Introducing Amos

A new series today, in the book of Amos.

Amos 1:1 The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.

Amos was a shepherd from Tekoa, in the southern kingdom of Judah, in the eighth century BC. And he was commissioned by God to prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel, calling them back to obedience. Probably not the safest occupation, given the animosity between the two kingdoms.  But he doesn’t exactly endear himself to his audience with his opening words:

Amos 1:2 He said:
“The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers.”

How not to win friends and influence people.

You see, there’s a bit of history behind this declaration of God speaking from Jerusalem, from Mount Zion. Sure, it’s where the temple is. It’s where the ark of the covenant hangs out. It’s where God said he would dwell among his people… But it’s in Jerusalem. In the southern kingdom of Judah. Which was a bit of a problem for the northern tribes.

The nation of Israel split – you might recall – after the death of Solomon. King Solomon had showed favouritism to his own tribe of Judah, at the expense of the others – to the point of exploiting their labour, fighting men, and tax contributions. And his son – in a catastrophic political miscalculation second only to John Hewson in 1993 – promised to exploit them even more:

1 Kings 12:13-14 The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”

So, funnily enough, the northern tribes told him where to go:

1 Kings 12:16-17 When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, Israel! Look after your own house, David!” So the Israelites went home. But as for the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah, Rehoboam still ruled over them.

They set up their own king. A guy called Jeroboam. And right away he spotted the problem of having the temple – where Israel’s God was – in the city of their southern rivals:

1 Kings 12:26-27 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

So he set up two idols – one at each end of the country – along with rival festivals:

1 Kings 12:28-33 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other. Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.

A great political solution, but disastrous for the northern tribes’ faith. And from that time, the northern tribes had their own places to worship God, mixing in idolatrous practices from the peoples around, and frequently morphing into worshiping the Canaanite gods. It reached a particular high point (pun intended) when the prophet Elijah had a showdown with the prophets of the Canaanite god, Ba’al. On Mount Carmel.

So look again at Amos’s opening words:

Amos 1:2 He said:
“The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers.”

He’s saying: God speaks from where he said he’d speak. Not from the idolatrous places you’ve set up all around your country. But from my homeland. (Hi. I’m from Judah. I’ll be here all week.)

And more than that: when God speaks from Mount Zion, stuff happens (in particular, drought, which is the punishment for idolatry). His voice of judgement reaches all the way to another mountain, far in the north of Israel.

This is a message of judgement. Not popular at the best of times. But especially when it’s delivered by a hillbilly shepherd. From Judah – their hated rivals, who claim that God only lives with them in their holy place.

Not a good way to start. Is there any way Amos can turn this around? We’ll find out tomorrow…

To think about

Israel had developed their own way of (kind of) worshipping Yahweh, using the high places of the Canaanite gods. They rejected Yahweh’s explicit instructions because it was easier – and more politically palatable – to do it their way. But all it did was make it even easier to tolerate, and then incorporate, the idols of the people around them. And they would have been threatened – even offended – by Amos’s message that they’d got it wrong.

Are there any ways in which we might have set up our own way of following Jesus that might seem easier, or more culturally acceptable – but are leading us in the wrong direction? That make it easier for us to tolerate, or even incorporate, the idols of our own age? (A prosperity form of Christianity may be one such example.)

And are we open to someone – even a Judean shepherd – bringing the uncomfortable message that we need to repent?

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