< October 14, 2018 >

Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

 

“Your cancer is terminal, you have 6 months to live.” “The financial model for your organization is no longer sustainable; it will fold at the end of the year.”

How do people, whether as an individual or a collective respond to a death sentence? How are God’s people supposed to react to the prophetic announcement that exile is imminent and unavoidable? Certainly, people would respond to the bad news in a variety of ways: anger, resentment, denial, and resignation.

Biblical scholars have been puzzled over how to reconcile Amos’ announcements of certain doom with his exhortations to repent. Why repent when destruction is inevitable? Most often they explain these differing attitudes towards Israel’s future by dating the various texts to different periods in Israel and Judah’s history. That very well may have been the case. But regardless of its composition, the church today reads the entire book of Amos as the received word of God spoken to Israel and the church today.

The church today wrestles to make sense of how to theologically interpret these tensions. Biblical and theological interpretation is never done in abstraction; it is always contextual. So given the general audience of this resource, I will direct my comments to the church of the dominant culture in the West. This church, whether Catholic, Evangelical, or mainline Protestant, is dying. Its membership is shrinking or stagnant at best, its seminaries are closing, and its buildings are being sold. How should a dying church respond to the message of Amos 5:6-7, 10-15? In addition to these texts, I will address several key verses in Amos 5 that do not appear in the lectionary reading.

Amos 5 begins with a lamentation over the death of Israel, “Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up” (Amos 5:2, New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]). Lamentation is not a personal reaction of sorrow by the emotionally sensitive. This funeral dirge is a public, corporate response called forth by the leaders in the community. Lamentation requires the ability to be honest and to mourn. How is the church today to respond to the news of its demise? It is to publicly acknowledge and grieve its failure to fulfill its mission in our world.

The people of God are to receive the death sentence as an opportunity for reformation and renewal. This response is not the same as the terminally ill who resist their diagnosis out of denial. That posture is rooted in pride, whereas the former acts out of humility. The death sentence is to awaken the church to urgent action. Four times in Amos 5 the imperative verb “seek” appears (Amos 5:4, 5, 6, 14) and in three of the cases, the result of doing is that Israel will live (5:4, 6, 14).

Amos makes clear in 5:5 what it doesn’t mean to seek God, “But do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing” (NRSV). It is common for activists to employ the arts to reorient people’s imagination for religious and social change and Amos is certainly no exception. In verse 5 he employs the Hebrew alliteration haggilgal galoh yigleh (“Gilgal will surely go into exile”). Prophetic rhetoric fuels movements, and if the church today is to be renewed and reformed its leaders need to communicate in such a matter as to energize people for collective action.

The language of “seeking YHWH” (Amos 5:6) is a technical term to refer to cultic worship, yet Amos makes clear that the “seeking” God requires is not cultic worship. In 5:14 the prophet exhorts, “Seek good and not evil” and in 5:15 he goes on to say, “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” God’s desire is for people to work actively for a healthy society. When society makes a turn for the worse and the privileged can manipulate the systems of the public and private sector for their own selfish gain at the expense of the poor and marginalized, “seeking God” involves publically rejecting these forms of evil and working towards the establishment of justice.

Gowan offers the reminder, “To love can mean to choose (Proverbs 8:36; 12:1; Micah 3:2; 6:8; Zechariah 8:19), and to hate can mean to reject (Malachi 1:2-3), so the imperatives call for action and not merely attitude.”1 These words are particularly relevant in this current moment when Trump’s administration has pursued the very injustices Amos and the prophets denounce. Yet according to the Pew Research Center, the majority of white Evangelicals, white Mainline Protestants, and white Catholics continue to approve of him.

While the pursuit of justice is an important theme throughout Amos 5 and the book as a whole, it is not the central topic. Scholars observe that the book of Amos contains a tripartite division: Amos 1-2; 3-6; and 7-9. Of the middle section of the book, Amos 5:1-17 functions at its center, and this literary core of the book is organized according to the following structure:2

A. Lamentation (verses 1-3)

B. Exhortation to seek (verses 4-6)

C. Critique of injustice (verse 7)

D. Doxology extolling YHWH’s power (verses 8-9)

C’. Critique of injustice (verses 10-12 [13])

B’. Exhortation to seek (verses 14-15)

A’. Lamentation (verses 16-17)

The worship of Israel’s sovereign God stands at the heart of Amos’ message. As I have demonstrated, Amos expands this definition of worship to include the pursuit of justice and righteousness. What is never to be neglected, even in the breakdown of social justice, is that Yahweh, the sovereign creator, is to be worshiped and obeyed.

Will seeking justice and righteous save the church? Perhaps. That is Amos’ message in verse 15b, “Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph” (New International Version). Verse 15 contains the only occurrence of the word ?anan (“to be gracious, merciful, compassionate”) in the book. Should God’s people be saved it will require human repentance and divine grace.


Notes:

1. Donald E. Gowan, “The Book of Amos: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), VII: 391.

2. Göran Eidevall, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary; AYB 24G (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 152, see also 10-11.