past salvation, but of the fact that they belong to a family much larger than themselves. 

They are no less and no more God’s people than their neighbors Judah.  God asserts that Israel, and Judah for that matter, have been in special relationship with God.  The “You only have I known” of verse 2 details this special relationship.  In the Old Testament the word “know” has two specific meanings.  The first is used to describe intimate relations between a man and a woman.  The second use belongs to the realm of covenants and treaties.  Taken together, God has “known” Israel in both a close and intimate way because of covenant relationship to one another.     

As Amos reestablishes the fact that Israel exists as a result of God’s good grace and mercy, he begins to remind the people that they entered into this covenant relationship willingly.  Verses 3 through 8 describe a series of questions that are put to the listener that describe some cause and effect relationships.  Each question is meant to elicit the answer, “No, of course not.”  The first, “Do two walk together unless they have made and appointment.” can be a little ambiguous.  The NIV’s rendering, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” is clearer.  The effect of the line of questioning is to get the hearers used to answering in the negative. 

Verses 7 and 8 are where Amos really wishes to make his point.  At this point in his ministry some might be wondering, “Who is this guy and why is he talking like this to us?”  Amos offers an answer.  When it comes to God’s interaction with his chosen people, especially when it comes to correction and judgment in the light of covenant unfaithfulness, God speaks his intentions through a prophet.  In these two verses Amos declares that God is about to act and he has revealed his plans to Amos.  The burden of the prophet is so great that he cannot be quiet.  Those who hear the words of God must speak them.  Amos is a prophet of God.  God’s plans have been revealed to him and he cannot remain silent. 

Inspection Time: 3:9-11
Now that Amos has established who he his and why he speaks, he will begin to deliver God’s message.  The language in this section is largely metaphorical.  Amos commands the leaders of Israel to issue summons to Ashdod (a Philistine stronghold) and Egypt for their experts to come and inspect Israel’s fortifications.  Only, what the inspectors are to inspect is not the strongholds themselves, but Israel’s treasures, which Amos declares are great tumults, oppressions, violence and robbery.  This international review board is to come to Israel to see how Israel has gained all that she has gained through unrest, oppression and robbery.  In fact, Israel has not stored up for herself riches, as she has assumed she had, but has stored up for herself unrest and violence. 

Because they have prospered through violence, unrest, robbery and oppression, their land shall be surrounded and their strongholds will be plundered.  There is a sense here that the very violence and oppression, which came to be housed in Israel’s metaphorical strong holds, will now be unleashed upon her.  As the rich and powerful in Israel have treated others, so shall they be treated. 

Fat, Stubborn Cows: 3:13-4:3
Verse 12 begins a new section with the phrase, “Thus says the Lord.”  Israel, in addition to her violent and oppressive lifestyle, has also practiced a form of self-deception.  She has fancied herself safe because of her wealth and because of her continued religious practices.  She has never stopped worshiping God, but she has failed to remember exactly what that means for her and her lifestyle.  In this section Amos strips away those self-deceptions noting that the things Israel trusts to save her will not. 

The imagery of verse 12 is drawn from the life of a shepherd.  A shepherd was responsible to pay restitution for any animal he lost while on watch.  The shepherd, however, was not responsible to pay for the animal if he could prove that the death was unavoidable.  If an animal was carried off by a predator the shepherd would not be charged if he could produce a little of the animal’s remains.  A small part of the ear, or a leg from a sheep, would have been sufficient.  God declares that all that will be saved from Israel will be the small corner of a couch and part of a bed.  The reality that the shepherd image evokes is stark.  The destruction of Israel will be complete.  Not much will be left, only bits here and there.  The destruction of Israel will also be inevitable.  Despite our stories of the shepherded David fending off a lion and bear, attacks and losses of animals due to large predators were inevitable.  So, Israel’s destruction, as a result of her continued covenantal infidelity, will be inevitable.     

In verse 13 an unnamed group is called to bring warning to the house of Israel.  The unnamed group may be those summoned to Israel earlier, or they may be those who have suffered at the oppressive and violent hands of Israel.  Whoever they are, they are called, not as a normal witness is, to implicate guilt or innocence, but to warn Israel that judgment is coming.

Israel has continued to offer worship at the altars of Bethel.  The horns of the altar were places of safety and asylum.  “In a situation of blood vengeance and punitive pursuit, a fugitive could grasp and hold on to these horns.  Because the altar also functions as a place of asylum, the fugitive was there by safe from his pursuers (1 Kgs 1:50; 2:28; Ex 21:13-14).”  If the horns of the altar were to be cut of, it would cease to function as a place of safety and asylum.  The point is clear; the place where Israel has sought safety in times of trouble will be destroyed.  Israel’s worship will not be able to save them.  Neither will the wealth that has allowed them to maintain two residences. 

The beginning of chapter 4 remains part of this section.  Once again the people are encouraged to hear what will now be said.  Only this time the audience has been narrowed down.  Amos now speaks to the women in the crowd.  Bashan was a fertile plan known for its pasturelands, which could support cattle.  These cows would have been fat and well fed, lacking in nothing.  Just who is Amos calling cows?  Amos is referring to the wives of the political social elite.  Judgment is coming on them because they have pressed their husbands to provide for their every want.  They say to their husbands, while reclining on couches, “Bring something to drink!”  “Amos charges that their lifestyle has been purchased at the cost of direct oppression and exploitation of the poor and needy (v. 1). Their excesses have denied the possibility of enough for others.”  This affluent lifestyle was maintained by the oppressive and violent practices about which Amos has already spoken. 

In verse 2 we get one of the first glimpses of exile.  A power, which God has appointed to do his bidding, will destroy Israel and bust through her walls.  They will take these cows and lead them away through the breach they created in the wall.  They will be dragged away with hooks.  The image here is not a pretty one, but is clear.  Those who oppress others so that their desires can be satisfied will not go unpunished.        

So What:
It will be difficult, in the weeks that follow, not to get bogged down in the rather melancholy and judgmental tone of the book of Amos.  What we must not miss, however, is the message that Amos declares is for us too.  This message, while dark and foreboding, can enlighten us to our own possible sins and crimes against humanity (personally and corporately).  The one thing that is clear from these oracles, specifically the oracle against Israel, is that Israel is just as guilty if not more guilty than the others because of the circumstances from which she rose.  It was out of God’s compassion for the poor, the barren and the oppressed that Israel becomes a nation.  It is in an act of judgment against a people who had mistreated the poor that God carves out a place for Israel to live.  Simply, Israel owes her existence to the grace and mercy of God. 

We, like Israel, are a people who owe our existence to the grace and mercy of God.  It is out of the bondage of sin, out of the oppression of death that we have been saved and constituted a people.  But unlike Israel, we must not forget how and by whose hand we became a people.  If we forget, in our prosperity we will fall prey to the same temptations as Israel did, the temptations to use and abuse our neighbor instead of becoming extensions of God’s grace and mercy.  To whom much is given, must is expected.

Critical Discussion Questions:

    1.        What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?    
    a.    In the light of Israel’s history with God, God is making a case for the judgment he will bring.  God will not allow those who perpetuate exploitation and oppression to go on forever.  There will be judgment for everyone who exploits and oppresses others so that they might prosper. 

    2.    What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 

    a.    Holiness looks like living a life that is free of exploitation and oppression.  This kind of life is hard for us to achieve here in the United States.  Holiness means allowing the Holy Spirit to challenge the ways in which we live so that our lives might not harm others.  It also means actively seeking to fight injustice and oppression here and now. 

    3.    How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

    a.    It is very easy for us to cry foul when someone has actively cheated others so that they might gain monetarily.  No one thinks Bernie Madoff, credit card scammers, or identity thefts, should get off scot-free.  What we often fail to see is how our own lifestyles implicate us in systems that actively seek to exploit and oppress others.  Amos makes it clear that God’s judgment is for those who are implicitly guilty too.  We should examine our own entanglements and then seek to change our ways.  

Specific Discussion Questions:

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
  1. Amos addresses the people of Israel as the “whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt.”  Why does he do this?
  2. Verse two states that God had a special relationship with Israel.  Why does he remind them of that here? 
  3. What is the point behind Amos’ set of questions in verses 3-8?  What is the common answer that they all share?
  4. Amos calls the leaders of Israel to invite outsiders (Ashbod and Egypt) to come and inspect their strongholds.  Why does Amos thing that the inspection will reveal “tumults” and “oppressions?”  These strongholds should have held treasures and wealth.  Is it significant that they now hold violence and robbery?
 In verse 14 God says he will punish the “altars of Bethel.”  Bethel was one of the places that those in the northern nation of Israel went to worship.  Why would this place of worship be punished?  Why is it significant that the horns of the altar would be cut off? 
At the beginning of Chapter 4, Amos brings a word against political and socially elite women of Israel.  Why does he refer to them as “cows of Bashan?”  Is this a compliment or a backhanded insult?
  7. What behaviors have these women engaged in that brings them under judgment?  What will ultimately happen to them?
  8. These women aren’t actively engaged in the oppression and violence for which Israel is being punished.  Why are they being punished as well? 
Like the women in 4:1-3, we may not be actively engage in oppression and exploitation, but how might we be implicitly involved in it? 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Amos 1:1-2:16 –Roaring Like a Lion…

Lesson Focus:
We are the people of God because of God’s grace and mercy. We are called to remember who we are as God’s people so that we can live in covenant faithfulness with God and others.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand the historical context for the book of Amos.
2.     Understand that God’s judgment always takes place in the context of a covenant relationship.
3.     Understand that we are the people of God because of his grace and mercy and so we are required to live in covenant faithfulness to God and to others.

Catch up on the story:
We do not get much, in the way of biography, concerning Amos. Unlike his contemporary, Hosea, we only get a few lines about the man Amos. We are told, at the beginning, that Amos is a sheepherder or breeder from the town of Tekoa. The traditional location for Tekoa is about 10 miles south of Judah’s capital city of Jerusalem. This area would have been ideal for raising and keeping sheep. We are also told that he begins his ministry during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam son of Joash in Israel. This places his ministry during the 750s BCE. Scholars believe that his ministry was not long, perhaps 5 years or so.
Unlike Hosea, who we will study in a few short weeks, Amos is likely not part of the priestly class, nor is he part of the religious establishment. There has been some discussion regarding the nature of Amos’ job as a sheepherder or breeder. If he were the owner of a large flock, or trader of these sheep that he may have owned, then he would have likely traveled the region in the execution of his business. In this way, he may have had some personal knowledge of the injustices he reports in the oracles against the nations later in chapter 1. Amos’ exact job is ultimately unimportant for his mission as a prophet and mouthpiece of God.
While Amos is a resident of Judah, the southern kingdom, his ministry is to the northern nation of Israel. You will remember that, once upon a time, the nation of Israel was a united whole under King David and Solomon. Unfortunately, after King Solomon’s death around 930 BCE, Israel split into two nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. By the time of Amos’ writing, Israel is at the height of it’s economic and political stability. Things are good in Israel. There is relative peace and stability and profitable trade with its neighbors.
As peace and stability, not to mention economic fruitfulness, as they often do, caused Israel to become comfortable and forget just how much the God who brought them up out of Egypt had provided for her. An elite economic class grew up and with that group came a steady injustice against those not belonging to this affluent class. Amos is predominately concerned with these social and economic injustices.
The pronouncements of doom in Amos are almost always set in the context of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The judgment that Amos pronounces is not some willy-nilly decision from God. It is, rather, the terms of the covenant that Israel agreed to beginning at Mt. Sinai. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy we find a long list of curses and blessings that are tied to Israel’s behavior. Israel, for a long time, has engaged in the type of behavior that would trigger these covenant curses. Now Amos is charged with bringing God’s case and his pronouncement of judgment to Israel.  
The Text: 
After the opening introduction that gives us the author of the book, where he was from and the time he was active, we are given another short inscription that announces that what will follow is a word from God. This word from God will be no still small voice. Rather, the words that will issue from God’s mouth will be more like a lion roaring in the wilderness. This roar will have devastating effects on the area around it. This opening poem amounts to a curse announcement. The curses that were laid out in the covenant God made with Israel and Moses at Sinai will now be enforced. This poem also identifies God’s earthly dwelling place as Jerusalem, which was often referred to as Zion.[ For Israel’s part, after the split with Judah, they had set up their own shrines and places of worship, which led to the infiltration of pagan practices and rituals. Because of this infiltration, Israel, at this point had lost most of the idea of what it meant to be God’s chosen people.
Oracles Against the Nations: Amos 1:3-2:5
After the text establishes that what will follow is a pronouncement of judgment issuing from God, Amos begins by speaking against cities and nations that surround Israel. Verse 3 begins with “Thus says the Lord…” This reinforces the fact that Amos is really just a mouthpiece for what God wants to say to the nations.
While we won’t take much time with the specific content of each of these oracles against the nations, it will be important to note a few things. First, all of these oracles rest on the same theological assumption, God is the God of all creation and as such, has power over of all creation and will not tolerate unrighteousness from anyone. This view, that a god could be the god of all creation is a minority one with Israel’s neighbors. Deities were supposed to reign over a geographical area. Nations would have their own gods. With these oracles of judgment for injustice and unrighteousness, God proclaims that he is not just the God of Israel and Judah, but the God of all creation. God has an implicit covenant with all people in all places and he expects obedience to this basic understanding of law and morality. God will enforce these covenantal sanctions on the nations.[2] 
This leads to the second thing, the infractions that are listed in the oracles against the nations are sins that would be considered wrong to most people. 
The specific accusations in the first six sayings all have to do with crimes in war. Damascus has treated the people of Gilead with extreme cruelty, grinding them as a grain is ground on a threshing floor. The Philistines and the people of Tyre have been involved in large-scale programs of deportation. Tyre has violated an international treaty, the “covenant of brother-hood.” The Edomites are accused of pitiless and ongoing cruelty against a “brother” people. The atrocity of the Ammonites is especially reprehensible: Innocent civilians, pregnant women, are killed by the sword, taking two live at one blow….The Moabites are accused of extending their atrocities beyond death, burning human bones to make consumer products…[3]
These crimes were not isolated incidents. They were part of repeated patterns of violence and injustice committed by these neighboring nations. As we will see in just a minute with Judah and Israel, God often allows us to go a very long way off from his covenantal plans for us before bringing about the required judgment for our sins. These nations did not just commit one sin, but have, since at least the time of Solomon’s death, been engaged in systematic and repeated abuses against other people.
Another thing to note about these sayings against the nations is that God himself will be the one who brings the judgment and destruction. Notice in seven of the eight sayings the first person singular “I will bring…” The destruction will come in the form fire, presumably the fire of war set by nations who God will use to bring his punishment. None of the countries cited will be able to stand the upcoming destruction.
Finally, the list of nations creates a circular pattern that begins to come closer and closer to Israel (see map). Each nation that is mentioned is or was at some point, enemies with Israel. Some, Edom, Ammon, and Moab all have historical kinship relations with Israel. The Edomites were considered descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau (Genesis 36:1), while the citizens of Ammon and Moab came from Lot’s descendants (Genesis 19:36-38). Finally, of course, Judah and Israel were once one united country. They were both direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As Amos rounds out the first six oracles we can begin to imagine that the crowd who has been listing to him is getting very excited. After all, God is pronouncing judgment on a good many of Israel’s neighbors. This is good news for Israel, right? Then things get even better. Amos moves on to Israel’s closet neighbor, Judah.
Judah’s oracle is much like the previous six in form and style. It begins with the same formulaic saying as the others have, “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke punishment…” Why will they be punished? They will be punished because they have not kept the laws and statutes that God had given them. Secondly, Judah has fallen into the same traps as their ancestors had, following false teaching and the lies of the religions of surrounding nations.
This would have been music to the Israelite’s ears as Judah had constantly charged Israel the same kind of infidelities (2 Chron. 13:5-12; 1 Kings 14:22-24; 2 Kings 17:19). With gleeful anticipation Amos’ hearers would have waited for what was next. What would come next, however, would not bring them joy or excitement! 
The Oracle Against Israel: Amos 2:6-16
This eighth and final oracle begins the same way as the rest of them have; God unequivocally announces his judgment on Israel. There will be no relenting; no changing of God’s mind about what will befall Israel. Her systematic and consistent unfaithfulness, just like the surrounding nations, has not gone unnoticed and will not go unpunished.
This next section, 2:6-16, follows a similar yet elongated format to the previous oracles. It can further be split into three sections. Verses 6-8 detail the crimes that Israel has committed. Verses 9-12 are intended to remind Israel, albeit ever so briefly, what God has done for them in the past. Finally, verses 13-16 line out the judgment that will soon transpire in Israel. We will look at each section in turn.
The Charges: “Thus says the Lord…”
This first section, consisting of verses 6-8, details the charges that God is bringing against Israel. There are four distinct charges, which are unlike the charges that have been brought against the nations. They are specific to the covenant that God has made with Israel. As such, they are not war crimes, but rather they are transgressions against the harmonious and peaceful ordering of Israelite communal life.[4] These are issues of socio-economic justice.
The first charges concerns selling an individual into slavery. Now, slavery was a carefully practiced and regulated practice among God’s people (Exodus 21:2ff; Leviticus 25:39ff; and Deuteronomy 15:12ff.). Slavery, in the form in which God’s people were allowed to practice it, was meant to protect the lives and well beings of those who found themselves in poverty and unable to pay their debts. It was always the ultimate aim that the person enslaved would return to an independent existence. Amos is not taking issue with slavery, per se, but with the way it was being practiced in Israel at the time.
Who is being sold into slavery is the important part. Amos uses two words, “righteous,” which the NIV translates as “innocent,” and “needy.” Those who are being sold are those who are up right and who are the most vulnerable segments of society. They are being sold “for a pair of sandals.” The image that Amos is seeking to evoke is that of a rich and prosperous person taking advantage of a very small debt, the worth of a pair of sandals, so that he might sell a living person into slavery and make a profit. The “needy” in Israel were to be protected. The normal civil and judicial laws would never have allowed this kind of injustice. Nevertheless, the guilty have used and abused the legal system so that might profit personally.
The second charge is oppression of the poor. In verse 7 we get a further picture of what the injustice rampant in Israel looks like. The rich and powerful trample on the heads of the poor.  The image of trampling a person’s head had long been a familiar symbol in illustrations that depicted Mesopotamian kings subjugating their conquered enemies. It is an image of complete dominance. Furthermore, the “push the afflicted out of the way,” which the NIV better translates as “deny justice to the oppressed” is less about harmlessly pushing someone out of your way on the street and more of a violent obstruction of justice through the bribing of judges.[5] The judges were the elders of the town or village who sat in the gate of the city to adjudicate disputes in the community. If the judges could not be counted on to provide justice, then justice would not be had.
The third charge deals with sexual abuse. There is much ambiguity concerning the nature of this charge. Some argue that the girl in question is a maid, a young woman who still may be a minor who is in service to a rich family. On the other hand, some think that the girl in question is just a young woman in the community. Or, she might be the lover of the son mentioned in the text. Ultimately, what is at stake in this charge is the elevation of sexual desires over against the dignity and humanity of a young woman. “Amos sees before him a society in which sexual desire determines a person’s actions, desire shamelessly selecting socially dependent persons as victims.”[6]
The final charge of exploiting debtors, rounds out the section. Two separate things are happing in this charge. First, Amos speaks against the misuse of things that have been taken in pledge. The law allowed for items to be taken from a debtor as collateral until the debt might be paid. There were certain items and certain situations in which things could not be taken as pledge. A hand mill or grindstone could not be taken at all (Deuteronomy 24:6). The cloak, the outer garment, which was used as a covering during the night, of a poor man, could not be kept over night (Exodus 22:25). A widow’s cloak or garment could not be taken at all (Deuteronomy 24:17). The spreading out of the cloak likely alludes to using it as a place to lay on at night. Or, it could mean that the garment would be used to recline on at a meal. Either way, it was improper to use the object that way. Secondly, the accused are getting drunk in God’s house with wine that was bought with fines levied on people who had offended or harmed them. These fines were a normal part of the law. They could be imposed on some one who, while fighting with an advisory accidently hit a pregnant woman so that she miscarried. The fine was to be restitution for the infraction. Amos, for his part, believes that exorbitant fines are being levied on the poor for the slightest of infractions. What is at steak here is not the drunkenness, but the way in which the drunkenness is achieved, through the oppression of the poor.
While these charges are more specific they are not comprehensive or exhaustive. A common thread is beginning to emerge. God is angry at Israel for the injustice that runs rampant because of their prosperity.
“I brought you up out of the land of Egypt…”
The “yet” at the beginning of verse 9 provides a pivot on which the passage turns. The charges against Israel have been laid out and the verdict will be announced shortly. Before that, however, God sees fit to remind Israel where she came from. These three verses are important for us as well. They remind us that Israel’s judgment does not take place in a vacuum, but rather is based on the many blessings and rich covenant that God has with Israel. Israel acts in shameful ways despite that fact that God brought her up out of slavery in Egypt, and in pretty spectacular ways too. God uprooted the Amorites who were a large and powerful people. They were like strong trees, but God destroyed their fruit and uprooted them. 
Israel was not left to her own devices in this new land. God raised up for her prophets who would help guide them and correct them. Some became nazirites who were not to cut their hair or drink wine or come into contact with the dead. They were to be totally and utterly dedicated and committed to the service of God. Verse 11 ends with the asking of a rhetorical question. God wants to know if Israel remembers that God did all these things for her. But, in Israel’s greed and wickedness she defiled the nazirites and commanded the prophets to cease speaking. They silenced the ones who could help them get back on the right track. I imagine that the crowd, which had likely been rejoicing at the oracles pronounced on the nations, have now become silent.
“So, I…”
It is apparent that Israel has forgotten who they are and who rescued them from slavery to plant them in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land with houses they did not build and cisterns they did not hew. “So, I…” begins the final section of the oracle. Once again God will be the agent of judgment. Israel will be crushed the like grass that finds itself under the wheel of a fully loaded cart carrying grain. There will be no escaping it either. Just like the grass has no ability to run away from the crushing weight of the oncoming cart, so will all ability to flee be removed from Israel.
The judgment that God visited on the Amorites in verse 9 will not be the judgment that befalls Israel. “At one time Yahweh waged holy war on Israel’s behalf against her enemies (2:9). Now Israel has joined her enemies, becoming likewise a target of Yahweh’s attack. The people of God has despised the privilege of compassion and has itself thus become Yahweh’s enemy.”[7]       
So What…?
It will be difficult, in the weeks that follow, not to get bogged down in the rather melancholy and judgmental tone of the book of Amos. What we must not miss, however, is the message that Amos declares is for us too. This message, while dark and foreboding, can enlighten us to our own possible sins and crimes against humanity (personally and corporately). The one thing that is clear from these oracles, specifically the oracle against Israel, is that Israel is just as guilty if not more guilty than the others because of the circumstances from which she rose. It was out of God’s compassion for the poor, the barren and the oppressed that Israel becomes a nation. It is in an act of judgment against a people who had mistreated the poor that God carves out a place for Israel to live. Simply, Israel owes her existence to the grace and mercy of God.
We, like Israel, are a people who owe our existence to the grace and mercy of God. It is out of the bondage of sin, out of the oppression of death that we have been saved and constituted a people. But unlike Israel, we must not forget how and by whose hand we became a people. If we forget, in our prosperity we will fall prey to the same temptations as Israel did, the temptations to use and abuse our neighbor instead of becoming extensions of God’s grace and mercy. To whom much is given, must is expected. 
Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?        
    1. God is declaring what kind of world he finds acceptable, and it is not the kind of world that is marked by violence, abuse and oppression of the poor and needy innocents. God is the God of the whole world, not just of Israel, and as such, God is within his rights to bring judgment on all nations.
    2. At the same time, however, God does not hold back judgment on those he loves. Israel, precisely because she was God’s chosen people, will be held accountable just like the other nations.   
  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like the right and proper treatment of those who are poor and needy. It looks like seeking peace. It looks like fair lending practices. It looks like giving grace to enemies. It looks like seeking just treatment for the victim and the perpetrator. It looks like constantly remembering the saving actions that God has preformed for us so that we might live in covenantal faithfulness to God and others.   
  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. As a church we have been constituted the people of God through the self less act of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We are a people through the sheer grace and mercy of God. Through this we have been given everything. As a people we are called to continually examine if we are living in covenantal faithfulness to God and others.   
Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     Who was Amos and where was he from? Where did he minister?
2.     Why does Amos use the image of a lion roaring to depict the way in which God will speak in the following lines?
3.     Who are these nations that Amos speaks against? Where are they located? How might they be related to the nation of Israel?
4.     What point does Amos make by pronouncing oracles of judgment on nations other than Israel? How might those hearing Amos’ speech react to such oracles?
5.     Verses 6-8 of chapter 2 identify 4 charges leveled against Israel. What are the specific charges and how might they be connected thematically?
6.     In chapter 2, verses 9-12 detail a little bit of Israel’s history. Why would it be important for God to remind Israel of where they came from?
7.     Like Israel, as a church, we have become God’s people because of his mercy and grace. How might these words to Israel speak to us today?
8.     Do we remember how we became God’s people? In what way might be like Israel (personally or corporately) in the way we have treated others? How might we guard against receiving the same kind of judgment that Israel eventually receives?

[3]  James Limburg, Hosea: Micah (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988), 89.
[4] Hans Walter Wolff, S. Dean McBride Jr, and Waldemar Janzen, Joel and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos, First American edition (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1977), 165.
[5] Jorg Jeremias, The Book of Amos, trans. Douglas W. Scott, First American edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 36.
[6] Jeremias, 37
[7] Wolff, 173