Good morning. I am special correspondent Shinon Byorus for the Mesopotamian News Network, coming to you live from Bethel in Israel, where controversy has been stirring for months around the inflammatory rhetoric from the prophet Amos, who appeared some time ago from Judea with a very harsh message of divine condemnation. King Jeroboam of Israel has commanded that the prophet Amos be labeled persona non grata and deported back to Judah. Azariah, the priest of the temple in Bethel, has been handed the unenviable task of informing Amos of the king’s decree and of managing the uproar that is sure to ensue.
Let me give you some background.
When he first showed up Amos was the best street theater in town. From Samaria to Jezreel, from Shechem to Bethel, people flocked to hear him harangue the crowds. First he took on Aram. They had been Israel’s worst enemy for generations. So when they heard that the king of Aram would be killed and their capital Damascus destroyed, the Israelites were simply delighted.
And then Amos took on the Philistines, whom as you know had been fighting the Hebrews since Saul’s time and before, and even after David killed Goliath they continued raiding across the borders. So of course the Israelites loved hearing about the death and destruction God was going to rain upon them. The Sidonians came next. Why they were third rather than 2nd I don’t know, since they were a bigger threat than the Philistines, but it was still good news. And so was his prophecy against the Ammonites, who were Israelites’ nearest neighbor to the east. If all their neighbors were going to be destroyed, then Israel was going to be top dog in the whole region! Amos got onto Edom and Moab next, but they were a bigger threat to the southern kingdom of Judah than to Israel, and besides, it was kind of convenient having them keep the Judeans to busy to bother Israel.
But Amos didn’t stop there. it turned out that God was mad at Judah, too. The things God was mad about, according to Amos, were military atrocities. Israel’s neighbors and enemies - actually, they were pretty much the same thing - had destroyed towns and villages, sold people into slavery, and slaughtered women and children. Judah hadn’t done that, but they had neglected their religious duties.
So Israel felt pretty virtuous and secure. Of course they hadn’t committed
atrocities! Except of course once in a while in self-defense. And religion had never been more popular! The fact that God was pleased with them was confirmed by the fact that King Jeroboam had reconquered all the territories Israel had lost under previous kings, the merchants were prospering as never before in their history, the tax revenues flowed into the kings coffers like water and the temples in Dan and Bethel were simply overflowing with the peoples’ offerings.
Well, that’s how it all began. Even the king and his courtiers would come out to listen and applaud and generally enjoy the show.
Why did things change? What happened to make the Israelites turn against this once popular and influential man?
The answer turns out to be quite simple - even obvious. After Amos had pretty much guaranteed a huge audience every time he appeared, by bashing Israel’s rivals, he suddenly changed his message. From condemning Aram and Amon and so on he turned his attention - and his tongue - to Israel itself. He accused them of oppressing the poor and cheating in their business dealings. He accused them of various kinds of immorality, from sexual misconduct to getting drunk on the communion wine. “Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,” he cried, “and bring righteousness to the ground! . . . You hate the one who reproves in the gate, and abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. [Amos 5:7-12]
He didn’t stop with the men, either. The Israelite women were apparently as guilty as their menfolk, underpaying their servants and nagging their husbands to buy them ever more expensive luxuries. “Woe be to you,” said Amos to the pampered wives of the city’s elite: “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts! . . . Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! [Amos 6:1-6]
And then Amos pulled the last foundation of their security out from under them. He told them what God thought of their claims of religiosity: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies,” says the Lord. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. . .“ [Amos 5:21 -25]
It seemed that none of the lip service they had been paying to God made any difference at all. None of the worship, none of the offerings, none of the empty pieties mouthed on feast days, none of the oaths they swore with their fingers crossed behind their backs. They could brush off the other accusations as sour grapes, jealousy at Israel’s prosperity and power, but this! This could not be tolerated.
From what we have been told by our religion correspondent, it sounded as if Israel’s God saw ruining peoples’ lives as the equivalent to killing them, and cheating them into starvation just the same as selling them into slavery. And giving at the temple didn’t make up for stealing in the marketplace. The crowds began to melt away. This is not what they wanted to hear.
Correspondents for the Mesopotamian News Network have obtained exclusive interviews with people at various levels in Israel’s society.
King Jeroboam was not available tor comment.
We spoke first with Hiram ben Abibaal, one of Samaria’s most successful merchants: “Lord Hiram, what do you think of the new message the Prophet
Amos has been proclaiming?”
“He’s a foreigner, an outside agitator . It’s clear to any right-thinking person that he’s a fear-monger from Judah, sent by their king to stir up trouble and to get some of our profits for themselves. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, anyway. Everyone knows that Amos isn’t a real prophet, he’s just a shepherd from Tekoa. Talk to any of our prophets, the real ones, the ones recognized and authorized by the proper authorities. How dare he come up here and try to tell us how to run our country!”
“But, Lord Hiram, what about the substance of Amos’ remarks? Is it true, as he is saying, that the merchants and markets don’t use honest measures, that they mix chalk dust with the flour they sell, and water with the wine? And how about the exorbitant interest rates that force the small farmers and landowners into foreclosure, selling off lands that have been in the same family for generations?”
“What are you, some kind of radical? The rules for keeping land in the same clan have been obsolete for years. And you can’t hold honest businessmen responsible for bad decisions made by people who haven’t kept up with the times, who think they can go on doing business the same way they did a hundred years ago. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a shipment of carved ivory for my wife to examine - she’s remodeling the courtyards.”
“Lord Hiram, what about the weights and measures, and the – “
Well, that’s all Lord Hiram chose to say about Amos’ accusations. Let’s hear
from Joab and Tirzah, a couple who have been unloading wagons for the fig-
sellers in the market. We asked them to meet us here at the gate when they were finished with their days’ work.
“Thank you for agreeing to talk with us. We’ve spoken to one of Samaria’s leading merchants, and now we’d like to get your perspective on the prophet Amos’ charges. Do you think that Israel is enjoying a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity, or does it look different from where you stand?”
“You’re not going to quote us, are you? At least not by name? We can’t afford to get a reputation as trouble-makers, we’ve got three small children back with their grandmother and the two teens are picking up a few shekels running errands. Now, what was it you wanted to know? (Pause) We’ve only been here about 5 weeks, so I can’t say how long things have been like this. Perhaps city life is always this way, with people fighting each over unskilled jobs, willing to work for less and less as long they can keep their children fed. It’s not what we’re used to, that’s for sure. But with the rain the way it’s been the last couple of years, we haven’t made enough to pay the moneylenders, and so they took over the farm just after we had sowed the spring barley crop. It’s ironic that this is the first good crop in 4 years, and we won’t get the benefit.
“We’re okay for now, though. Figs have a longer season than most, and we may be able to stay on longer than the workers in dates and olives do. It’s hard to find a place to sleep at night; we’re lucky, in a way, that Tirzah’s mother is too crippled to work, she keeps our corner at the back of the market from being taken over while we work. (Pause) I’m not sure what we’ll do when winter comes. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Even the figs will be out of season eventually, the fruit market shuts down as soon as it’s really cold. And you have to know someone to get work with the cloth and leather merchants. We’ll probably have to sell one of the boys when winter comes. –Now Tirzah, you know we’ve discussed it and there isn’t any choice! I’d sooner sell myself than have you go to the house of pleasure, and Micah is a good, strong boy, he may fetch enough to keep us until spring. He’s a good worker, too, he’ll have the chance to work up to a position of trust and responsibility, which is more than we can offer him!”
“Thank you, Joab. You have given us a good look at the underside of city life.”
We went south after that, stopping at Tirzah and Shechem, and found much the same sort of response. The merchants were doing well, and the working class were thin, and ragged, and wary.
Once we got to Bethel, just north of the border into Judah, it didn’t take us long to find Amos. It was his habit, we had been told, to station himself either at the city gate or the town square, and then simply preach until the local guards - temple or king’s men - chased him away. So we joined the crowd and waited for a breathing space, but as there didn’t seem to be one, and we certainly wanted to talk to him before Azariah’s men showed up for the planned deportation, we finally went straight up to him and asked for amoment of his time.
“What should we call you? “ was our first question, not being interested in insulting a holy man right at the top of the interview. “Just ‘Amos’? That seems a little unpretentious for someone who’s been turning an entire country on its head. Oh, I see - God is the one who deserves honors, not his servants. Is that why you don’t wear expensive robes like the priest Azariah? I’d think that shabby garments might give people the idea that God doesn’t provide very well for his spokesmen. (Pause) It’s a reminder that God isn’t impressed with money or power - that he’s the one who gives out money and power, and he can take it away whenever he wants. That makes a certain amount of sense - but if that is so, why are the people to whom he has given all this stuff breaking his laws? At least, that’s what I understand your message to be. If your God cares about justice and fair dealing, why does he give prosperity and power to those who don’t deserve it? (Pause) God doesn’t wait for people to deserve it before he blesses them? That seems somewhat upside down. (Pause) What’s that? The greatest blessing is the law?
. . . Amos, is that what you meant by the plumb line, the law is the standard by which they are going to be measured? When they are defeated in the next invasion - which they will be because God has withdrawn his protection - they will be treated as they have treated others, because there will be no more law. As they have treated the poor women of Israel, forcing them to prostitute themselves, their wives and daughters will suffer the same. If they have driven men into poverty and slavery, so they too will become enslaved. . . . This is what you want to leave our readers with? OK, let me make sure I get it down right. “In every way
that you have failed to meet God’s standards, your deeds will be turned back upon you. You will eat your own evil for dinner.”
Amos stared at us with those fierce eyes, as if to make sure that we had understood. Then he turned, stood before the crowd again, and began to speak.
Our final interview was with the priest Azariah, who was also at Bethel. Our timing was fortunate; Azariah had just met with King Jeroboam’s couriers, bearing the orders to have Amos flogged and deported. They came as no
surprise, of course, as our sources had already told us that Azariah himself had
asked Jeroboam to issue a special decree silencing Amos.
“Your Excellency, may we have a moment of your time? (Pause) Thank you. What do you think of the prophet Amos? (Pause) Sir - sir - I understand that he’s said some very harsh things about the temples and priests of Israel, we’d just like to have you tell us why you can’t just dismiss his words as the rantings of a discredited lunatic. Doesn’t having the temple guard escort him back across the border lend credence to his accusations? Doesn’t it make him appear more important than you want him to? (Pause) Ah - the poor and uneducated and gullible might take him seriously. I see. (Pause) And what would happen if they did take him seriously? I see. . . Temple revenues would drop off. . . Well, if the big landowners started allowing to the hungry and homeless to glean the edges of the fields and orchards as the Torah commands, wouldn’t that mean less work for your priests to do? I mean, don’t you share the grain and meat left over from the sacrifices with the poor? (Pause) I see.
“On another note, Excellency, who is it that monitors the weights and measures used by the merchants? Are your servants or the king’s in charge? (Pause)
The king’s. Hmm. When you hear rumors that the king’s servants are in league with the merchants to cheat the poor, do you ever go and investigate? Why not? Isn’t it part of your religious duty to enforce the law? One of our researchers showed me a passage from your law that says, “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a . . . For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the LORD your God.” [Dt 25:13-16] . . . I’m sorry, what did you say? It would be an insult to the king to imply that his officials are dishonest? I see, that’s why Amos is being thrown out of the country, because he’s insulted the king. But surely the king wouldn’t blame you - Oh, I see. It’s not the king you’re worried about, it’s the people. If they get the idea that God really is going to destroy Samaria there might be strikes or riots - Wait, your Excellency, what if it’s true? What if Amos is right? – Sir, Excellency, just a few more questions - “
This is Hiram ben Abibaal from the Mediterranean News Network. Just one final note before signing off: Even if Amos is right, and God is planning on destroying Israel, no one is going to do anything about it. At least, no one with any power to change things. The next prophet who tries to warn them will get exactly the same treatment that Amos got. I’m keeping an open mind, myself - but just in case, I think I’ll move my family to Cairo and commute.