Cows of Bashan

“Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, that oppress the poor, that crush the needy, that say unto their lords, ‘Bring, and let us drink.’
The Lord GOD hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that they shall take you away with hooks, and your residue with fish-hooks. And ye shall go out at the breaches, every one straight before her; and ye shall cast yourselves into Harmon,” saith the LORD (Amos 4:1-3).

Amos does not have many kind words for those who were comfortable and wealthy in Israel. The women are no exception.

He begins by calling them “kine,” or cows, of Bashan (Amos 4:1). Bashan is in the northeastern part of Israel across the Jordan, around the Golan area today (cf. Deuteronomy 4:43), and was famous for its pastureland and timber (Jeremiah 50:14, Ezekiel 27:6, 39:18, Micah 7:14). These “cows of Bashan” actually live in Samaria, and so the reference is clearly derogatory: these women are those who “graze” upon the best of the land. It was not a pleasant reference, and it was not meant to be; women have never taken kindly to being compared with cows.

Amos’ accusation is quite specific: these women have oppressed the poor and crushed the needy while demanding more drink from their husbands (Amos 4:1). They enjoy their wealth and prosperity today, but Amos warns them about the days to come when they will be thoroughly humiliated and denigrated: every last one of them will be carried off as exiles (Amos 4:2-3). God has sworn by His holiness that it will take place; it has been firmly decreed; it will not be revoked (Amos 4:2; cf. Hebrews 6:13). Within 50 years of Amos’ prediction, it did come to pass: Assyria overran Israel, and its inhabitants were exiled to Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-41).

We do well to reflect a moment about Amos’ condemnation of the noblewomen of Samaria. He accuses them of oppressing the poor and crushing the needy, and yet it is hard to imagine that any of these women were ever out on the streets actively harming the poor or needy. They would not have engaged in business dealings, court bribery, adaptation of laws to benefit the rich and further impoverishing the poor, or other such behaviors promoting injustice and oppression. Their husbands were the ones doing so! But what was at least part of the reason behind why their husbands, the lords and nobles of Israel, behaved this way? They had the lifestyles of their wives to support; they continually demanded food, drink, and other luxurious items. Their lifestyle was supported on the backs of the poor and needy among them, and so they fall under the same condemnation as their husbands. They stand condemned for oppressing the poor and crushing the needy because they were indirect “beneficiaries” of the proceeds which came as a result of those behaviors.

Most people today are not actively, consciously, and deliberately going out to oppress the poor and crush the needy. Even if we do pass by a lot of homeless people, we might give a little something to a few that seem worthy. Most people give at least a little something to charity, even if it is some promotion at the grocery store or large retailer. Therefore, it would be very easy for most people to not take the charge of oppressing the poor or crushing the needy very seriously.

Yet Amos and his condemnation of the “cows of Bashan,” the noblewomen of Samaria, should give us pause. God does not condemn only those who actively work to oppress the poor and crush the needy, but also those who benefit or have their lifestyles financed by the oppression of the poor and the crushing of the needy! As in Israel, many times government is used by some to reinforce their advantage against others; in some cases, those whose family, friends, or tribe make up the government get the advantages to the detriment of everyone else. Yet this is not just a problem in other places: how much of our lifestyle is subsidized by cheap labor in other places? Workers in other countries are subjected to horrendous, often inhumane conditions, in order to make the products we buy at prices we feel comfortable paying. Their wages would never make it in America, and often barely make it where they live; some are imprisoned and making such products in forced labor camps; meanwhile, how many Americans have lost jobs and find themselves impoverished because their jobs were shipped overseas on account of lower labor costs? With every product there is a cost; the constant pursuit of lower prices hurts people in plenty of places. Multinational corporations exploit legal loopholes and often participate in illegal behavior if it produces sufficient profit; the stock price may go up, but people are harmed in the process. How many times have some governments or companies extracted minerals or other valuable commodities from the land, share the profits with themselves and their owners and shareholders, and disband or look away when it becomes clear that there are lots of environmental costs which are now passed along to the inhabitants of the area? Some people over the short-term made some money; generations living on that land may suffer the consequences.

The noblewomen of Samaria stood condemned for oppressing the poor and crushing the needy even though it was their husbands who actively engaged in that behavior. Their condemnation was secured because they were the beneficiaries of the immoral and unjust behavior. God judged them speedily; they did not escape. We live in a different time and under a different covenant, but God has no less concern for the poor, disadvantaged, and needy (Matthew 25:31-46, James 2:1-7, 5:1-6). If we indirectly benefit from oppressive behavior, will we escape the same punishment? Let us stand against oppression and injustice in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and seek the welfare of all people, near and far, and live in such a way that our lifestyles are not sustained to the detriment of the poor or needy in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice and Righteousness

But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The day of the LORD was coming. He had endured enough from the hands of the Israelites. Their oppressions, their faithlessness, their immorality– it had become too much. Amos explains the only way that Israel can set things right again: they are to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The image was familiar to the Israelites. When the rains came after a dry spell, existing rivers would expand mightily. What had previously been bone dry wadis, or creek beds, would quickly fill with torrents of water. The water would come down from on top of the hills and mountains; it would often break through anything that stood in its way. So justice and righteousness were to be in Israel: in a land parched of them, all of a sudden, from the nobles and élites of Israelite society downward, justice and righteousness should be established. Nothing should get in its way, and it should overpower anything that would try!

Unfortunately, as the history shows, the Israelites did not heed Amos’ message. They persisted in injustice and unrighteousness, and another type of torrent– the judgment of God as executed by the Assyrians– washed their nation away (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-23). The Kingdom of Judah to the south fared little better. And, throughout time, there has been justifiable reason to return to Amos’ words in denunciation of the injustice and unrighteousness of nations. Within our own nation, Martin Luther King Jr. had reason to quote the verse in relation to the existing systems within the United States. Tragically there will always be times when this verse will be only too applicable to all nations in various ways.

Justice and righteousness are terms often paired in the Old Testament (Job 8:3, 29:14, Psalm 37:6, 72:2, 106:3, etc.). In the New Testament, we see more translations of “righteousness” than justice, but that does not mean that the concept of justice has been excised; the Greek word frequently translated as righteousness, dikaiosune, means both righteousness and justice. There are many times in the New Testament when both senses of the word are present (e.g. Romans 3:26). We would do well to mentally remember that “righteousness” in the New Testament also carries with it the idea of “justice”!

Justice and righteousness are terms thrown around quite easily, but what do they really mean? We have the sense that justice involves every action receiving its proper consequence: evil doing should lead to punishment, and right doing should lead to reward. We also have a basic understanding of righteousness as right living. Yet our understanding of these terms gets distorted by our culture and the way we would like for things to be. It is easy to want justice to mean that others get the proper punishment for their evil actions while we receive mercy, failing to understand that we judge others by their performance while we judge ourselves by our intentions (cf. Matthew 7:1-4). Righteousness is often reduced to not doing bad things to other people, and expecting everyone else to not do bad things to us. The scope and scale of justice and righteousness is also easy to distort. Many demand to see justice and righteousness exist on the grand scale– nations, institutions, and corporations– but prove less willing to see justice and righteousness carried out on a personal level. And there are plenty of others who believe that the domains of justice and righteousness primarily involve the individual and less so for government, institutions, and corporations.

We do well to turn to Scripture for an understanding of what is involved with justice and righteousness. And Job is a wonderful example of justice and righteousness in action.

Job has suffered much and, admittedly, he has been presuming more than he ought to presume. But in Job 29:14-25, he declares how he conducted himself in righteousness and justice, and in Job 31:1-39, he sets forth his integrity as he has lived according to justice and righteousness. In these passages we see much that we would understand as just and right conduct: avoiding sexual immorality, lying, deceit, covetousness, idolatry, and other such sins. But what may surprise us is just how much justice and righteousness seemed to require of Job: he fed the hungry, provided shelter to the homeless, encouraged the despondent, actively resisted the oppression done to others, honored the cause of his servants, provided for the widow and orphan, properly used the land, and even that he resisted taking pleasure in the downfall of an adversary!

There is much, much more to justice and righteousness, then, than just trying to be a good person and not grievously sinning against others. To seek to do justice and righteousness also demands that we provide for those in need and actively resist injustice and unrighteousness. Justice and righteousness ought to pervade all of society, from rulers to nobles or the élite down to the common man.

When justice and righteousness flow down as a mighty stream, people are respected and provided for, society is healthy, and real prosperity can be known. But where there is injustice and unrighteousness there is misery, pain, sickness, antagonism, rivalry, and all sorts of other forms of suffering. Ultimately, justice and righteousness cannot be merely private pursuits, and it should impact our work regarding the conditions of others.

Those who truly seek justice and righteousness are always rare in the land; most are out for some form of pseudo-justice and pseudo-righteousness that benefits them without necessarily benefiting others. Let us instead seek to work diligently toward justice and righteousness in our own lives and conduct and on behalf of all of those who find themselves oppressed and downtrodden. May it be said of all of us that we sought for justice to roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Autumn of Covenant

Thus the Lord GOD showed me: and, behold, a basket of summer fruit.
And he said, “Amos, what seest thou?”
And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”
Then said the LORD unto me, “The end is come upon my people Israel; I will not again pass by them any more” (Amos 8:1-2).

“Woe is me! For I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits, as the grape gleanings of the vintage: there is no cluster to eat; my soul desireth the first-ripe fig” (Micah 7:1).

Autumn is a season of transition. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, days grow shorter, nights grow longer, and the temperature gets cooler. The days of heat and growth are declining, and the last crops must be harvested. Everywhere around us, life is preparing for the cold, dark winter that will soon come.

The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were also in the “autumn” of their existence in the late ninth and eighth centuries BCE. Unbeknownst to them, their days of glory were behind them. The kingdoms were experiencing a momentary period of great prosperity and wealth, not unlike a short warm spell during the autumn. Yet the cold, dark days of “winter”– collapse and exile– were approaching, and the prophets were busy warning the people.

God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit, representing the imminent end of Israel. They had enjoyed their days of prosperity and wealth– they always were more prosperous than the Judeans to their south– but had squandered it all on idols and political alliances. The people of Israel acted shamefully and sinfully, committing all kinds of injustice and sin, and God sent Amos to pronounce judgment. The people refused to hear, and within forty years of Amos’ predictions, Israel was overwhelmed by Assyria and would soon be exiled, never to return (cf. 2 Kings 17).

Not long after Amos goes to Israel, Micah prophesies against Judah. The prophet acutely feels the vast sinfulness and injustice swirling around him. He feels as if he is part of the grape gleanings on the vine after the harvests of the summer fruits– the very few who still stand for righteousness and justice. Everyone around him, it seems, is out for their own advantage, full of iniquity and blood. Yet Micah trusts in the LORD, knowing that destruction and judgment will come soon (cf. Micah 7:7). Likewise, within forty years, the Assyrians came to Judah, destroying everything but Jerusalem, leaving but a remnant of Judah to remain (cf. 2 Kings 18-19, Isaiah 1).

Both Israel and Judah, therefore, were in the “autumn” of their covenants with God. Destruction would come upon them soon, and yet they willfully turned a deaf ear to the warnings of the prophets. They trusted that since the LORD was the One True God, and that Israel was His chosen people, that no harm would befall them (cf. Micah 2:6). Yet God would not tolerate their sin forever, and Israel and Judah paid a heavy price!

What about us? Are we in the “autumn” of our lives, or in the “autumn” of our relationship with God? While the actual season of autumn is easily delineated and clearly a time of preparation, our “spiritual” season of autumn may not be as easily apparent. We may feel as if we are in the “spring” or “summer” of our lives or in our relationship with God, when, in fact, the end is near.

Let none be deceived: God will not tolerate sin forever. If we are living in sin and turning a deaf ear to the Word of God who convicts us regarding sin (cf. John 16:8), we may suffer the same fate as Israel and Judah, and have destruction fall upon us unawares (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3). Since we can never be entirely sure when the “autumn” of our lives has begun, we must live in a constant state of preparedness, as our Lord Jesus affirms for us in Matthew 24:42-25:30, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10.

We may be living in a debauched and sinful society, and its “autumn” may be present. Nevertheless, let us live our lives as the prophet Micah, constantly trusting in the LORD no matter what our fellow man may say and do, and show constant vigilance, ever prepared for the return of Jesus Christ and the end of time!

Ethan R. Longhenry