From today till Epiphany, we’re reading ‘The Twelve’, as this scroll of Hebrew scripture has been gathered since the Persian period ending the Babylonian captivity. Christian traditions call the same books the ‘Minor Prophets’, presenting them in a slightly different order, late in the first testament before either the Apocrypha or the gospels.
We tend to ‘cherry pick’ these books in the season of Advent, pulling a couple of verses to be read as predictions of the arrival of Jesus Christ. Christians promoting justice are attached to this first prophet, Amos, for the theme of challenge to economic and social injustice in Israel, and a threat of retribution. Once more, we’re trying to hear a whole book at a time, a chapter a day.
Neither the Tanakh nor the Bible put Amos first among these 12 prophets, but I’ll defend it in terms of the times and places which it purports to address. Amos is pretty specific about the home-town of the inspired person, and the concurrent reigns of kings of the divided kingdoms, Israel and Judah. By the time the received text is locked into one scroll of ‘The Twelve’, 250 have passed.
Let’s imagine Amos as an actual historical person, said in the first verse (reinforced in 7.14) to be a sheep-breeder from Tekoa, about 8km south of Bethlehem in Judah. That’s not a poor guy. He’s addressing Israel, the northern kingdom, which is doing OK in those days. By the time we read this edition, we know Israel fell to Assyria around 750BCE, and Judah to Babylon about 600BCE.
Let’s imagine successive written editions recording the oral traditions of what Amos said. Originally, the text tells us, Amaziah priest of Bethel, and the king of Israel told Amos to shut up and go back where he came from. Later, we read in Judah smugly, saying ‘he told you so’! Even later, we all read Amos in exile – and finally, in scattered diaspora, or as returnees to the Second Temple Judea.
Let’s pull out our maps as we start. Zoom in on Palestine, west to east from Mediterranean to the Jordan, north to south from Sea of Galilee to Dead Sea. Israel is the north half, and Judah the south. (Samaria emerges in the middle ground.) Philistia is the southern coast that we know as the Gaza strip, Edom the territory to the south, Ammon north of Moab on the east side of the Jordan.
Zoom out till your map of Palestine is a small inset map, and you’ve included the Nile from its delta outlet into the Mediterranean, south through Egypt and Ethiopia and the split of White and Blue Niles. Grab a bit of Black Sea in the top corner northeast, Tigris and Euphrates flowing from mid-top to Persian Gulf mid-right, Red Sea rising from the middle bottom: Aram, Assyria, Babylonia.
You’re ready now to hear the oracles of accusation or warning, as if from Judah. The zoom is reversed, as distant enemies are damned all around for a chapter and a half – then Judah and Israel draw fire. Wednesday we are reminded how clear our advantage and the signs to warn us – and of judgment due, first in the north in Israel, and Samaria, and Bethel.
Thursday, recognize the corruption of affluence, and its outer religious shows, incurring costs, and imagine the consequences of selective drought in farming areas, and reminders of God’s similar interventions in Egypt, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Friday, imagine the 90% decimation of towns and villages, nothing to the creator of the night stars. Petty injustice and corruption appear venal.
Saturday, the derision of those ‘at ease in Zion’ peaks in sarcasm. Their injustice exposed, their exile is anticipated. I don’t know how much Amos predicted, or how much his original construing of the degeneration of Israel was elaborated and clarified with 20:20 hindsight. I lean toward the latter – but in any event, this can’t be reduced to a mere prediction of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death.
Let’s leave that as 700 words of orientation. If you have any time today, listen to the audio read from the NJPS translation, and read the NRSV text below.