Israel is the climactic end to Amos’s address to the nations. Israel appears last in a list of eight nations. Israel is the focus. Moreover, Israel receives more attention. The rhetoric follows the same form–“Yahweh says” followed by proverbial statement, the reason for punishment, and the consequences–but the content is expanded. While the sins of the nations are described in two to four lines and only one sin is identified for the most part, the description of Israel’s sins take up ten lines with multiple sins.
This is Amos’s first salvo. He will return to them again and again throughout the rest of the book. Theses ten lines, however, are important as an opening specific address to Israel. They provide a horizon for reading the rest of Amos. These sins are highlighted because they illustrated the depths of Israel’s depravity. The list is itself emphatic but only the beginning.
Yahweh will not relent Israel’s punishment because….
1. They abuse the innocent and poor (6b-7a).
they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals;
they trample head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and they turn aside the way of the afflicted.
These four lines appear to hang together as the terms “needy,” “poor” and “afflicted” overlap and extend each other. To “sell,” “trample” and “turn aside” also overlap and extend. The general nature of the language is subject to a wide range of interpretations.
Some believe that, like Tyre (1:9) and Gaza(1:6), wealthy, powerful Israelites were selling the innocent poor into slavery and pressed them into the service of others. Others believe that the language is more about a perversion of the justice system. Innocent people were indentured for debts for the price of a bribe that amounted to the cost of a pair of sandals. It matters little which is correct or that perhaps both are correct. The text condemns “selling” the poor for one’s own economic benefit. This amounts to trampling on the poor and ignoring the afflicted or oppressed (literally, meek or humbled). Whether it it is done through a perversion of the justice system or whether it is a general characterization of social oppression, the text underscores God’s concern for the poor, needy and underprivileged.
2. They practice sexual immorality (7b).
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned.
There is no indication under what situation a man and his father might sexually share the same woman. Some think they are sharing a slave, but there is no specific characterization of the woman. It appears as a general statement without any specification. This may envision any woman, not simply a slave or prostitute. But it seems likely that the woman is regarded as abused since the preceding context emphasizes the poor, needy, and oppressed. This woman represents another form of oppression. Whatever the case, it clearly condemns incestuous sexuality. This is counter-cultural because Hittite laws permitted what Amos condemns.
At the same time this represents a general condemnation of sexual immorality as it appeared in Israel. Leviticus 18 (vv. 7-8) is the classic text in the Torah for prohibited sexual relationships which ranges from adultery to incest. The concluding verses of that chapter connect with this word from Amos–God punished the Canaanites for sexual immorality, just as he will now punish Israel (Leviticus 18:24-25).
This prohibited sexual activity profanes the holy name of God. This language is found in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 20:3). While some think the clause applies to the previous five lines, it is more likely that it applies only to the previous one given the linkage to Leviticus 20. Their activity profanes or defiles the name of God as they are a people known by God’s name.
3. They approach God clothed in their economic abuses (8).
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.
The cloak has significant value–it is one of life’s necessities. Even if a cloak was given as security for a loan, it was to be returned before nightfall (cf. Deuteronomy 24:12-13; Exodus 22:25-26). And the cloak was the inviolable right of a widow–it was never to be used to the advantage of another or taken from her (Deuteronomy 24:17). Amos describes people who have taken advantage of their economic power. They hoard the security that others have given them. Moreover, they take as security something that is a detriment to the life of another (cf. Job 24:3; Ezekiel 18:76, 12, 16).
They exercise power unjustly. Amos is describing how the powerful abuse their status. They drink the wine they bought with the fines they imposed. Perhaps the implication is that they have fined others in excess and use it for their own benefit. They confiscate the fine for their own personal use.
The image, then, is that the wealthy and powerful use their power to oppress others with unjust securities and excessive fines. They have no qualms about this. Indeed, they party with their profit. They lie on garments that do not belong to them and drink wine that, at the very least, belongs to the justice system rather than to them personally.
But this is not the full extent of their sin. They do this at the altar of God’s house. This does not refer to the temple in Jerusalem, but rather to worship centers scattered throughout Israel that were dedicated to Yahweh. At such altars Israel would worship Yahweh (as well as other gods) through sacrificial meals that involved reclining, eating and drinking. They profane the holy name of God by worshipping Yahweh while they abuse their powers. They seek to praise Yahweh even as they violate the standards of justice outlined in the Torah.
The sins of Israel are numerous–as the rest of the book will reveal–but this text, as the climactic address to Israel among the nations highlights three areas of abuse: mistreatment of the poor, sexual immorality, and economic injustice.
Let the nations who have ears to hear, hear the word of the Lord through Amos.