With the start of a new semester, I’ve had to shift my direct attention away the West Bank/ Israel trip to courses, writing assignments, and speaking engagements. But the realities I encountered in January aren’t fading away; instead, they are finding their way into all the work I’m doing.
A good example is the way I’m approaching the book of Amos in my Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class. Today, as in other years, I used Amos as an introduction to how a classical prophetic book works—how it starts with a superscription, records short speeches of judgment punctuated by “thus says the LORD,” and employs metaphor, hyperbole, sarcasm, and word play to condemn people’s behavior, before abruptly turning to a happy ending.
When we next meet, I’ll focus as I have in the past on what Amos condemns Israel for: social injustice. Amos complains that people have “trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” and “sell the needy for a pair of sandals” (3:6). If this year’s students are like their predecessors, most will accept Amos’ cry for justice as their own: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24).
Some may be disturbed when, as before, l point out how Amos falls short of all-inclusive justice. In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Judith Sanderson shows how the description of Samaria’s women in 4:1-3 unfairly scapegoats women for the nation’s ills. Since in all cultures women make up a disproportionate percentage of the poor, she laments that “Amos specifically condemned wealthy women for oppressing the poor (4:1) but failed specifically to champion the women among the poor” (p. 206). If in ancient Israel women neither owned nor controlled property, why do they bear sole responsibility for how their husbands disseminate wealth? Students will hear what I’ve said many times: A legitimate voice for justice sometimes needs to be shown its own blind spots. (I’ve written about this in my entry on “Amos” in the Theological Bible Commentary.)
But this go-round with Amos, I’ll unpack my statement further by showing pictures that I took last month of modern-day Tekoa, the traditional birthplace of Amos. Standing at Herodion, I actually saw several different Tekoas. There is the Arab village named Tequ’ (foreground), and there is the Israeli settlement of Tekoa (background).
To be more precise, there are cluster settlements which surround the Arab village, as well as caravans (mobile homes) on the outskirts.
Tekoa is clearly in the process of expansion and clearly encroaching on the village. The apparent plan is for Tekoa to become one large settlement devoid of Arab inhabitants. More about the attempt of the settlers to seize Palestinian agricultural land can be found at the ARIJ website.
Of course the settlers of Tekoa believe their own cause is just. That’s clear on the community’s website, which lists all the good reasons to live in Tekoa and memorializes those killed by Arabs. They describe Tekoa as a town under siege. Surely they are praying for justice to roll down like waters. But, just as surely, the confiscation of Palestinian land is injustice, too. Looking at the vulnerability of the Palestinian village, it seems that there’s a blind spot in the settlers’ definition of justice.
The reason for talking about modern-day Tekoa in class is not to make students mad at settlers. It’s to remind them—and me–that the most important question we face is not whether we are for justice or against it; few people claim to be unjust. Rather, the question is how to know justice when we see it. Defining justice is an on-going, holy task, one that goes beyond simply quoting the fiery speeches of the prophets.