For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live;
but do not seek Bethel,
And do not enter into Gilgal
Or cross over into Beersheba;
For Bilbal shall surely go into exile,
And Bethel shall come to nothing.
Just another list of odd names, tacked into the middle of yet another speech about seeking God, right? To our Christian ears, these places seem unimportant when compared to Nazareth or Bethlehem or Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane, or Golgotha. But these were famous places in the Israelites’ history. At Bethel Jacob dreamed of the ladder between heaven and earth. In Beersheba Abraham was recognized as having God with him and Jacob was promised to become a great nation. In Gilgal God the people crossed over to Canaan, the promised land. The people were worshipping at these locations, and while this is a political problem because it reduced Jerusalem’s importance, it’s also a spiritual problem, because these places were important in the history of Israel and they revealed exactly what the Israelites were worshipping.
David Foster Wallace said in the 2005 Commencement Address to Kenyon College: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
I would add as a corollary that if we worship at shrines and altars of our modern day, personal Bethels, Gilgals, and Beershebas, then what we worship will eat our fellow human beings alive. The connection between worship and justice comes to the forefront here. God is eternal, and always changing. Directing our worship and our allegiances to the comfort of the past, the way we’ve always done things — the way society or marriage or families or work used to be — ignores the challenges of the present day. Justice, one of Amos’s primary themes, is a shifting target, one that expands to include more people, not the same number that currently enjoy protection and position, and certainly not fewer. If our actions in the world simply maintain the status quo, we’re worshiping at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba. We’ve failed.
In the last election First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech to the Democratic National Convention in which she said, “[W]hen you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
Amos couldn’t have said it better himself.