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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Words and Woes

The three “words” of Amos are really a string of shorter oracles, mainly concerned with the sins of the Israelites. In 3, 3–8 , however, he lays out some of his theological presuppositions. He assumes that there is an order in nature and things do not happen by chance (“Does a lion roar … when it has no prey?”). This order is the work of God. Amos is a radical monotheist, not only in the sense that he ignores other gods but that he regards everything that happens as the work of the Lord. Religious people always credit God with the good things that happen. Amos goes further: “If evil befalls a city, has not the Lord caused it?” God is responsible for the bad as well as the good. (Remember the Israelite religion at this time had no devil on whom evil could be blamed.) The acts of God in history, then, are not confined to special events like the Exodus, but embrace everything that actually happens. This conviction lays the foundation for a thoroughgoing realism in his view of international politics. If Assyria is more powerful than Israel, this is not by chance but is the will of God. Jeremiah took a similar view of the power of Babylon when it destroyed Jerusalem.

Amos directs many of his oracles against the cult at Bethel. When people go to make offerings to atone for sin at Bethel, Amos says that they “come to Bethel and sin” ( 4, 4 ). There is a pun in the Hebrew because of the similarity of the terms for “sin‐offering” and “sin,” and Amos uses the word play to equate the two. His sharpest critique of the cult, however, is delivered in the famous “Woe” against those who yearn for the Day of the Lord ( 5, 18–25 ). The Day of the Lord was a major festival day, most probably the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, a harvest festival in the fall. It was an occasion for celebrating the victory of the God of Israel and the defeat of his enemies. Amos, characteristically, tells the people that it will be the opposite of what they expect. The real Day of the Lord, when God appears before the people, will be a day of judgment. Amos was the first prophet to speak of the Day of the Lord as a day of judgment on Israel, and thereby he introduced one of the major themes of the prophetic literature.

Amos goes on to issue a broadside against all the festivals of Israel. He implies that Israel survived for the forty years in the desert without offering sacrifices ( 5, 25 ). His point is not that all ritual is necessarily bad, but that it is not of the essence of religion. For Amos, the essence of religion is social justice. If ritual furthers justice, well and good, but too often it does not. In the prophet's view, the Israelite cult only made the upper classes complacent. They identified themselves as “Israel” and felt that they were God's chosen people. Their cultic celebrations reminded them of the Exodus and the great things God had done for them, and reassured them that God would deliver them from danger again. They need not, then, be too concerned about the plight of the poor. When the festival was over, they could go back to cheating in the marketplace ( 8, 5 ). Amos insisted that all this was self‐delusion. God would not overlook the injustice of the society because of the sound of the harps, and the Assyrians would rudely shatter the naive belief that God would protect Israel no matter what.

The final “Woe” in chapter 6 paints a vivid picture of “the complacent in Zion [and] the overconfident on the mount of Samaria,” the upper classes of both kingdoms of Israel. These were the people who sold the poor into slavery while they lived in luxury themselves. Amos announces with evident anticipation that these would be the first to go into exile. This was not mere wish fulfillment on the prophet's part. He knew the practice of the Assyrians, which was to take the upper classes into exile so that there would be no one left to lead a revolt. In his view, it was a fate that they richly deserved.

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