In the context of the crisis in the Lebanon, Amos 1-2 makes instructive reading.
Amos, remember, comes from Judah, but he goes to the northern kingdom of Israel to preach. He is a child of the covenant - and yet an outsider. A bit like an ex-pat. But that is by-the-way.
The shepherd from Tekoa confronts Amaziah, priest of the royal court of Bethel and spokesman for the vested interests of a nation that has been prospering economically and stabilising territorily in the ever-volatile Middle East. Amos begins with the classic rhetorical gambit captatio benevolentiae: he charms his audience and sucks them in with just the message they want to hear: God’s judgement on the surrounding nations. He casts a spell - Auden called it oratorical “black magic” - with words designed to encourage his listeners’ complacency and suspend their capacity for self-critique - sin, punishment, foreigner (cf. Bush’s use of words like “freedom”, “democracy” and “terrorist”). Indeed Amos indicts Israel’s neighbours on the charge of war crimes. The people lap it up.
Then - WHAM! Having secured his audience’s agreement and applause, Amos rounds on them by proclaiming God’s judgement on Israel itself - not for war crimes, but for domestic social injustices - corruption, poverty, debt. OT scholar Mark G. Brett observes: “the audience would have thought that Israel had a specially privileged position which indemnified her against divine judgment, and moreover, they would not have regarded internal social sins as at all comparable with the gravity of war crimes”. So they would have reacted with double astonishment and horror at such a treasonable and unbalanced rant.
The point that Amos drives home is that the God of Israel is pre-eminently the God of the nations. His relation to Israel is only one aspect of that total global sovereignty. The prophet is at his most caustic at Amos 9:7:
Are you not like Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel?, says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?
Listen to another OT scholar James L. Mays:
“In Amos’ sayings the salvation-history [of Israel] turns into a judgement history. . . Yahweh’s deeds in past and future were a Yahweh-history, and any understanding that made the nation an indispensible part of that history was a misunderstanding.
Israel, then was Yahweh’s people, but Yahweh was not Israel’s God - not at least in any of the current interpretations put on the possessive by the popular theology in Israel.”
The modern state of Israel maintains a theological status of privilege and a poltical status of victim. According to Amos these are big mistakes. And if ancient Israel can be indicted for “sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6), what about contemporary Israel with its blatant injustices against its Arab denizens? And if Edom incurred the divine anger because “he pursed his brother with the sword and cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11), how does it stand with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who not only does not apologise, but indeed justifies the slaughter of dozens of Lebanese civilians in an apartment block in Qana - yes, the same town that was once the scene of a joyous wedding (John 2) - because, after all, they had time to get away?
“In the meantime,” says the leader in today’s Independent, “the rest of the world is becoming increasingly exasperated with American and British obstructionism and with the use of weasel words expressing nothing stronger than ’sorrow’ or shock’ over Lebanon’s war dead -already 750 and climbing.”
One thing about Amos - “weasel words” were not in his vocabulary. Will today’s Amaziahs like Olmert - and Rice and Beckett - listen?