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Background and Literary Considerations

  • Amos provides us with a fascinating blend of guidelines regarding worship and those having to do with social justice, the latter predominating by far. Chapter 5 is no exception. It speaks directly to worship (the good and the bad), but moves to one of the strongest statements yet on social justice. In the process, the prophet gives us some hope. The book of Amos is not known for its warm devotional sentiments, nor is positive assessment of Israel’s spiritual and moral condition. In fact, as we have already seen to some degree and will more so, with predictable regularity Amos takes something special and sacred to Israel and turns it on its head. Nothing escapes the prophet’s reach, nothing is too sacred. Why does he insist on doing this? What value does he see in this approach? But it is also here that we have hope. On what is hope based in this chapter?
  • Archaeology has contributed to our understanding of this chapter. Verse 15 mentions justice in the gate. What is it about the gate that makes it important? Many of the gates excavated show several chambers around which are stone benches. These were used in antiquity for public activities, for commerce and as the local court room, sufficient witnesses being called to sit down to hear civil cases. The story of Boaz and Ruth is illustrative in this regard. Decisions were made on the basis of evidence presented in a fair hearing. How does Amos assess justice and fairness at the gate? Or better, to what degree does he come unglued at what he finds there?

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Amos 5:4-15 – If there is hope in the book of Amos, it is here! And it is based on an interesting use of a traditional worship invitation, reshaped twice in the mold of the prophet to say something new, something profound about how we treat others. Watch for the transformation in the words about seeking and living.”Seek me and live” – this is a standard Old Testament formula for inviting Israelites to come to worship God, especially in the temple. By “seeking” God in worship, the people were part of the community of God, that is, they “lived.” To worship is to live; not to worship is to be cut off from the people, that is to die. Here, Amos attempts to dissuade Israelites from worshiping God in all the wrong places.

    “Seek the Lord and live” – only slightly changed in wording, the phrase still has to do with worship, but a subtle shift is beginning which points rather to the two main words of prophets for how we treat others: justice and righteousness. You may want to check both of these out in a good Bible dictionary.

    “Seek good that you may live” – now the shift is complete. What once addressed worship in order for people to become part of the community of faith has become an invitation to do what is right in order to survive the coming judgment. On two things hope rests in verses 14-15: 1) a return to social justice (how we treat others, especially the marginalized) and 2) God’s “perhaps” or “it may be” in verse 15 (compare Zephaniah 2:1-3). What makes respect for others and God’s mercy an important combination?

    Note the other sections of this chapter, including the hymn fragment (Hymn #2 in the book) in verses 8-9 and its reversal of expectations.

Contributions to Study of Amos and the Bible

  • Nothing new about Amos’ concern for the poor as expressed here. Why does this, however, take on the degree of significance it does? Why is this the test of loyalty? Anywhere else in the Bible (Old Testament or New Testament) where this happens? What about Matthew 25?

Lessons for Life

  • What does it mean for everyday life for us to place as the highest of all virtues how we treat others? How might this change the way we do business? The way we relate in settings of home, school, work, the wider world?

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