The first section of Amos startles us. The editorial heading prepared us to hear a word from Yahweh to Israel. Instead, the first six of eight proverbial sayings are addressed to regional nations. How does a Yahwehist prophet speak to the nations, on what basis, and about what? To be sure, he does finally get to Israel (2:6-16) after he also addresses Judah (2:4-5). Nevertheless, his starting point is surprising.
But this is not all that startles us. Amos does not address the imperial powers at all. There is no mention of Assyria or Egypt. They are not even on his radar. Instead he addresses the nations that are contiguous with Israel and Judah–six regional powers: Damascus (Aram), Gaza (Philistines), Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab. Amos focuses on Judah and Israel’s immediate neighbors, the people with whom they would have daily interaction.
The nations addressed are: Damascus (NE of Israel), Gaza (SW of Judah), Tyre (NW of Israel), Edom (SE of Judah), Ammon (E of Israel) and Moab (E of Judah). His list goes back and forth between Israel and Judah, and north-south/east-west with its directions. It is difficult to discern an order here but some have suggested that it is like a tightening circle. Amos is strangling Israel and Judah with a rope. And Israel is the last in the list to whom Amos addresses the message of the book. Israel is not alone–others are accountable as well. But Israel is Amos’s focus.
This opening section should give us pause. Amos does not address the nations as covenant people. There is no appeal to the Torah or to divine expectations from some kind of “special revelation.” Nevertheless, his words are stern, unyielding, and determinative. Amos thinks he is in a position to assess the morality of the nations.
On what basis does Amos do this? It is not the Torah per se. Rather, it is because Yahweh is the God of all nations, not just Israel and Judah. God has invested in humanity as a whole. God has expectations and designs for humanity scattered among the nations.
What is clear, however, is that the nations have pursued agendas and practices that are not consistent with God’s design for humanity . In particular, they have embraced torture, indiscriminate killing, and slavery. They have committed crimes against humanity.
There is something, Amos seems to assume, within the human being or something about their existence within the creation that demands humane treatment, encourages mercy and condemns war crimes. There is something about humanity itself which condemns inhumanity.
Curiously, he does not mention idolatry, at least overtly. He is focused on the war footing and abusive relationships among the nations rather than their cultic religions. This is sufficient for their condemnation no matter what else is involved.
Indeed, Amos knows that the nations are filled with other transgressions. He begins every oracle with a proverb: “For three transgressions of X, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” Proverbially, he knows there are y four transgressions which means he knows they are numerous. But Amos only names one in each case, and the one he names is a war crime of some sort; they are about human inhumanity to other humans.
Each of the nations were created out of humanity. God empowered these nations, set their boundaries, and raised up their rulers. God intended each of these human communities to live out the image in which they were created. But they did not. Instead, the nations favored their own security, power, and wealth, and they pursued those interests through violent and inhuman means.
God still addresses the nations through Amos. The divine intent and the principles embedded in our function as the images of God still remain. Nations are called to live out that divine intent and embody those principles. And nations, even the United States of America, are still judged by these principles.
The message of Amos is still relevant, and Amos continues to address the nations. But nations continue their inhumanity, torture and indiscriminate killing; humans continue to enslave other humans. Consequently, as with Israel and Judah’s six neighbors, their judgment is certain.