After a semester off, I’m leaping back into the Old Testament for a week, as I take a Maymester course called Amos and Ethics.
One of the great things I’ve discovered over the course of doing this seminary thing has been accepting and respecting the multivocality of the Bible. It does not speak with one voice, nor was it intended to. It’s the collected understandings of dozens of people over thousands of years as they’ve figured out and written down and passed along their own beliefs in who God is and what he’s doing in the world. And sometimes, certain texts speak more to certain cultures than others.
For example, Revelation speaks more to those undergoing persecution and suffering than to those of us Christians in 21st-century America. Rather, in our comfortable, easy lives, where the church more often than not finds itself supporting politicians who advocate tax cuts for the wealthy and service cuts for the needy, we need an Amos.
Amos doesn’t bar holds. He’s no better than middle class himself, a manager of land and flocks from Judah, and he travels up to Bethel, one of Israel’s two holy sites and begins popping off about their tendency to sell the poor into debt slavery over trifles such as a pair of sandals, about their general oppression of the needy and their use of the courts to stifle complaint from those without the means to grease the wheels of the system. Then he slams the women of Israel, calling them cows, condemning them for living lives of luxury, getting drunk while they cheat and oppress the lower classes.
Yet these same people say they cannot wait for the Lord to come back. “Why do you want the day of the Lord?” Amos asks. “Isn’t the day of the Lord darkness, not light” to those whom Amos addresses? God hates and rejects the worship they bring – their prayers and their offerings. He won’t even look at them or listen to their music. “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
There is much to like about Amos, especially if you feel the system needs reform, and that Christians should play a role in advocating for and implementing such reform to lift up the poor and increase the justice and righteousness our society shows to its most vulnerable.
But here’s the rub: Amos is also a violent book. And we can’t just pick and choose what we like and don’t like from a text. So while liberals love Amos because it focuses on social, legal and economic justice for the poor, it makes us a little squeamish because the God it portrays is “not a warm, comfortable God, but a dangerous and fearsome God who demands accountability.”