How the oppressed find hope in a state of being rather than a nation-state
In the last paragraph of the book, Amos speaks of the future. He says that one day a king from the David’s house — his dynasty — will rebuild the a new kingdom out of the ruins of the coming devastation. In fact, Amos predicts that the same curses described in Deuteronomy 28 will be reversed.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
- Amos 9:14
Even more surprising, Amos seems to indicate that this new kingdom will include not just ethnic Israelites, but also “all the nations subject to God’s rule” (Amos 9:12). This idea of a multi-ethnic kingdom would be described in greater detail by later prophets, who again used Ethiopia as a prototype for nations who would join Israel in worshiping God.
Know for sure that I will then enable
the nations to give me acceptable praise.
All of them will invoke the Lord’s name when they pray,
and will worship him in unison.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,
those who pray to me will bring me tribute.
In that day you will not be ashamed of all your rebelliousness against me,
for then I will remove from your midst those who proudly boast,
and you will never again be arrogant on my holy hill.
I will leave in your midst a humble and meek group of people,
and they will find safety in the Lord’s presence.
- Zephaniah 3:9–12
This future kingdom seems to be a radically new kind of kingdom. There is ethnic diversity but no longer any social hierarchy or any oppression of one group by another. There is no longer room for anyone to be proud. All people are humble. Each person is directly under God’s rule. As such, societal and environmental destruction no longer exist. These hopeful promises start to ease the tensions of the curses from Deuteronomy. Moreover, we know we have some evidence that people outside of ethnic Israelites are included in the new kingdom. At the very least, Ethiopians will share in these blessings. However, since most Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans are not descendants from Ancient or modern Ethiopia, why should we think that they are especially included in this new kingdom? If they are included, which commandments do they need to follow? Most importantly though, when is this kingdom supposed to show up? The book of Amos and the Tanakh as a whole end without any such a kingdom materializing.
The End of the Israel’s Kingdoms
23 years after Amos died, each of his earlier prophecies came to pass. The Northern Kingdom was invaded and destroyed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the first nation in history to perfect imperial conquest. This all happened as a consequence of the Northern king shifting his loyalty from the Assyrians to the Egyptians, much like the kingdom had shifted their loyalty away from God to other gods. As part of their imperial rule, the Assyrians implemented a policy of mass deportation of conquered peoples. The goal of this deportation program was to subjugate the people by disconnecting them from their land and culture. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was one of the first nations to suffer under this kind of imperial oppression when the Assyrians conquered them in 722 BCE.
While the Kingdom of Judah learned from the tragic history of the Northern Kingdom, they soon forgot those lessons. Most of their kings in Jerusalem worshipped the idols of the nations around them just as Solomon had. These practices grew until the later kings of Judah built a shrine to a deity named Molech in a place called the Valley of Hinnom. There they burned their children as sacrifices to Molech. Jeremiah, the preeminent prophet at the time, witnessed this injustice and proclaimed that the Valley of Hinnom would now be cursed to be a place of slaughter (Jeremiah 19:2–6). Over the years, this curse grew in Jewish thought until the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna in Greek, became the symbolic representation of fiery, eternal judgment that would happen when God brought justice to the world once and for all.
The concept of the Valley of Hinnom should not be confused with the Ancient Israelite concept of Sheol, which was the place underneath the earth where all people went after they died regardless of whether they were just or unjust. Sheol doesn’t have any fire or eternal judgment. Sheol is just the abode of the dead and in many cases is translated as “the Pit” or “the Grave”. This is why the Greeks used the very similar concept, Hades, to refer to the Jewish concept. Unfortunately, in English, the separate concepts of Sheol and Hinnom,(or Hades and Gehenna) are now both referred to with the single word “Hell”, leading many to merge the two concepts into single concept referring to an underground, fiery judgement where bad people will go immediately upon death.
In 587 BCE, about 135 years after the Northern Kingdom fell, the southern Kingdom of Judah suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Babylonian Empire, who had adopted the mass deportation tactics from the Assyrians. Eventually, all but a few Israelites were exiled from the land. However, in the midst of the catastrophe, God still spoke through his chosen prophets as he had with Amos. Jeremiah, the prophet who had pronounced the curse over the Valley of Hinnom, also spoke of blessings by expanding the hopeful prophecy at the end of the book of Amos. Jeremiah said that after 70 years, God would bring the Israelites back to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem (Jeremiah 29:10). Most importantly, God promised that after the Israelites returned, God would make a new agreement with them.
“Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.
- Jeremiah 31:31–33
48 years after the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was conquered by the First Persian Empire. This change in world leadership proved pivotal for the Israelites because the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, reversed the deportation policies of the Babylonians. Just as Jeremiah had prophesied, the Israelites were allowed to return to their ancestral land and rebuild their temple 70 years after they were exiled. Also during this period, Israel’s spiritual leaders began consolidating the ancient texts of their forefathers, stitching them together in light of their exile, and forming a definitive canon. Over centuries these texts eventually took the form of the Tanakh that we know today.
The Israelites were overjoyed at these developments. They now had a temple to worship their God and the scriptures to teach them how to live in the land God had prepared for them. After all the suffering they had experienced, they no longer desired to worship any god but the God of justice. Ironically, the oppression of the Assyrians and Babylonians had purged the Israelites of their connections to the idols they had previously worshiped. Forced to leave idolatry and the associated tribal divisions introduced by King Jeroboam, the identity of the Israelites after the exile was formed around the ancient religious practices that had been recorded in the Kingdom of Judah. Thus, the Hebrew word Yehudi, which originally referred to a member of the tribe of Judah, now referred to anyone who practiced the religion from Judah. From the word Yehudi, English eventually derived the word Jew.
The Gospel According to Augustus Caesar
However, the Israelites did not regain the political autonomy that they had previously enjoyed under King David and his descendants. Instead, the Israelites continued to be ruled by a series of unjust, foreign empires leading up to the conquest by the Roman Empire in 37 BCE and then direct Roman rule under Augustus Caesar in 6 CE. Around the same time, the poet-prophets of the Roman Empire began writing odes to Augustus, proclaiming all that Augustus had accomplished for humanity.
“Thine age, O Caesar, has brought back fertile crops to the fields,…has wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues,…and the fame and majesty of our empire were spread from the sun’s bed in the west to the east. As long as Caesar is the guardian of the state, neither civil dissension nor violence shall banish peace.”
- Horace, Odes 4.15, written 13 BCE
Ironically, these poets claimed that Caesar was the kind of king for which the Israelites were hoping. By the assessment of the Greco-Roman writers, Caesar had reversed the curses upon the crops, cleansed the people of sin, restored the ancient way and brought about enduring peace. Given how widely Greco-Roman writers studied cultural texts from different parts of the empire, it is likely that whoever wrote odes to Caesar appropriated cultural-religious references from multiple people groups, including the Israelites. Having established Caesar’s remarkable credentials, the Greco-Roman prophets later declared Caesar Augustus to be the very manifestation of God — a claim that they considered to be good news.
The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . ; for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all. . . . The beginning of life and vitality. . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the beginning of the year. . . . Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom (Providence) filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and (whereas) having become (god) manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times . . . in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him . . . , whereas, finally, the birthday of the god (Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him.
- The Priene Inscription, written 9 BCE
In Greek, the word for “good news” was “euangélion” from where English gets the word “evangelism”. Similarly the Old English term for “good news” was “godspell” — literally “good story” — from where we get the modern English word “gospel”. Thus, throughout the Roman Empire the concept of a gospel was directly tied to the announcement of a king and the beginning of a new era. Most subjects of the empire accepted Caesar’s announcements as good news. However, the Israelites, rejected the gospel of Augustus Caesar as sacrilegious. They were not witnesses to the peace of Rome but rather to the oppression of the empire. Thus, they continued to hope that God would raise up a king from their own people who would fulfill all the promises about which the prophets had spoken.
The Long-Expected Messiah
The Israelites were constantly looking for clues about who this king would be and when he would arrive. They referred to him as the Messiah, or the Christ in Greek, which means “anointed one”. The idea of an anointed leader was based on the Ancient Israelite practice of spreading olive oil on the head of the person whom God chose to be a prophet or a king. This ritual act was one of the means by which the Spirit of God came upon the anointed person and empowered the person to rule. Notably, the book of Samuel from the Tanakh described the seminal moment in which David was anointed to be the new king of Israel (see Samuel 16:1–13).
The Israelites assumed that once the newly anointed king from the house of David arrived, he would be filled with God’s Spirit, which would empower him to raise up an army, defeat the Roman Empire and establish a kingdom in which the Israelites would no longer suffer oppression. At times, various Israelites led uprisings or revolutions while claiming to be establishing the Messianic Kingdom, much like Nat Turner had done. However, each of these uprisings were suppressed by the Romans. Thus, if a Messiah was going to free the Israelites, he would have to do so in a truly unexpected way.
The Gospel According to an Unexpected Messiah
Around 27 CE, after the Israelites had lived under Roman occupation for nearly 65 years, a man we know as Jesus walked onto the scene and started gathering large crowds of peasants. He claimed to be a descendant of David, but he possessed no material wealth or status to mark him out as royalty. Furthermore, he did not show the kind of military ambitions which seemed necessary to drive out the Romans and establish a kingdom. Jesus, thus, looked nothing like the king that the people were expecting. However, one day Jesus walked into a synagogue on Shabbat, opened the scroll used for that day’s public reading, and read the following scripture.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because He has anointed me
to proclaim Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
- Luke 4:18-19
The words that Jesus read were from the third section of the book of Isaiah, a collection of prophetic poetry from the Tanakh. In Hebrew, Isaiah’s name is Yesha’yahu which means “Yahweh, the LORD, is salvation.” The third section of Isaiah was written some 400 years before the good news of Augustus Caesar declared that Caesar was the source of salvation. Jesus thus undermined Caesar’s claim to be savior and announced his own good news that the king the Israelites had been waiting for was now in their midst. Unlike the odes to Caesar, the words of Isaiah prophesied that Israel’s true king would free the poor and the oppressed, a promise that drew many of the poor, sick and lower class people to Jesus. He quickly attracted a large following of those who believed Jesus was a great prophet like Moses.
At another point early in Jesus’s public life, a group of followers gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. Jesus then went to the top of a nearby mountain, an image that evoked the memory of Moses going to the top of Mount Sinai before coming down with the initial Ten Commandments of the Torah. After sitting down, Jesus began a speech in which he declared that the Kingdom of Heaven was now being established on earth.
Where Is This Heavenly Kingdom?
To modern readers, the idea of heaven may seem like a fantastical delusion. This is partly due to the fact that popular religion in the West tends to speak of heaven as a place located far away and only accessible after death. However, Jesus is not talking about some alternative location where subset of humans will go. That is not how heaven is talked about in the Tanakh. Instead, heaven is used to refer to instances where people have a powerful encounter with God’s presence on earth. The original usage of the work heaven is thus an example of metonymy, a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept. We use metonymy all the time in English. For example, when we read a headline like “White House calls Pyongyang’s claim America has declared war ‘absurd’” we understand that “White House” refers to the United States government and “Pyongyang” refers to the North Korean government. In the same way, to the Jewish listener of Jesus’s day “heaven” could be understood to mean God’s government.
Even if one gets past the idea of heaven, modern readers may then consider the idea of the Kingdom of God to be a poetic cover for a military revolution similar to the one that Nat Turner led. Much of this misunderstanding is due to the unfortunate modern usage of the word “kingdom”. The problem is that when we hear the word “kingdom” we tend to think of a geo-political area. If Jesus was talking about a geo-political area than he would definitely need to start a military revolution and overcome the Roman Empire. However, the Greek word, basileia, which is translated as kingdom actually means “the right or authority to rule over a kingdom — not to be confused with the kingdom itself”. The word does not actually refer to a place but refers to the governing activities of a king. Thus, more academic English translations will sometimes use the terms “reign of God” or “rule of God” instead of “Kingdom of God/Heaven”. When Jesus talks about “entering the kingdom” he is not talking about going to heaven, leaving one’s current geographic area, or changing the political government of one’s nation. Instead, he is talking about placing one’s own will under the rule of God as opposed to the rule of other spirits.
Who Can Live under God’s Rule?
Here we run into the central problem of the Tanakh. From the very begining, Humanity has proven incapable of following even a subset of God’s commandments. We are not able to live under God’s rule. Even if we humans were to create our own social law that was as simple as “Thou shall not engage in any sexual contact without explicit verbal consent,” human beings — who might get many other things right — would still find a way to break the one rule. After breaking the rule the offending human would usually justify his actions by redefining them as good or by shifting the blame to another. Thus, for humans to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus would need to go back to the beginning of the biblical narrative and reverse the pattern of humans choosing curses rather than blessings.
Jesus seemed to think that the reason that people can’t live under the rule of God is that their minds along with their souls — the essence of their embodied lives — are enslaved to problematic patterns of thought and emotion. Jesus saw this bondage, rather than the Roman occupation, as the real problem plaguing his people. By calling people out from mental slavery to sin and into the reign of God, Jesus was repeating the story of Moses leading his people out from slavery to Egypt and into the promised land. Jesus’s focus on mental slavery is exactly why soterias — the Greek word that is translated as salvation — has the root meaning of “health.” In the ancient view, sin is not seen primarily as a criminal action but rather as a disease. Thus, humans are saved when their minds along with their souls come into a state of enduring health. Moreover, Jesus came to humanity as physician rather than a judge.
The Blessings Offered in the Kingdom of God
If Jesus is a new version of Moses, one would expect Jesus to inform the people about God’s commandments which will instruct the people how to experience the blessings of health. Fittingly, Jesus’s opening speech, the Sermon on the Mount, begins with Jesus explaining the blessings associated with life in God’s Kingdom.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven.
- Matthew 5:3–12
Surprisingly, while the crowd gathered around Jesus were almost exclusives ethnic Israelites, his speech does not highlight individuals as being blessed simply because of their ethnic identity. Instead, people are blessed depending on their status in the world. This is particularly true of the “poor”, who in the original meaning of the Hebrew word refers not just to those who are economically poor but also to those who have low social status and to those who are social outcasts due to identity or life choices that place them outside of mainstream institutions. Thus, in modern terms, Jesus’s message is for all who are underprivileged. This is a message that would have resonated well with those of meager status gathered around him at the mountain but also seems to speak forward to people like those in the black, Hispanic, and Native American communities in America.
While we may be encouraged to see that the blessings of God’s kingdom are directed to those who need it the most, as we examine the logic of the blessings, they seem to make no sense. How is it that people who are poor, humble, mourning and oppressed can also be blessed? This does not align with our experiences. We’ve seen minority communities suffer from oppression generation after generation. We’ve seen people live morally upright lives while those who make compromises climb to the top. Things haven’t gotten better as far as we can see. Are we supposed to just assume that there is an afterlife where things will be better?
While there are several statements that seem to point to some benefits being realized in the future, it is notable that Jesus does not say that these people will be blessed in the future. He says that are blessed in the present. He says that the kingdom currently belongs to the poor, not that it will. Most strikingly, he says that those who suffer injustice for him have their reward in heaven now not that they will someday go to heaven and be rewarded. What reward could be so great that one could rejoice while being oppressed?
Abraham and the Example of Divine Blessings
To answer this we need to go all the way back to Abraham, the grandfather of Israel. According to the Torah, Abraham was the person whom God said He would use to show the world what it means to be blessed by God.
Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing.
- Genesis 12:2
Later, after Abraham trusted in God rather than the wealth offered by an earthly king, God spoke to Abraham to further clarify his blessing.
Fear not… I am your shield and your very great reward
- Genesis 15:1
When Abraham let go of relying on earthly possessions, God declared that God himself would be Abraham’s security and his reward.
We might overlook this statement as an isolated instance until we go forward chronologically to Deuteronomy and examine a particular detail in the commandments. As part of the instructions, eleven out of the twelve tribes of Israel would receive an allotment of land as their ancestral inheritance. The one exception was the tribe of Levi, which was the tribe to which Moses and many later prophets belonged.
At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the LORD’s covenant, to stand before the LORD to serve him, and to formulate blessings in his name, as they do to this very day. Therefore Levi has no allotment or inheritance among his brothers; the LORD is his inheritance just as the LORD your God told him
- Deuteronomy 10:8–9
The Levites were called to serve God by carrying God’s presence on their shoulders and God’s blessings on their lips. Since the Levites were employed in this manner, God decreed that they would not receive any land or inheritance. In an agricultural society, possessing no land effectively made them poor. This is why they were designated to receive a tenth of everyone else’s income just like the widows and orphans did. More importantly, though, they received God as their inheritance.
The examples of Abraham and the Levites explain how the poor are blessed. They are blessed because their lack of attachment to earthly possessions allows them to possess more of God than those who have great material possessions. Like Abraham, they are meant to show the whole world what divine blessing is like. For this reason, Jesus goes on to say that his followers are the “light of the world”. Like the Levites, Jesus’s followers are meant to bless others and carry God’s presence, not as a physical structure on their shoulders but as God’s Spirit inside their bodies. This idea of being employed by God to bless others was exactly what God had in mind when he explained what it would mean for the children of Abraham to become a great nation.
Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.
- Genesis 18:18–19
Here the author of the Torah makes it clear that the reason that God blessed the children of Abraham, made a covenant with them, and gave them the commandments of the Torah was not so that they could sit back and enjoy their privilege, escape from the sufferings of the world or be proud about how they were better than other nations. The central reason why God chose a group of people was so they would create social justice and right relationships in the lives of all nations by partnering with God in their daily work. In the minds of the Israelite prophets, working to create social justice and restore human relationships is what it means to be blessed and what it means to be great.
Kendrick understands that this is the state of being to which humanity is meant to aspire. Because of the blessing-curse dichotomy, anything that keeps humanity from the blessing of having God will invariably lead to the curse of not having God. Not having God will only cause humans to further spread the curse by creating injustice rather than justice. Thus the gospel writers, implore those who want to find healing justice to pay close attention to the commandments that Jesus gives in the next section of his speech.