1.3.3 Prophetic critique of political and economic power in Israel

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Unit 1 Contents

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According to the biblical histories, especially the book of Judges, there was a period of at least 200 years after the Israelites entered the Promised Land when they had no king.  Rather, their rulers were the ‘judges’ of which that book speaks.  During this period, the prophetic tradition had not really emerged.

Indeed it seems that it is the very fact of the monarchy – that is, rule by a single person who is above all others – which prompts the emergence of prophets.  As you may know the first Israelite king was Saul, who was followed by David and then Solomon.  Historians date the start of the Israelite monarchy at around the year 1010 BCE.

The first reading on this screen is an utterly fascinating passage which marks the shift from the period of the judges to the monarchy.  It portrays the people going to Samuel, who is the judge who has ruled them, and demanding a king so that they can be “like other nations”.

But Samuel warns them against it.  God is their king and they don’t need any other king.  Samuel continues by spelling out in clear and strong terms why it will be no good for them to have a king.  Basically the king will exploit them economically and rule them oppressively.

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Reading  (1p.)

1 Samuel 8 (whole chapter)

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This passage has a powerfully prophetic tone to it, in the sense that it denounces the abuse of power.  It is fascinating that Samuel is one of the first people in the biblical story of Israel who is referred to as a prophet (1 Sam. 3:20).  It’s as though as soon as the monarchy comes on to the agenda, the potential for abuse of power that is inherent in it demands the emergence of a prophetic voice to hold it to account.

One of the odd things about this chapter is that God concedes to the people’s demand.  But once the monarchy is in place, the historical narrative soon includes accounts of prophets.  It seems that the price of God’s concession is his calling of prophets who will rail very publicly against the monarchs’ sins.

During the reign of David, the prophet appears as someone who, even though he might be a regular in the king’s court, challenges and rebukes the monarch for acting unjustly.  The classic case here follows David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, when the prophet Nathan presents a prophetic parable to David (2 Samuel 11-12).

While there are several such prophetic figures who appear in the historical narratives from the time of King David onwards, the earliest prophet whose oracles are preserved in a biblical book under his own name is Amos.

We are going to focus on Amos, given that it is not feasible to look at more than one prophetic books within this unit.  Here is an outline of the structure of the book of Amos:

1:1-2          Introduction

1:3 – 2:3      Oracles against foreign nations

2:4-16        Oracles against Judah and Israel

3:1 – 6:14    Judgments on Israel

7:1 – 9:6      Amos’s visions

9:7-15        Future hope

Amos lived around 250 years after the start of the monarchy and historians date his book to c.760-750 BCE.  By that time, the original united kingdom of David had long since separated into two – called Judah in the south and Israel in the north.

The prophecies of Amos were directed against the northern kingdom, Israel. Their purpose was to call the kingdom to repentance from their sins of injustice and to warn of God’s holy judgment.  The northern kingdom was destroyed by forces of the Assyrian Empire just a few decades later in 722 BCE.

In a moment you will be asked to read much of the (short) book of Amos.  It contains one of the most powerful passages in all of the prophetic books, chapter 5.  To understand this chapter, you have to know that the courts, where judgment took place, met at the city gate (see vv. 10, 12, 15).  The prophet is calling for the courts to be open, so that the aggrieved and exploited, who have cases they desperately need to bring, can come to the courts, get a fair hearing and have a just judgment handed down.

Given this emphasis in chapter 5 on the needy getting justice ‘at the gate’, the best way of understanding perhaps the most famous verse in the chapter, v. 24, is to read it in this context.  The word often translated as ‘justice’ in English more literally means ‘judgment’, in the sense of what the court hands down.  (The Hebrew is mishpat.)  The prophet is appealing for the courts to work as they ought to – that is, for the sake of the righteous who are afflicted and the needy who are pushed aside (5:12).  His call is: “But let judgment role down like waters, justice like and ever-flowing stream”.  Let the courts be open!  Let justice be done!  Let the backlog of cases flood through!

Amos warned of God’s judgment because those with power failed to use it to ensure just human judgment in their public life.

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Reading (14pp)

Amos 1:1 – 6:8 and 9:7 – end

Note

Amos’s words about God’s judgment are extremely strong.  You might like to look also at the short passage in Chapter 7 which makes clear that those against whom he spoke found them much too strong: Amos 7:10-17.

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The next reading comes from the book edited by David Matzko McCarthy that you need to have to hand in doing this module.  This speaks about Amos, and also about the passage in Exodus 22 which you read earlier.  It brings together quite well the study of various Old Testament passages you have just done.

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Reading (8pp)

Birge, ‘Biblical Justice’, in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, pp. 18-26

Note

Sr Mary Kate Birge brings out especially well the significance of the practice of a person giving their coat in pledge which is referred to in both Exodus 22 and Amos 2.

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Reflection

Amos’s prophetic critique of abuse of power in Israel comes from 2750 years ago.  The fact that we still read a text that originates as long ago as that is quite astonishing in itself.

But how does it bear on our time and place?  Does it at all?

If it does, how could prophetic critique that is in some way like Amos’s be articulated effectively now?  Who should do it?

As we shall see, some of the documents of CST can easily be seen as in line with the prophetic tradition in Scripture.

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End of 1.3.3

Go to 1.3.4 The prophetic strand in the New Testament

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