Notebook

Random thoughts, in random order.

Nigel Chapman

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Table of Contents

Index. 56
1. Social Justice in the Book of Amos 1,047
Total words. 1,103

1.   Social Justice in the Book of Amos

The eighth century prophets contain some of the most striking expressions of social justice concerns in Christian Scripture, and Amos, from 765 BCE, is one of their most quotable voices.  He is referenced in most of Martin Luther King’s best known writings: “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” “The Power of Nonviolence.”  Why was he such a favourite?  He was just a farmer, not a recognised priest or prophet (Amos 7:14), yet he was reported to the local king for inciting a conspiracy.  What was so wrong in Samaria that he took his life in his hands to travel up from Judah and condemn it publicly at major shrines and festivals?  “Come to Bethel,” he declared – “and sin!”  (7:4)

When Amos thinks of Israel’s sin, he means a range of religious hypocrisies, but prominent among them – and this is true of other prophets from his period – he condemns the oppression of a lower working class in Israel by a prosperous upper class.

Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see … what oppressions are in its midst.  They do not know how to do right, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.  (3:9–10)
They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth … (5:10)
[They] trample on the poor, and take from them levies of grain … afflict the righteous, … take a bribe, and push the needy aside in the gate (5:11–12)

When Amos says ‘in the gate’, he means at the appointed public space where the elders would decide disputes and grievances.  He means that even seeking justice had become a bitter and fruitless pursuit if you were poor (5:7).  This perversion of the courts by the wealthy had an especially chilling effect: “the prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.”  (5:13).  The weak have have no recourse against the strong, and Amos tells them God’s judgement is waiting.

This oppression of the poor is compounded by the luxury and indifference of the rich.  He points to their winter and summer houses, and opulent ivory furniture (3:15).  Matriarchs crush their workers, “and say to their husbands, bring us a drink!”  (4:1) The wealthy are “at ease in Zion,” (6:1) where they drink and sing, and lounge and strum, but have no grief for “the ruin of Joseph”, meaning the recently invaded northern parts of Israel (6:5–6).  In spite of these are other disasters (see chapter 1, or 4:6–11), the well-off were used to prosperity now, and were finding new ways to maintain it.  They thought that things were great.

There was religious hypocrisy, too: Amos’s audience loved religious festivals (4:4–5), even while mixing them with idolatry (5:26).  But what were festivals without justice or righteousness?  This is the context of Amos’s most quoted passage, in which the Lord says:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; … Take away from me the noise of your songs… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  (5:21–24)

What would Amos say to devout Christians who participated in social injustices of these kinds?  We can extrapolate from what he said to Israel, when they did the same.  He says “Prepare to meet your God” (4:12), and prepare to be surprised.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?”  What is it for one who oppresses the poor?  “It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear!”  (5:18–19).  Amos would say that Christians complicit in social injustices, and most especially the exploitation of the poor, are living in sin.  But also that there is a door ajar to grace and restitution: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:15, cf.  Mic 6:8; 12:6).


  • Have you ever been mistreated by someone who had more power than you in a particular situation?  What happened and how did you react?  As best as you can tell, how did they think about what they were doing?
  • Amos does not say how these Israelites reconciled their treatment of the poor with their religious self-image.  Can you think of ways that someone would?
  • Have you encountered Christians today who object to ‘social justice’ concerns, or the people who espouse them?  How many different aspects of these objections can you identify?  What aspects of those objections do you agree or disagree with?
  • Allowing that this was adequately understood about 2,800 years ago, do you feel that exploitation of the poor should be a solved problem by now, at least among Christians?
  1. Have you read through Amos?  Do you think a Christian could read it and not notice that justice is one of its themes?  Where do injustices rank among God’s judgements on Israel?
  2. If you are able to comment on their law, beliefs, or history, then do you think that Israel should have known better?  Why or why not?
  3. Was unequal wealth part of the problem Amos addressed?  Can rich and poor coexist without falling into injustice?  If so, what went wrong in this situation?
  4. How do the other eighth-century prophets round out Amos’s picture?  (If stuck, consider Micah 6:6–12, Isa 3:13–15, 5:8–23, Hosea 12)
  5. Are these the same ideas we find in James 2:1–7 and 5:1–6, or are they different?  Are these problems timeless?  What are their modern equivalents?  Are there modern equivalents to the prophets?
  6. In our own democratic societies, what must Christians do about injustices?  (For example, as people who influence policy, are we in a position like that of the Israelite kings?  Jer 22:15–16, Isa 11:4.)
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