At first glance, Amos’ prophecy against the nation of Israel appears no different than his prophecies against the nations that surround it. Stylistically and literarily, it appears the same. There is, however, a critical difference. Before proceeding to his prophecy against Israel, Amos prophesied against the sins of seven nations. Six of these nations he condemned for their sins on the battlefield. In the seventh, against the southern kingdom of Judah, Amos condemned its sins against God. The culmination of his prophecies against the nations is left for the northern kingdom of Israel, which he admonishes not for its sins on the battlefield, nor for its transgressions against God; instead, he confronts its societal ills, the way its citizens treat each other. (See S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 50)
Amos, the first of the so-called classical prophets, makes it plain to his audience that mistreatment of the poor and weak is not just wrong, it is a sin against God: “[Ah] you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course. Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name.” (2:7 NJPS translation)
The commentators of every generation had no trouble adding flesh to Amos’ description, no doubt from their own experience since the sins mentioned by Amos are forever contemporary. Rashi interprets this verse differently from the translation given above: “[People] while they are walking on the dust of the way, all of their ambitions and thoughts are on the poor and how they can steal from them and make the property of the poor their own. The poor [are forced to] veer from their paths and take a crooked route out of fear.” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) cites this verse as a condemnation of judicial abuse: “The judges aim, look and intend that the dust of the earth will be on the heads of the poor, for they appoint police over them. If the poor do not abide by their words, the police take them to the gates of the city, knock them over and trample them so that there will be dust on their heads.” Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel (15th century Spain), the sage and statesman, in one of his interpretations gives this verse a different twist and sees it as a condemnation of political hypocrisy: “They [politicians] bow their heads low always looking at the dust of the earth out of [false] humility in order to attract the poor, but after they are appointed to office, they cast off their humility in all of their hypocrisy.
Professor Shalom Paul, in his interpretation of the last part of this verse captures something true of the rest of the critique as well. He notes that Amos’ criticism of the sexual mores of his generation was not because what they did was “legally wrong”; rather, it was because their acts were morally reprehensible: “It wasn’t that these activities were performed with the intention of being reprehensible to God or to profane His name. Instead, it was through the performance of these acts that God’s name was profaned.” (Paul, p. 50)
In other words, the wanton and brazen abuse of authority to undermine the dignity of other human beings is the most definitive way to offend and disgrace God. For Amos, such behavior was the primary cause for the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel. His message should serve as a profound warning for us as well.