God is not fooled (June 14, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Amos 5:14-15, 18-27

It is not unusual for people of faith, especially those who believe they are God’s chosen people, to rest assured that God’s grace belongs to them no matter what. They may sometimes believe that they are entitled to God’s favor because they are so pious, faithful and spiritual.

The eighth century prophet Amos encountered people like that in ancient Israel. They displayed their piety by worshipping at shrines in Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba. At the same time, however, they were oppressing the innocent and taking bribes to deprive the poor of justice (Amos 5:11-12). Amos clearly condemns such hypocritical behavior in no uncertain terms.

Amos 5:14-15: No justice… no Yahweh
Amos reduces one of the fundamental beliefs of Israel — that God was with them — into a conditional possibility. “Seek good, not evil,” Amos cries out, “Hate evil, love good.” These imperatives are followed by conditional verbs (unfortunately obscured by the NRSV translation) that should be translated “…then the Lord… may be with you” and “perhaps Yahweh may be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Yahweh’s presence is not guaranteed, but contingent upon the restoration of justice and righteousness in Israelite society.

Amos 5:18-20: The surprising day of the Lord
The day of the Lord” is a biblical phrase found only in the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well as in some of the so-called minor prophets.

Although its origin and meaning are contested among interpreters, it probably refers to the Israelite belief that Yahweh would intervene powerfully on their behalf just as Yahweh had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and had given them the land of Canaan. Israel looked forward to the day of the Lord with optimism expecting a decisive intervention when God would defeat their enemies. Their hopes were celebrated with festal gatherings and a full agenda of religious activities.

Amos has a completely different view of the day of the Lord. God revealed to Amos that the day of the Lord will be a day of doom and disaster for Israel. It will be like escaping from a lion only to be met by a bear, or relaxing against a wall only to be bitten by a snake. Israel’s pious expectations were about to be unexpectedly and completely dashed.

Amos 5:21-24: God hates insincere religion Amos now quotes Yahweh’s words addressed to Israel. He could not have chosen a more powerful series of verbs to describe God’s complete repudiation of Israel’s insincere worship. Today’s New International Version conveys this very well by translating them as follows: “I hate, I despise… I cannot stand… I will not accept… I will have no regard… away with the noise of your songs… I will not listen.” Using the language of an oath, Yahweh swears to reject the insincere worship of Israel. God completely rejects Israel’s festivals, their solemn assemblies, their offering of sacrifices and their singing and instrumental music.

In verse 24 Amos describes what God expects: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Using a Hebrew wordplay on the name of Gilgal, Amos describes the radical change in Israelite society that God desires as an unending stream of justice and righteousness.

The Hebrew word for justice describes the legal process in a court of law that decides right and wrong (Deuteronomy 25:1). Justice is the establishment of the truth through the legal system. A flawed legal system that does not protect the innocent will never produce justice. When justice is established, the result is righteousness. Without justice and righteousness, Israel’s worship was empty and meaningless.

Amos 5:25-27: Exile for sinful Israel
Amos concludes this section of his prophetic condemnation of Israel’s insincere worship with a question that goes back to their desert wandering after God brought them out of Egypt: Did Israel offer sacrifices then? The question assumes a negative answer and seems to contradict accounts of Israel’s wilderness wanderings in Exodus, when sacrifices were offered.

The next verse is extremely difficult to interpret. “Sakkuth” and “Kaiwan” have been traditionally identified as Babylonian deities. Another possible interpretation is that these terms refer to cultic objects involved in religious processions. In any case, Amos condemns Israel’s false worship. God’s judgment is clear: “I will take you into exile beyond Damascus.”

For discussion:
During World War II Nazi propagandists claimed that God was with the German nation. Are Christians who consider themselves to be God’s chosen people in danger of taking God’s grace for granted? In the light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Florida and New York City, do you think our system of law enforcement and our courts provide justice for all?