Monthly Archives: October 2011

Amos & Hosea: Injustice and infidelity

I can see that a challenge for the year will be distinguishing one prophet from another, especially when they are Minor Prophets (small collections) and contemporaries. We begin with Amos, active 760-750 B.C., and Hosea, active 750-730 B.C. They both prophesied in Israel (the Northern Kingdom) during the reign of King Jeroboam II. Hosea’s ministry extended beyond the prosperous years of Jeroboam’s reign to the chaotic years that followed.

Hosea the prophet, Russian icon from first qua...

Hosea

Actually, I did study these prophets briefly in another Bible class, and Hosea shall always stand out because of what we know of his personal life. His wife betrayed him and slept with others. Scholars believe she was a temple prostitute before the marriage and returned to that practice at some point; two of their three children were by other men. God commanded Hosea to forgive her and take her back into his home.

Hosea’s distinctive theme is marriage as a metaphor for the covenant. Idolatry, a major violation of the covenant, equates to harlotry in Hosea’s mind. He empathizes with God in his experience of rejection, infidelity, and restoring love.

“Again the Lord said to me: Go, love a woman who is loved by her spouse but commits adultery; Just as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods….” (Hosea 3:1, NAB)

Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon

Amos

To Amos, the principal sin is injustice. He rails against economic exploitation of the poor and the weak, against bribery, corruption, and sexual sins, as well as idolatry. While Amos strikes only one note, of judgment, Hosea balances it with tenderness and mercy.

Other differences:
Amos: A native of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), he is the first prophet with a book to his name. He draws upon his experiences of shepherding a flock in the desert wilderness; he was also a dresser of sycamore trees. After 10 years, he is banished from Israel by Amaziah, the priest ministering the king’s sanctuary at Bethel.
Hosea: The only writing prophet who was a native of Israel, he frequently refers to agricultural themes and fertility. Possibly he was a baker or farmer. He portrays God as a loving and forgiving parent as well as spouse. He makes the covenant the center of his theology.

Few are guilty, all are responsible

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) ...

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, participating in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965.

The opposite of good, wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel, is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.

This theme resounds throughout his book The Prophets (Harper Perennial Classics, 2001), originally a doctoral dissertation titled “The Prophetic Consciousness.” I am so pleased we have this Jewish perspective as one of our texts this year.

Heschel, a native of Warsaw, escaped Hitler’s Germany and fled to New York City, arriving in 1940. His mother and three of his sisters in Poland were murdered by the Nazis. The experiences left him with a firm commitment to his faith and the same incessant demand for justice that tormented the classical prophets. Heschel later became involved in the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, and with the antiwar movement.

Here are some of his powerful insights about society and callousness. I find them chilling. Are we not often indifferent to suffering today? Are we at once “decent and sinister, pious and evil”?

“Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.” (page 19)

“The source of evil is not in passion, in the throbbing heart, but rather in hardness of heart, in callousness and insensitivity.” (pages 331-332)

“There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. … One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.” (page 364)

Messengers of God

Пророческий ряд. Около 1502 года. Из Собора Ро...

We are studying the great prophets of the period before the exile. In order: Amos, Hosea, First Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Jeremiah. In later units, exile prophets Obadiah, Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Third Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah; then post-exile prophets Joel, Malachi, and Zechariah.

Already we sense the differences between these so-called classical or latter prophets and the early or former prophets we studied in Year 1, including Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha.

First the similarities. Both groups:

  • Spoke the words of God.
  • Had a strong sense of the tradition of the covenant.
  • Spoke for those without a voice.
  • Believed that in order to be God’s people, Israel had to be morally upright.
  • Experienced the spirit of God. The former prophets experienced it rushing upon them, while the latter prophets experienced it in a way not described, as the source of prophetic messages.

Now the differences:

EARLY PROPHETS: Primarily men of deeds not of words. Often on the payroll of kings or temples, they could be called on for visions or predictions in time of need. They discerned divine will for specific occasions and specific individuals. Sometimes they were involved in revolts, coups d’état, harem intrigues or the like. Some were members of organized groups that favored ecstatic behavior rather than messages to be delivered. We have no collections of their oracles but instead extensive narratives about their deeds.

LATTER PROPHETS: Emphasis was more on the word than on action. They acted individually and their mission was identified with being a bearer of God’s word. They did not engage in intrigues but attempted to influence policy by carrying the word before kings and people. They spoke to the whole nation. They challenged popular but false values while exhorting people to rediscover the covenant and reverse evil ways. We know little about their lives (Jeremiah being the exception), but have first-person accounts of several of the calls. We have books or collections of oracles bearing their names.


Getting a handle on prophecy

Our lessons in this first part of Year 3 demand that we put aside modern notions of prophecy. The prophets of the Bible are not soothsayers but speakers of the truth–God’s truth, that is. And God doesn’t just put words on their lips. He rages in their hearts. God’s presence is a challenge, an incessant demand.

Prophets are subversive. They rock the status quo, exposing and confronting ideologies and idolatries. Called by God to lead Israel back to covenant faith, they challenge the way of life of the powerful as well as common people. They speak for those without a voice—the poor, the underprivileged, victims of injustice.

Cover of "The Prophets"

The prophet is a witness to God’s concern for human beings. He participates in the decisions made by God and by his angelic advisors. The point of view is not his own but God’s. He feels fiercely. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, author of one of our texts, The Prophets, calls this “the divine pathos”—that is, the prophet taps into God’s emotions: love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. It’s as if he puts on a magic pair of glasses and sees everything with the eyes of God.

It’s no wonder that prophets feel forlorn and beset. The image on the cover of Heschel’s book expresses it perfectly: a sainted man alone with his thoughts, perhaps misunderstood.

Hard hearts and broken hearts

One more concept from People of God that lingers with me: the broken heart. It means a humble and contrite spirit—essentially a heart open to God. A return to the heart (see previous post) does not take place without some experience of brokenness.

LeClerc makes the point that hard hearts are all too common in today’s world: Life with its struggles for priorities, its ambitions, its fears, and its desire to succeed and dominate can harden hearts and allow aggression and resentment to accumulate within … And the worst hardening is not that of one’s feelings. It is rather the steely, cold, and withering harshness of intelligence.” We pride ourselves on self-reliance and close ourselves in a small world. (Taken to an extreme, this would be a form of atheism.)

A broken heart, often experienced in crisis, shatters that world. We are dazzled and wounded by the holiness of God. The cracks in the heart allow the spirit of God and his living, healing waters to flow through. Only then, says LeClerc, when we allow ourselves to be dispossessed of self-sufficiency and the will to power, can we rediscover our true selves in communion with God and the world.

I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart.

Ezekiel 11:19 (NAB)