4. Come to Bethel and commit crimes,
To Gilgal and commit even more crimes.
And bring the next morning you sacrifices,
On the third day your tithes.
5. And burn from the unleavened bread a thank offering,
And call out free-will offerings, proclaim it!
For thus you love to do, sons of Israel, says the Lord GOD.
Bethel and Gilgal
Bethel and Gilgal were important cult centers in the northern Kingdom of Israel. When the united kingdom divided after the reign of Solomon, Jeroboam I, the first king of the northern Kingdom, feared that the religious life of the people of Israel, which would have continued being centered in the southern capital or Jerusalem, might lead to a reconciliation of the two kingdoms and the end of his nascent dynasty. So he established two alternative cult centers (meaning a place for priests to do their typically priestly things, like sacrifices) for the worship of Yahweh: one at Dan in the far north and one at Bethel in the south. Bethel had been an important cult center for the Canaanites long before the Israelites claimed it (which may, in part, explain its importance as a cult center under Israelite control). Despite Jeroboam’s setting up of golden calves in these two places, the people would still have understood themselves to be worshiping the God of their ancestors, not some new deity.
Though it frequently occurs in the Hebrew Bible in connection with Bethel, Gilgal was an important site in its own right, being the place where tradition had it that Israel camped after crossing the Jordan and where twelve stones were set up as a witness of the Israelites’ covenant with Yahweh. Perhaps because of this tradition, Gilgal was a place of religious significance to which Israelites traveled to partake in festivals and to make sacrifices. There is some debate over where Gilgal was, and indeed there may have been two Gilgals, one a few miles north of Bethel and one much further north near Shechem. In Amos, it seems to me that Gilgal is understood to be in the vicinity of Bethel. At the very least, it is considered the second most important cult center in the northern kingdom.
Again, it is important to realize that Israel continued to worship Yahweh even after the split in the kingdom, when they no longer went to Jerusalem to celebrate pilgrimage feasts or make major sacrifices but to Bethel, Gilgal, Shiloh, and perhaps Dan in the north. They may have worshiped him alongside other deities, but they did worship him, and in a way that probably was not all that different in form from the way Yahweh was worshiped at Jerusalem in the southern kingdom.
God is Not Satisfied With Israel’s Worship of Him
If they were, in fact, worshiping Yahweh, why then does God sarcastically tell them to go to Bethel and Gilgal and commit pesha’im or transgressions? Why isn’t he happy that they are at least worshiping him? A pesha’ can be be a transgression of a law or of the Torah (hence my translation as “commit crimes”), but it can also be meant more lightly, as in a social faux pas. Here, however, it appears that God is talking about some kind of moral or religious transgression. These transgressions could be (in light of Amos’ social focus in in 4:1 and earlier in chapter 2) either the wealthy elites’ oppression of the poor, or it could be some other kind of moral transgression (perhaps cultic prostitution?), or it could even be idolatry.
Regardless of what exactly the transgressions were, while Israel are diligent to observe festivals, to make sacrifices, and to bring their tithes, according to Amos 4:4-5 their outward piety was sullied by their crimes and revealed to be all show and no substance. Amos describes the typical feast as a time of debauchery followed by externally pious activities: sacrifices, tithes, and offerings. But these activities are meaningless, God says. Israel’s worship is empty and superficial because it does not proceed from a right heart. We see this theme more fully worked out when Amos picks the theme back up in Amos 5:21-25:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no pleasure in your assemblies. Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied; I will not look upon your peace offerings of fatted calves. Take away from me the noise of your songs, and let me not hear the music of your stringed instruments. But let justice flow like the waters, and righteousness like a perpetual stream. Did you bring me sacrifices and grain offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, house of Israel?
Amos appears to understand that the full sacrificial system was not in effect during the wilderness wanderings. How that meshes with what we read in Exodus through Deuteronomy is another question, but that’s certainly what Amos seems to understand.
The Trajectory of Hebrew Prophecy
Outside of Amos, this theme of prioritizing righteousness over cultus is fairly common in the Old Testament. For example, Hosea 6:4-6 says:
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
What use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to me.
1 Samuel 15:22:
And Samuel said, Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.
In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
So in light of all this, Amos is not saying anything idiosyncratic or odd, here. He sits right smack dab in the middle of the trajectory of Old Testament prophecy that prioritizes righteousness over sacrifice.
Jesus’ Teaching Also Within That Trajectory
It is striking to me how much Amos sounds like Jesus, here, who comes nearly 800 years later and has been perceived, perhaps, as teaching innovative things in prioritizing love over strict Torah observance (as it was understood by the people of his time). At several points in the Gospels, Jesus teaches at length on the principle that true worship isn’t self-aggrandizing or sullied by sin.
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches:
“Give attention to your righteousness, not to do it in front of men in order to be seen by them. Otherwise you will not have a reward from your Father in heaven.”
Don’ t give to be seen. Don’t pray to be seen. Don’t fast to be seen. This constitutes laying up for yourselves treasures on the earth. Instead, do everything in such a way that only God sees you, and he will reward you. Self aggrandizing worship is not acceptable to God. Only worship that comes from a righteous heart that desires to please God is acceptable. Jesus returns to this theme in Matthew 23, and we see similar teaching in Luke 20:45-21:4.
Finally, John 4:23 essentially sums it all up:
“For God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
In fact, you could actually understand this theme to be Jesus’ central point in all his teaching, because what else could he really intend when he says that all the Law and the Prophets hang on two commands: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself? If you do these things, you will fulfill the Torah. If you try to fulfill the Torah without loving God and loving your neighbor, it won’t work.
This is essentially the same principle Amos is prophesying from: your sacrifices and your festivals – all this outward show of piety – doesn’t count as true worship as far as God is concerned. You won’t ensure a good harvest or enough rain or that your cattle will breed by checking off things on the list of religious observances. Those observances were given to Israel as the practical expression of a covenant relationship with God, a covenant that has moral obligations to love God only and to love your neighbor (the poor and helpless) as yourself.