Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.
The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.
I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:
Thus said God:
Because of three revolts of Israel,
And because of four, I will not accept it:
Because of selling the innocent for silver,
And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)
The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.
The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:
Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,
They stretch the path of the needy.
A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah
For the sake of profaning My holy name.
And on garments taken as security [for debts]
They stretch out beside every altar.
And wine from fines they charged
They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)
na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.
The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars. (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)
The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,
I raised up some of your children for neviyim,
And some of your youths for nezirim.
Is this also nothing, children of Israel?
neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.
nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)
The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.
But you made the nezirim drink wine,
And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lo tinavu! (Amos 2:11-12)
Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy! Lo (לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba (נִבָּא).
Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.
Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.
Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:
If misfortune happens in a town,
Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)
This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.
By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:
Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing
Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)
Then Amos finishes his list:
A lion has roared;
Who will not be afraid?
My lord God has spoken;
Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.
Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.
Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God. Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?
Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.
Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.
May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.
1See my post Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense. In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)
2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)