Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters (Amos 5-6) by Samuel Thomas

All prophets in the Hebrew Bible exhibit moral outrage, but Amos seems to have been downright hopping mad. Amos lived in the eighth century B.C.E., and though he was from a southern Judean town called Tekoa, he preached his message of judgment and reform to the prosperous populations in northern Israel, especially in Bethel and Samaria.

According to the book that bears his name, Amos did not really consider himself a prophet, instead claiming to be a humble agriculturalist who could not resist speaking the word of God (Amos 7:14, Amos 3:8). Perhaps an astute reader of the signs of the times, he proclaimed a message of total disaster for Israel shortly in advance of the Assyrian destruction of the kingdom in 722 B.C.E. This may explain why his message was preserved and expanded in the decades and centuries to follow. The book of Amos records the sayings of the prophetic figure Amos and those who carried on his tradition.

Why was Amos angry, and why did he speak in oracles and metaphors?

Throughout the text, Amos voices prophetic rage against the injustices of the day. The entire book is given to denouncing the excesses of eighth-century B.C.E. Israelite life and reminding people of their true covenantal obligations. Those who are “at ease in Zion” and “feel secure on Mount Samaria,” who “lie on beds of ivory” and “eat lambs from the flock,” will “be the first to go into exile” (Amos 6:1-7) because they have forgotten the plight of the poor and mistaken religious observance and piety for moral responsibility.

Amos’ sayings are often in the form of judgment oracles (sometimes called “woe oracles”) and messenger speeches (“Thus says the Lord …”). Many of the oracles in Amos 5-6 are likely original to the historical prophet even if they underwent some editorial modification in later centuries. Amos 5-6 includes some of the most striking and poetic imagery in all of the Hebrew Bible. Amos 5 begins as a dirge, a song of death, mourning in advance an Israel “fallen, no more to rise,” and condemning the people who “turn justice to wormwood” (Amos 5:1-2, Amos 5:7).

This kind of poetic, symbolic language characterizes prophetic speech in the Hebrew Bible more generally, and yet in Amos it becomes an unrelenting expression of divine wrath. Amos converts comforting images of home and abundance into devastating instruments of judgment: “You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (Amos 5:11).

And these chapters employ themes from nature to convey what the “day of the Lord”—a future time of reckoning—will be like. Though people may expect it to be a good day, it will instead be like a fire that consumes everything in its path, like fleeing from a lion only to confront a bear or resting at home and being bitten by a snake (Amos 5:6, Amos 5:19). Though other biblical texts depict the “day of the Lord” as a day when the Lord will destroy Israel’s foes, Amos presents it as a day of judgment against Israel.

If Amos were alive today, what might he say?

Perhaps the most famous line from the book is Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” The context of this powerful statement is a prophetic denunciation of the “sacrifices and meal offerings” of a people who have failed to keep the covenant, which is constituted by justice and fairness. Throughout Amos 5-6, the prophet lashes out against those who have become rich at the expense of the poor and against public—but hollow—displays of piety. According to Amos, God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Religious devotion is meaningless if it is accompanied by unfair taxes on the poor, backdoor bribes, and working against those in need (Amos 5:11-12).

Because of these sentiments, this passage has become an important source for some observers of contemporary American religious and political culture. I think Amos would disapprove of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding increase in poverty, and he would rage against the displays of self-importance and exceptionalism in some quarters of American life.

According to Amos, a nation is exceptional by the measure of how it cares for the lowest members of society; and a nation of religious hypocrisy and economic injustice is one that will perish. John Winthrop expressed the message of Amos in his famous work “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630); he knew that for the Puritan legacy to be a “light unto the nations” and a “city upon a hill,” the community would have to be based upon principles of justice, fairness, and regard for others, “that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.” More recently, Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the phrase “let justice roll down like water” in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), in which he addresses the moral laxity of his fellow Southern clergymen during the Civil Rights movement.

Samuel Thomas, "Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters", n.p. [cited 29 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/let-justice-roll-down-like-waters-amos-5--6

Contributors

Samuel Thomas

Samuel Thomas
Associate Professor, California Lutheran University

Samuel Thomas is associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University. He teaches and writes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and religion and ecology.

Amos 5-6 contains some of the most moving poetry in the Hebrew Bible and strongly denounces religious hypocrisy and economic inequality.

Did you know…?

  • Amos 5:27 plays an important role in the Damascus Document, an important Essene text from among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • Amos was the first among several important Israelite prophets in the eighth century B.C.E., including Hosea and Isaiah.
  • Amos was the first prophet to use the term “the day of the Lord,” which is found in other biblical texts from later periods.
  • Amos refers to himself as a “dresser of sycamore trees,” a job description that has puzzled interpreters over the centuries.
  • The book of Amos has a complicated compositional and editorial history.
  • Amos describes several “visions” whose meanings hinge on Hebrew puns.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Amos 7:14

14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,

Amos 3:8

8The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord GOD has spoken;
who can but prophesy?

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Amos 5-6

A Lament for Israel's Sin
1Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:2Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her ... View more

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

A formal category of prophetic oracle or lament.

Amos 6:1-7

Complacent Self-Indulgence Will Be Punished
1Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
the notables of the first o ... View more

Amos 5-6

A Lament for Israel's Sin
1Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:2Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her ... View more

Amos 5-6

A Lament for Israel's Sin
1Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:2Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her ... View more

Amos 5

A Lament for Israel's Sin
1Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:2Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her ... View more

Amos 5:1-2

A Lament for Israel's Sin
1Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:2Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her ... View more

Amos 5:7

7Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!

Amos 5:11

11Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have pl ... View more

Amos 5:6

6Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.

Amos 5:19

19as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.

Amos 5-6

A Lament for Israel's Sin
1Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:2Fallen, no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her ... View more

Amos 5:21

21I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Amos 5:11-12

11Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have pl ... View more

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Amos 5:27

27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.

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