Why making a country “great” in the eyes of men might make it unjust in the eyes of God
After Moses died, a man named Joshua took Moses’s place as prophet. Joshua led the Israelites into the “promised land” and took possession of the land through military conquest. After several generations had passed, the Israelites became disenchanted with the kind of leaders God gave them. They asked God to give them a king so they could be like all the nations around them. Even though God warned them that having a human king would eventually lead to oppression, God nonetheless granted their request. After a misstep with a critically flawed king named Saul, the Israelites established a unified kingdom which reached its pinnacle under a king named David. David lived a life of deep devotion to God. He wrote many inspired poems about how he trusted God and desired to follow God’s commandments. Thus he fulfilled a core requirement for Israelite kings that Moses had set out in the middle section of Deuteronomy.
When you come to the land the LORD your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me,” you must select without fail a king whom the LORD your God chooses.
When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out.
- Deuteronomy 17:14–15,18–19
In addition to fulfilling the requirements of a good king, David also asked God if he could build a permanent house, or temple, for God. David wanted this temple be a place where God’s Spirit would permanently dwell amongst his people. God appreciated David’s heart but nonetheless turned down David’s offer to establish a house. Instead, God made a special promise to David that God would establish David’s house, referring to a future dynasty. From this dynasty, one of David’s descendants would establish an eternal kingdom and build a temple where God would dwell with his people forever.
Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”
- 2 Samuel 7:11–14
The Oppressed become the Oppressors
When David died, he was succeeded by his son Solomon. For a time Solomon looked like he could be the one to establish the eternal kingdom that God had promised. He grew to possess divine wisdom, tremendous wealth, and considerable fame among the neighboring kingdoms. For the first time it was said that in Israel that “everyone lived under their own vine and fig tree with no one to make them afraid” (see 1 Kings 5:5). By every external measure, King Solomon made Israel great.
Solomon naturally thought that his successful rule proved that he was the descendant of King David who was meant to build an eternal house for God. Thus, he took the initiative, partnered with neighboring countries and built a glorious temple in Jerusalem which would become the pride of Israel and the center of religious life.
On the surface, it looked like King Solomon’s life was blessed by God. However, when one examines the details one sees that even though Solomon achieved tremendous material prosperity, he did so in part by adopting the ways of Israel’s former oppressor — Egypt. To build the temple Solomon conscripted thousands of his foreigners into forced labor. He hired Israelite taskmasters to subjugate the forced laborers. After building the temple, these laborers were forced to spend twice as long building a luxurious palace for Solomon. In his palace, Solomon accumulated vast quantities of silver and gold from neighboring countries and horses from Egypt. As if those actions weren’t enough to tie Solomon to Egypt, he married Pharaoh’s daughter, who as a wedding gift received the real estate of a city that her father had captured and set on fire, killing all the inhabitants. After building his palace, Solomon then used his slave labor to build his wife a new city upon the ruins. Thus, King Solomon more and more began to resemble Pharaoh, the king from whom God had freed the Israelites.
Furthermore, Moses seemed to have been concerned that future Israelite kings would amass power then fall prey to their lust for material goods, pleasure and status. Thus, in the middle section of Deuteronomy, Moses specifically warned the kings what they must not do.
Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the LORD has said you must never again return that way. Furthermore, he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold.
- Deuteronomy 17:16–17
As we have seen, Solomon broke each one of these prohibitions. Most notably, outside of Pharaoh’s daughter, Solomon took on 700 wives who were royalty from other nations. As if the wives were not enough to satisfy him, Solomon acquired 300 royal mistresses. Many of these foreign women were from the surrounding Canaanite nations that God had explicitly forbidden the Israelites from marrying. The purpose of this prohibition was not to maintain ethnic purity but rather to help the Israelites maintain their loyalty to God. Almost all of the foreigners in neighboring lands worshiped oppressive idols rather than the God of Israel. Thus, Solomon’s affection for his wives turned his heart away from following God, just as Deuteronomy had warned. Solomon joined his wives in following other gods. In particular, he worshiped Ashtoreth, the Canaanite god of sex, fertility, and war, and Molech a Canaanite god whose worship required child sacrifices.
It is important to note that when the scriptures forbid the Israelites from following other gods, the Hebrew text normally uses two particular words: shachah which means “to prostrate”, “to bow down” or more generally “to worship”, and `abad, which means “to work for”, “to serve” and even “to be enslaved to.” Thus, the problem was not just that Solomon sang songs to foreign deities. The problem was that Solomon fully submitted himself to become a slave of sex, fertility and violence. As part of Solomon’s service, he built temples for idols of these gods in the hills near Jerusalem. These new temples and the desire for sex, fertility, and military strength led many Israelites away from the temple in Jerusalem and their service to the God who made all the good things they wanted on the earth.
God became upset with Solomon. God then revealed that Solomon would not be the descendant to establish an eternal kingdom. Instead, God told Solomon that his kingdom would be fractured during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. God would give ten out of twelve tribes to one of Solomon’s officials named Jeroboam. The division of the kingdom happened in accordance with what God had predicted. Ironically, what triggered the division was Solomon’s legacy of forced labor and pride.
Kings Who Do Not Read the Torah are Cursed (to Repeat It)
When Solomon’s son Rehoboam succeeded Solomon as king, the Israelite people complained of the oppression caused by Solomon’s empire building projects. They petitioned Rehoboam to at least lighten this oppression. Rehoboam’s elders advised him to be a servant to the people rather than forcing them to serve him. However, Rehoboam would not humble himself before his elders. Instead, he listened to the advice of his peers. His friends told him that he needed to show his strength by increasing the people’s workload and punishing all disobedience. When he gave this reply to the people, the people resented Rehoboam and 10 out of 12 tribes seceded from Rehoboam’s kingdom. Rehoboam was left with the two southern tribes under his dwindled Kingdom of Judah. The rest of the northern tribes established a separate Kingdom of Israel with Solomon’s former official Jeroboam as their king. Rehoboam gathered an army in an attempt to reclaim the northern tribes. It is during this period of upheaval that many Ethiopian Jews claim their ancestors lost contact with the rest of Israel before migrating toward Ancient Ethiopia. Fortunately, before too many Israelites were lost, God sent a prophet to stop Rehoboam from escalating the conflict into a full-scale civil war.
While the two kingdoms avoided a civil war, the division complicated Solomon’s choice of building God’s temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was in the Kingdom of Judah. If any one from the Northern Kingdom of Israel wanted to worship God as commanded in Deuteronomy, they would need to travel into the heart of the rival kingdom. King Jeroboam realized this conundrum. He feared that the people’s repeated pilgrimages to Jerusalem would shift their loyalty away from him and toward King Rehoboam. Jeroboam consulted his advisors about the matter and — in an ironic reversal — he created two golden calf to serve as idols for the Israelites to worship instead of going to the temple in Jerusalem. Jeroboam then declared to the people “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” and set up a rival festival for the Israelites to sacrifice to their calf gods (1 Kings 12:26–33).
The biggest irony of Jeroboam’s decision is that it was an exact replay of an earlier event in the Torah. When Moses went up to Mount Sinai for forty days to receive the first set of commandments, the Israelites thought Moses must be lost. They then decided they no longer needed Moses and left him for dead. Instead, of following all that Moses had already told them, they decided to manufacture their own gods.
When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!”
- Exodus 32:1
Just like Jeroboam, Moses’s brother, Aaron, feared the reaction of the people. He thus gave into their request.
He accepted the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD.” So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.
- Exodus 32:4–6
Jeroboam clearly had not been reading the Torah as prescribed for Israelite kings. Instead, he multiplied the error of his ancestors by making two golden calves. Worse still, because the Northern Kingdom of Israel was established with idol worship in order to create a separate national identity from the Kingdom of Judah, the Northern Kingdom never turned back to the God of Israel. Every one of the twenty northern Israelite kings worshiped idols, including the calves that Jeroboam had made. The Northern kings also worshipped foreign idols, which were imported when the kings made Solomon’s mistake of marrying royalty from the Canaanite nations with whom God had prohibited them from marrying. In the middle of this line of kings, we come to the Book of Amos.
Prophesying Against Injustice
No, no, we are not satisfied
and we will not be satisfied until
“ justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr. from his “I Have a Dream” speech
Amos was a shepherd and fig tree farmer who lived about 150 years after Jeroboam established the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ironically, the king who reigned over the northern kingdom at that time, Jeroboam II, was named after the first Jeroboam who brought idolatry to the kingdom. Jeroboam II expanded upon the founding monarch’s legacy of idolatry and injustice. Most notably, the king had allowed the rich to oppress the poor by not caring for their needs, selling them into debt slavery, and denying them legal representation. All of these injustices were specifically prohibited in Deuteronomy. Like Kendrick, Amos existed totally outside of the religious establishment which had fallen into corruption and economic injustice. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Amos believed that serving God should result in social justice, right relationships and care for the one’s neighbor. As a result, God called Amos as an outsider to prophesy against the Northern Kingdom. Amos predicted that all of the curses spoken of in Deuteronomy would come to pass, eventually leading to the Israelites’ deportation from the land in chains. The reason for this tragic fall is summarized in Amos 3:2, which Cousin Carl quotes.
I chose you, Israel,
from all the families of the earth;
And this is why I will punish you
for all your sins.
- Amos 3:2
Amos claims that because God chose Israel as the family to put on display for the other nations, he will make a greater example out of them. The people of Israel are described as God’s children. He gave them commandments to show them how to live well. The implication is that just like a father would discipline a child to ensure that the child has good character, God will discipline Israel to ensure that their character changes. In fact, Amos declares that God has already tried to get the people’s attention by allowing minor consequences to occur. God’s hope all along was that the people would stop following idols of sex, prosperity, and violence rather than following the God of justice. Thus, even while Amos speaks of dire consequences he still offers the people a chance to reform their ways.
Seek me so you can live
Do not seek [the idols] in Bethel
Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies,
just might be with you,as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies,
will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.
- Amos 5:4, 14–15, 24
Dying of Thirst
Like Moses, Amos pleads with the Israelites to choose life by following God’s commandments. If they turn away from their injustice, God would be able to dwell among them and protect them from disaster. However, the people ignored all of God’s signs and words through Amos. King Jeroboam II and a priest of the golden calf temple dismissed Amos’s speeches telling him to go to Judah instead. This refusal to listen to God’s words sealed the fate of the Northern Kingdom. Amos predicts they will suffer a consequence more troubling than being deprived of food and water.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God , when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD , but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst.
- Amos 8:11–13
Amos declares that the people will die of spiritual thirst when God stops sending his words to guide them. Without this guidance they will go looking for satisfaction in places that will lead directly into exile, where they will be forced to worship man-made gods to their heart’s content. Undoubtedly, the Israelites at that time thought they were special and immune to the upheaval which other nations had faced. However, Amos declares that while God had chosen to make himself known through Israel in a unique way, that by no means meant God offered them preferential treatment. In fact, Amos says that at least one group of black people are equivalent to the Israelites.
“You Israelites are just like the Ethiopians in my sight,” says the LORD. “Certainly I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.
- Amos 9:7
Equal to the Israelites?
Does Amos 9:7 prove that black people are Israelites? That doesn’t seem to be the case. The verse is not saying that God is “colorblind” or that He doesn’t notice the distinctive features or histories of Ancient Ethiopians apart from Ancient Israelites. This verse is saying that God sees equal value in both Ethiopians and Israelites regardless of their differences. They are both peoples under his rule with no hierarchy between them. The verse goes even further than that though. It equates the Israelites with the neighboring Philistines and the Arameans because just like God led Israel out of Egypt to their current land, so God led those two nations out of their respective origin points to their current lands.
Claiming that the Philistines and the Arameans are equal to the Israelites is a very jarring statement because those two nations were Israel’s historical enemies. The Philistines were the nation that David defended Israel against much of his life, including in his battle against Goliath. In fact the name Palestine, which the Romans would later give to the region means “Land of the Philistines”. The Arameans also fought against David and later kings before being absorbed along with their language into the Assyrian Empire, the same empire that would eventually conquer and deport the Northern Kingdom of Israel. One can see the Arameans’ cultural legacy in the fact that by the time of the Roman Empire, few Jews spoke Ancient Hebrew anymore. Most Jews who had returned from deportation to Jerusalem spoke the Arameans language, Aramaic. We can understand God’s acceptance of Ethiopia, but why is God equating Israel with these two oppressive nations?
It would seem that Amos’s statement is meant to humble Israel. To protest against God for equating Israel with oppressive nations is to miss Amos’s whole message that Israel have themselves become an oppressive nation. Furthermore, to take pride in the fact that God brought Israel into the promised land is to miss the more foundational truth that the God who created the heavens and the earth is intimately involved with every diaspora, every movement of peoples and boundaries. Yes, the Israelites were chosen to be an example to the nations, but this simply meant that they were a mirror used to reflect how God worked through the history of each nation and humanity as a whole. All nations including the Israelites have been the oppressors at some point, so all will be brought low by the consequences of not following God’s way. This sobering message seems to be the ultimate point of the Book of Amos up until the last section of the book.