An Indictment Against Economic Exploitation
Yahweh says: “For three transgressions of Israel, yes, for four, I will not turn away its punishment; because they have sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; They trample on the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and deny justice to the oppressed; and a man and his father use the same maiden, to profane my holy name; and they lay themselves down beside every altar on clothes taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined. – Amos 2:6-8 (WEB)
After seven indictments against the nations—Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah—Amos now reaches his primary audience. They’ve listened with excitement and jubilation as the prophet calls out their enemies. That emotion reaches a fever pitch as their sister nation and longtime rival is indicted in what seems to be the ultimate indictment.
Seven is completion. It’s fullness. It’s done. But every single oracle has used this repeated imagery of overflow. For three sins, even for four. God’s wrath would have waited and would have relented had their sins stopped at three. For three sins, Yahweh would hold back judgment and give time for repentance. But for four—four crosses the line and places the people squarely into the realm of Yahweh’s impending judgment. The cup of his wrath has spilled out onto the nations.
And just as four sins represents the pouring out of God’s wrath, so too the movement from seven nations to eight represents the overflow of God’s judgment. This overflow is seen in the gushing nature of Israel’s judgment. Rather than the brief and succinct messages to the other nations, Amos unleashes a torrent against Israel that is nearly four times as long as the other indictments and merely sets up the focus on Israel’s sinfulness and coming judgment that remains for the rest of his book.
Following that prophetic imagery of overflow, Amos arranges his indictment in four thematic stanzas that each discuss two specific sins, giving a sense of a double overflow. Moreover, while the non-covenant nations are indicted for social sins against humanity and Judah is indicted for covenantal sins against Yahweh, Israel is indicted for both. Sin has compounded upon sin, leaving Israel doubly guilty in the eyes of God.
The four themes of Israel’s sin are their perversion of justice, their oppression of the poor, their sexual impurity, and their luxury in idolatry. All of these things combine together to present an overwhelming judicial case for Yahweh’s judgment. He is not capricious. He is not quick to anger. He is not petty in his reasoning, or selfish, or absurd. His wrath is not based on some personal offense or some subjective hurt. It is not a misunderstanding or an overreaction.
He has proven himself to be just and fair, to be patient and rational. The sins he indicts them for are undeniable and obvious. Therefore, he says that they too—along with the surrounding nations, despite their covenantal relationship—will face his wrath.
As with all of these oracles, that fact should righteously trouble us twenty-first century Christians. It should shake us from our complacency. It should drive us to spiritual action to repent and social action to reform. The roar of the lion’s judgment reverberates down to us today with that same power it held nearly three thousand years ago.
Nations that are guilty of these things will find themselves under the judgment of Yahweh. We see it again and again throughout Scripture. We see it here in Amos. We see it in the passing empires of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. We see it in Yahweh’s banishment of Israel and Judah into exile. Yahweh is the Judge of the Nations. He builds empires up and he tears them down.
Perversion of Justice
They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.
Three of the previous oracles—those against Gaza, Tyre, and Edom—all focused on the devaluing of human life through slavery. Israel is guilty of the same, although their particular method seems to be even more insidious, as they have enacted their form of slavery through the legal system.
The word translated “innocent” here carries a legal connotation and brings to mind the imagery of a courtroom where corrupt judges are accepting bribes or being unduly influenced by the prosecution and thus proclaiming the innocent to be guilty and shuffling them off into debt slavery.
In name, Israelite slavery was for the purposes of paying off debt. But in practice, the poor were being sold into debt slavery for the minutest of amounts—for a pair of shoes!—and even those not guilty of debt were being declared guilty by corrupt judges.
Outwardly, this was a time of prosperity for Israel. But only for the already rich. As the rich became richer, they began a type of feudal system. Instead of everyone owning the land, as set forth by the law of Moses, land ownership became consolidated into the hands of the wealthy few. The poor would sell off their land to pay their debts, then sell off their services, now working the land they used to own for the profit of their debtor. It was a continual cycle that was difficult, if not impossible to escape.
In modern parlance, they were enslaving and incarcerating their poor people to serve their own economic needs—just as the United States has done and continues to do today. The United States imprisons more people than any other country, with one study suggesting that the United States has over 20% of the world’s prisoners. The Institute for Criminal Policy Research estimates that 1 out of every 100 adults in the United States are currently incarcerated.
That number is troubling in and of itself and, one would think, would reflect a huge increase in crime over the past decades. In fact, the opposite is true. Violent crime and property crime have actually decreased while our incarceration rate has skyrocketed. We are locking people up for longer periods of time for less and less serious offenses.
It is the same thing Israel was doing when they put more and more people into debt slavery for smaller and smaller offenses. But what economic advantage comes from having one percent of your nation behind bars? Simply put: private prisons and a free workforce.
Around the same time that the prison population began to skyrocket, American entrepreneurs began to see economic advantages. In 1983, the first privately run prison system, the Corrections Corporation of America, was opened. Thirty-five years later, private prisons—which operate to make a profit—hold about 8% of America’s prisoners. These private prisons are often constructed for the sole purpose of making money.
The private prison companies even admit as much. In one report, the Corrections Corporation of America, wrote that:
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws
As such, private prisons have a vested interest in sending as many people to prison as possible. They also have incentives to cut costs elsewhere to maximize profit: to pay guards low wages, to neglect staff training, to provide poorly updated and maintained facilities, and so on. And there have actually been instances of these for-profit prisons bribing judges to send innocent people to their facilities.
They sell the innocent for silver. They have turned imprisonment into profit. They have found ways to exploit human lives for economic gain—both legally and illegally. In 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin reducing, with the goal of eliminating, the use of private prisons. Less than six months later, under a new presidential administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked that memo and instead called for an increase in the private prison population.
Even at its best, working fully as intended, the private prison system exploits human life for economic gain. It trades in the commodity of human bodies—the more bodies, the more money. Innocent or guilty, these systems devalue the human worth of the prisoner by assigning them a dollar amount rather than seeing them as sacred creations of an almighty God made in His image.
Another way our prison system manifests this sin of ancient Israel is in the abuses of prison labor. The federal prison industry is big business. As of August 2016, UNICOR—the official name of the government operation—operates 66 factories within 52 federal prisons, nationwide, offering more than 100 products and services.
UNICOR proudly calls its collection of facilities “factories with fences,” and also proudly pays inmates between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour. Under current law, all physically able inmates who are not a security risk or have a health exception are required to work, either for UNICOR or at some other prison job. You want to know what Victoria’s Secret is? It’s that their underwear was made by prisoners.
Now there is something to be said for teaching inmates a valuable life skill and giving them a chance to put that skill to use outside the correctional facility. Proper rehabilitation can and should provide the inmate with a valuable and legal skill to use after incarceration. However, any place that offers cheap and forced labor is going to be prone to abuse. The more people you put in prison, the greater your workforce is.
If you can make money off of goods and services sold, then you have a vested interest in retaining your workforce. Why release them to go be a competitor in the private sector when you can literally imprison them and force them to work for you?
The United States prison system is not set up to rehabilitate, it is set up to enslave. It is set up to see human beings as numbers, as commodities, as valuable only for what profit they can bring in.This was the system of debt slavery in Amos’s day and Yahweh destroyed Israel for it. Do we really think he will spare us the same judgment?
Oppression of the Poor
The second indictment of sin is Israel’s oppression of the poor, which piggybacks off the more specific sin of judicial corruption. In general, Israel is condemned for denying justice to the oppressed. In particular, Yahweh builds up this imagery of middle and upper class Israel trampling on the heads of the poor, walking over them as they would walk over the dust of the ground.
They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
Just as the first indictment of their exploitation of human labor for economic gain mirrors the sins of Gaza and Tyre, this indictment is metaphorically representative of what the Arameans did literally: trampling people underfoot. Unlike the Arameans, Israel does not appear to be engaging in literal torture, much in the way that their debtor’s slavery was not as overtly illegal or immoral as the other nations’, but the effect is the same.
Specifically, Amos’s context—as gleaned from the rest of the book—appears to take on an economic tone. The rich were getting richer, but the poor were remaining poor and nobody was helping them.
Yahweh indicts a rich church and a wealthy nation that is not just ignoring the problem of poverty but actually contributing to it. God is clear that our economic policies should be set up to show favor to the poor. Provisions of this nature are littered throughout the Law and exhortations to care for the poor and condemnations of not caring for the poor are strewn through the prophetic books.
John Edgar McFadyen writes in his commentary on Amos:
This, to Amos, is the sin of sins: that the lives of the poor should be bartered for money…The class whose privilege it was to protect the poor exploited them.
We find this same system, this same setup in our country today. There are a whole host of services and systems designed to take advantage of the poor, engineered to trap them in the cycle of poverty.
For example, rent to own businesses provide individuals a low monthly payment for a needed or desired item that ends up costing them way more than if they had simply paid for it in a store. Let’s take this laptop, for example. I went to Rent a Center’s website and found that I could rent to own this laptop for only $30 a week.
That’s a great price! $29.99 a week…for 65 weeks. Fifteen months. Now, Rent a Center is nice enough to do the math for you. It works out to $1949.35. Now that’s not a bad deal, if it’s a $1950 laptop. But Rent a Center also tells you how much it costs just to buy it straight up from them. You can get six months same as cash for $1169.61. That’s a 67% markup. Absolutely ridiculous. You’re paying two-thirds more, but you get lulled into this sense it’s not that much because you can make the payment.
But wait, there’s more! I searched for this same laptop with the same specs on Amazon. I came up short, but you can get the same computer with double the hard drive space for $520. $30 a week ends up being almost four times the cost in the long run.
Other similar practices include payday lenders or cash advance stores that offer loans at incredible interest rates. In one example, the billion dollar loan company World Finance was charging over 200% interest on their loans. One woman Katrina Sutton, began by getting a $207 loan from World to be paid off in seven months. Instead, because she was late with a payment, they made her renew the loan—basically borrow money from them to pay them—and start the length of the term over. After seven months, she had borrowed $336, made $300 in payments, and owed another $390. She was going backward.
As Christians and as people involved in our nation’s political processes, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our personal and our political attitudes toward the poor are honoring to Yahweh. We have a moral commitment to protect the poor and provide them with opportunities to get out of the cycle of poverty.
Israel’s treatment of the poor was unethical and in violation of the covenant. In Exodus, Yahweh specifically lays out the law:
“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. – Exodus 22:25-27
So Yahweh’s law is clear. Poor people are not to be exploited. They are not to be charged any interest, let alone excessive interest. They are to be put into a position where they can end the cycle of poverty for themselves and their family. As a nation, we are not doing that.
Recently lawmakers have begun weakening regulations against payday lenders, allowing them to operate more freely. We encourage exploitation in the name of capitalism, not understanding that a capitalism that operates outside the Judeo-Christian ethic is the very definition of avarice and greed.
The third indictment levied against Israel is their sexual immorality. In general, Yahweh’s judgment applies to any sort of sexual sin—any sexual activity outside of marriage. In particular, his tone again takes an economic outlook.
Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.
In this indictment, Yahweh speaks directly toward sex trafficking, where female slaves were bought and sold for sexual purposes. This indictment also carries with it the corollary indictment of, through these actions, profaning the name of God.
This second line has led some commentators to believe that Amos has in mind here some form of religious ritual, where both father and son would go to worship and partake in the services of a temple prostitute. This would not have been terribly uncommon, as many false religions drew a connection between the intimacy of the sexual relationship and the desire for intimacy with the divine and enslaved temple prostitutes for this very purpose.
However, the Hebrew word here isn’t the word typically used for “temple prostitute,” kedeshah, but na’arah, meaning “young girl.” There doesn’t seem to be a religious aspect attached here. The illicit sexual activity doesn’t seem to be done in connection with any sort of religious worship.
And all of this has a point. One can understand if God’s holy name is profaned when worship in his name includes temple prostitution. It is a clear violation of the covenant. But Yahweh is saying that your religious life extends beyond the walls of the temple, beyond the walls of the church.
What you do the privacy of your own home matters to God. He is not just concerned about the proper worship of himself, he is concerned about the proper treatment of human beings.This violation is so severe that, in this instance of sexual trafficking, Yahweh says that the nations look on and despise his name because of his people’s actions. What the state calls legal, God may not call moral.
In Amos’s day, there was a thriving economic market for young women. Three thousand years later and history has not changed anything. So long as the money is there, the exploitation will follow. And so long as our laws target the sex worker—the victim—rather than those purchasing sex, we will see that cycle continue.
Prostitution and poverty are intrinsically related. It is the desperation choice of those who feel they have no choice. For many, it is this or death.
Street prostitution is intrinsically related to poverty. Female prostitutes, in disproportionate numbers, are known to be ethnic minorities who are impoverished, uneducated and possess few marketable skills.
Christians must be at the forefront of ending the sex trade—legal or illegal. We must be engaged in programs that help end the cycle of poverty for those selling themselves just to live. We must change our laws so that the victims of prostitution are not considered the criminals.
Because prostitution is a crime, the law sees those who engage in prostitution, those who being exploited, as just as guilty as those doing the exploiting. To quote Monroe again:
The female prostitute or sex worker continues to be the target of enforcement strategies, while the illegal activities of the sex buyer are minimized or completely ignored.
Our laws are set up to punish the victim, rather than the person enslaving her, rather than the person purchasing her. We must work to change these laws. Our nation and our churches must develop ways of protecting the victims, not punishing them.
Luxury with Idolatry
The fourth and last indictment is Israel’s luxury with idolatry.
They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.
Literally, they lay upon a bed of exploitation. They flaunt their wealth and their oppression of the poor in their houses of worship. Their garments taken in pledge refer to either items of clothing taken as collateral for loans—which, according the law, were to be returned at night—or as items of clothing taken permanently on defaulted loans.
The powerful and wealthy in Israel were enjoying themselves at the expense of the powerless and the destitute.
These condemnations bring the social sin of Israel and combine it with religious impropriety. These two sins show that one cannot fail in the area of social justice and still serve Yahweh. Their worship was nullified by their treatment of the poor
What hard-heartedness to the willfully-forgotten poor is compensated by a little Church-going!
We live in a rich nation. We have a wealthy church—both meaning the American church and this church in particular. Are we doing enough to help the poor? Are we engaged in the avenues necessary to pursue justice for the impoverished? Are we providing them the means necessary to escape their poverty?
Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us. That means that exploitation will always exist and that, yes, for some, poverty will be something they choose to go through due to other choices. But that is not an excuse to do nothing. If anything, Jesus is pointing us in the area we must go because there is always work to be done.
And if we do not do that work, as a church or as a nation, Yahweh says that we will be destroyed. Eight oracles against the nations. Eight warnings that our modern nation and our modern church has. Will we heed that warning? What would Amos say to us?
For three sins of the United States, Even for four I will not relent.
Will we reach that stage? Every world superpower up to this point has, from the Canaanites that God drove out of the Promised Land to Great Britain’s slow and steady collapse from a dominant superpower in just the past hundred years.
Our sins are just as egregious. Our sins are exactly the same. Our only chance to escape judgment to repent and to do it now.
Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:14-15