By Michael Barram
In this chapter we consider what a few biblical prophets had to say about matters of economic justice. Figures such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah are known for critiquing Israelite unfaithfulness to God, defending the powerless and speaking truth to power. There is a wealth of material from the prophets concerning economic justice in the Bible, much of it well known and amply surveyed by others. Our discussion will be brief and illustrative, focusing on some short passages in three of the classic eighth-century BCE prophets—Amos, Isaiah and Micah. Beyond our treatment of these three, I encourage readers to continue exploring how other biblical prophets indicted God’s people, often with devastatingly powerful rhetoric, when the latter were treating the poor and marginalized unjustly.
Despite what many contemporary readers assume, biblical prophecy was not primarily about foretelling the future. Prophets were, first and foremost, spokespersons for God, whether or not their messages had anything to do with the future. The biblical books bearing their names suggest that Amos, Isaiah, and Micah talked a lot about economic and social justice, often announcing judgment on current injustice.
Amos, Isaiah and Micah spoke into a grave geopolitical situation in eighth-century Israel. Assyria, a powerful, militaristic empire, was threatening at the nation’s doorstep, and these prophets warned the people, in various ways and contexts, to wake up and change their behavior. Otherwise, the Assyrians would carry out God’s judgment on their conduct. First, some context: By this time the once unified nation of “Israel” (from 1020 to 922 BCE, under Saul, David and Solomon) had actually split into two separate entities. In 922 BCE, Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s military leaders, revolted against Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Jeroboam ended up consolidating the northern part of the land and becoming king of what became known as the nation of Israel. The southern part of the original nation, ruled initially by Rehoboam, was now called Judah. The two nations were never unified again, and the Bible goes on to detail a long series of kings ruling each country, following Jeroboam and Rehoboam, respectively.
As two separate nations, Israel and Judah existed next to each other, often as political rivals, and eventually were caught up in a much larger geopolitical conflict between the superpowers of Egypt (to the southwest) and Assyria (to the northeast). As the Egyptians and Assyrians waged repeated struggles for supremacy, the tiny nations of Israel and Judah—geographically located directly between the two imperial powers on major trade and military routes—often bore the brunt of the larger empires’ animosities. They would sometimes try to enter into strategic alliances with one of those larger empires, but the expansionist designs of Egypt and Assyria (and, during a later period, the Babylonian Empire) made them ongoing threats to the security of Israel and Judah. Eventually, in 722 BCE, the Assyrians succeeded in completely wiping Israel off the map. Only Judah remained, though it would be eventually destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
Amos was from the small town of Tekoa, located near Jerusalem, within the southern nation of Judah, when his prophetic career began. Around 760 BCE, God sent Amos north to Israel to tell the people that their societal injustice would bring harsh punishment in the form of an Assyrian invasion if they did not change their ways.
The northern economy was booming in the middle of the eighth century BCE, and things were going well in Israel—at least for the wealthy. In today’s terms, the Israelite stock market was in great shape, major building projects were underway and the GDP was at an all-time high. Into this context, Amos, a foreigner from the south, arrived to rain on Israel’s parade. Amos was very critical of the way the Israelite elites were living, especially in an economic sense. But he faced a difficult task: political, religious and economic elites in Israel were not particularly interested in listening to a naysayer, even one claiming to speak for God.
Let’s first look at Amos 3:1–2, where the prophet slams Israel for mistreating the poor and for forgetting its fundamental identity. Speaking judgment in the name of Yahweh, Amos rooted his critique of Israel in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Even though God had liberated the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, social elites in Amos’s day were effectively reenacting Pharaoh’s injustices. Israel’s God had been revealed as a liberator, but God’s people had become oppressors. Given that covenant faithfulness required good relationships with both God and with one another, Israel was actively violating its covenant with God. Moreover, since they were God’s special, chosen people, uniquely known by God, they were “therefore” responsible for their behavior and would be punished. In other words, being the chosen people did not give them a free pass, but instead, a special responsibility to act appropriately.
What were the Israelites doing that made Amos so upset? Take a look at the shocking description in Amos 2:6–8. The phrase “for three transgressions of Israel, and for four” is a Hebrew idiom that highlights the extreme unfaithfulness of God’s people, as if Amos were saying, “How sinful have you been? Let me count the ways!” Their guilt is not restricted to individual behavior. Indeed, Amos addresses “Israel” and its national, societal sinfulness. According to Amos, the people “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (v. 6), implying that they are buying human beings, probably for labor or sexual exploitation, and they value the poor no more than they would a pair of cheap footwear—an apparent reference to debt slavery, a form of exploitation that Amos rejects, even if it may have been technically legal.
Amos’s language is visceral: People “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (v. 7). In other words, the Israelites are brutalizing the most vulnerable, including, we can assume, the widows, orphans, and resident aliens. Israel has completely forgotten what kind of people they are to be according to the covenantal codes in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy; by implication they have effectively forgotten who God is and what God cares about.
Notice the multiple levels of sin Amos describes: “Father and son go in to the same girl” (using the same prostitute, perhaps together), “so that my holy name is profaned” (instead of being glorified and honored by covenantally faithful behavior). Moreover, “they lay themselves down beside every altar” (participating in idolatrous worship not devoted to Yahweh, perhaps in a sexual context) “on garments taken in pledge” (on clothing taking from the poor as pledges for loans) and “in the house of their God” (even when ostensibly worshiping Yahweh) “they drink wine bought with fines they imposed” (getting drunk with wine they purchased through taxation and other fees levied on the poor). In short, Amos describes a pattern of idolatrous, sex-addled exploitation. What images might Amos use to describe our contemporary context?
The material in Amos 5:10–13 is similarly harsh and challenging. According to the prophet, the people hated to be scolded for the injustices in their society. To “hate the one who reproves in the gate” was to resent communal elders who sat at the town gate and ruled on local disputes, many of which would have been economic in nature. They detested people who spoke “the truth” about injustice. The economic conduct of powerful Israelites was reprehensible to the prophet: The powerful “trample[d] on the poor,” imposing burdensome taxes (on grain, for example) on them. Elites used the proceeds of their unjust economic conduct to build lavish homes (“of hewn stone”). But according to Amos, those homes and the vineyards of the very rich would end up vacant (following an Assyrian invasion).
Amos reminds the Israelites that he—and ultimately, God—is aware of the extent and gravity of the sins of those “who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate” (v. 12). The litany of crimes against the weak and marginalized closely echoes the behaviors prohibited by the various covenantal laws we explored in the preceding chapter. Amos’s assertion that “it is an evil time” during which “the prudent will keep silent” (v. 13) is not an attempt to encourage passivity or quietism in the face of injustice, as if evil were best handled by people sticking their heads in the sand. Instead, Amos advises thoughtful, faithful people not to participate in any form of social rhetoric implying that “all is well” when it is not. To respond appropriately to “evil,” the Israelites would have to change their ways, as Amos demands in 5:14–15.
Amos implores the people of Israel to “seek good and not evil,” for their own survival and in order that Yahweh may be present in their midst, as they claim. The search for “good” will enable them “to live”; they must actively pursue “good” by moving in a direction opposite to the one they are currently heading in. The last clause of verse 14 is especially striking: according to Amos, at least some of the (elite) Israelites assume incorrectly that God is with them. But God will actually be with them only when they “seek good and not evil.” In other words, though people may say that God is with them, such statements amount to nothing more than human rhetoric and have no bearing on God’s actual whereabouts. What might Amos’s reaction be to some of our contemporary rhetoric? We often invoke God’s blessing for ourselves (e.g., “God Bless America”), even as we participate actively in an economic system that is, like the one in eighth-century Israel, tough on the poor.
Amos continues in verse 15, exhorting the Israelites to “hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” Most of us are taught not to hate anyone or anything. But here, Amos is explicitly calling for hatred because it is an appropriate response to the evil of economic injustice. In light of what Amos says, we should ask ourselves whether contemporary North American Christians express adequate hatred for economic injustice. In what ways and to what extent might Christians be colluding too readily with the kinds of evil that Amos has in mind? Is our own context really that different from the one in Israel?
Amos 5:18–20 also provides some striking images, as Amos declares a “woe” upon those who “desire the day of the Lord!” “Woes” are statements of prophetic judgment—the opposite of blessings—and the prophet’s language drips with sarcasm: “Why are you waiting for the day when God will vindicate you against your enemies? The day of Yahweh will be a day of judgment against you because of your injustice. You will be shocked to find God acting against you, not for you!” God’s anticipated intervention will be something dramatically different from what the Israelites expect. It is worth considering what resonance Amos’s message might have today. Are we opposing God through our economic conduct and, if so, might we find ourselves surprised by God’s reaction? As we eagerly anticipate God’s judgment on our enemies, will we be shocked to find God opposing us as a consequence of our injustice toward the poor and marginalized?
Finally, let’s consider Amos 5:21–24, where Amos condemns shallow and insincere religious practices in Israel that fail to foster a just society. God is sick of Israel’s worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Nor will God “accept” or even “look upon” their sacrifices. It is true, of course, that God expected worship involving sacrifice. So, this is not a blanket rejection of the divinely instituted sacrificial system per se. God is not opposed to sacrifices and worship, but God “hates” that Israel is going through the religious motions of required ritual practice while its everyday economic behavior fails to reflect the God they claim to worship. God utterly rejects Israel’s hypocritical music and rituals: in a community of rank injustice, worship songs are nothing but noise. Amos demands that the Israelites truly enact what God desires: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (v. 24).
There was scant rainfall in Israel during most of the year; water was often scarce, and drought was common. When meager rains eventually fell on the parched landscape, it could be difficult for the water to penetrate into the ground. Fast-running rainwater would create vigorous, temporary rivers that carved large gullies and crevices (called wadis) into the ground. Amos probably has these wadis in mind when he indicates (v. 24) that justice must be a powerful force in Israel, like the waters that rush down the parched gullies. But unlike the wadis, which are dry and deserted most of the year, Amos does not merely want occasional just behavior in Israel; rather, he wants righteous conduct to flow all the time—like an “everflowing stream.” In other words, justice and righteousness are not to be merely seasonal, when, for example, the people are ostensibly worshiping God or having some kind of religious “festival.” Rather, justice and righteousness must always flow, like a river that never stops moving. It is striking that it was in this sense that Martin Luther King Jr., seeking racial and economic justice that would be constant and enduring, famously quoted verse 24.
I conclude our brief treatment of Amos with two final observations. First, Amos repeatedly describes how livid God gets in the face of economic injustice. Whatever we may want to say about capitalism or any other economic system, Christians should take Amos’s message seriously: If the poor are being mistreated, God is angry. Might God actually be angry with us and, if so, what might we need to do about it? Second, Amos reminds his audience what it looks like to remain faithful to God in a covenantal relationship, making it clear that authentic worship and religion must be paired with just economic behavior. Our economic conduct, and how it affects the poor and marginalized, is and will always be a matter of Christian faithfulness, theologically speaking. Have we effectively divorced our orthodox religious claims from our economic practices? To what extent might God be tired of our worship, of our religious rituals, given the ways the poor and marginalized are affected by our economic priorities and choices? Such questions point to the heart of the gospel, both for Amos and, as we shall see elsewhere in the Bible, for Jesus as well.
Excerpted from Missional Economics, by Michael Barram. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Barram. Used by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Company. Eerdmans.com.