Understanding Amos’ message is tied up in these four contextual factors:
- a shift in structures of land ownership and exploitation within the new structure
- an increasing gap between the wealthy elite and the poor peasant class
- corruption of justice in the law courts
- covenantal disobedience with hypocritical religious ceremonies
Generally speaking, Amos proclaimed a message of doom, that “Yahweh was moving upon the land to devastate a sinful people” (Flanders, People of the Covenant, 344). He indicated that Israel’s pending devastation was primarily due to the utter absence of justice and righteousness within the nation as demanded by covenant relationship with Yahweh. As J. S. Smart writes:
The heart of Amos’ faith was the conviction that only a nation in which the dealings of men with one another are just can be in any true sense a people in covenant with God. . . . It is the justice, holiness, and purity of God that calls for justice, holiness, and purity in the common life of Israel. – J. S. Smart, “Amos,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 121.
Within the prophetic oracles recorded in the book of Amos, there are two key terms related to justice and righteousness and four key terms related to the poor. The first two terms, mišpat and tsedeqah, are common to most of the prophetic books included in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first word, mišpat, is usually translated as “justice” or “judgment.” Mišpat “connotes a complex of meanings like equal, fair, right, good, which, however modulated, constitute a focus of value that is understood to be essential to social well-being” (James Luther Mays, “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition,” in Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity, 145).
The second term, tsedeqah, is most commonly translated as “righteousness”, but also conveys meanings of “vindication, deliverance, uprightness, right, and even prosperity” (Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics and
Christian Life, 153). Tsedeqah is best understood in relational terms, as Gerhard von Rad elaborates, “Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by our term” (quoted in Birch, Let Justice Roll Down, 154).
We see justice that is essential to social well being (mišpat) and righteousness as the satisfaction of claims upon conduct within relationships (tsedeqah). Both terms are used in the scriptures of the interactions between God and Israel but also in reference to ideal human interactions within the covenant community. Thus, God relates in justice and righteousness with Israel by being faithful to them in the covenant relationship and fulfilling his promises given to them. Concurrently, Israel is required by the covenant to reciprocate such faithfulness with God by serving him alone as well as acting justly and rightly in all interpersonal relationships as prescribed in the covenantal stipulations. In his prophetic oracles, Amos joins mišpat and tsedeqah in parallelism three times (Am 5:7; 5:24; 6:12b), emphasizing that the two concepts are inseparably related. “The two are so closely coordinated that Amos’ use of mišpat is not to be understood out of relation to its source and orientation to sedeqah” (James Luther Mays, Amos: A Commentary, 92). J. du Preez further illumines the relationship of mišpat and tsedeqah as seen in Amos 5:24, writing that “the two words together express a specific idea which, to a large extent, amounts to what may be called social justice” (J. du Preez, “Social Justice: Motive for the Mission of the Church,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 53, 37).
These two terms, justice and righteousness, form the core of Amos’ message.