Prologue

 

Bethel, Kingdom of Israel, 752 BCE

 

As he paused before the Bethel sanctuary to take in the peripheral mass of hawkers and faithful fools, Amos knew what to expect. Despite being raised in relative isolation, he was no idiot, and had long gone out of his way to listen to the merchants and bards regaling common folk with tales of travelling to other lands. Still, Amos was on the surface nothing but a Goatherder, and far from welcoming the words he had come here to deliver, the King’s men would try to silence him, ejecting or imprisoning him with haste. There was even the possibility that before he reached the altar, the people would accost him, and he would be stoned in the street like a harlot. But he had heard the voice of Yahweh, and nothing could dissuade him from the task ahead. He had left the relative safety of Tekoa far to the south, compelled by portents of destruction and the passion of truth. And, of course, the unrelenting grip of his god.

 

Amos was no naïve devotee of Yahweh, and had cursed the mountain god when his mother died. She had been a good woman, to her husband, to her children; and Amos missed her dreadfully. But he was alone now in his sorrow, and without people with whom one could share grief, it could oftentimes become overwhelming. When Yahweh had come to him, a cool breeze had entered him, penetrating right to his soul and tempering the boiling resentment within, refreshing his love of life and land. The world seemed to have been glowing, as if a layer of light had been revealed to him, resting atop all that breathed and sought the sun. Amos knew then that it had always been there, and he had simply allowed the darkness of past and pending mortality to shroud the truth. Without a word to his fellow goatherders, he had set his face north and walked away. Without food or water, he had left the wilderness of Tekoa behind, skirting towns and even staying clear of Jerusalem, and he had felt neither thirst nor hunger until reaching this place. It was almost as if Bethel was so tainted that Yahweh’s grace could not penetrate its veil of corruption. Amos felt his stomach twist and tighten, but he drew himself up and pressed on.

 

Eyes turned his way, but to most people he was nothing but a trifling distraction. An older man nodded as he shuffled past Amos, perhaps acknowledging their apparent affinity, perhaps warning him not to bring it any further. A pair of soldiers were coming from Amos’ left, and one of them spat as they laughed at a filthy joke before glaring at the stranger from the south. They continued on, and the crowds grew as Amos felt the ground rise with each step, his crook clicking on the paving stone without him noticing. It hurt to look at the white walls, and Amos found himself blinded by their majesty for no more than a moment of lapsed judgement. The grandiose architecture was designed to ensnare the weak-minded, convincing them that wealth was the manifestation of the divine. Voices were louder here, competing for attention, and Amos surmised very quickly that he would be one of a number of orators in this place. Without realising, he was within the walls, as if the people were a single beast whose relentless motion had drawn him in against his will.

 

He halted, people bumping into him and pushing past him, and he felt a sickly heat in his stomach as he watched a bearded old man in rags even worse than his own throwing up his arms against a barrage of mouldy bread and stinking vegetables. As the man relented and left his space, Amos saw his opportunity. The plinth had once been as white as the walls – although the inside of the walls had seen better days – but it was now stained and discoloured, with signs that at times blood had flown from someone who sought to speak their mind to these people. Amos made it to the plinth unchallenged. He turned to face the people, who still moved about their business and threw nothing now but glances of mild curiosity. He knew he should have felt afraid, but compulsion consumed his fear and his inner peace was replaced with a fury he had not felt since his father spoke ill of his beloved mother.

 

‘What are you all doing here?’ he demanded angrily, pointing back from where he had come and keeping his hand out until heads started to turn. ‘Yahweh roars from Zion!’ he resumed once he had enough of them in thrall. ‘He shouts aloud from Jerusalem!’ Amos shook his head and looked around, saying quietly with only one pair of eyes held in check, ‘Not from this place.’ And he spat on the ground with a disgust he did not comprehend.

 

The people who began to gather and point and whisper saw a bedraggled young man in filthy rags with a simple goatherder’s crook dropped at his feet. Yet above his short and dusty black beard, they were enthralled to see a pair of sharp blue eyes, a rare sight in these lands. Some threw scraps of food in his direction, thinking him a deluded beggar, one of many for whom this place had long been an attraction. Hungry as he was, Amos ignored their dismissive charity, pointing an accusing finger at three finely-dressed women who stole glances and laughed as they sought to walk by. ‘You cows of Bashan!’ he roared. That won their attention: ‘Grazing on the hills of Samaria. You who defraud the poor and take from the needy. You who take, take, take from your husbands before giving yourselves in return! You think yourself safe in your palaces and fine houses? You are being judged,’ he roared, ‘by He who brought you up from Egypt and set this land out for your children.’

 

Some people laughed. The cows of Bashan, on the other hand – who had probably never even ventured as far north as the rich and fertile region once ruled by the fabled Giant King, Og – did not. They haughtily gathered up their dresses and picked up their pace, with Amos dismissing them with a flicked hand. Looking down at the food, he felt a pang not of hunger but of purpose. And he continued to ignore the charity despite the churning in his stomach and the feeling that his mind was beginning to swim around his head. ‘This place will fall,’ he continued, in a matter-of-fact and dejected tone that cut deeper and drew more attention than his anger. ‘The land will be scorched and you will be taken away. In baskets, your corpses will be carried from the land to be scattered like waste. This place, this…House of El…He sees it, He knows its slithering belly of corruption and want. And He will destroy it. You are all taken away!’ He swept out his arm to indicate the growing crowd, his sharp eyes cutting through their doubt and investing them with fear. ‘I see your rotting bodies,’ he hissed like a vengeful serpent, ‘laid out amongst these stones. Here where you come with your sacrifices and offerings to appease your faithless guilt. Why should you be saved? Yahweh has told me you will not. The House of Jeroboam itself will fall by the sword and all of Israel will be laid waste.’ The gasps and raised eyebrows of the crowd indicated that perhaps Amos had gone too far, and in his heart he knew it. Yet still he felt compelled to continue. A tall man in grand robes of blue and gold came upon the scene, flanked by two of the King’s soldiers. This was Amaziah, the Priest of Bethel, through whom all who sought public spectacle were expected to obtain permission…and pay their dues. Wasting no time, he pushed through the bemused onlookers, shouting, ‘Get away from here, Seer! I could hear your Southern tongue from my chambers! You don’t belong in this place.’

 

Amos found himself face to face with the Priest, but he said nothing, calmly waiting for the man’s next move. Were it not for the spirit of Yahweh coursing through his veins, he might have turned and ran, and would certainly not have understood the politics at play here. Amaziah, on the other hand, had operated in and around the Samarian hinterlands for many years and had learned how to deal with these charlatans. He stepped back and looked around at the crowd. ‘This is the place where Jacob himself lay his head!’ the Priest reminded them loudly before turning back to Amos: ‘The place where he took the name Israel and laid the foundations of our great nation. Who are you to condemn us in the name of your southern king?’ He leaned in, and Amos smelled the sickly-sweet aroma of his perfume. ‘Or are you an envoy of war?’

 

Amos nodded knowingly. ‘You are attempting to ensnare me,’ he observed quietly. ‘You are deceiving these people.’

 

Amaziah smiled, stepping back so that the people might hear: ‘If you don’t leave now, I will do more than ensnare you, beggar!’ This drew some laughs from the crowd and someone threw a piece of rotten fruit at Amos. Amaziah chuckled and looked down at the food thrown around the man’s feet. ‘Take your bread and eat it elsewhere, and do not attempt to prophesy in this place again. This is a royal sanctuary, and you will answer to the King for your continued insolence.’

 

Amos shook his head. ‘I am no prophet,’ he replied darkly, ‘nor do I belong to any school of prophets. I don’t cut myself, or dance or chant, or take so much of the grape that I simply come to believe Yahweh is with me.’ He raised his voice again for the crowd to hear: ‘I am a mere goatherder and dresser of fig trees. But Yahweh came to me, and I could not ignore his call. My words are fearful and a burden, I’ll grant you, but Yahweh demanded that I warn you all of what’s to come. But you…’ he held Amaziah in a baleful glare: ‘Your wife shall run the streets, your children die by the sword, and your land will be taken by strangers come to take fallen Israel as their own.’

 

Amaziah was furious, but as he grabbed Amos’ arm, a terrible chill rushed through him and he felt tears forming as Amos’ blue eyes saw beyond his own. ‘I am not an evil man,’ the Priest declared, trembling uncontrollably. ‘Do not make me so.’

 

‘I speak only what I’m told,’ said Amos, gently removing the Priest’s arm. ‘Only what I see.’

 

Amaziah looked down at his hand and nodded, saying, ‘What should I do?’

 

‘There is no hiding from the will of Yahweh. This place is a pit of sin.’

 

‘The mountain god cannot punish me for something I have not brought to bear.’

 

‘The fault is with your King,’ Amos agreed. ‘His kingdom will fall. And that will be the end of Israel.’ Amos stumbled then, relinquished by Yahweh to his exhaustion, and Amaziah and the soldiers helped him away from the place. Amos was never seen again, but thirty years later, when the Assyrians came, his words were swiftly brought to mind. Amaziah was an old and nearly sightless man, but he witnessed the youngest of his wives dragged from their family home and destroyed by lust. Lucky for Amos that he was not alive to see the impaled bodies, the broken children and the women torn apart by depravity. And lucky also that he was not alive a further century later, to see what was brought to bear on this place at the hands of a Jerusalem king, a man who was supposed to make fallen Israel rise gloriously from its own ashes.

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