It is amazing how self-critical the Hebrew Scriptures are. They do not glorify the nation or it’s heroes. The nation’s critics were remembered — they were remembered as prophets who told them, in advance, of the danger that lay ahead for them. The Scriptures really aren’t an exercise in glorifying the nation and it’s people and it’s leaders. It isn’t really an exercise in bragging about their greatness. One would naturally expect that it would be. It is their national literature, after all — in which they found their identity. They copied and re-copied it. They kept it safe. They recited it and memorized it.
They remembered the words of the prophets. They remembered: even though the prophets had preached a message of judgement against them, criticized the way they practiced their own religion, exposed their evil and selfish motives.
Now, the prophet Amos certainly prophesied against the surrounding nations and their sins. But, the real burden of Amos’ prophecy was against the children of Israel.
Being a part of the People of God was a privilege, certainly, but it was always more of a responsibility. They were responsible to live by what they knew.
שִׁמְעוּ אֶת־הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה עֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר
רַק אֶתְכֶם יָדַעְתִּי מִכֹּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה עַל־כֵּן אֶפְקֹד עֲלֵיכֶם אֵת כָּל־עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם
“Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:1-2 NRSV.)
Here the word is spoken to “the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt.” That would be both Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the smaller Southern Kingdom).
Those to who much is given, much will be required. Knowledge brings responsibility.
But, it is also clear in these words that the prophet Amos sees himself as one family member talking to other family members. I imagine that people in the Northern Kingdom might well see him as an outside agitator. But, he identifies himself with the rest of the family against whom he is speaking.
“Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel….”
Being the people of God was no exemption from judgement.
“The central concern of the prophets was to communicate to Israel what it meant to be Israel.”
—Walter Brueggemann, Tradition for Crisis: A Study in Hosea, p. 25) Found here.
Notice again how the Exodus from Egypt is cited as the defining event for the people. They are the family of people God brought out of captivity.
And, yet we Christians, too, sometimes view our relationship with God this way, don’t we? We think of ourselves as favored of God, having special privileges. We can easily become judgmental toward others — especially those outside the church.
But, the principle that Jesus taught is: those to whom much is given, much will be required.
Notice that phrase: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth….”
The word translated “known” (NIV has “chosen”) is striking here: יָדַע (yada).
It is the familiar Hebrew verb meaning “to know.” In the Qal (the form in which it appears this passage) it can mean: “to know, recognize, understand; to have sexual relations.” One of my Hebrew dictionaries goes on to say “this can range in meaning from the mere acquisition and understanding of information to intimacy in relationship, including sexual relations.” Yes, this is the same word that is used in such passages as Genesis 4:1: “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain….” (NRSV). It is also used in the Garden of Eden story: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7 NRSV).
The prophet reminds the people of the deep personal relationship that has been opened up to them by God: “You only have I known…”
He reminds them of their history. He reminds them they are a family. He reminds them of God’s relationship to them.
The word translated “punished” here is פָּקַד (paqad) which is variously translated: “to pay attention, care for; to count, number; to punish.” The central idea seems to be: “to pay attention.” God is turning attention onto the nation: but not to bring blessing — to bring forth the painful consequences of their actions. They are to receive this attention because of their “iniquities” or “sins.” Here the Hebrew term עָוֹן (avon) is used. This word emphasizes their guilt: it is similar in that sense to our word “crime.” A crime is something that must be prosecuted — there are consequences to committing a crime.
Their offenses have been against the God who redeemed them, who made them a family and who knew them in a way God had known no other people.
Surely, Amos and the other prophets spoke words like this with a profound sense of tragedy. The chosen people, who were delivered and called to be a witness to the nations, fail in their calling — and destruction follows in the wake of their failure.
In the failure of the nation — which was to come — the prophet tells them in advance: they have only themselves to blame.
Richard Rohr writes (found here):
Prophets step in to disrupt the usual social consensus — “How wonderful our group is!” — and say, “It’s just not entirely true!” So you see why the prophets are all killed (Matthew 23:29-39). Prophets expose and topple each group’s idols and blind spots, very often showing that we make things into absolutes that are not absolutes in God’s eyes, and we relativize what in fact is central and important. As Jesus so cleverly puts it, “You strain out gnats and you swallow camels” (Matthew 23:24).
And, the failure of the church in America — to the extent that it has failed — also falls upon the church itself. There is no one else to blame. Have we truly been the community of Christ? Have we exalted Christ, or our own sectarianism? Have we been a community of compassion and love and forgiveness and respect — lifting up the hopeless and discouraged and spreading a message of forgiveness and new beginning? Or has the church become a community of legalism and judgmentalism and ignorance and intolerance? Such a church can and must fall. And, when it collapses under the weight of its own evils — that is a tragedy — not only for itself but for the world.