Judgment on Israel and Judah
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 7, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Amos 2:4-8
The theme of the summer quarter is “God’s Prophets Demand Justice.” As Dr. Jerome F. D. Creach, Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and series writer, states, “The main subject of this series is God’s desire for justice and the consequences for not doing justice.”
The 14 lessons will look at justice and related issues from Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zachariah, and Malachi. No matter the different time periods and circumstances, each of the prophets echo the decisive message of Amos and Micah: God expects God’s people to care for those who are weak and powerless.
Before specifically getting into today’s lesson, it will be helpful to briefly review the biblical natures of four key words: justice, righteousness, judgment, and restoration.
The word “justice” is frequently paired with the term “righteousness” as in Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Scholars tell us that the prophets seem to understand justice as something that grows out of righteousness. Consequently, to understand justice, we need to focus on the meaning of the biblical word righteousness.
The word “righteousness” is not moral purity. Rather, it is a relational word that has to do with acting rightly in relation to others or to God. Thus, when the prophets speak of justice as the fruit of righteousness they are pointing out that justice is something that grows out of a right relationship with God. And being right with God means living in humility and trust before God. So, we are told that to act in righteousness and justice is to imitate God and to participate in the work of God in the world.
Scholars relate that the prophetic message featured an analysis of the Israelite society as it related to God’s expectations for the people. Each of the prophets, we will consider, will give us an evaluation of God’s people, particularly in terms of their failure to do justice. And that prophetic analysis will often include promises of judgment.
However, there is something important to remember as we study these upcoming lessons. That is, despite the persistent message of judgment for the lack of justice, the prophets do not leave their audience without hope. For a key part of the prophetic message is that after judgment, God restores and revitalizes the people who were judged.
Amos was born in the early part of the eighth century before Christ. He lived in Tekoa, a sparsely inhabited town on the edge of the wilderness of Judah. It was here that Amos had the double occupation of tending sheep and caring for sycamore fig trees on the nearby slopes. This work of Amos took him to the Northern Kingdom, to sell wool and perhaps figs. In his travels he became acquainted with the people of the Northern Kingdom, the conditions under which they lived, and the increasing disparity between rich and poor. Learning from other traders and members of caravans about other nations, Amos was an informed citizen.
So the Book of Amos is set in the middle of the eighth century B.C. when both Israel and Judah were enjoying great freedom and prosperity. But as often happens in times of prosperity, some of the people of Israel and Judah prospered at the expense of others. Amos thus thundered that the two nations were both guilty of neglecting God’s commands. In particular, they had neglected God’s instructions to care for the poor and vulnerable. Therefore, Amos addresses the sins of the two nations by declaring that God will bring disaster on both Israel and Judah.
Amos 2:4, 5
According to scholars, the kind of numbering pattern that appears in Amos 2:4, 5 is most often found in the Wisdom teachings of the Old Testament. The purpose of the formula is to organize a number of items into a list for consideration (see Proverbs 6:16-19). Sometimes the focus is on the final item on the list, as in the case of Amos here. Amos assumes a list of offenses but only names the final (fourth) one.
The accusation against Israel is structured much like the accusation against Judah. The crime Amos describes, however, is definitely more specific. He thunders against Israel because of the way they mistreat the poor and powerless in their midst. Amos lists four individual offenses, but each one seems to point to the same theme of mistreating the poor.
In these verses, Amos describes at least three particular crimes against the poor. First, the selling of the righteous (v.6) reflects slavery. We are told that in the ancient Near East people often became slaves because they owed debt. As horrible as that is, Amos 2:6 implies that some Israelites were enslaving their fellow Israelites even though they did not owe debt.
Scholars suggest that the phrase, “for a pair of sandals,” more than likely refers to the way property was transferred, namely by passing a sandal from one person to another (Ruth 4:7). At this point, Amos seems to be describing the sale of people as slaves in exchange for land.
Second, verse 7 says, “father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.” This verse refers to the mistreatment of a female slave. She may be taken as a wife by one man in the household, but father and son cannot both claim her as sexual partner. Here, Amos is indicting the Israelites for breaking this tradition that was meant to protect powerless women when families were poor.
The third crime against the poor can be seen in Amos’s statement in verse 8 that the Israelites lay down “on garments taken in pledge.” This refers to a violation of laws against taking a poor person’s cloak as collateral for a loan (see Exodus 22:26). The outer garment could be taken “in pledge” but it had to be returned before sundown since it was the person’s only cover at night. Amos states that the Israelites not only break this provision on a regular basis, but they also gloat over these garments at religious festivals.
Summary Amos 2:9-16
Israel’s indictment seems even more shocking in light of God’s goodness to them. God’s defeat of the “Amorites” occurred just after God led the Israelites out of Egypt, which was the greatest sign of God’s grace. In addition, Israel had no excuse for not recognizing God’s acts for them since God appointed some of them as Nazirites and prophets (Amos 1:11). The task of such persons was to remember and proclaim the deeds of God to God’s people so they would not forget what God had done for them.
But Amos charged the Israelites with thwarting the commitment of the Nazirites (“you made them to drink wine”). In similar fashion, Amos accused the Israelites of shutting up the prophets so they could not declare God’s truth, including the judgment that Israel was sinful.
The chapter concludes with Amos declaring judgment. Scholars state that Amos 2:13 gives the basic message in a metaphor. Just as a cart gets overloaded with grain and cannot bear the weight, so also Israel will not be able to bear the weight of God’s judgment. Verses 14-16 then list how the judgment will express itself. Military defeat will be the sign that God has brought judgment on God’s people.
What Amos Points Out
1. Amos’s indictment of Judah centers on the failure to keep the “law of the Lord.” Scholars make clear that two things need to be noticed here. First, the English word “law” translates the Hebrew word “Torah” which really means instruction. Thus, the word refers to the whole of scripture as well as other sources of God’s wisdom. The people of Judah had rejected their own story of God’s salvation. They had refused to recognize that they were beneficiaries of God’s grace, which God had shown them in their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
Second, one of the most central parts of the law is the command to care for the poor and treat them justly. When Amos used the term “statutes” he was referring to Moses’ pronouncements to God’s people to do justice to the vulnerable members of society. The poor have a special place in God's economy. Therefore, God’s people are to care for the poor and the vulnerable.
In essence, Amos is charging Judah and Israel with crimes that were essentially equal in severity to the crimes of Israel’s enemies in Amos 1:3-2:3. Now Amos does not say the Israelites killed or tortured anybody, though 2:7 could be understood that way. But Amos does say that the Israelites took advantage of the system for their own advantage and gain. The message is unmistakably clear: God considers the mistreatment of the poor just as serious as any crime against humanity.
3. Because we believe in a God who is loving, Amos’s pronouncement of judgment on Judah and Israel may be hard for us to appropriate. However, we may miss the point here if we fail to grasp that the essential nature of God’s judgment is part of God's love. God’s judgment is intended in part to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It presents a strong case that God is on the side of the poor and vulnerable and acts against anyone who abuses them.
Jesus makes a similar statement in his prayer when he prays, “Your kingdom come.” God’s kingdom will bring equity for the victims who have been abused by the powers of this world.
Another instructive thought is that God’s judgment is directed toward us like the discipline of a loving parent. What would a child’s relationship with his/her parents be like if there were never any consequences for wrong actions? In all probability, there would be no real character development and no proper concern for others. But like a good parent, Amos’s last word for Judah and Israel is not destruction but restoration (Amos 9:11-15).
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.