Justice the Plumb Line—Amos 7:7-15

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The Prophet Amos employs the plumb line as a powerful metaphor for justice in society.

7This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,

‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by; 
9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’

10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,

“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” 

12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’

14Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Ancient architects faced a rather serious difficulty. How does one know if a building, a wall, or other structure is truly vertical—truly “plumb”? Certainly, one can eyeball it, but there are distinct limitations to sight. On unlevel ground or juxtaposed to a less-than-straight surface, it can be genuinely difficult to determine a true vertical.

The ingenious solution employed by these ancient architects, already by the fourth Egyptian dynasty (c. 2500 BCE), was the “plumb line” or “plumb-bob.” The plumb line is a remarkably simple tool—one merely attaches a heavy weight to the end of a cord, attaching the other end at an appropriate height. Due to the force of gravity, this line will be pulled tight, establishing a vertical or plumb point of reference for construction.

In the world of the Hebrew scriptures, plumb lines were a common occurrence, being used in the construction of city-walls and important structures. Thus, in Zechariah’s vision of the construction of the second temple, one reads: “then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. … the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel’” (Zechariah 4:8-10).

However, despite their commonality, this rather literal usage of plumb line is a remarkably uncommon occurrence in the Hebrew texts. Rather, from the period of the 8th century prophets forward, the plumb line became a consistent image for the judgment of God. Just as a plumb line can be used to judge the relative verticality of a wall, so too does God judge the relative uprightness of a community.

Thus, for example, when Manasseh succeeded Hezekiah as king of Judah, and turned from his father’s religious reforms to many idols—desecrating the temple and doing “what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Kings 21:2), the prophets of the LORD receive a harsh word of judgment: “I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down” (2 Kings 21:13).

But this metaphor is not unique to the historians who composed 2 Kings. Half a century earlier, and in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Amos employed the same imagery in a vision condemning Jeroboam II. “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:7-9).

Why this harsh judgment? What did Israel—and paradigmatically Jeroboam II—do wrong? Put, otherwise, what measure, what plumb line, did they fail to live up to?

Amos gives a litany of the misdeeds of Israel. Following critiques of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and Judah, Amos unleashes a scathing condemnation of Israel, longer than all the others combined. And yet, these complaints can ultimately be reduced to two. First, and anticipating the failure of Manasseh, Jeroboam II permitted idolatry and illegitimate worship. Thus, in a passage that likely refers not to incest, but temple prostitution, we read: “father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge” (Amos 2:8).

And yet, surprisingly, this idolatry is only attendant to the principal complaint of Amos (or rather YHWH): the second and ultimate charge is rampant economic and social inequality. For this reason, Amos is often regarded as one of the earliest extensive treatments of social justice. Therein the rich and the powerful of Israel are condemned “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”; they “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (Amos 2:6-7; 4:1).

This, however, only half answer the above questions. These two complaints—idolatry and economic inequality—mark the specific charges against Israel, but what is the measure, what is the plumb line? The answer, for Amos, is the two-fold pair: mishpat and tzedakah, justice and righteousness. As Isaiah will likewise remark: “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line” (Isaiah 28:17).

Does this account of the plumb line, of justice and righteousness, do anything for us today? Is there anything still to be learned from Amos? One possible value is highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Writing while incarcerated for a demonstration, King directed the letter not to the white racists or segregationists, not to Klansmen or white supremacists, but to the “white moderate.” As King writes, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Indeed, one would search the Letter in vain for a sustained argument against racism. The Letter has an entirely different aim. It is a letter about tactics. The Letter is first and foremost a defense of nonviolent direct action—protests, sit-ins, letter writing campaigns, marches, boycotts, etc.—as a viable tactic in response to racism.

For the white moderates who ostensibly supported the campaign for equal rights, such tactics were simply too disruptive. It is this white moderate “who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.” More important still, these direct actions are, more often than not, illegal! These moderates, King writes, “express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.”

King’s response is precise: “there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’.”

This final citation of Augustine is enlightening, as it marks a consistent recourse to theological figures throughout the Letter. Augustine and Aquinas, Jesus and Paul, Martin Luther and John Bunyan all make important appearances. But, what is particularly striking for the present purposes, is King’s turn to Amos. “I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love … Was not Amos an extremist for justice.”

What King gets from these figures, from Augustine and Aquinas, but also from Amos, is precisely that which Amos can continue to give us today: the notion of justice as a plumb line. For, as King rightly notes, if we do not have justice as a plum line, then the just becomes that which is merely legal, and that which is legal becomes just.

As King writes: “we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’.” Or, if we might draw examples from the present context, separating the children of asylum seekers from their families, and shuffling them into makeshift concentration camps is legal. Shutting down I.C.E. facilities is illegal.

What a conception of justice extrinsic to the law—justice as a plumb line—provides is a means of measuring the law, of distinguishing the just law and the unjust law. It is only with such a conception of justice, King suggests, that the church can be a “thermostat” rather than a “thermometer”; a challenge to the status quo rather than its mere indicator. For the plumb line does not impartially note injustice—like the sun which illuminates “the evil and the good” alike, or the rains which “rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45)—but rather, the plumb line stands as an upright measure, marking that which must be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, that which can’t be fixed, that which is beyond mere reform.

Nevertheless, these examples can lead to a conception of justice as a merely regulative notion. But, for the prophets, the plumb line of justice is positive, is creative. It does not only destroy injustice, but also builds up communities of compassion and righteousness. As Jeremiah prophesied, “‘the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when this city will be rebuilt for me. … The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. … The city will never again be uprooted or demolished’” (Jeremiah 31:38-40).

Justice as a plumb line not only provides a means for critique, but likewise a tool for the construction of communities which, while they may never fully live up to their measure—may never be truly vertical—may nonetheless stand tall and upright, may uplift those within and without; and provide a “foretaste of future blessing” (2 Corinthians 1:22).

Therefore, let us affirm a plumb line of justice that strikes across the legal and the illegal alike, allowing us to distinguish that which is righteous from that which is unrighteous. And let us not only condemn, but affirm; let us not only tear down, but uplift. And may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

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