Amos: Iron Age Theologian in the Public Square

Feast of Theophany and St Theophane the Recluse

Amos_Square.jpegAMOS HAS long been one of my heroes. His boldness in bringing an unpopular message to the antagonistic Northern Kingdom of Israel (he was from the Southern Kingdom of Judah) is admirable. His faithfulness to God in accepting a role that he had not been trained for is astounding (“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” 7:14). His message of social justice is timeless. His ingenuity in crafting the biblical genre of literary prophecy is astonishing (without Amos, it can be argued that we would not have received the treasures that are Isaiah and Jeremiah). And finally, his clever use of rhetoric is amazing. Considering the topic of this year’s Eighth Day Symposium, “Theology in the Public Square,” Amos comes to mind, confronting Israel with God’s Word at their shrine in Bethel. Amos models for us at least four aspects of doing theology in public.

1. Theology is not just for specialists.
Amos was a farmer when God gave him a message and told him to go deliver it. When he denies being a prophet, what he is probably doing is carefully distinguishing himself from the recognized school of prophets that we hear of assembling around the likes of Samuel and Elijah.  He was not anointed, i.e., ordained. He was truly a lay preacher. Theology is for everybody, and the more all of us who share in the common priesthood of the faithful actively engage in it, the more we can expect to see God speak to the culture in which we live.

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2. Theology should make careful use of rhetoric and aesthetic.
Amos says a lot of hard things to Israel. He tells them that they can expect judgment (2:6), that their worship is worthless (5:22), and calls their women “cows of Bashan” (4:1)! How did he ever get away with it? Why wasn’t he run out on a rail before the end of chapter 3?

I suspect it is first of all because Amos began his message with some jabs at the surrounding rival nations, including Judah where he was from, before letting Israel have it. This garnered him some sympathy. It also lent credibility to his message; this wasn’t just some nationalistic diatribe. He had condemnation for his own people, as well.

But Amos’ words are also beautiful. Even though most of his audience surely must have disagreed with him, they were willing to listen because he spoke to them in poetry and with vivid word pictures. His words were also couched, ultimately, in hope. As public theologians, we have to do more than spew data about God to our culture. Our message has to be enveloped in beauty. (Liturgical renewal is surely a key component of this! By carefully composing his message in such exalted language, Amos was actually contributing to the liturgy of the Jewish people by writing a book worthy to be included in their Sabbath lectionary).

3. The goal of theology is conversion.
Even a cursory reading of Amos will tell you that the goal of his message is very clear: “Seek the Lord and live,” (5:6).

We do not engage in theology as some esoteric, intellectual exercise. Theology has to be practical. As theologians, we encounter God as revealed in Jesus Christ through prayer, liturgical worship, and study—especially of the Scripture—and each encounter is an invitation to further conversion. When we bring the fruit of our prayer, worship and study out into the public, we should have the same goals and desires for those with whom we share. We want everyone to encounter Jesus and His invitation to conversion. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). If we share our theological knowledge without the goal of conversion for ourselves and our audience, we are in danger of getting puffy.

4. Theologians have to be content with meager immediate results.
There may have been a few who responded to Amos’ words with conversion, but sadly, most of Israel rejected him and his message, and the offer of grace that was bound up in it. Within thirty years or so, all of his warnings came to pass because of Israel’s failure to repent. Assyria invaded, and the Ten Northern Tribes of Israel disappeared.

But it would be foolish to call Amos a failure. Someone, perhaps Amos himself, had the foresight to write his sermons down in a book, and it became a sleeper success; not in its intended audience in the North, but in the South. He seems to have served as inspiration for the northern prophet Hosea (whose ministry followed closely upon that of Amos’) and later southern prophets would echo Amos in their own warnings to the people of Judah. Ultimately, we owe a lot more to Amos than just the little book bearing his name.

Amos is thus a patron saint for the public theologians in our current era. Cultural engagement is usually a discouraging affair. We are told, in essence, “the land is not able to bear all our words” (7:10). (Would that our opponents were as articulate as Amaziah the priest!). We dare not be silent, but we have to be realistic, as well. Just speaking God’s Word to our culture does not necessarily mean that our culture will experience conversion. We have to come to grips with the possibility that it may be too late for our particular civilization, as it was too late for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But we can trust in the God of Amos that our faithfulness in bearing forth this message will in some mysterious manner bear fruit, even as Amos’ faithfulness did.

Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University who specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.

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