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Background and Literary Considerations

  • We are now introduced to “Judgment Speeches,” of which there are three major ones in the book of Amos. They all three begin with: “Hear this word ….” As used among the biblical prophets, they normally signify the end of the road for their audience; guilt has piled up impossibly high and the game is over. There is no further hope and it is time to go home. Although these speeches seem harsh and unbending, the prophets use them all the time, probably as a last-ditch effort to shake things up and get someone’s attention. While they seem to hold out no hope of positive divine response, the fact that they were spoken must have carried some kind of anticipation that they would make a difference and that the people would respond. Does it make any difference to us as modern readers to know that this speech form, however harsh, represents a final plea, a last gasp?
  • Why are the prophets so pressed, so angry, that they must appeal to Israel in such strong terms? What has led to this state of affairs? Could it be Amos’ primary task to point out how people have mistreated other people, especially those unable to help or protect themselves? Is it possible that social injustice ( in violation of the last six commandments of the decalogue) lies at the heart of their pain and passion? Is it possible then, that these harsh speeches are really good news – to those who have suffered unjustly – that bullies are being put on notice not to mess with God’s children, that they will get their day in court, that injustice is not the end of the story?
  • “To us a single act of injustice–cheating in business, exploitation of the poor–is slight; to the prophets a disaster, … a deathblow to existence, … a threat to the world” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p. 4).

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Amos 3:1-15 (Judgment Speech #1) – Hear this word! Note the absolute irony of verse 2: those known best by God because of the exodus and election as God’s people are most open to punishment (the peril of privilege). Compare Amos 9:7 with its diluting of the exodus of Israel with that of the hated Philistines and the Syrians – ouch! Amos has taken something sacred to Israel and turned it on its head! Why?Verses 3-8 represent a “catechism” or series of rhetorical questions, all which we assume recommend negative answers, especially the climactic final question about judgment and disaster. Why not just say judgment is coming rather than use this creative speech form?The first of several “remnant passages” occurs in verse 12: yes there will be a remnant, but don’t expect much from two shin bones and the piece of an ear! Why even mention it?
  • Amos 4:1-3 (Judgment Speech #2) – Hear this word! The “cows of Bashan” are the high-society ladies of Samaria, grown fat on their wealth gained by fleecing the poor for all they are worth … and then some. This also brings in another “remnant passage.” And again, while suggesting a few survivors among the mothers of Israel, there they go, naked and climbing over rock tumble, hooked together on their way into exile.
  • Amos 5:1-3 (Judgment Speech #3) – Hear this word! Now in the form of a lament which Israel sings at its own funeral. And a “remnant passage” about ten who return after sending out an army of 1,000 – not real good odds.

Contributions to Study of Amos and the Bible

  • We continue to see examples of Amos’ literary creativity. Why not just lay it out in straight talk and say what he means rather than couch the message in specialized speech forms and blistering twists of irony and even gallows humor? What does all this mean for the punch of the prophet’s preaching? For remembering the point?

Lessons for Life

  • What does all of this have to say about the seriousness with which we treat others with dignity and respect?

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