A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Reading Amos in Modern Tekoa

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).

tekoa_sm

To be more precise, there are cluster settlements which surround the Arab village, as well as caravans (mobile homes) on the outskirts.

tekoa_caravans_sm

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.

tekoa_arig_2

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.

 

7 Responses to Reading Amos in Modern Tekoa

  • Julia, are you familiar with the Contextual Biblical Interpretation group at SBL? They are still working on the Pentateuch, specifically Numbers-Deuteronomy, but something along the lines of what you are doing in this post is what they are after. Adele Berlin is spearheading the Hebrew Bible section. If you have anything to contribute, I know they would appreciate it. The contributions of the group are fueling the production of the Texts@Contexts commentary series.

  • Julia, are you familiar with the Contextual Biblical Interpretation group at SBL? They are still working on the Pentateuch, specifically Numbers-Deuteronomy, but something along the lines of what you are doing in this post is what they are after. Adele Berlin is spearheading the Hebrew Bible section. If you have anything to contribute, I know they would appreciate it. The contributions of the group are fueling the production of the Texts@Contexts commentary series.

  • I think your question — how do we know justice when we see it — ranks up there with “where do you place authority for your faith?” It is the interplay of reason and experience, facts and faith, that becomes the holy task. I would, of course, like to believe that my vision of authority and justice is more reasonable and experientially-valid than someone else’s, but I can’t dismiss my blinders. That’s what makes the task holy.

    Maybe that’s why the area is called the “Holy” Land. Visiting forces us to contend with our own baggage as well as others. Powerful journey.

    That said, I still think I’m right when I am outraged and deeply saddened by injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people 🙂

    Enough procrastinating … back to my sermon.

  • I said Adele Berlin, but I meant Athalya Brenner. Same initials, different everything else.

  • I think your statement “…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.” is so important to remember for this discussion. The question of what constitutes justice in a multi-faceted situation certainly does require complex thinking and analysis. Your way of approaching teaching Amos with this material is brilliant!

  • I am a descendant of people who were forced to live in ghettos, were objects of pogroms and Hollocaust (I have relatives who lived in ghettos, survived pogroms and were burned in Nazi’s concentration camps). What bothers me is that the third generation of the descendants of those who faced ovens in Auschwitz and Treblinka and had to live in places like Warsaw ghetto now build ghettos in Palestine.

    I think that a related question to consider is “how to know INJUSTICES when we see them, how do we recognize the injustice when we are the instruments of it…”

  • Thanks for a stimulating post, and a useful teaching idea!

    On details: While I am sure the book of Amos is no more open to women and their concerns than most other ancient texts, I am not entirely convinced by the statements you quote:
    the description of Samaria’s women in 4:1-3 unfairly scapegoats women for the nation’s ills” does it, or does it point out that even the women among the elite are not innocent (they enjoyed the drinks and other “benefits” of their husbands’ oppressive practices 4:1)?
    The book of Amos “failed specifically to champion the women among the poor” 2:7b seems to me to describe male abuse of power and to call it a profanation of God’s holy “name”.

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