Amos and Freemasonry
by Thomas Hauder, PGM
While we will never know for certain why the creators of Masonic ritual used the material they did from the Bible and elsewhere, it often times seems to match the ideals set down in a particular degree so well that there isn’t any question in our minds that that particular Biblical phrase or passage is right for that degree.
However the passage used during the candidate perambulation about the Lodge in the Fellowcraft degree (Amos 7:7-8) has always seemed a bit mysterious and perhaps even out of place to me. Using Occam’s razor, it could be that Preston needed an “operative mason” sounding reading that matched the length of time of perambulation and this passage fit. However, I would like to think that Preston put a bit more thought into the selection and that this reading holds some message for us as Masons beyond “sounding masonic”.
So who was Amos, what did he have to say and why might this particular reading be of importance to us as Masons?
Reading the entire book of Amos cleared up part of the confusion on the use of this passage. It is not until you look at who he was and the context in which he prophesied, that parallels to Masonic lessons become apparent.
Amos was one of the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible (minor in this case does not denote lesser importance but that they wrote relatively short books compared to later prophets) who lived in the southern Kingdom of Judah and was active from 760 – 750 BCE. He was not the stereotypical prophet that we often think of from the Bible. In fact, he was a simple sheepherder and farmer of sycamore figs, a common man with no previous history or family connection to the business of prophesy. But God comes to him and instructs him to carry a very specific and important message to the Israelites. (Raising a common man to do uncommon work for God is a reoccurring theme in the Bible and may also have Masonic implications).
At this time, the Israelites have escaped Egypt and are settled in the Promised Land and have established two kingdoms…the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (from whence we get the term Jew). Things are going very well from a societal standpoint. They are quite prosperous, they are not being threatened by any of the border countries and the two Kingdoms even have an uneasy but peaceful relationship.
Unfortunately, all this wealth and comfort led to the Israelites “backsliding” on their covenant with God as the chosen people. Some had gone back to worshiping older gods from the area, they were building idols and practicing idolatry and the gap between the rich and the poor was becoming very great. This gap between the rich and the poor and the resulting social injustice is expressed in Amos 2:6-8:
“Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes;
7 That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name:
8 And they lay themselves down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. They are also convinced that if they just go though the motions of the rituals of the Torah precisely enough, then they will be prosperous forever. God, however, informs them (Amos 5:21-23):
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
They also believed they were exempt from punishment as the chosen people of God.
God is upset with this behavior, especially since he’s sent other prophets and various natural disasters to wake up the Israelites but they have ignored him. This is especially vexing to God as the Israelites are his chosen people and are expected to set the example.
God then chooses Amos, a common man, to go to the Northern Kingdom and explain to them what they have done and what God is about to do to correct the problem. God shows Amos several visions of coming tragedies for the Israelites. In the first vision, God is creating a storm of locusts that will eat the crops of the Israelites; however, Amos pleads successfully with God to not follow through. Then God shows Amos a vision of fire that will consume the Israelites. Amos again, successfully pleads with God not follow through and God relents. It is the third vision (Amos 7:7-8) that is used in the Fellowcraft degree and is the “operative mason” reference that we hear during perambulation.
When first encountered and without the context of what came before and after verses 7 -8, it seems pretty simple. God is using a plumb line as a metaphor to measure or judge the actions of the Israelites. The problem comes with the last line “…I will not again pass them by anymore”. As if often the case when studying the Bible or any ancient writing, the words used to translate the original may no longer mean the same thing to us in our time. The version of Amos used in the Nebraska Monitor is from the King James Version of the Bible, which was published in 1611. English has undergone a few changes since then. My first thought when hearing this last phrase was that God was going to stand by the Israelites and not ignore them. So I took it as a very positive sign about the relationship between God and the Israelites. However, this didn’t make the usage of that part of Amos in the Fellowcraft degree any more understandable to me.
It was not until after checking different translations of the passages and then reading the complete book of Amos that this began to make sense to me as a part of the Fellowcraft ritual.
In checking translations both by Jewish and Christian authors, it became clear that a more understandable (for our use of English) translation would be “…I will no longer pardon them” (www.chabad.org). So this passage is an allegory using operative masonic terms stating that God has measured his people, found them wanting and is no longer willing to look the other way or let them continue with their wayward ways! This is completely opposite of how I had been interpreting the passage. Checking different Bible translations of Amos such as the NRSV, NOAB, ASV and several Jewish translations (see source list), each agreed with the Jewish translation and used similar language. Analysis by both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars agrees that this passage is stating that God was done overlooking the actions of the Israelites and was going to take action to correct the mistakes. The analysts are in agreement that there are several main ideas that Amos is trying to teach:
Justice, especially social justice
Prayers and sacrifice do not make up for bad deeds.
Behaving justly is more important than ritual.
What being the Chosen People means
Moral behavior. Maintaining certain moral standards.
So Amos went to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and delivered God’s message and as often happens to those who bring negative news, he was rejected and his message was ignored. Soon after, as foretold by Amos, the Assyrians came from the north and conquered Israel and eventually, the Kingdom of Judah ending this period of great prosperity for the Hebrews.
As a Mason, I choose to see a connection between the lessons of Amos and Masonry in the following manner:
- Choseness: The Israelites made the mistake of thinking that because they were the chosen ones by God, they were exempt from the rules. This is contrary to what God wanted them to be, which was for them to be examples to the rest of the world as to how to keep the word of God. The same can be true for Masons. We think of ourselves as a “cut above” the rest of the world and deserving of respect and certain privileges. But that is only true if we strive to do the right thing at all times and set an example for the profane world. We need to see our special place or choseness from a servant standpoint and not as being exempt from the rules.
- Justice for the poor (Social Justice): This part of Amos is particularly relevant in today’s society. The gap between the rich and poor and the need for compassion and help for the poor is greater than ever. As Masons, one of the cardinal beliefs we hold is what our ritual refers to as relief. Such an application of social justice whereby we realize and act on the idea of being one family and supporting each other will keep us from “…selling the poor for a pair of sandals”.
- Behaving justly is more important than ritual: The Israelites were simply going through the motions of the things that were required of them by God, when what was really required is that they believe in those things, practice those things both within and without the Temple with all their souls. As Masons, it is easy for us to be pious and practice perfectly within the Temple (Lodge) but it can be very hard to live those values outside in our everyday lives. Amos reminds us that prayers and sacrifice do not make up for bad deeds. Behaving justly is more important than ritual. You must live what you practice.
- Moral Behavior: As the Israelites became more prosperous and had less strife and conflict in their lives, they began to drift from the moral standards that God had set for them and that had served them in the past. We can see this same issue in our own society today but as Masons we are charged to hold ourselves to the higher standard required of us by God. Society should change to meet our standard; Masonry should not lower itself to society’s standard.
- Justice: Justice should be sought in all our actions in life. The phrase used by Amos is “And justice shall be revealed like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This theme is repeated again in the Fellowcraft charge where we are admonished to “…reprehend with justice”.
The Book of Amos is trying to teach us some very important lessons: lessons that I believe are a part of our Masonic beliefs. As stated at the beginning of this paper, it is impossible to know exactly what Preston and others intended in using this passage from Amos. Regardless of the loss of the true reasons, we can use this passage to progress in Masonry by looking for parallels between the main ideas in Amos and the main tenets of Masonry and apply them to our own lives.
Nebraska Monitor / Grand Lodge of Nebraska A.F. & A.M.
Nebraska Cipher / Grand Lodge of Nebraska A.F. & A.M.
The Five Books of Moses translated by Robert Alter
What Do Jews Believe? by David S. Ariel
Don’t Know Much About The Bible by Kenneth C. Davis