Amos Shoves G-d’s Social Justice Message In Your Face
Nick’s Commentary on the Book of Amos
All my life, I’ve had this yearning to repair the world and set right the injustices it is replete with. This drive has burned within me and spurred me to act and become an activist.
As I study scripture, I am increasingly aware that this inner voice demanding justice is inseparable from the outer voice of the prophets demanding justice, inseparable from the Jewish tradition.
I recently read the Book of Amos. As it is only nine brief chapters, it was a quick read. Everyone should read it, because its message is so central and so necessary for our current struggles; in his polemic against the status quo, Amos attacks economic inequality almost-exclusively, and regards greed as closely associated with idolatry.
I’ll quote from it heavily as I give you a run-down.
Amos Chapter 2
Here Amos is attacking decadence. The children of Israel in the latest fashions of Gucci and Manolo Blahnik I’m sure. But the key phrase here is “selling a poor man” in exchange for shoes. G-d is saying “you are selling the needs of the poor down the river for the sake of luxuries. If you are consuming extravagantly, you are inherently stealing. Whenever you have too much, someone else doesn’t have enough.
As it was written in Proverbs: “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.“ (Proverbs 22:16)
And as it is taught in the Talmud: “If a person closes his eyes to avoid giving [any] charity, it is as if he committed idolatry.” (Ketubot 68a)
But back to Amos…
Injustice against the poor is mentioned beside sexual immorality.
Hashem is like “what, the Exodus wasn’t enough for you ungrateful bastards?”
Moving on…a longer block of text…
10. They hated him who reproves them in the gate, and they despise him who speaks uprightly.
11. Therefore, because you have trodden on the poor, and the burden of grain you take from him, houses of hewn stone you have built but you shall not dwell therein, precious vineyards you have planted, but you shall not drink their wine.
12. For I know that your transgressions are many, and your sins are mighty; you who oppress the just, taking ransom, and turning aside the needy in the gate.
13. Therefore, the prudent at that time shall keep silent, for it is a time of evil.
14. Seek good and not evil in order that you live, and so the Lord God of Hosts shall be with you, as you said.
15. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; perhaps the Lord God of Hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
16. Therefore, so said the Lord God of Hosts, the Lord: In all the city squares lamentation, and in all streets they shall say, “Alas! Alas!” and they shall meet the plowman with mourning and lamentation with those who know to wail.
17. And in all vineyards [there shall be] lamentation, for I will pass in your midst, said the Lord.
18. Woe to those who desire the day of the Lord. Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light.
19. As if a man flees from the lion and the bear meets him, and he comes to the house and leans his hand on the wall, and a serpent bites him.
20. Is not the day of the Lord darkness and not light, even very dark, with no brightness in it.
21. I hate, I reject your festivals, and I will not smell [the sacrifices of] your assemblies.
22. For if you offer up to Me burnt- offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept [them], and the peace offerings of your fattened cattle I will not regard.
23. Take away from Me the din of your songs, and the music of your lutes I will not hear.
24. And justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
25. Did you offer Me sacrifices and meal-offerings in the desert forty years, O house of Israel?
26. And you shall carry Siccuth your king and Chiun your images, Kochav your god, which you have made for yourselves.
27. And I will exile you beyond Damascus, said He Whose Name is the Lord God of Hosts.
That’s right!! Amos is all “you spend on sandals and wine, and shove the poor aside from your gate. Hashem will be sending various plagues momentarily. Pwnage will flow like water. A reckoning is coming, and it will not be pretty for those who oppress the poor and venerate the image.”
The greedy and unjust are told where to jam it.
Activists for justice throughout American history, particularly those in the abolitionist and civil rights movements, have drawn heavily on the themes of Amos and the social prophets. Martin Luther King frequently quoted “justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” in his speeches, which emphasized the “day of reckoning” promised by the prophets.
In his new book The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, Greil Marcus argues this tradition of calling Americans to account, challenging them to live up to their ideals and warning them if they do not, has become a unique “American Voice,” spoken by Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and even Bob Dylan. He’s right. But of course, the source of this voice of justice is the Hebrew Bible. Amos and the social prophets, especially when contrasted with ancient stories of the time, called out a radical change in the human narrative that has changed the world.
“A day of reckoning,” means evil and unjust practices cannot continue; they are inherently illegitimate and will collapse from their own decay. Justice cannot be avoided. Prophets like Amos were sent to remind Israel not only that they must live up to their covenant, but that a living G-d will never forget the lost and oppressed. This is piece of LIVING TORAH brought down from Sinai by Amos. Living Torah means it is functional and applicable TODAY. Amos came to say Hashem will enforce Deut. 15:7-8, Exodus 22:21, and more, don’t think He ain’t ALL over this.
He is telling us:
4. Those who lie on couches of ivory and stretch out on their beds, and eat lambs of the flock and calves out of the stall.
5. Who sing according to the tone of the lute. They thought that their musical instruments were like [those of] David.
6. Who drink from basins of wine, and with the first oils they anoint themselves, and they feel no pain concerning the destruction of Joseph.
7. Therefore, now they shall go into exile at the head of the exiles, and the banquet of the haughty shall pass away.
The greedy will be removed from power.
And THE LIVING TORAH means HE is talking to all the fat cats and classist assclowns TODAY. No just in freakin’ 750 BCE, but 2007, and Hashem is confronting us. This isn’t some mushy, lovey dovey stuff, Hashem is being as confrontational and in your face as possible.
At Spring Hill College, Dr. Wilson would often emphasize that scripture is radical, and doesn’t line up at all with dispassionate, “civic religion” (people going to services as a kind of civic duty to listen to stale, non-confrontational sermons and still live their lives like everyone else). I’m not a Christian obviously, but Wilson was dead-on with that point.
How could anyone read Amos, and they not see how hardcore G-d is about the needs of the poor? How can it not dramatically change them?
4. Hearken to this, you who swallow up the needy, and to cut off the poor of the land.
5. Saying, “When will the month be delayed, so that we will sell grain, and the Sabbatical Year, so that we will open [our stores of] grain, to make the ephah smaller and to make the shekel larger, and to pervert deceitful scales.
6. To purchase the poor with money, and the needy in order to inherit them, and the refuse of the grain we will sell.”
7. The Lord swore by the pride of Jacob: I will never forget any of their deeds.
Amos shoves Hashem’s social justice message in your eye!
HE SAYS THE LIVING G-D WILL NEVER ABANDON THE WIDOW AND THE ORPHAN, THE POOR AND THE LOST AMONG US.
WOE UNTO YOU WHO VOTE FOR POLICIES THAT TRAMPLE THE WEAK AND THE POOR and think “oh, someone else will stand up for the poor.”
NO, HASHEM SAYS YOU MUST. A reckoning will come! As MLK quoted, “justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!”
IT’S NOW 2007!
We are commanded to live up to our promise. In the recent Torah portions, we see the Jews living in slavery after they’ve sold their brother Joseph into slavery, and we see their path to redemption begin when the midwives refuse to kill the Jewish newborns because their allegiance is to G-d, not Pharaoh. We see from this that bringing holiness into their behavior is a choice, and one that had incredible ramifications.
It’s no less-so today.
Choose righteousness. Give tzedekah (charity) for example, but perhaps more importantly, STAND UP FOR THE POOR AND DISABLED in the public square as our rights and funding we depend on are continually attacked by politicians. The Academy of Sciences Reported that about 18,000 people die each year as a result of not having insurance. 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty. In the richest country in the world, that is unacceptable.
This cannot stand.
We must do the right thing. Redemption is a choice.
Make sure your loyalty is to something Greater than yourself, and something more than the next Pharaoh on his way to the dustbin of history.
As Amos taught us, a day of reckoning will come, injustice must be removed….
1. Amos illustration by Gustave Doré