More than 2,800 years ago the prophet Amos lived in the land of Israel. This was a time when elites governed the land, when the establishment had lost touch with the common folk and few people trusted any source of information.
It was an angry time, and a time in which many talked but few listened; when too many people were so sure they were right that they saw no need even to consider another's viewpoint.
As if often the case with the prophets found in Hebrew Scripture, we know very little about the prophet and the history of his book. What we do know is the eternal wisdom that Amos bequeathed to us who live in a different millennium and in different locations. Like so many of the prophets, Amos' personal biographic information is scarce. Biblical historians date his life from the eight-century BCE. It appears that he wrote his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam.
From the limited amount of data that we have, it appears Amos lived in a time of great political anguish and contradictions. It was a time that people tended to believe every rumor and in the end believed nothing. The most minor issue became a political debate and too many citizens lost their perspective as to what was and was not important. During his lifetime, to use a modern phrase, at least on paper, Israel was prosperous. In reality, however, only a few families or clans controlled most of the nation's wealth. Might this be the reason that we often think of Amos as the "father of social justice"? Amos castigated the extravagance of the Northern Kingdom's government and elites, about whom he wrote: "[They] trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth" (2:7).
Amos lived in a time of greed and social inequality in which those who claimed they wanted to help the poor often hurt them. It was a period of political double-speak and one in which few trusted their leaders. Politicians tore each other apart in what appeared to be in the words of Thomas Hobbes: "Bellum omnium contra omnes -- a war of all against all".
Perhaps what shocked the prophet more than anything else is that the elites of that era actually believed their own pronouncements. That is to say, those in the elites had convinced themselves that their actions were not hypocritical but simply just. These were days when politics took precedence over people and the poor languished while the ancient Israel's elites claimed the moral high ground. Reading Amos' book, we come to realize that the prophet teaches us that he came to realize that change can never happen when authorities are not willing to recognize the errors of their ways.
Amos' famous statements about caring for the poor and taking care of the weak are known to every Jewish child, as well as others who study Hebrew literature. Although his works, like all the prophetic works, are intrinsically Jewish, his message has a universal appeal that goes far beyond the borders of Israel or the Jewish people. Statements such as "And let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24) have been repeated ever since he wrote those words. His influence on people such as Martin Luther King Jr. goes without saying.
Amos did not mince words. He simply stated what he believed to be correct. Even today, Amos stands out as someone who not merely represented the poor and downtrodden but was also not afraid to confront the rich and powerful. Amos understood that many of the wealthy, the so-called intellectuals and artists, and those in control of communication had lost touch with the needs of the everyday citizen of Biblical Israel. He saw these people as wallowing in self-righteousness and arrogance. Amos believed that these "intellectuals" were so sure of themselves that they could not imagine themselves to be wrong. From Amos' perspective, a nation governed by self-righteous elites was bound to fail.
Amos lived in a time when many believed Israel, by nature of its special relationship to God, to be invincible. Amos could not have disagreed more. Instead, he argued that to be a special people signifies an even greater responsibility to others and to one's own citizens. Israel was to be a light to the nations, a symbol of righteousness and justice for all peoples to emulate.
Amos was not a pessimist. Despite his harsh criticism of Biblical Israel's elites and governing bodies, he was a firm believer in the connection of the people of Israel to the land of Israel, and both to God. For Amos, both the land and the people of Israel were holy, and holiness meant social responsibility.
How poignant are Amos's words to the nations and politicians of today. As we in Texas, and our fellow citizens in Florida, along with those who live in the Caribbean and Mexico seek to rebuild our communities and lives what might Amos have to say to us today?
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.