I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities –
if you wish to offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water,
and goodness like an unfailing stream.
-Amos 5:21, 23-24

Amos, which means “burden” in Hebrew, is a bit of a dismal book. The prophet does not mince words when it comes to the bad behavior of Israel and its neighbors, but warns � rather colorfully � that cities will go up in flames, houses will be smashed, corpses will be left unburied and rotting, and women and children will be led away with hooks in their noses if the people do not repent.

While the prophet begins his diatribe by condemning foreign nations, he saves his choicest words for the Israelites, who, as God’s chosen people, ought to know better–or at least act better–than their pagan neighbors. But instead, they take God’s covenant for granted, believing God will protect them no matter what they do. Amos not-so-gently points out that the enemy attacks and natural disasters they routinely suffer are punishments for their evil ways: their obsession with wealth and prosperity, their abysmal treatment of the poor, and their vain and empty worship of God. All the trappings of religion do not a good person make. God desires justice and goodness, and a faithful, engaged relationship with him. Amos’s strong words aim to shake the Israelites out of their complacency, but the prophet seems to have little hope for the future.

Amos is the earliest of the prophets, written by his followers in the 8th century B.C., around the time of the Assyrians’ attack on the northern kingdom of Israel (see Judah and Israel ). He was not a professional prophet tied to the Temple, but a shepherd and tender of sycamore trees, and this more humble station most likely gave him the latitude–and attitude–to speak so caustically.

Amos is one of the twelve Minor Prophets and represents a new direction in Israel’s tradition of prophecy. While earlier forms were addressed to the king or to an individual priest, Amos’s prophesies are directed to an entire people. This shift emphasizes that all are responsible for keeping the covenant with God alive, not just the leader.