Thursday, October 19, 2023

Amos, Gaza, and Israel

I'm in the middle of leading a bible study at my little church, as pastors generally do.  It's one that I'd prepared over the course of the summer, as I mapped out a semester's worth of teaching on what are called the "Minor Prophets."

This week, we began our two weeks journeying with the prophet Amos, one of my favorite of the minor prophets.  Amos was a hick, a redneck, the kind of dude who made his living in fields and hillsides, tending flocks and crops.  He was from a tiny little village in the middle of Judean nowhere, a place called Tekoa, a few hours walk from the sleepy town of Bethlehem.

His calls for justice sang out against the brokenness of his time, as through him the Creator of the Universe challenged the human tendency to trample the poor, for wealth to coalesce around power, and for human beings to automatically assume that they're righteous.

The collection of his sayings in the Bible dates back to roughly 760 BCE, nearly two thousand eight hundred years ago, almost three whole millennia in the past.  During that time, entire empires have risen, thrived for a thousand years, and fallen.  The distance between our present moment and the writing of Amos is roughly the half the span of all human written history.  

Which is why, this week, Amos punched more immediately than I'd expected, and far harder than it had this summer when I first planned the class.

The canonical book of Amos begins with a sequence of diatribes against the nations, as the God of Israel challenges all of  the peoples of the region for their abuses of power.  It's a taut rhetorical technique, as the prophet's voice begins with condemnations of the enemies of the Hebrew people, and then...having tricked his listeners into nodding along at the attack on their hated neighbors...spirals into a direct challenge to the nation of Israel itself, which was the stronger and more successful of the two Jewish kingdoms.

So this week, as I went back to refresh myself for the discussion on Sunday, I read this:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Gaza,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they carried into exile entire communities,
to hand them over to Edom.
So I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza,
and it shall devour its strongholds.
I will cut off the inhabitants from Ashdod
and the one who holds the scepter from Ashkelon;
I will turn my hand against Ekron,
and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,
says the Lord God. (Amos 1:6-8)

And then, precisely one short chapter later, I read this:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same young woman,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

Again, this text is nearly three thousand years old, one of the oldest of the prophetic witnesses.  Ten times the span of America's short life as a nation.  Before Islam.  Before Jesus.  Before Rome.  Before most of Western history.  Before the language I am writing in and you are reading in even existed.

Amos, speaking with God's voice, about Israel bearing down on the poor and needy.  About Gaza, carrying people away, and a fire tearing down its walls.  

Lord have mercy, we human beings have changed so little.