When God would set his program with Israel in abeyance for the ushering in an unprophecied age with us Gentiles. From the time that God sent Moses to deliver them from their Egyptian captivity, Israel was give things to see, to witness for themselves in order to visually verify God’s presence and his purpose with them, yet, for all the visual evidences that God gave to Israel, Israel would not believe God.
This isn’t the first time Israel would not believe. The fall of Jerusalem shattered the national and territorial basis of Israel’s culture and religion. The Babylonians had burned the temple to the ground, they carried away most of the people to exile, to life in exile in Babylon, leaving behind mostly members of the lower classes to eke out a living as best they could. And it was the completion of the tragedy that had begun centuries earlier, and it was interpreted as a fulfillment of the covenant curses.
It was the end of the Davidic monarchy, although the son of Jeholakim was alive and living in Babylon, kind of holding out hope that the line hadn’t actually been killed out, hadn’t been completely wiped out. But the institution seemed to have come to an end for now. It was the end of the temple, the end of the priesthood, the end of Israel as a nation; as an autonomous nation, the Israelites were confronted with a great test.
One could see in these events a signal that Yahweh had abandoned Israel to, or had been defeated by the god of the Babylonians, and Marduk would replace Yahweh, as the Israelites assimilated themselves into their new home. And certainly there were Israelites who went that route, but others who were firmly rooted in exclusive Yahwism did not.
Yahweh hadn’t been defeated, the nations’s calamities were not disproof of Yahweh’s power and covenant, they were proof of it. Yahweh’s desire for morality as expressed in the ancient covenant, the prophets had spoken truly when they had said that destruction would follow, if the people didn’t turn from their moral and religious violations of Yahweh’s law. The defeat and the exile had the potential to convince Israelites of the need to show absolute and undivided devotion to Yahweh and his commandments.
Vehement denunciation moral decay and social injustice of the period, leading up to the fall of the northern kingdom and southern kingdom of Israel. A prophet criticizes the sins of the nation, he is critical of everyone, the middle class, the government, the king, the establishment, the priesthood; they’re all plagued by a superficial kind of piety. Amos, and all the prophets, the idea of covenant prescribes a particular relationship with Yahweh, but not only with Yahweh; also with one’s fellow human beings.
The two are interlinked. It is a sign of closeness to Yahweh that one is concerned for Israel’s poor and needy. The two are completely interlinked. Amos denounces the wealthy. He denounces the powerful and the way they treat the poor. The crimes that are denounced, are crimes that are prevalent in any society in any era. The crimes that are denounced as being utterly unacceptable to Yahweh, infuriating Yahweh to the point of destruction of the nation, are the kinds of crimes we see around us everyday, taking bribes, improper weights and balances, lack of charity to the poor, indifference to the plight of the debtor.
Injustice is sacrilege, the ideals of the covenant are of utmost importance. These prophets are called the standard bearers of the covenant, harking back to the covenant obligations. And without these, without the ideals of the covenant, the fulfillment of ritual obligations in and of itself is a farce. Morality is not just an obligation equal in importance to the cult or religious obligations, but that morality is perhaps superior to the cult.
What Yahweh requires of Israel is morality and not cultic service. The prophets raised morality to the level of an absolute religious value, and they did so because they saw morality as essentially divine. The essence of Yahweh is his moral nature. Moral attributes are the essence of Yahweh himself, one strives to be Yahweh-like by imitating his moral actions. The prophets insisted that morality was a decisive, if not the decisive factor in the nations’ history; Israel’s acceptance of Yahweh’s covenant placed certain religious and moral demands on her.
One sin is singled out as being historically decisive for the nation. Other sins are punished, absolutely. But only one is singled out as historically decisive for the nation, and that is the sin of idolatry, particularly the idolatry of the royal house. The tragic history of the two kingdoms as essentially a sequence of idolatrous aberrations, which were followed by punishment. And this cycle continued until finally there had to be complete destruction.
While it is certainly true that moral sins and other religious sins in Israel were punishable, it is really only the worship of other gods that brings about national collapse, national exile. Idolatry was what provoked Yahweh to drive the nation into exile. The prophets are claiming that the nation is doomed because of commonplace wrongs, because of bribe-taking, because of false scales and false weights that are being used in the marketplace.
For the prophets, the national catastrophes are just punishment for sin, but not just the sin of idolatry, for all sins no matter how petty, no matter how venial, because all sins violate the terms of the covenant code, which is given specially to Israel. And the terms of the covenant-being vassals to the sovereign Yahweh means treating co-vassals in a particular way, and it is breach of covenant not to do that.
The prophets were harking back to an older tradition, to ancient traditions about Israel and its covenant relationship, traditions according to which Israel’s redemption and election entailed moral obligations. The prophets warned that unless they changed, the people were going to suffer the punishment that was due them.
And, in fact, the people were very foolish to be eagerly awaiting or eagerly expecting what was popularly known as the Day of Yahweh. And so the prophets refer to the Day of Yahweh as if it were a popular conception out there in the general culture. It was a popular idea at the time that on some future occasion, Yahweh would dramatically intervene in world affairs and he would do so on Israel’s behalf.
Yahweh would lead Israel in victory over her enemies. They would be punished. Israel would be restored to her full and former glory. And that day, the Day of Yahweh, in the popular mind, was going to be a marvelous day, a day of victory for Israel, triumph for Israel and a day of vengeance on her enemies. The people are very confident that this is going to be a day of light, a day of blessing, a day of victory.
But the prophets, according to them, if there is no change, then this Day of Yahweh is not going to be some glorious thing that the people should be eagerly awaiting. It’s not going to be a day of triumph for Israel. It will not be a day of vengeance on her enemies. It’s going to be a dark day of destruction. It is going to be a day of doom, when Yahweh will finally call his own people to account. The prophets transformed the popular image of the Day of Yahweh from one of national triumph, to one of national judgment.