Introducing the Book of Amos

The book of Amos bears witness to the earliest of the writing prophets. What we know about Amos comes from the heading of the book (1:1, also compare prophetic headings) and the brief narrative included amongst the report of his visions (7:10-17).[1] Amos is a rancher of large cattle and tends sycamore figs (1:1; 7:14). His strong financial situation strengthens his critique of the upscale constituents of the northern kingdom of Samaria. Amos hails from Tekoa, a small town south of Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah.

Amos brought his message to Bethel, a royal city of the northern kingdom which housed a shrine to Israel’s God. Amaziah the priest passed along to Jeroboam II the message of Amos, as is customary in the ancient Near East. It is natural for a king to desire to hear of prophetic threats, or other seditious occurrences, especially given “the chronic political instability” of the northern kingdom and its many dynasties.[2] Amos made clear he was not interested in getting on the payroll of the northern kingdom. His prophetic calling did not displace his role as a southern business person.

Amos preached during a time of peace and affluence. The northern kingdom under Jeroboam II (788-747 BCE, see chronological orientation) enjoyed expansion to its largest geographical size (2 Kgs 14:23-27). During this highpoint of political and economic prosperity Amos preached doom. He predicted that Samaria would be overthrown and its people sent into exile. The reasons for the message of judgment stem from the sinful ways of the leading citizens of Samaria. Amos accused them of social and religious complacency. Many of the things Amos cited—sleeping of beds of ivory and anointing themselves with fine oil (6:4-6), zeal in worship (e.g., 4:4,5), and so on—are not against the covenantal instruction. The prophet, thus, is getting an underlying attitude which God interprets as contempt for himself and his instruction.[3]

Amos’ message is remarkable for its international outlook. He voiced God’s first person interpretation as the actor behind the military threat (e.g., 3:15). Amos reported oracles against many surrounding nations, the sins of whom were not against God’s elect people (1:3-2:3). Actually, Amos accuses the affluent citizens of Samaria of sinning against God’s law and his people (e.g., 2:6-16). Moreover, Amos even compares Israel’s election and redemption to the work of Yahweh with competing nations (9:7, 8). While striking, the relationship of Israel’s God with their neighbors is also seen in Deuteronomy (see 2:5, 8-12). The basis of the international focus and the impending doom of God’s people is God’s sovereign place as creator (see 4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6).

The book of Amos itself bears witness to the judgment of God’s people, Jerusalem (6:1), and Samaria, yet there is hope for Samaria, within the framework of the Davidic covenant 9:11-12 (and other broader considerations 9:5-7). The reference to Zion in Amos 6:1 (like the ending in 9:11-15) stands out. Whether it is an editorial updating reflecting a rereading of Amos by Judeans or if it is original, it bears upon the narrator’s analogous view of the two kingdoms in 2 Kgs 17:9. If in the former case, it minimally shows that different writings reflect the same kind of application. Note the similar updating of Hosea: “Israel and Ephraim stumble in their guilt also Judah stumbles with them” (Hos 5:5). Also see 1:7, 11; 5:10, 14; 6:4, 11; 8:14; 10:11; 12:2. Some of these look like they could be editorial updating for use of the writing in Judah.[4] And if in the latter case, Amos 6:1 could signal a way to apply the judgment of the north to the south.[5]

The General Structure of the Book of Amos[6]
Heading (1:1)
The earthquake (1:1) cannot be precisely date, but is significant enough to be remembered in postexilic times (Zech 14:5). Notice earthquake imagery in Amos 9:1, 9.
Against whom will Yahweh roar if not his people Israel? (1:2) [7]

(I)  Seven Judgments Against Seven Nations, plus Judgment Against Israel—3 + 4 + 1 (1-2)
[see map]
A       against the foreigners
1          Damascus (1:3-5)
2          Gaza (1:6-8)
3          Tyre (1:9-10)
B       against “relatives”
4          Edom (1:11)
5          Ammon (1:13-15)
6          Moab (2:1-3)
7          Judah (2:4-5)
C       against us
8          Israel (2:6-16) 
Seven is the sum of three plus four (“for three sins . . . even for four . . .” 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6), and is symbolic of “completion” in the case of days of creation (Gen 2:1-4a) and days of weeks (Exod 20:8-11). Moreover, seven plus one seems to symbolically signify more than total (something like 110%). For example, Psalm 119 has eight verses which begin with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as eight special words repeated through the psalm.[8] Whereas Psalm 119 is exalting the “surpassing” Torah, Amos 1-2 demonstrates the complete judgment of the nations is surpassed in the climactic judgment of Israel herself. The movement from foreigners through relatives in the judgment of the seven nations[9] would have been satisfying and symmetrical with the pattern of “for three sins of X even four,” but the pattern is broken with the surprising climactic judgment against Israel “for three sins, even four” (for similar numerical patterns see Prov 6:16; 30:15, 18, 21, 24, 29.).

(II) The Word Against Israel (3-6)

A       Hear this word . . . people of Israel (3)
Note the arrangement Samaria (3:9), Bethel (3:14), Samaria (4:1), and Bethel (4:4)[10]

B       Hear this word . . . cows of Bashan (4)
Note the creational “hymns” in 4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6, which each share the refrain “Yahweh is his name” [11]
a parody of Israel’s salvation history—reversed as judgment; see fivefold repetition of “yet you have not returned to me” (4:6-13)[12]

C       Hear this word, this lament . . . house of Israel (5)
(1) mourning (5:1-3), (2) seek and live (5:4-6)[13], (3) justice is perverted (5:7), (4) doxology (5:8-9), (3) justice is perverted (5:10-13), (2) see good (5:14-15), (1) mourning (5:16-17)

D       Woes (5:18-6:14)
. . . to you who long for the day of Yahweh (5:18)
. . . to those at ease in Zion (6:1)
. . . to those who lie on beds of ivory (6:4)
(III) Five Visions (7-9)
A        Three visions: locust (7:1-3), fire (7:4-6), plumb line (7:7-9)
B       The prophet’s story (7:10-17)
C       Another vision: summer fruit (8:1-3)
D       Condemnations against Israel (8:4-14)
E        One more vision: the Lord’s altar speech (9:1-10)
F        The restoration of Israel (9:11-15)

[1] The narrative may be included where it is because of the mention of Jeroboam (II) at the end of the third vision (7:9).
[2] J. Blake Couey, “Amos vii 10-17 and Royal Attitudes Toward Prophecy in the Ancient Near east,” Vetus Testamentum 58 (2008): 11 [300-14].
[3] Indebted to Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2: 130-38.
[4] See Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 378-8.
[5] Note how the Septuagintal reading handles the difficulty: “Alas for those who count Sion as nothing and for those who trust in the mountain of Samaria” (Amos 6:1 NETS). For a reading of Amos 6:1a as part of a Deuteronomistic redactional layer, see Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 106-7, 269-70. For a thoroughgoing critique of redactional studies of Amos, including Wolff’s, see Karl Möller, “Reconstructing and Interpreting Amos’s Literary Prehistory: A Dialogue with Redaction Criticism,” 397-441, in Craig Bartholomew et al., eds., “Behind the Text”: History and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). For an attempt to read 6:1 as original, see Duane A. Garrett, Amos: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008), 178.
[6] Based on my own reading, and “Amos, Book of,” ABD, 1: 203-212; Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture.
[7] Compare Joel 3:16; Amos 1:2; 3:8.
[8] See Freedman, Psalm 119.
[9] Consider the “seven nations” of Canaan displaced by Israel (see Deut 7:1).
[10] See ABD, 1: 208
[11] See Childs, 404
[12] The fivefold repetition of “yet you have not returned to me” can be compared to the five visions of Amos 7-9 (see ABD, 1: 208).
[13] Note the arrangement of Bethel, Gilgal, Beersheba, Gilgal, and Bethel in 5:4-6. While Beersheba may have attracted northern pilgrims because of the ancestral shrine, it also may implicate the southern kingdom, though more subtly than 2:4-5; 6:1.

Also see introduction to the prophets, and see bibliography on the prophets.

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