Background and Literary Considerations
- Whereas Judgment Speeches are typically announcements of doom, almost as if there is no turning back, no chance for reversing the inevitable slide toward punishment, “Woe!” speeches or oracles are set out with the intention of calling for repentance. They begin with an ominous “woe!” enlisted against certain people or groups of people who, by the contents of the speech, have offended God in some identifiable way and should find a way to change their behavior and that right quick. There are three “Woe!” oracles in Amos (5:18-20; 6:1-3, 4-7), the first one of which we consider this week. Why were the prophets fond of this conventional speech form? What gave it the punch they seemed to like? What in today’s preaching would be comparable?
- We also encounter the two major concerns of the prophets here: worship and social justice. In fact, Amos 5 addresses normally acceptable worship practices as well as idolatry in surprising ways and wraps them around the prophet’s clarion call for justice and equality.
- In addition, two related theological themes or traditions arise in our passage: the ideas of Holy War and the Day of the Lord. Both have a long history in ancient Israel and involve conflicts between Israel and foreign nations. Most wars in antiquity were religious wars in one way or another, since the gods fought each other, even though it was human blood on the battlefield. The stronger god was easily identifiable as the winner. Part of the Holy War tradition, the Day of the Lord signaled God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf, dispersing neighboring threats and delivering Israel in battle; it was a day of judgment on the enemies of Israel. What should we expect Amos will do with these theological concepts?
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Amos 5:16-17 – What happens when the Lord “passes through” the people, according to these verses? Is it good news or bad for God to pass through? God is the subject of this verb, ëavar = “to pass,” only three times in Amos. Here the preposition following the verb is be = “in” or “among’; God passes among the people with disastrous results. The other two occurrences of this verb are in 7:8 and 8:2, both with a different preposition following them, le = “over” or “beyond.” More later about these two passages.
- Amos 5:18-20 (“Woe!” Oracle #1) – If the Day of the Lord was a day of deliverance of Israel from its enemies, why has Amos turned the tables on Israel and made it a day of fear and disaster? How have expectations and reality come to differ so strongly? Why a day of darkness? With the help of a concordance, check out all the references in Amos to “day” and see what you discover. Why the creative imagery about lions, bears and snakes? What impact would these have on a hopeful Israel?
- Amos 5:21-23 / 24 / 25-27 – The worship practices mentioned in verses 21-23 are all approved in the Bible. What has tainted them? Why has God decided to turn his back on them? In what ways do how we relate to God and how we relate with our fellow human beings connect? What kinds of idolatry are involved in verses 25-27? At the center of good worship gone bad (21-23) and bad worship gone worse (25-27) lies verse 24. Does this verse with its call to social justice and righteousness say anything about Amos’ main point? Check out these two words in a good Bible dictionary.
Contributions to Study of Amos and the Bible
- Are “Woe!” oracles good news or bad? As a warning? As a call to repentance? As a reminder that justice will come for the oppressed?
Lessons for Life
- How do we balance the need in our lives for worship and ethics? Which takes precedence? Which places the greatest demands on us? Why?