Beware, I will crush you into the ground
as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves.
Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong man shall not retain his strength;
The warrior shall not save his life,
nor the bowman stand his ground;
The swift of foot shall not escape,
nor the horseman save his life.
And the most stouthearted of warriors
shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD.
The Hebrew Prophets addressed Israel and Judah in a turbulent world. These two minor nations lay on the road from Egypt to Assyria and Mesopotamia. Caravans of expensive cloths, spices and ointments moved continually through their neighborhoods. News of distant wars and insurrections, of approaching armies, plague, droughts and famine swept like waves over this vulnerable population.
Their relationship to the great powers of the ancient world may be compared to the relationship between Mexico and United States: When the US sneezes, Mexico catches cold. They knew insecurity; they lived with it. On the rare occasion that they amassed any fortune worth pillaging, it was pillaged by their powerful neighbors. If they supposed the world should be different, they knew it wasn’t.
Their national identity revolved around the story of God’s bringing them out of Egypt. They had been slaves; they were free. They had been exiles; they were now in the homeland God had promised to Abraham and given to them at the time of Moses and Aaron. This myth implied they were “God’s holy people,” and they should be as generous to the needy as God had been generous to them when they were needy. That was how they showed their gratitude; that and their faithful worship of God with their religious rituals.
The Hebrew Prophets, sensitive to God’s Spirit who regards the least and the greatest as equal, warned continually that God would not abide indifference or injustice among his holy people. There was no place for miserliness, cheating or bribery. Even preferring one's countrymen over aliens in judicial trials was not God's way. If they ignored God's sovereign law despite all He had done for them, they would be abandoned to the fate of other nations. To assume that God's fidelity meant they could be unfaithful was sheer madness.
Among the Hebrew prophets, Amos comes off as one of the most negative. Amos’ God sounds vindictive; he appears to be the very image of the "Old Testament God."
This is all very complicated. Twenty-eight centuries removed from this almost-prehistoric situation, how do we interpret these scripture verses? Clearly, they should not be read in isolation, as if “the text speaks for itself.” Only the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can interpret the Scriptures.
Perhaps we should hear in Amos’ threats the anxiety of parents who cannot protect their children from the powerful forces all around him. They have survived only because they have trusted in God; they fear that their children will not imitate them. But if the children ignore their call and election, if they behave like those who neither know God nor remember his mercy, if they ignore the enormous resource of their faith, they will certainly lose the only advantage their parents ever had.
What do they do? When reasoning fails, parents cajole, beg, threaten, plead and demand. They have nothing but words and they seem powerless.
The Book of the prophet Amos is filled with this anxiety. As a prophet and type of Christ his helpless, angry urgency reminds us of Jesus’ helplessness, especially as we see his hands and feet nailed to the cross. From that high, helpless place he cannot come down to persuade us or force us to do anything; nor can he rescue us from our foolishness. He can only die for us and, by that, draw us into Communion. Parents and grandparents especially know that experience.