Love of God and love of neighbor are binding and essential principles in our faith. This was the primary message I was hoping that folks heard during my July 2021 sermon in my local church. The assigned lectionary text for the week came from Amos 7—the third of three visions Amos had received from God regarding the status of the people in Israel. This third vision, of a plumb line showing a wall built askew, is an apt image for understanding justice in God’s kingdom.
An Askew Kingdom
Let me first sketch what is happening in the broader biblical narrative at the time. The story of Amos takes place in the mid-eighth century (BCE). So, long gone are the days of a united kingdom under leadership of Kings David and Solomon. Rather, the kingdom is split in two: Judah in the south and the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos’s story is set in the northern kingdom’s city of Bethel, a city currently experiencing peace and prosperity, yet also extreme social stratification. Amos arrives from Judah and begins to prophesy against the ways Israel has been exploiting its people. In fact, both the political and religious establishments come under fire in the book.
First, politics. The king, Jeroboam II, has allowed Israelites to be sold into debt slavery, creating large gaps between rich and poor. This growing economic inequality was primarily the result of extending survival loans to peasant farmers experiencing a particularly bad season. Old Testament scholars claim that these loans stood in opposition to Jewish social and cultural norms, thus extending the cycle of poverty as farmers slowly lost their land holdings.
Next, religion. The Northern Kingdom had built new temples and acquired dozens of new idols. Amos accuses the religious elite of hypocrisy for failing to participate in true worship. They fail to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). In short, the people of Israel had broken their status of being Yahweh’s covenantal people. In the first six chapters of the book, Amos details these shortcomings and predicts the destruction of Israel. They had become complacent, a nation abounding in injustice, despite their knowledge of God’s law. So, starting in chapter 7, Amos reveals a series of visions he has received from God:
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Many commentators agree that the plumb line metaphor expresses how the Israelites are out of line with God. Moreover, due to this misalignment, Amos proclaims that judgment is impending and walls, both literal and figurative, will crumble. One theme in the book of Amos is to show how justice, which is for all, leads to life, while injustice leads to death. Amos shows what injustice looks like by using this image of a wall, built askew, displaying its physical distortion, to represent how the people of Israel are, like the wall, out of line. But, how important is it, really, to build a straight wall? Very.
Clueless in Their Comfort
A number of years ago my husband came home from work in a frustrated mood. He designs warehouses for a living, and I asked him why he was so stressed. He responded with a long-winded explanation about the aisles being too narrow. After some additional probing, I discovered that in his current warehouse design the tolerance was too tight for a fork-lift truck to drive down the aisle and make a 90-degree turn to deliver a pallet on a rack. Tolerance is how far off you can be, plus or minus, on either side of a measurement and still stay within the maximum allowed variation. “How far off are you?” I ask. “Oh, an inch,” he replies. I giggled. To me it sounded silly that he was losing sleep over an inch!
The week wore on and the design improved. In the end, the forklift finally was able to make its turn, and I learned that tolerance is very important. Otherwise, the whole thing doesn’t work. Likewise, for Amos, when a wall is out of plumb, it cannot stand for long.
So why did Amos need to receive a vision from God to communicate this truth? Because the people were utterly clueless as to their transgression. Amid the peace, prestige, and seemingly devout religiosity in the northern kingdom at the time, the people had lost their interconnectedness to humanity as well as their connection to creation. It was replaced by political and religious authorities who focused on military conquest, generating wealth, and idol worship. They had lost sight of love of God and love of neighbor. Lack of righteousness and integrity had created a situation beyond repair. As Walter Brueggemann would say, the “covenantal neighborliness” that set apart the Israelite nation back in the book of Exodus had dissolved into self-interest of the elite and exploitation of the poor.
A Reflection of Today
As you might imagine, Amos’s vision of a plumb line is not well received in Bethel. One could argue that it would not be well received by many Americans today, too. However, it is not a difficult leap to make to replace Israel with our own history of economic misuse. Parallels abound. Income gaps between rich and poor are at unprecedented highs, more than doubling between 1989 and 2016.1 The dominant economic narrative continues to uphold its own power and authority despite injustice glaring it in the face.
For Amos to be the one bringing the vision of the plumb line to Israel is a difficult task. Ultimately, it threatens that very narrative and the people who uphold it. In the case of Amos (in chapter 7), it’s the priest Amaziah who must face Amos’s challenging words:
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom. Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel.’”
It is clear that Amos is a threat to Amaziah—not just to him personally as priest but to everything that connects Amaziah, the priesthood, organized religion, and the king. This is obvious because as soon as he can, Amaziah reports to Jeroboam the treasonous words of the prophet. Commentator Douglas King tells us that when he, Amaziah, feels threatened by Amos’s words, he turns to the king, quickly and fully relying on the power structure that has served him so well.2 I wonder how we rely on similar structures and what consequences might exist by doing so. Are our actions, our economic choices, essentially perpetuating the cycle of inequality?
Resting on God’s Authority
As scornful as Amaziah is in his verbal assault on Amos, Amos’s response is firmly grounded in his adherence to God’s law and his commitment to covenant. His authority to prophesy comes directly from God. The prophetic message he sets out to deliver rests wholly in where he places its authority. King’s commentary continues, saying “when we accept human systems as possessors of ultimate authority, we are living a lie.”3 Amos brought to light Amaziah’s lie.
In the end, the simple image of a plumb line against a crooked wall sends a powerful message to a crumbling nation. Crippled by the negative consequences of its economic success and misaligned by its religious idolatry, Amos attempts to re-center the people of Israel to right relationship with one another and with Yahweh.
How can we, today, work to build community—in our homes, churches, state, and nation in such a way that we honor Yahweh’s desire for us to live as his covenantal people? Perhaps we can read this story of the plumb line knowing that it is a critical tool, one that can both critique and affirm our relationship with God and others. Of us it demands righteous acts.
- Katherine Schaeffer, “Six facts about economic inequality in the U.S.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/07/6-facts-about-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s/.
- Douglas King, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3 (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 221.
- King, 223.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation. This article is adapted from a sermon Jennifer preached at Lancaster BIC this summer.