Roe v Wade v Life v ChoiceJuly 6, 2022
History began when I was a childJuly 19, 2022
This post is part of my sermon for this coming Sunday, based on the Lectionary reading Amos 8:1-12. I’m publishing it now in case any preachers want to pinch bits.
I summarise the context of Amos’ prophecies, what he was concerned about, and how he influenced the development of the Bible. I then reflect on how he would have fitted into Britain today.
In the middle of the 8th century BC, the nation of Israel was flourishing. Samaria, the capital city, was a centre of great wealth. Amos had a lot to say about the beautiful works of art, the marketplaces full of goods, the luxurious summer and winter homes of the upper classes, and the impressive fortifications. Some of them have been found by archaeologists.
There was a regular cult festival at Bethel. You could describe it as their equivalent of Glastonbury, except that in those days whenever people celebrated they did it in honour of a god.
Amos turns up. And rants.
Then the Lord said to me,
‘The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings on that day,’
says the Lord God;
the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place (Amos 8:1-3).
Oh dear. Look, Amos, we’re having a good time. What have we done to upset you?
Amos was the first prophet to criticise the nation and its king. The nation had an obligation to keep its covenant with God, and was not keeping it. Therefore God was going to let the nation be destroyed.
What did Amos think the partygoers at Bethel were doing wrong?
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?’
What they were really celebrating, he thought, was the prospect of making lots of money.
‘We will make the ephah [a measuring unit] small and the shekel [a currency unit] great,
and practise deceit with false balances
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat’
He was seeing change. The traditional way of life was that every family had its own patch of land where they grew enough food to feed themselves. However the nation was getting rich. Wealth made kings ambitious. They liked to show off by building big palaces and fighting wars. So they raised taxes from the farmers and made them do forced labour.
The farmers were squeezed. A bad harvest and you got into debt. You would have to repay the debt with interest. This meant lenders, who by definition had more money than they needed to live on, could increase their excess money by taking from the people who got into debt because they didn’t have enough. We have the same system today, except on a much bigger scale.
What happens if you can’t repay the debt? In Amos’ day, the creditor would take your farm off you. If that wasn’t enough, they had a system we don’t have: slavery. First you sell your farm, then you sell your children, and finally you sell yourself. You become a slave for the rest of your life, and any children you have after that are born slaves.
A bit of basic economics. If there is a glut on the market, the price goes down. This also applied to slaves. So many people were selling themselves into slavery that the price of slaves was cheap. This was good for the buyers, but for those who were forced to sell themselves into slavery, even the worst possible humiliation didn’t repay much debt. This is why Amos complained that the people who were celebrating the good times were buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.
Amos, the classic sandwich board man! The end is nigh because of sin! The sin was that some people were making themselves rich at the expense of the poor. Amos had seen a change in the culture of the nation. He believed it would all come to grief because the nation was disobeying God.
30 years later along came Sargon II, the king of Assyria, and that was the end of Israel as an independent state. Sargon’s records state that he deported 27,000 Israelites and repopulated the land with people from other parts of his empire.
South of Israel was the small state of Judah. Judah was suddenly inundated with refugees from Israel, lamenting ‘Amos was right! We should have listened to Amos!
It’s not certain, but the usual historical reconstruction is that Hezekiah, the king of Judah, produced the first of the Bible’s law codes, the Covenant Code in Exodus. If you’ve ever heard atheists ranting against the Bible for being barbaric, it’s those laws they are complaining about. But compared with normal practice in the 8th century BC, they were positively enlightened. It’s easy to spot the influence of Amos in this:
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? (Exodus 22:25-27).
So what did Amos achieve? He inherited, and believed in, the values of the old tribes on the hill tops where every family grew its own food, everybody had enough and nobody was rich. He saw the nation getting richer. He saw the upper classes increasing their power and the ordinary peasant farmers made to pay for it with their taxes. Some farmers got into debt and had to sell themselves into slavery.
Amos’ message was too late for the kingdom of Israel, but the king of Judah imposed the kinds of laws Amos argued for. A hundred years later Judah also lost its independence, new prophets arose and a new generation updated the laws in the book of Deuteronomy. In this way there developed a set of scriptures arguing for a constitution that protects the poor.
Most of the Bible is about this: laws saying how kings should protect the poor; prophets, beginning with Amos, denouncing kings for not protecting the poor; histories explaining that the nation lost its independence because the kings didn’t protect the poor; and Jesus in very different circumstances creating a movement where the poor came together to protect each other.
That is most of the Bible. If you have never heard the Bible described like this, I’m not surprised. 300 years ago European leaders invented the idea that religion and politics have to be kept separate from each other. This is modern secularism. We have had 300 years of bible commentaries and church leaders suppressing what Amos and his successors were actually talking about. But it’s still there in the Bible.
Reflections for today
1. The connection
Amos may have believed that God deliberately made the Assyrians invade in order to punish Israel. It was a common thing to believe at the time. I don’t think God works like that, but I do think there was a connection. The kings of Israel, like most kings, wanted to win wars and grab booty from defeated enemies. Behaving like that provoked the Assyrians. If instead they had avoided wars and left the farmers in peace, we don’t know what would have happened but it might well have been less disastrous.
2. The normality
The partygoers at Bethel didn’t believe Amos because they didn’t foresee the impending disaster. They were not specially evil. They were normal.
Amos was concerned about how the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. There was a change in the culture of the nation. Those who were reasonably well off were becoming less caring.
On this point there is a clear parallel with today. We have had just over 40 years of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We have grown used to it. Attitudes to the poor have changed. Most of the time neither our newspapers, nor our television programmes, nor our social media tell us about the ever-growing numbers of people who are starving or homeless or both.
Earlier this week I looked at the policy pitches of all the members of Parliament hoping to be the next Prime Minister. None of them propose to reverse this long-term trend for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Even the references to the ‘cost of living crisis’ treated it as a new situation caused by external events. In general they all want to do the things Amos was condemning.
Today, as in Amos’ day, it’s possible to have a society where everybody has enough and nobody has too much. Or alternatively, we can enjoy the prospect of our leaders being rich and powerful, and ignore the suffering and poverty of those who pay the price.
3. The individual
In every society most people accept the values of the people around them. But there a few who see what nobody else sees and point out what needs to change. We need those people! Here’s a question: who are today’s Amoses?