The Reverse Gospel of Amos

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of February 14. Enjoy!

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Amos begins his prophetic book with what I suggest might be referred to as the “reverse gospel.” Whereas the actual gospel is good news first revealed through the seed of Abraham and later, most poignantly and emphatically, to all nations, Amos’ condemnations from the mouth of Yahweh are just the opposite. Bad, or harsh, news filters first to Israel’s neighbors, but most critically upon Israel itself. And despite the difficulty in reasonably or confidently dating all of the oracles against the nations to Amos himself and the time in which he preached, the lesson from these sharp and biting words is not principally that Yahweh will judge them (though that is certainly important), but that Yahweh will judge Israel all the more. Yes, other nations have rebelled, but is that not to be expected given their lack of immediate inclusion within the unfolding revelation of Yahweh? Yet Israel, which had been given the promises of Yahweh, wasted them given that they “sell the righteous for silver . . . trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,” and “lay themselves down beside every altar” (Am 2:6-8 NRSV). Judah, for its part, has also “rejected the law of [Yahweh], and have not kept his statutes” (Am 2:4 NRSV). So while the other nations have committed innumerable acts against Israel and Judah, Israel and Judah have committed graver sins against Yahweh.

This is reflective of Jesus’ words in the parable of the faithful servant: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Lk 12:48 NRSV). Israel and Judah have been given much—indeed, they have been given Yahweh himself! Through their actions, however, they have chosen to squander, or at least disregard, the promise that through them the nations of the world would be blessed (Gn 12:3), and have practiced their desire to become like the other nations (1 Sm 8:20). As Victor H. Matthews cogently explains, Amos develops a message through a rhetorical strategy of judgment upon other nations as a gradual, yet grandiose, crescendo to his ultimate message of condemnation against Israel.[1]

Amos’ repeated admonitions to “seek [Yahweh] and live” (Am 5:6 NRSV) are closely connected to the Day of Yahweh. While it may be more germane to the text to imagine an inverse as seek not-Yahweh and die, I believe the modern body of believers can take even more meaning if the passage from Amos is interpreted as seek Yahweh and live as Yahweh intended you to live. In rejecting basic commands to resolutely pursue justice for all people and worship Yahweh with authenticity, Israel may be physically alive, but is spiritually and communally dead. Yahweh yearns for his people to return to right relationships, both with one’s neighbors and one’s God, and therefore also be alive in community and in worship. The book of Hosea conveys a similar theme in comparing Israel’s conduct to prostitution, as when Yahweh commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking [Yahweh]” (Hos 1:2 NRSV).

Amos may also teach us that the prophetic word can lose its sting when indictment and condemnation are so quickly followed by a fluffy pillow of reassurance and blessing. Though this pattern displays a beautiful theological message in the context of Isaiah, Jeremiah and others, Amos tugs more strongly at the notion of a collective, required repentance. Matthews writes, “Amos does not waste words on deaf ears. He simply tells them all what they need to know to live and leaves it to them to act on this advice.”[2] Such a message is in contrast to the guarantee that Yahweh will relent in Hosea: “I will not execute my fierce anger . . . for I am God and no mortal” (Hos 11:9 NRSV). Though sharp and biting words alone may seize our attention, thank-fully, the ways of man are not the way of Yahweh and our gospel is not presented in reverse.


[1] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 68-69.

[2] Ibid., 69.

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