Sunday School was iced out this morning, so I thought I would write some of what was on my mind. There were also some significant developments on one of my book current book projects this week. A Chorus of Prophetic Voices appeared on both Amazon and the Westminster John Knox website, with a publication date of August 2, 2015, and I spent much of the snowy week in Nashville working through the copy-edited pages. The foundation of my book on the prophetic literature is that modern readers must pay careful attention to both the historical circumstances that generated the prophets, their words, and their actions, and the finished forms of the literary works that present those characters to us.
The class had asked me to lead them in a four-week study on the book of Amos, and I concluded the second lesson last week with a question for them to think about that went something like this: How can we read and make use of the prophetic literature in the modern world in a way that does not resort to finger-pointing about what may happen in the future or blaming the victims of what has happened in the past? The first part of the question emerges from the observation that while those in the class can easily point to actions of other people that violate the sense of justice in the text, there are plenty who would point to us as the violators whom God is about to judge. Using the prophetic literature to identify present day immorality and its perpetrators may be a legitimate use of the text, but is it all we can do? A close companion to this kind of reading is using the text to identify the causes of tragedy and suffering after they occur. Those reading this way might differ widely on the degree to which they believe direct divine retribution was at play, but there is choosing of sides and the blaming runs in both directions.
Today’s text was to be Amos 5, which includes: “Seek the LORD and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel with no one to quench it.” We catch only a glimpse of the person named Amos. Perhaps he is a shepherd, according to 1:1. His enemy, Amaziah, uses royal power to attack him in 7:10. This minimal character might caution readers against using accusations of injustice to gain power, and to be sure the target of such accusations are always aimed at those with greater power. Eventually, the judgments of Amos required a greater context. Internally, new material was later added onto the end of the book in 9:11-15 that changed the tone of divine intent for his audience. Externally, Amos was placed among other prophets like Hosea, Jonah, and Zechariah whose messages became a terrible personal burden for them to carry and aligning them with those who suffer judgment.