Prepare to Meet the Lion: The Message of Amos

Rick Johnson  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 38 - Fall 1995


Amos’s word fell upon eighth-century Israel the way a hon attacks its prey. When the people were enjoying a period of relative peace in international affairs and economic prosperity at home, Amos sang their funeral song. “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up” (5:2).[1]All Scripture quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted. Many of his listeners must have thought he was was completely out of touch with the times. A few believed him, however, for his words were preserved in writing. Their fulfillment a generation later confirmed their status as the word of God. Although the destruction of Israel came to pass, the prophetic message continued to have meaning for later readers. Amos likened it to the roar of a lion (1:2; 3:8), and the roar continues to sound until today.

This article will attempt to hear what this word meant in its ancient setting in order to apply it to the present. The church can only be the church as it understands what the prophets and apostles said in the past and puts that word into practice in daily life. The task is both historical and hermeneutical. This article also will deal with the message of the whole book of Amos in its contemporary setting and attempt to interpret that message for the modern world.

Critical questions about the history of Israel and the composition of Amos are important, but cannot be discussed here. Thus this article, in addition, will simply state the general conclusions of the author and refer readers to other literature for more detailed treatment.

The Attack of the Lion

The tone of the book of Amos is set in the first reported words of the prophet. “The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn, the top of Carmel withers” (1:2). Almost he entire book is dedicated to proclaiming God’s Judgment upon the unrighteouness of the northern kingdom Israel. The first two chapters deliver a series of oracles condemning the nearby nations climaxing with a long denunciation and threat ‘ against Israel itself. Chapters 3-6 focus almost exclusively on Israel, identifying her guilt and fore­ telling exile. The last three chapters recount a series of five visions which apparently tell how Amos received his message. Each one promised doom. Although Amos’s intercession after each of the first two visions (7:1-6) persuaded God to withhold the punishment, in the final three the word was irrevocable. Yahweh said, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them” (8:2).

This threat began a new phase in prophecy. Israel and other nations were familiar with the idea of the wrath of a god coming upon his own people.[2]Arvid S. Kapelrud, “God as Destroyer in the Preaching of Amos and in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical literature 71 (1952):33- 38; idem, Central Ideas in Amos (Oslo: H. Aschehoug, 1956), 47. The Old Testament mentions a series of such prophets: Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Ahijah, Elijah, and Elisha. Amos, however, was apparently the first to predict the nation as a political entity would disappear in exile. Their punishment would be cruel. To the rich women of Samaria he said”

“The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches, every one straight before her;
and you shall be cast forth into Harmon ” says the LORD.[3]Amos 1:2-3. Although the meaning of the words “hooks,” “fishhooks, and Harmon ts not entirely clear, the import of the passage is unmistakable. Compare the Revised English Bible translation: “…men will carry you away on shields and your children in fish-baskets you will each be carried straight out through the breaches in the wall and thrown on a dunghill.” The peculiarity of the actions of carrying away corpses on shields makes the RSV rendering more likely, but the REB still conveys the horror of the scene. See Andersen and Freedman for a full discussion of the translation possibilities. Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freed­ man, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 422-25.

With gruesome realism he recounted future scenes of soldiers fleeing away naked (2:14-16), of men gathering corpses ( 6:9-10; 8:3), and of towns and sanctuaries devastated (3:14-15; 5:5, 11; 6:8, 11; 9:1).

The primary means Yahweh would use to execute this judgment would be conquest by an unnamed foreign nation. Their oppression would reach “from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of the Arabah” (6:14), that is, from far north in Syria to the Dead Sea. The people would be taken into exile (5:5; 6:7; 7:17b) beyond Damascus (5:26-27). What was left of them afterward would be comparable to a pair of legs or a piece of an ear rescued by a shepherd from the mouth of a lion (3:12).

The prophetic word did not fail. Amos delivered his message sometime around 760 or 750 B.C. The Assyrians destroyed Damascus in 732 B.C., and much of the territory that had once belonged to Israel in the north became part of an Assyrian province. A decade later, Assyria completely overran the country, destroyed the capital city Samaria, and deported the population.

Although Amos said the judgement would come about through the agency of foreign enemies, he knew the real mover being events was Yahweh. He would have agreed with Isaiah that Assyria was only a rod in God’s hand (Isa. 10:5). Amos called the event of judgement the day of the Lord (yom Yahweh).

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, and not light;
as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him;
or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

The way Amos introduced the phrase shows clearly that he did not originate it. The idea was an ele­ment of popular hope and expectation.

Why the people desired the day of the Lord is a subject of debate. They may have expected Yahweh to appear and defeat their enemies in battle.[4]See R. H. Charles and Gerhard von Rad. R. H. Charles, Eschatology: The Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, Judaism and Christianity: A Crit­ical History, with an Introduction by George Wesley Buchanan (New York: Schocken Books. 1963), 86-88; Gerhard von Rad, “The Origin of the Concept of the Day of Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies 4 (April 1959): 97-108. Another possibility is that they were anticipating Yahweh’s appearance in worship during the autumn festival.[5]Mowinckel postulated a setting in a New Year festival. Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh, trans. G. W. Anderson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956), 131-32; idem, Psalmenstudien, 6 vols. (Oslo: Kristiania, 1921-24; reprint ed., Amsterdam: Verlag P. Schippers, 1961) 2:248 272 318-19. They thought he would come to reassert his rule as king, to maintain order in the cosmos and to give blessings. These two views may well be opposite sides of the same coin. The people may have thought Yahweh’s coming as king in worship meant military deliverance and fertility.[6]Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 91-111. For other theories and summaries of the history of the dis­cussion of the day of Yahweh, see K. J. Cathcart, “Day of Yahweh,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Dou­bleday, 1992), 2:84-85; Shalom M. Paul, A Commentary on the Book of Amos, ed. Frank Moore Cross, Henneneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 183-84; Hans M. Barstad, The Religious Polemics of Amos, Supple­ments to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 34 (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1984), 89-110. What is clear is that they were longing for the day when God would demonstrate his power in human affairs, and they expected it to work for their benefit.[7]Siegfried Herrmann, Die prophetischen Heil.serwartungen im Alten Testament, Beitrage zur Wissenschafr vom Alten und Neuen Testament, vol. 85 (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1965), 120-22; Victor Maag, Text, Wortschatz und Begriffswelt des Buches Amos (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1951), 246.

Amos agreed with the people that the day would bring a manifestation of God’s power, but he expected it to bring judgment for Israel also.[8]Maag, 247. The question immediately presents itself why the coming of Yahweh should mean ruin to his people. Amos answered clearly – the people had sinned.

Rebellion and Injustice

When Amos surveyed the nations around him, he saw corruption and violence on every hand. In the opening two chapters, he condemned each nation in turn for crimes against fellow human beings. The Syrians and the Ammonites oppressed the people of Gilead, the Philistines and Phoenicians engaged in slave trade with Edom, the Edomites harbored hatred against Israel, and the Moabites desecrated the body of the Edomite king. Amos accused the people of Judah of rejecting Yahweh’s law and statutes (2:4), which would include the kinds of civil regulations found in Exodus 20-23; Leviticus 17-26, and Deuteron­omy 12-26. Concern for the well-being of all people motivates many of these laws. The climax of Amos’s sermon, focusing on Israel, emphasizes his main complaint repeated throughout the book, the injustices perpetrated against the poor.

Amos’s biting words in this passage are some of his most memorable. He railed, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6a; cf. 8:6). This verse refers to the practice of debt servitude.[9]Harts Walter Wolff, Dodekapropheton 2: Joel and Amos, 3d ed., Bib­ lischer Kommentar Altes Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag des Erziehungsvereins, 1985), 106. For other interpretations of the verse, see J. Alberto Soggin, The Prophet Amos, trans. John Bowden (Lon­don: SCM Press, 1987), 47-48. People who were unable to pay back their loans were sold into slavery to cover the debt. Legal traditions attempted to limit this system by prescribing that Israelite servants could only be kept for a certain period of time and then had to be released (Exod. 21:1-6; Lev. 25:39- 55; Deut. 15:12-18). Modem minds find the arrangement inhuman, but the goal was to restore the destitute to financial self-sufficiency.

As the narrative in Jer. 34:8-22 shows, however, the servants often were not released. When Nebuchadnezzar was attacking Jerusalem, King Zedekiah and his subjects made a covenant to set free their Hebrew slaves. But when the Babyloni­ans withdrew momentarily, the people took back their slaves. Jeremiah condemned them and their ancestors for having broken the Sinai covenant by not adhering to the law of release.

Amos never used the word “covenant” in con­nection with the Sinai tradition and did not refer to the Pentateuchal slave law, but his prophecy shared the same viewpoint. A practice which should have allowed the poor to regain their economic independence was being abused for the benefit of the rich. Israel’s behavior put them in the same category as Philistines and Phoenicians (Amos 1:6-10).

Amos also denounced the practice of keeping garments taken in pledge (2:8). Creditors would hold them as collateral, a practice restricted by Pentateuchal legislation (Exod. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:10-13, 17-18). When the poor accused their oppressors in the courts, they found the rich bought the verdicts for themselves (5:10, 12).[10]This is the meaning of the phrase “tum aside the way of the afflicted” in 2:7 and “tum aside the needy in the gate” in 5:12. The gate was the place where court was held. Cf. Ruth 4:1-12.

These crimes mentioned by Amos were evidence of a general attitude that disregarded the worth and importance of other people. He depicted the rapacity of the merchants by describing their impatience with the sabbath rest, which inter­rupted their cheating. They asked,

When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small
and the shekel great,
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and sell the refuse of the wheat? (8:5-6)

He accused the rich women of Samaria of oppress­ing the poor and crushing the needy by demanding that their husbands satisfy their appetites for drink (4:1). Samaria as a whole stored up tumults, violence, oppression, and robbery in its palaces (3:9-10).

Although Amos condemned the rich severely, he did not criticize them for being rich per se. He founded his denunciations on two general faults: the criminal means used to gain the riches and the failure to use those riches to benefit the down­ trodden. In a striking passage, Amos castigated people who lounged in luxury with no thought for those facing ruin.

You loll on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches;
you feast on lambs from the flock and stall-fed calves;
you improvise on the lute and like David invent musical instruments,
you drink wine by the bowlful and anoint yourselves with the richest of oils;
but at the ruin of Joseph you feel no grief (6:4-6; Revised English Bible).

Two possible explanations may be given for the social and economic conditions which Amos described. One often given by commentators on Amos pictures Israel in a period of prosperity resulting from earlier military successes of Jeroboam II. The riches, however, flowed only to the wealthy and powerful.[11]This explanation is given by Wolff, Rudolph, Mays, and Donner. Wolff, 106; Wihelm Rudolph, ]oel-Amos-Obadja-Jona, Kommentar zum Alten Testament (Giitersloh: Gutersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1971), 95, 287; James Luther Mays, Amos, Old Testament Library (Lon­ don: SCM Press, 1969), 2-3; Herbert Donner, “The Separate States of Israel and Judah,” in Israelite and Judean History, eds. John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 414. A different view accounts for the disparity between the rich and the poor by saying a long period of economic decline preceded Amos’s appearance. The poor had borne the consequences most severely.[12]A. G. Auld, Amos, Old Testament Guides (Sheffield: JSOT Press for the Society for Old Testament Study, 1986), 13, 68. Whatever the historical cause of the plight of the poor might have been, Amos blamed the moral condition of the people. It was bankrupt. Yahweh himself said, “They do not know how to do right” (3:10).

Israel had rejected the basic qualities that should characterize all of human society, justice (mispat) and righteousness (s’daqa). Amos said they turned “justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth” (5:7). Their behavior was unthink­able, inconceivable. Such behavior contradicted the natural order of the cosmos. Amos asked, “Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” ( 6:12) . A precise understanding of these two words leads into the heart of Amos’s thought, because it focuses on divine and human relationships.

Depending on the context, mispat can be a forensic term, or it can refer to a broader idea of proper adherence to God’s design for the universe.[13]Mafico defined the broader sense as “basic human rights.” Temba L. J. Mafico, “Just, Justice,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:1128. This definition translates the word into modern conceptions. As long as the term “human rights” is understood as something granted by the Creator and is not merely a secular concept, it is appropriate. For Amos, nothing can be understood apart from God. Amos used the term in both senses. In 5:15, he urged, “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” The gate was the place in an ancient city where court was held. “Justice in the gate” referred to correct verdicts, acquitting the innocent or condemning the guilty in criminal cases and awarding damages to the proper party in a civil dispute. In the three other uses of the word in Amos (5:7, 2 4; 6:12), it is in parallelism with the three instances of the word s’daqa in the book. The parallelism suggests Amos was using the words somewhat synonymously. The root of the Hebrew word for righteousness (sdq) has several shades of meaning in the Old Testament. Behavior that maintains the obligations of a relationship is righteous. In society in general, righteousness requires the protection of the weak and helpless. In economic terms, righteousness requires assistance for the poor. In religious terms, God shows his righteousness by acting on behalf of the poor and the weak.[14]For a good summary of the meaning of righteous/righteousness in the Old Testament and of scholarly views, see J. J. Scullion, “Righteous­ness, Old Testament,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:724-36. A righteous nation will do the same.

This meaning of s’daqa fits Amos’s usage. In Israel, the poor were not defended. They were the targets of rich oppressors. Amos knew that a society that tolerated injustice would sooner or later face judgment. The crimes he denounced were not simply against other people. They were also against God. In his oracles against the nations, he used the word pesa’ to characterize crimes against people (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). This word is taken from the political sphere and refers to rebellion against a sovereign. Mistreatment of others is rebellion against the rule of God on earth. God would not allow such conduct to go unpunished.

Worthless Worship

Ironically, the Israel Amos condemned was extremely religious. The nation had numerous pilgrimage centers and innumerable local sanc­tuaries. The book of 1 Kings recounts how Jeroboam I established royal worship centers with golden calves at Dan in the north and Bethel in the south in order to prevent the people from returning to the house of David (1 Kings 12:25- 33). At Bethel, for example, Amaziah stopped Amos from preaching because it was the king’s sanctuary (Amos 7:10-12). Along with this center Amos mentioned Gilgal and Beersheba as pilgrim­ age shrines (4:4; 5:5). The example of Micah and the Danites in Judges 17-18 illustrates how public and private sanctuaries would also have been found throughout the land.

From other Old Testament sources, clearly the people were heavily involved in Baal worship. The narratives concerning Elijah and Jehu in the books of Kings and the prophecy of Hosea stand out in this regard. Amos, however, did not focus on this problem. He never mentioned Baal, and his only possible denunciation of fertility rites appears in his oracle against Israel in 2:7b-8: “…a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar upon garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.”[15]For a different interpretation of this passage, see Barstad, 17-36. A condemnation of the sexual immorality might be inferred from its mere mention in this context. Yet what is notable is the special attention Amos gave to the mistreat­ment of the poor. Objects used on these occasions had been acquired through economic exploitation.

Similar complaints lie behind his other attacks on public worship. He was not impressed with the pilgrimage centers or the rituals practiced there. In a shrill parody, he mocked the priests who called the people to bring offerings.

“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is
and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, 0 people of Israel!”
says the Lord GOD (4:4-5).

The exaggerated tones highlight the thriving conduct of public religion. The people seem to have believed that the rituals were important for their own sake, that they satisfied God simply by being performed. A comfortable quid pro quo was fulfilled. God gave them the material blessings they wanted, and they returned the public ceremony he wanted. Yet Amos considered it all a sham. They were treating God like one of their corrupt judges, thinking that he gave favors in exchange for bribes. Their rites pleased only themselves, not God. In perhaps his most famous words, Amos denounced the whole system. Speaking for Yahweh, he railed,

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:21-24).

He called upon them to seek Yahweh, not Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba (5:5). With these attacks, he set the tenor of classical prophecy concerning cultic practices.[16]Cf. Hos. 6:6; Isa. 1:10-17; Mic. 6:6-8; Jer. 7:1-15, 21-23. The language is so strong that many scholars once thought Amos rejected ritual worship per se. They believed the great prophets promoted a religion of ethical monotheism devoid of liturgy.[17]Barstad credited the origin of this view to J. Wellhausen. Barstad, 111. Harper and Rowley list several representatives of it and give strong criticisms. William Rainey Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1905), cxix, note; H. H. Rowley, “Ritual and the Hebrew Prophets,” in Myth, Ritual, and Kingship, ed. S. H. Hooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 240-42. In reaction against this view, earlier twentieth-century scholars noticed that the Old Testament often sets prophets in close association with priests or cultic settings. Isaiah’s call vision may have occurred in the temple (Isa. 6:1). Jeremiah was descended from a priestly line, and Ezekiel was a priest. Some extreme views claimed that the prophets were cultic functionaries.[18]Rowley summarized the discussion up to the 1950s and gave an excellent balanced assessment. Rowley, 236-60. Tucker briefly surveyed more recent views. Gene M. Tucker, “Prophecy and the Prophetic Liter­ature,” in The Hebrew Bible and Its Modem Interpreters, ed. Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 348-50.

Religion without liturgy was inconceivable in ancient Israel.[19]Soggin, 99, noted that everywhere in the ancient world “a society that was not founded on religion and the cult was inconceivable.” Worship involved sacrifices, sacred times, and numerous ritual practices. Amos did not oppose sacrifice as such, nor the idea that sacrifice could affect God. What he attacked was the idea that sacrifice per se could satisfy God.[20]See Harper, cxix. Amos’s condemnation of their ritual was inseparable from his condemnation of injustice in general. Proper worship required proper conduct in every area of life. Yahweh wanted justice and righteousness. Without that, their offerings were worse than worthless. They were an affront to God.

Lord Yahweh of Hosts

Who is this God? For Amos, he was the absolute sovereign of the whole universe. Not only Israel and Judah but the other nations as well had to answer to him. In the opening oracles in chapters 1-2, Amos announced God’s intention to punish Israel’s neighbors for their rebellion. In the context of antiquity, when each nation worshiped its own gods, this was a bold claim. Even in Israel many believed that a god’s sphere of control was restricted to the territory where he was worshiped. Evidence for this belief can be found in David’s complaint to Saul during his fugitive days. He charged that certain men had driven him out and tried to exclude him from the heritage of Yahweh, saying, “Go, serve other gods” (1 Sam. 26:19).[21]Kapelrud, Central Ideas, 33-34. The implication is that if David lived in another country, he would have to worship the gods of that land.

In contrast, Amos claimed Yahweh controlled the past and the future of the other nations. He brought Israel from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir (9:8). He would punish them in the future (1:3-2:3). He would use an unnamed nation to punish Israel (6:14). Amos may not have said explicitly that God controlled every kingdom on earth, and his book does not concern itself with the destinies of particular nations far away from Israel. Nevertheless, what he did say clearly implied Yahweh was the Lord of all of history.

Amos also knew that Yahweh was the Lord of all of nature. He causes earthquakes (8:8; 9:5). He can turn day into night and night into day, and he can order the waters of the sea to be poured out on the ground (5:8). He sent droughts, crop diseases, and locusts against Israel (4:7-10). No place in creation was safe from his pursuit. As Amos warned concerning those who would be punished:

Though they dig into Sheol,
from there shall my hand take them; though they climb up to heaven,
from there I will bring them down.
Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search out and take them;
and though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea,
there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
And though they go into captivity before their enemies,
there I will command the sword, and it
shall slay them;
and I will set my eyes upon them
for evil and not for good (9:2-4).

The theological foundation for these statements is Amos’s belief in Yahweh as the creator of the universe. This idea is most clearly expressed in the hymnic passages describing God (4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5- 6).[22]These sections are often thought to be independent hymns incorporated into the book of Amos. If so, Amos is as likely to have inserted them as anyone else. His words elsewhere match their import. See Andersen and Freedman, 89-90; Kapelrud, Central Ideas, 39. An older summary of the debate and an argument for the late dating of the inser­tions is given by Crenshaw. James L. Crenshaw, Hymnic Affirmation of Divine Justice: The Doxologies of Amos and Related Texts in the Old Testament, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, no.24 (Missoula, Scholars Press, 1975). The first declares, “For lo, he who forms the mountains, and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought; who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth­ the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” The second hymnic fragment ascribes to Yahweh the creation of heavenly bodies, the Pleiades and Orion (5:8a). The third describes him as building the universe; he is the one “…who builds his upper chambers in the heavens, and founds his vault upon the earth” (9:6a). Yahweh controls every­ thing because he made everything. His sovereignty is so complete, in 3:6b Amos could ask, “Does evil befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?” If a disaster has occurred, it must be his work.

This universal God is also the God of the Exodus (Amos 3:1). He laid claim to Israel and called them “my people” (7:8, 15; 8 :2; 9:10, 14), but Amos did not call him the God of Israel. This duality of sovereign independence from any people yet historical choice of Israel found expression in Amos’s names for God. He usually called him Yahweh, often in various combinations with Lord (‘donai) or God of hosts ( ”lohe hass’ba’ot).[23]Lord Yahweh” appears in 1:8; 3: 7, 8, 11; 4:2, 5; 5:3; 6:8; 7:1, 2, 4 (twice), 5, 6; 8:1, 3, 9, 11; 9:8; “Yahweh, the God of hosts,” in 4:13; 5:14, 15; 6:8, 14; cf. 5:27; “Lord Yahweh of hosts,” in 9:5; “Lord Yahweh, the God of hosts” in 3:13; “Yahweh, the God of hosts, the Lord,” in 5:16. The name Yahweh identified him as the God who led Israel out of Egypt (3:1) and who gave them the land of Canaan ( 2:10). “Lord” (donai) is a common term derived from human relationships. Subordi­nates used it to address someone in a superior position. “God of hosts” can have several mean­ings, but in Amos it means the God of all the creatures in heaven and earth.[24]Harper, cxiv. Yahweh acted in Israel’s past, but that was only a part of his governance of the whole cosmos. He is both transcendent and immanent.

This dialectic involved revelation. Yahweh was a God who revealed himself. He made his will known through his messengers. He sent prophets and Nazirites (2:11). Amos said, “Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (3:7). A dispute exists as to whether Amos considered himself to be a prophet (nabi’, cf. 7:14) or not, but he certainly claimed to be prophesying (hinnabe’) the message of Yahweh (7:15). He used the phrases “thus says the LORD” (ko’ amar YHWH) and “says the LORD” (n’um YHWH) or variations of them many times throughout the book. He reported five visions which Yahweh had given him ( 7:1-9; 8:1- 9:4). Yahweh also revealed himself through his actions. In 4:6-11 Amos recounted a series of punishments he had executed upon his people which should have led them to return to him. After each series of disasters, however, Amos repeated the sad refrain, “Yet you did not return to me, says the LORD” (4:6b, 8b, 9b, 10b, 11b).

The emphasis upon Yahweh making his will known through various means shows that Amos knew him to be a gracious God. He offered the people many chances to repent, but they would not. On two occasions, when Yahweh gave Amos visions of coming judgment, Amos successfully interceded for the nation ( 7:1-6). The overwhelm­ing tone of judgment in the book must not be taken to mean Amos’s God was harsh and vindictive. Yahweh had given Israel chance after chance. One must conclude that Amos’s God was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abound­ing in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6b), just as Israel’s tradition said. But since Israel had rejected the prophetic word (2:12), Yahweh promised the time would come when they would seek for it in vain.

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord GOD,
“when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it” (8:11-12).

When revelation is rejected, it leads to hardening and to judgment. Yahweh is also a God “who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:7b). Those who refused to hear the roar of the lion could only await his attack.

At this point a difficulty should be noted that is not completely addressed in Amos. Sending both oppressors and oppressed into exile for the sins of the former raises the question of the appropriateness of the punishment. The issue is raised in 9:9-10, which says that only sinners among God’s people would die.[25]Sonie interpreters see these two verses as the work of a later writer added to the end of the words of Amos, a problem which will be addressed later in this article. The implication is that the innocent would live, albeit in exile. This difficulty is perhaps unavoidable when the judgment of God is depicted in historical events. A more complete answer had to await the fullness of revelation.

The universality of Yahweh’s sovereignty and the finality of his judgment upon Israel as presented by Amos raise the question of his special relationship to Israel. What did it mean to be the people of God, and what role did election play in Amos’s thought?

Israel, My People

As noted above, Amos thought of Yahweh as the God of the whole cosmos who also had a special relationship to Israel. The misunderstanding of this relationship contributed to Israel’s guilt and ruin. The events of the past were not in question. Amos referred to the Exodus from Egypt (2:10; 3:1; 9:7), the plagues in Egypt (4:10), the wilderness wandering and the gift of the land of Canaan (2:9-10), and the sending of prophets and Nazirites (2:11).

Where Amos and his contemporaries differed was in the conclusions they based on this knowledge. The people saw only guarantees of security, but Amos saw a threat. He turned their tradition against them, saying, “Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, 0 people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities”‘ (3:1-2).

Although Amos’s prophecy was directed primarily against the northern kingdom, this passage shows that the political entity was inseparable from the old tribal league.[26]Mays, 7. The house of Jeroboam II (7:9) still belonged to Yahweh. These words reveal a striking paradox in Amos’s message. The universal God, Yahweh of hosts, had only known Israel among all the other peoples on earth. This language expresses what the Old Testament elsewhere calls covenant. Yet when the people took that relationship as a guarantee of security apart from obedience to its demands, Amos said they had no advantage over the other nations. Even the Exodus did not set them apart, for Yahweh had also given the other nations their respective lands. “‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, 0 people of Israel?’ says the LORD. ‘Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?'” (9:7) If Israel wanted to claim God had given them special favors, so could the other nations. Israel had no special status. In this sense, all were elect.[27]Andersen and Freedman, 93; Kapelrud, Central Ideas, 40; Wolff, 127-29. Furthermore, God could turn against Israel the curses executed upon others. For their crimes against the weak, they received the plagues Egypt received for oppressing slaves (4:10). God removed the Amorites from Canaan to make room for Israel (2:9-10), but he was about to remove Israel from Canaan in turn (5:27; 7:17).[28]Bruce E. Willoughby, “Amos, Book of,” in The Anchor Bible Dictio­nary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:207-8. Immediately after noting that Yahweh had given each nation its land, Amos said “Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground” (9:8a).

In what sense, then, can Yahweh be said to have had a special relationship with Israel? Amos was not concerned with coordinating all of his statements into a system. He simply left the para­dox that Yahweh knew only Israel among the nations, but Israel could not claim any special status. God could give their blessings to others. Attempting to reconcile what Amos did not explain may be hazardous, but two points should be noted. First, Israel did have the privilege of receiving Yahweh’s prophetic messengers, which the other nations did not. This blessing, like the others, however, only made them more accountable. Election meant responsibility. Second, the book of Amos holds out the hope that Yahweh would gain act to save and bless Israel (9:8-15). Since the conclusion of the book promises a permanent position of prosperity for Israel in the future, they do have a sense of special hope ultimately. This issue raises the question of whether Amos looked forward to the salvation of a remnant and a future return of Israel.

Future Hope

The tone of finality which characterizes Amos’s announcement of the end of Israel has led many scholars to question whether he thought there was any future at all for the people of Israel. Yahweh said, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them” (8:2b). The passage previously quoted from 9:2-4 could also be taken to mean total destruction. God will even have those who go into exile slain by the sword (v. 4). Additionally, the time of proffered clemency was past. God tried to bring the people back with lesser acts of judgment (4:6-11), but they refused. Although Amos was able to intercede on behalf of Israel and forestall the punishment threatened in his first two visions (7:1-6), in the final three the doom is sure (7:7-9; 8:1-3; 9:1-2). The people who would not seek Yahweh; how could Amos give any word of hope in that situation?[29]Harper, 195-96; Wolff, 138, 404-10; Mays, 9; Richard S. Cripps, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Amos, 2d ed., with a foreword by R. H. Kennett (N.p.: SPCK, 1955), 31-32, 67-77.

In this view, the prophecy of restoration at the end of the book dates from a later period. The reference to “the booth of David that is fallen” (9:11) is taken as evidence that the Davidic monarchy has been removed. The passage would reflect hopes for a restoration which arose during or after the Babylonian exile.

Other interpreters argue that all of the great prophets spoke of both judgment and salvation, doom and hope.[30]Andersen and Freedman, 82. Similar words should be expected from Amos. Further, since he was from Judah, one should expect that Amos would appropriate the David and Zion traditions.[31]Gerhard von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments, 4th ed, 2 vols. (Munich: Cht. Kaiser Verlag, 1962-65), 2:144-45. Maag, Rudolph, and Paul also ascribed the passage to Amos. Maag, 246-51; Rudolph, 275-87; Paul, 288-95.

A few verses can be cited as presenting the hope for a remnant. The possibility of a nucleus remaining after judgment is clearly held out in 5:15: “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Although this verse does not offer certainty, it shows that at least at some point, Amos contem­plated the survival of a few. In 5:3, he can be understood as asserting explicitly: “For thus says the Lord GOD: ‘The city that went forth a   thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which went forth a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel.”‘ Clearly, Amos did not develop the idea of a remnant into a major theme of hope for the future as is found in later prophets. The emphasis is still on the destruction of the people. Yet the kernel of the later development is present here.[32]J. D. Smart, “Amos,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, 4 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1:120.

One can also defend the view that Amos wrote the prophecy of hope at the end of the book (9:8, 11-15). The prophecy promises three separate things, the restoration of the house of David to prominence, the gift of abundant fertility in nature, and the reestablishment of the people in the land. The mention of the fall of David’s tent need not be taken as a reference to the exile. The decline of the dynasty since the time of David may have been in view. The gift of fertility would be necessary after the loss of it in the time of judgment. Of course, the return to the land would be the obvious sign of the end of the exile which Amos foresaw.

For the purposes of this article, which deals with the message of the book of Amos, the decision is not whether Amos himself wrote every word or whether someone else is responsible for parts of it. All sections are to be accepted as inspired prophecy in any case. Strong arguments can be given both for and against the claim that Amos himself held out a positive hope for the future of Israel. This article demonstrated early on that Amos had a strong belief in the mercy of God. He offered opportunities for repentance over and over. Although Amos knew that an exile had become inevitable, surely he could not have believed that mercy had disappeared from the heart of God. One would also expect he would maintain a hope in the promises to David, since he came from Judah. His main mission was to warn of judgment, but he also knew of a future for the people of God.

Does the Lion Still Roar?

Modern readers of Amos seeking to hear a message from God in its words live in a completely different context from ancient Israel. The people addressed in the book have been gone for 2700 years, and the political and eco­nomic world is much larger and more complex. Though Amos was concerned with his contempo­rary situation, do his words have any application to the present? Is the roar of the lion still to be heard (Amos 1:2; 3:8) ? If so, should a similar message of judgment be addressed to all generations or only to some? How can one know whether the word of judgment or the word of deliverance is more appropriate now?

Only brief answers can be given to these questions here. First, the destruction of Israel by Assyria in 722 B.C. confirmed for some of Amos’s listeners that his prophecy was truly a word from God and should be preserved. Second, the perma­nent relevance of the book is supported by the harmony between it and the rest of the Bible.

Similar messages were addressed to Israel and other peoples over a period of centuries. Jesus also demanded justice and proper treatment of the weak. These considerations support the central claims of the book of Amos itself, which testify to a God who brings all nations into judgment.

Amos’s God created the cosmos and rules it according to justice and righteousness. He holds all nations accountable for living by those expecta­tions. The modern world may be larger and more complex, but the requirement still stands. The claim that there will be a judgment remains valid. Contemporary judgement may not come through the same avenues as Amos foretold. Modern interpreters are not inspired by the Holy Spirit to   say that this or that disaster is a punishment for certain offenses. Nevertheless, the claim that God will judge the world is an essential element of biblical faith.

At the top of Amos’s concerns is justice for the poor. In addition to decrying robbery and violence against the weak, he also condemned economic arrangements that allowed some people to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Creditors would see the practices of debt slavery and taking clothes in pledge as necessary protection of their investments, creating a favorable business environ­ment. Amos saw only the destruction of human life. Applying this outlook to the modern world would lead one to question the justice of economic and legal systems that allow some people to amass huge fortunes while others find themselves in poverty even with full-time employment. Amos would also condemn empty worship.

Rituals performed by those who oppress the weak are an offense to God, as is the attitude that proper observance of sacred times and rites secures his blessing. Such an attitude is a denial of grace and treats the gifts of God as due payment for services rendered.

Although the book of Amos gives less attention to God’s mercy and salvation, these ideas are present. He gives opportunities for repentance.

The promises of restoration for the house of David and of the return of fertility in 9:11-15 lead later to the Christian hope for the full establishment of the kingdom of God. At that time, the Messiah will rule with justice. Until that time, the people of the God should be seeking to establish his righteous­ness on earth.

References   [ + ]

Category: Journal Article
Tags: ,

Share This Article:  

Southwestern Journal of Theology
To download full issues and find more information on the Southwestern Journal of Theology, go to