To try and make sense of the role of the 8th Century Prophets it is important to gauge the broader picture under which they operated.
Israel had since the time of Solomon been reduced to two communities living estranged from each other. It had come about, that, due to the oppressive rule of Solomon followed by that of Rehoboam, that the people had enthroned Jeroboam I as king of Israel. What followed was times of either intense rivalry and hatred for each other or peaceful Co-existence. However it was during these years that due to the general political scene both kingdoms prospered to an extent not seen other than the reign of Solomon. With prosperity come further oppression of that part of the community that was least able to defend itself in the courts.
The moral, religious and social structure of both kingdoms went into a spiral of decline as the books of Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Micah attest.
For Anderson then, the prophets of the eighth century were commentators, who under the view of the Eternal God interpreted events of their day by looking back at crucial experiences of the past. They were concerned with relationships, particularly with regard to the covenant. As they came bringing a message from Yahweh to his people, they were themselves products of the society in which they lived. They were concerned with the manner in which the people of God had failed to continue in a covenant relationship with God, rather resorting to oppression of the poor, as they watched the way of life that had existed while they had been yet a group of desert tribes pass away.
It was this moving away from the desert life to a more organised developed civilisation, and the gradual assimilation of the canaanite ethos of religion and social structure that set the stage for the gross excesses that are judged against by the prophets.
In this period of Israel’s history the population was made up of free Israelites, slaves, resident aliens and the Canaanites. The bulk of the people were farmers, fruit growers, herdsmen, small merchants, artisans, unskilled wage labourers and slaves. A smaller portion of the community were either professional priests, wealthy land owners or merchants. This latter group lived in a style of luxury which was in direct contrast to the poverty of the general population.
The nobodies referred to by Anderson are those who had no real rights under the laws of Israel. Those responsible for enacting legislation in Judah and in Israel, had put into effect laws which oppressed three groups in society. The widows, the orphans and the poor.
Likewise in relation to these groups within the society of both Judah and Israel, the prophets each looked at how the covenant has within it, the expectation that people would treat their neighbour with Justice and Righteousness. A reflection of the character of God himself.
The words, “mišpãt” and “sedãqãh” are central to what the prophets had to say about the nobodies or powerless of their time. Taking each word in turn there can be demonstrated a link between these words and the prophets concern for the nobodies of their society.
Firstly, taking the word “mišpãt”, this is derived from the verb “shãpat”, which means to judge or govern. The primary sense being to exercise the process of government, hence “mišpãt” is what those who do the judging should be supplying the community “Justice”. There is a forensic tone imputed to the use of this word and it is commonly used in conjunction with the primary attributes of God. Isaiah 30:18 pick up this tone by saying, “because Jehovah is the God of justice”. Limburg rightly sees a dynamic quality connected to the prophetic us of Justice. “One does justice” is how he puts it, the people of the eighth century were failing to acts on behalf of the oppressed, the orphans and the widows. Political leaders of both Jerusalem and Samaria had forgotten to assure “mišpãt” in the gate.
The gate, the place where justice should have been found was no longer what it should have been. Micah 1:9 talks, of how, “her wound is incurable. It has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem”, and he is backed up by corresponding verses in both Amos and Isaiah (Amos 1:5; Amos 5:10-12; Amos 5:15; Isa 28:6; Isa 29:21). The very place where justice should have been found was devoid of it.
Anderson points out that a passion for social justice was shared by all of the eighth century prophets. Like many authors he exegetes the passage in Isaiah referred to as the “Song of the Vineyard” and exposes the theme of justice and righteousness. This theme can be isolated in all the books of the eighth century prophets (Amos 5:7; Amos 5:24, Micah 3:1-2; Micah 6:8, Hosea 2:19).
Secondly, it can be seen from the above discussion that the complement to “mišpãt” is “sedãqãh” (righteousness). It stems from the denominative verb “sàdèq”, be just, or be righteous. The earliest use of the noun “sedãqãh” occurred in relation to the function of the judges. When people follow God, righteousness is said to dwell in the city (Isa 1:21), hence to have a city ruled by greed and wickedness is to pervert righteousness. This is of prime importance to the prophets because as has been posited earlier they all call for justice to be complemented by righteousness. The forensic act involved in righteousness applies to equality for all, both rich and poor. It is evident from the text that this was not the case (Isa 1:15-21; Isa 3:14-15; Isa 5:8-11; Isa 10:1-2; Hosea 10:12-13; Micah 3:1-2, Micah 8-9; Micah 6:8; Amos 5:7, Amos 5:24). Righteousness then as Hosea portrays, can only be achieved by plowing up fallow ground and sowing in righteousness and reaping in mercy (Hos 10:12). Finally there is a viewpoint that the eighth century prophets use “sedãqãh” in an ethical sense.
It was obvious to the prophets that the nobodies of the society had been forgotten by the society in general and as passages like Amos 5:11, Micah 2:2 and Isaiah 5:8 point out the rich had trampled upon the poor, coveting their fields, evicting the widows and their children, selling them into slavery. The oppressed having mortgaged their homes found themselves removed to the street. This then was the economic life of Israel and Judah during the eighth century, riddled with abuses which the prophets saw and condemned.
Scott points out that, “Israel’s national conscience had been formed by the tradition of Moses and the deliverance from Egypt”. This set the background for a covenant with God which he says “prescribed the “mišpãt” of his people”. As the creator of Israel any life that Israel may have had lay within the righteousness of God. This has the result of an expectation from Yahweh that a like righteousness would be visible among his people.
To gain a better understanding of how each of the prophets of this time expressed this concern it is important then to see how they each reacted to the situation as they found it.
Starting with the book of Amos, it is evident that he like the other eighth century prophets, was ultimately concerned with the lost and the nobodies of his society. The flotsam and jetsam of a world in which crimes against humanity was rife (Amos 1:1;2:11). The opening oracles are all joined together by a common thread, a thread of social and criminal injustice towards humanity. J. Hyatt believes that, Amos saw the terms of the covenant as moral. This is expressed in the manner in which Amos exposes crimes against humanity. What greater ethical dilemma is there than one which destroys firstly humankind’s relationship with God, then their relationship with fellow humans, and finally humankind’s relationship with nature. All of these are in evidence in the book of Amos.
Likewise, Hyatt, in summarising the book of Amos says that because of the sin, especially the social sin of injustice, the Day of the Lord is about to be inaugurated. So bad is the sin in the land that even the awaited Day of Yahweh, a time when the righteous will be vindicated, is now to be turned against the nation as a whole as a instrument of judgment.
Tied up here is the concept, as mentioned earlier, of God’s justice. Amos continually stresses the justice God has expressed in his dealings with Israel, and how God demands justice from his people, yet this threat of judgment looms like a dark cloud over Israel. Twice Amos asks the Lord to forgive, twice the Lord postponed his judgment, however because the injustices perpetrated on the oppressed and the nobodies of Israel violated the very fundamental idea of what constituted the people of God they were not to be spared. Again J. Hyatt puts this in terms that leave little room to be elaborated on, “When the rich oppress the poor, or merchants cheat their customers, then the fundamental idea of a covenant people is violated”.
Mays points out that for Amos, “the crucial manifestation of evil in Israel is the oppression of the weak”. It does not matter to which part of Amos one turns they are continually confronted with the manifest evil that is used against this lower socio-economic group.
To say that Amos was for the nobodies of Israel’s society is a correct understanding of the book, however it must not be lost sight of that he was also concerned with the relationship of the people and the land, and the poor state of the cultic worship. This latter has caused many to question if or not he may have been against the idea of cultic worship all together.
It has been mentioned earlier also about the use of the words justice and righteousness, these are favourite terms of Amos, used when ever he is talking about what Yahweh requires of Israel in relation to the weak. God will not only destroy the people but also their strongholds in which they store their loot. Strongholds is another theme that runs through Amos and appears in Amos 1:4,7,10,12,14; 2:2,5; 3:9,10,11; 6:8. These places of stored wealth and Amos’s derogatory references to them only heighten the idea that wealth can corrupt, just as poverty can degrade. Nolan Howington writes that Amos with penetrating insight, “observed that one of the moral perils of wealth is in attendant loss of sensitivity, a callousness of soul”.
Secondly, Hosea who was a native of northern Israel found himself following in the footsteps of Amos. Unlike Amos (a stern austere shepherd) he was seen as tender hearted, full of compassion and pity. Winward puts it quite adequately, “he loved the people he was compelled to condemn”.
Hosea expresses his concern for the people by the use of his own relationship with Gomer, for, from within his own pain he reveals his heart. Through his suffering a window is opened upon the problems of relationships within the community. Yahweh uses the love of Hosea to reveal his own love, and whether or not the chapters on Hosea relationship with Gomer are taken literally of allegorically the theme of the book Hosea is the love of God as expressed in the covenant.
Unlike the other three eighth century prophets Hosea does not use the terms justice and righteousness with the same vigour. Instead he focuses on terms like “chesed” steadfast love, faithfulness and knowledge of God. It is through the use of these terms that he shows the breakdown in society. He talks about bringing and indictment (Hosea 4:1) which is a legal term because there is no faithfulness or loyalty or knowledge of God. Swearing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery have broken out(Hosea 4:2). The people are greedy in their iniquity, they have plowed wickedness and reaped injustice (Hosea 10:13) and all your fortresses will be destroyed.
It is obvious that the people had gone away from Yahweh, they had broken his covenant. Thus it is the breaking of the covenant that has bought the nation to it’s present predicament. The deliberate nature of the peoples disobedience is obvious from, Hosea 4:16 where Israel is said to be stubborn and Hosea 5:11 where they are said to be deliberate in their actions. According to Anderson, “Hosea does not throw the spotlight on social injustice the same way as Amos or Isaiah do”, yet one cannot say that he is not for the nobodies of society because all the conditions against which here prophecies are the very conditions which produce the social climate where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Thirdly, Isaiah. Isaiah unlike the other prophets of this era was not a peripheral voice, rather he was directly involved with the government (official role unknown). He was on occasion summoned by the King who recognised his status as a messenger of Yahweh. From the narratives of Isaiah it can be seen that he was an important figure in Jerusalem, never the less this did not stop him from delivering oracles to regulate social change.
By reaffirming traditional values and religious views he became an instrument of Yahweh rather than an instrument of the King.
Apart from the other themes found in Isaiah, there is what Stephen Winward calls the finest parable of Social Justice in the Old Testament. This is of course the Song of the Vineyard that has been mentioned earlier. It is here that theme of “mišpãt” Justice and “sedãqãh” Righteousness reaches its zenith in Isaiah.
In the form of a popular love song it is the story of a friend who has made a vineyard. Having lovingly prepared the ground and planted the choicest vines he waits the harvest. However at harvest he is confronted by nothing but wild grapes and the question is asked what will the owner do with the vineyard. Unless it is utterly destroyed it will only become a thorn choked wasteland.
Isaiah here has set the scene (not unlike Amos who first bought oracles against the nations and Judah), then when having his audience hanging on his every word dealt his death blow. It was the people of Judah who were the vineyard, a vineyard on which Yahweh had tenderly bestowed his finest craft as a vine keeper. However like Jesus some seven centuries later he came expecting to find fruit but was confronted with no fruit at all. Instead he found injustice and not “mišpãt”, he expected to find righteousness and instead he heard a cry from the oppressed. Winward sums up the parable with, “To the loving care of God the nation has responded with violence and oppression”. Like the time of Amos the cultic activity was, all be it perverted, in full swing, and it is not unlikely that this very parable was delivered within the precincts of the temple.
Isaiah was telling the people that if they wanted to do what was acceptable to Yahweh, then they needed to cleanse themselves and put away injustice and unrighteousness. The strength of his conviction for the need for social change can be seen from his use of these two words. Below is a summary of the verses they can be found in highlighting again his concern for the people and their relationships.
Isa 1:17,21,27; 3:14; 4:4; Isa 5:7,16; 9:7; 10:2; 16:5; Isa 26:8,9; 28:6,17,26; 30:18.
Isa 1:27; 5:7,16,23; Isa 9:7; 10:22; 28:17, Isa 32:16,17; 33:5,15.
Isaiah uses the form of a covenant lawsuit to try and persuade Judah to avert the path of it’s sister Israel and to try to bring about a change of values. He makes it plain at the outset that the reason the people will be judged is because they have failed to live up to the expectation of Yahweh’s covenant, with special reference to social, religious and political issues. It cannot be forgotten that Isaiah to, like Amos had a sense of an ethical dilemma for the people. This shows in their abuse of the weaker class, a primary concern for satisfying oneself and a manipulation of the environment. Oswalt writes that Isaiah’s “whole pattern of thought has been affected by the tremendous contrast between the greatness of God and the corruption of Humanity.
Fourthly, from the book of Micah (a contemporary of Isaiah) it can be seen that he was concerned primarily with the needs of the people. The characteristics of his ministry are, strict morality, unbending devotion to justice, and sympathy with the poor. Chapter two verses five to nine talks about how those greedy for land will lose title to that land, and how the persecutors of women will see their own children deprived of their right to belong to the people of the Lord. Micah expresses a sense of outrage for the dispossessed as even the oppressed will have his heritage taken from him.
Micah attacked the establishment for abandoning divinely ordained standards in favour of self interest, to the point of neglecting and actively mistreating those who made up the class of the under privileged. For Micah God was the God of the covenant, a God whose justice and righteousness was unparallel in history. It was the failure of this justice and righteousness to be reflected in those who purportedly shared in that covenant that caused him to stand out against his environment as a courageous, passionate champion for justice (Micah 3:8). Micah saw that it necessary for the people to be reminded of the implications of covenant disloyalty. It was to be through his reminding them that he pursued justice for the victims of the power structure of society.
Micah made it plain that those who had misappropriated the ancestral property of others and those who had turned a deaf ear to their appeals for help would loose their own rights and they would find God turning a deaf ear to their appeals before him (Micah 2:2-10; 3:4-10). It is evident from the book of Micah that a burgeoning wealthy class was becoming richer and an expanding poor class was becoming poorer. Micah was becoming as mentioned earlier a champion against the injustices of the ruling classes. It is the theme of Justice (mišpãt) and Righteousness (sedãqãh) that is continually played out throughout the book of Micah. One could even say that his doctrine of the remnant was placed by God to give the people hope. It is in this manner that God, through Micah expresses his concern for all people and for relationships. It will take the impoverishment of all to bring about the change needed to once again bring the lost and powerless back within the bounds of the covenant relationship.
It can be said then in conclusion, that the prophets of the eighth century were concerned primarily for the people and especially for the victims of the power structure of society. They each in their own way fought against the unethical lifestyle of the people of Yahweh and sought to bring about a reversal of the ethical decline. They sort to right the relationship the people had with God, with themselves and finally with their environment. It is when all three of these things are present that the covenant relationship is complete.