Amos: The Man and His Times

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


In the middle of the eighth century B.C.E., God interrupted the pastoral life of Amos and called him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos heard the roar of Yahweh (Amos 1:2) and echoed that roar across the cities and cult centers of Israel (Amos 3:8). While one can debate whether Amos’s audience heard Yahweh’s roar, one can be certain that they experi­enced Yahweh’s rending of their country by century’s end (722 B.C.E.). And so it is for all people who fail to hear the message of Amos:  “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)

Amos: The Man

At times in the prophetic books, one does not find much personal information concerning the prophets. Often, all that is known is the name of the prophet and hometown. However, the book of Amos provides significant data about the prophet, information that may provide insight into the message of the book.[1]The writer is aware this raises the significant question concerning authorial intention, as well as whether one can gain insight into the material by exploring the background of an author. Those who would dis­courage the use of information from the author’s background as a way of understanding his work would include W. K. Wimsatt and M. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (University Press of Kentucky, 1954), 3-18. Apparently, however, many Evangelicals are still committed to authorial intent. See William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robett L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 117-51; Tremper Longman, III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, ed. Moises Silva, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Academic Books, 1987), 63-71. This writer affirms that the text itself gives insight into the intention of the author. Furthermore, the histori­cal-cultural background of the author provides a context from which to interpret his words. Therefore, the exploration of a writer’s personal background as exhibited in the text is inherent to a proper interpretation of Scripture. This section of the article will explore Amos’s name, hometown, and occupations.

The Meaning of His Name

Amos’s name derives from the verb root ‘amas, which means “to carry a load.”[2]A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, s. v. “‘amas” (hereafter cited as BDB). This verb is used nine times in the Old Testament, though, not once in the book of Amos.[3]3 A New Concordance of the Old Testament, s. v. ‘”amas”. The verb ‘amas is found in Gen. 44:13; 1 Kings 12:11; 2 Chron. 10:11; Neh. 4:11; 13:15; Ps. 68:20; Isa. 46:1, 3; Zech. 12:3. This should warn the interpreter not to make too much of Amos’s name in relationship to his message. The noun form of the verb may be a shortened form of ‘masya (cf. 2 Chron. 17:16) which means “Yahweh carries.” Therefore, Amos’s name suggests the idea of being carried or protected by Yahweh.[4]Shalom M. Paul, Amos, in Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Frank Moore Cross, et at. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 34. For an exhaustive study of Amos’s name see J. J. Stamm, “Der Name des Propheten Amos und sein sprachlicher Hinter­ grund,” in Prophecy: Essays Presented to G. Fohrer on Hi.I Sixty-Fifth Birth­day, ed. J. A. Emerton (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Press, 1980), 137-42. The idea of being protected by one’s god explains the widespread use of the name outside of Israel.[5]Ibid., 33-34. The name is found in Phoenician, Punic, Amorite, and Ugaritic writings.

While the meaning of Amos’s name appears obvious, there is a rabbinic tradition that varies from the above understanding. Samson Levey asserts on the basis of rabbinic writings that Amos’s name was given to him by those who felt contempt for him and his message. According to rabbinic sources, Amos means “heavy” of tongue. The assumption was that Amos was a stutterer,[6]Levey quotes from Lev. Rab. 10:2; Eccles. Rab. 1:2; Pesidta Rabbati 29/30A, 5. See Samson H. Levey, “Amos in the Rabbinic Tradition,” in Tradition as Openness to the Future: Essays in Honor of Willis W. Fisher, ed. Fred 0. Francis and Raymond Paul Wallace (New York: University Press of America, 1984), 56-57. a view based on the use of bosaskhem in Amos 5:11 and boles in Amos 7:14, terms used only once in the Old Testament. The rabbis believed these verbal anomalies resulted from Amos’s stuttering speech.[7]Paul, Amos, 34 (n. 14).

Amos’s name appears in Amos 1:1 without a patronymic. This has led to speculation that Amos was poor and of a lower class.[8]Theodore H. Robinson, Die Zwolf Kleinen Propheten, in Handbuch zum Alten Testament, ed. Otto Eissfeldt (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1938), 71.

Many of the prophets’ names appear, however, with no mention of their fathers (cf. Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Haggai, and Zechariah). The focus of the prophetic collections was not biographical information but the recording of God’s word. Therefore, one should not draw conclusions about Amos’s social standing from the lack of a patronymic.

Amos’s Hometown

According to Amos 1:1, the hometown of Amos was Tekoa. Most scholars locate Tekoa about ten miles south of Jerusalem beyond Bethlehem. Tekoa was not a peasant village on the outskirts of civilization but a strategic site for the defense of Judah. After the split of the kingdom in 922 B.C.E, Rehoboam fortified Tekoa as a measure of protec­tion for his southern flank (2 Chron. 11:6). This may have been precipitated by Pharaoh Shishak’s incursion into Israel about 918 B.C.E.[9]Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s. v. “Tekoa,” by V. R. Gold. Tekoa was also the region of another major battle during the reign of Jehoshaphat (cf. 2 Chron. 20:20-25), when Jehoshaphat routed the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Edom. Even after the time of Amos, Tekoa continued to have a military significance. In Jeremiah 6:1, the prophet mentions Tekoa as either a place to flee from the Babylonian threat or a fortress in the south which is already feeling the brunt of a Babylonian attack.

Besides its military significance, Tekoa may have a connection to the wisdom tradition of Israel. The basis for this assumption begins with the narrative of the wise woman of Tekoa brought to David by Joab (cf. 2 Sam. 14:2). Though the evidence is slight, Wolff argues that Amos demonstrates an acquaintance with wisdom forms and traditions that he may have acquired in Tekoa.[10]Wolff argues that the use of interrogatives in 3:3-8, numerical pat­ terns in 1:3-2:8, woe-cries in 5:18; 6:1, antithetic parallelism in 5:4-5, and rich imagery in Amos’s preaching suggests a wisdom influence from the clan. See Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos, in Hermeneia-A Criti­cal and Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Frank Moore Cross, et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 93-97. For others who affirm a wisdom influence, See Johannes Lindblom, “Wisdom in the Old Testament Prophets,” in Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East, Vetus Testa­mentum Supplement, ed. Martin Noth and D. Winton Thomas, vol. 3 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1955), 192-204; Samuel Terrien, “Amos and Wis­ dom,” in Israel’ s Prophetic Heritage, ed. Bernhard W. Anderson and Wal­ter Harrelson (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1962), 108-15. In opposition to a wisdom influence on Amos, see James L. Cren­ shaw, “The Influence of the Wise Upon Amos,” Zeitschrift fur die alttesta­ mentliche Wi.lsenschaft 79 (1967): 42-51. However, a wisdom influence on Amos has not achieved a consensus among scholars.

The major issue related to Tekoa is its location. Though Tekoa likely was in Judah, there is a post­ biblical tradition in favor of a northern location. The northern locale is northwest of Capernaum at the ancient site known as Khirbet Shema.[11]S. Klein, “Tekoa in Galilee,” Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 67 (1922): 270- 73. Klaus Koch argues for a northern origin for Amos, citing as evidence the lack of mulberry trees in southern Tekoa (cf. Amos 7:14). While he is right, neither did mulberry trees grow in the area of northern Tekoa. This has led to the assumption that Amos’s trade in nipping sycamore figs took him to various areas in the countries of Israel and Judah.[12]Philip J. King, Amos, Hosea, Micah: An Archaeological Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988), 116-17. Furthermore, Koch finds it difficult to believe that Amos could pronounce judgment upon Israel as a bystander with nothing invested in the outcome.[13]Klaus Koch, The Prophets, trans. Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 1:70. Likely, however, Amos did empathize with the citizens of the northern kingdom since he understood his prophetic role as representing the Lord of all creation.[14]James Luther Mays, Amos, in The Old Testament Library, ed. G. Ernest Wright, et al. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 19.

Stanley Rosenbaum suggests linguistic arguments to support a northern origin for Amos. The first is the use of the verb barah (he flees) in Amos 7:12, which suggests leaving the jurisdiction to which one is subject. However, after examining a majority of the occurrences of the verb barah in the Old Testament, it seems to this writer that the word simply implies fleeing a dangerous presence (cf. Jer. 4:29; Jon. 1:3).

Furthermore, Rosenbaum argues that the term qesher (conspiracy), used to describe Amos’s preaching in 7:10, suggests Amos must have been part of the northern kingdom.[15]Stanley N. Rosenbaum, Amos of Israel: A New Interpretation (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 37-40. However, one can find examples of the term qesher used to describe individuals who are not indigenous to the country they are seeking to overthrow (cf. 2 Kings 17 :4). In the end, a southern locale is preferable.

The Occupations of Amos

The first indication of Amos’s previous occupa­tions occurs in Amos 1:1. In fact, the description of Amos interrupts the common superscription that begins many of the prophetic books (cf. Hos. 1:1; Mic. 1:1). The final editor of Amos’s prophecies identifies the prophet as being among the noq’dim (shepherds). This is not the more common word for shepherd, ro’eh.The singular noun noqed means “sheep-raiser.”[16]BDB, s. v. “noqed.” The use of this term may suggest a difference in Amos’s occupation. Because of the limited usage of noqed in the Old Testament, there is a problem in determining the significance of the term. Therefore, scholars have begun to use comparative studies to discover the meaning of noqed.

The term noqed is found in other cultures in the ancient Near East. During the Neo-Babylonian period, the naqidu were one of three classes of officials in charge of temple herds in Babylon. At Ugarit, the noq’dim were of a higher status than the ordinary shepherds (r’ym). The noq’dim were probably in charge of the king’s herds, as well as temple herds.[17]Peter C. Craigie, “Amos the Noqed in the Light of Ugaritic,” Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses 11 (1982): 33. This evidence has led Craigie to assume Amos was more than a simple shepherd. Rather, Amos was a manager of sheep who may have traveled often to markets in northern Israel to sell wool.[18]Ibid. While it does seem possible that Amos was more than a simple shepherd, there is not enough evidence within Scripture to determine a relationship between shepherds and the royal house or temple in Israel or Judah.

The second occupation of Amos is described in Amos 7:14 by the word boqer (herdsman).[19]BDB, s. v. “boqer.” This noun is a cognate of the word baqar, which means “cattle, herd, or ox.”[20]BDB, s. v. “baqar.” Since the term boqer is used only once in the Old Testament (Amos 7:14), grasping the meaning of the word can be difficult. Elliger suggests, in light of Amos 1:1 and the use of son (flock) in Amos 7:15, that one should read noqed for boqer.[21]See the textual note for Amos 7:14 in Karl Elliger and Wilhelm Rudolph, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Dutsche Bibelsesellschaft, 1984), 1025. Another option has been suggested by Lawrence Zalcman, who changes boqer to doqer, which means “piercer.” He then argues that the vav- attached to boles is a vav explicativum which restricts and amplifies the meaning of doqer. His final translation is “but I am a piercer and tender of sycamore figs.” See Lawrence Zalcman,”Piercing the Darkness at B6qer (Amos VII 14),” Vetus Testamentum 30 (1980): 253. Paul argues, however, the term noqed has a broader connotation than sheep but applies also to cattle.[22]Paul, Amos, 247-48. Therefore, there is no contradiction between noqed and boqer. Taken together, the terms imply Amos was involved in the raising of large and small animals.

The third occupation of Amos is mentioned in Amos 7:14 and is described as a boles siqmfm. This designation is also difficult to understand. The participle boles derives from a verb meaning “gather figs” or “tend figs.”[23]BDB, s. v. “balas.” The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, translates boles as knizon (to nip).[24]Ibid. This has led to the interpreta­tion of Amos as a “piercer of sycamore figs.” Therefore, his occupation was to pierce the sycamore fig to hasten its ripening, as well as to insure its sweet taste.[25]Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libras, 1958, “bls.” The most compre­ hensive study concerning the sycamore fig has been done by T J. Wright, in his work, “Amos and the ‘Sycamore Fig,”‘ Vetu.s Testamentum 26 (1976): 362-68.

The sycamore fig was a fruit eaten primarily by the poor in the land. The fruit grew along the coastal plain, in the foothills of the Judean mountains, and in the Jordan valley.[26]Wright, “Amos and the ‘Sycomore Fig,”‘ 365. If Amos was a “piercer”of sycamore figs,” then his occupation would take him to various parts of the land where he would witness the social ills of his society. The question sometimes arises whether Amos could be both a shepherd and a piercer of sycamore figs. Two possible explanations have been given. Either Amos pierced sycamore figs for grazing rights in the Jordan Valley near the end of summer[27]King, Amos, 117. or the activity did not demand a large amount of time away from home. Thus both occupations were possible.[28]Paul, Amos, 248. Wright argues, however, that Amos was actually involved in gathering (his understanding of boles) fodder for his animals. See Wright, “Amos and the ‘Sycomore Fig,”‘ 367-68.

Eventually God took Amos from the flock and called him to the prophetic ministry. The prophetic task is remembered as Amos’s primary occupation. However, this raises the question of what Amos meant in his dialogue with Amaziah in Amos 7:14, when he said, “lo’ nabi’ ‘anoki v’lo’ ben nabi’ ‘anoki” (literally, I not a prophet nor I the son of a prophet). This statement is even more confusing when one continues to read in Amos 7:15, “vayyo’mer ‘ela y’hvah lek hinnabe’ ‘el ‘ammi yisra’ el (but Yahweh said to me, “Go prophesy to my people, Israel”). Therefore, did Amos see himself as a prophet or not?

The primary issue in determining the meaning of Amos’s declaration is whether one should interpret Amos’s response in 7:14 as past tense (I was not a prophet) or present tense (I am not a prophet). This translational issue is difficult because Amos responded with three nominal clauses. Tense must be inferred from the context.[29]Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. Emil Kautzsch, trans. A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 453. If one supplies the past tense verb “was,” then the interpreter is relying upon the use of the imperfect verb in verse 15 (vayyiqqaheni) to determine tense.[30]Thomas E. McComiskey, “Amos,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 323. See also Gene M. Tucker, “Prophetic Authenticity: A Form-Critical Study of Amos 7:10-17,” Interpretation 27 (1973): 432. However, one should be aware that there are examples in Scripture where a nominal clause is followed by an imperfect verb and the proper translation is present tense (cf. Exod. 6:2-3; Zech. 13:5).[31]McComiskey, “Amos,” 323. Oddly enough, McComiskey affirms the past tense understanding in his commentary, but gives strong reasoning against it in the critical notes of his commentary. If one accepts a past tense translation, then Amos is saying he was not a prophet until God called him to prophesy; therefore, he must listen to God and not man.[32]Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, in The Anchor Bible, ed. W. F. Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 778. For a past tense understanding, see also the LXX, NIV, May, Amos, 138; H. H. Rowley, “Was Amos a Nabi?” Festschrift fur Otto Eissfeldt zum 60, Geburtstag, ed. J. Fuck (Halle: Niemeyer, 1947), 191-98.

The second option is to translate Amos’s nomi­nal clauses with a present tense verb, “I am not a prophet nor am I the son of a prophet.”[33]Those who hold to a present tense understanding of the nominal clauses include Richard S. Cripps, A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Amos (London: SPCK, 1955), 233; W. R. Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea, in The International Criti­cal Commentary, ed. S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C. A. Briggs (Edin­ burgh: T & T Clark, 1905), 171; David A. Hubbard, Joel & Amos: An Introduction & Commentary, in The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, ed. D.]. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 214; Wolff, Joel and Amos, 306, 312-13. See also the Vulgate, RSV, NASB. The present tense view is based upon the conversation that precedes Amos’s response. One should notice that Amos responds to Amaziah’s command to leave in verses 14-15 and to Amaziah’s reasoning in verses 16-17. What is it about Amaziah’s command to flee that causes Amos to react? Perhaps, the answer lies in the last phrase of verse 12, ve”kol sam lehem v’sam tinnabe’ (literally, “and eat there bread and there prophesy”), which is chiastic in structure. The phrase begins and ends with verbs, next there is the adverb sam, and in the center of the construction stands the direct object of the first verb, lehem. This writer thinks the structure of this clause reflects the intent of Amaziah’s command: Amos was preaching for bread. In response, Amos disavows any connection with the cultic prophets[34]Hubbard, Joel & Amos, 215. One should be aware that some would accept a cultic role for Amos without difficulty. See Peter Ackroyd, “Amos vii. 14,” Expository Times 68 (1956-57): 94. (ben nabi’), who prophe­sied for income (cf. Mic. 3:5- 7). Rather, Amos argues that he has a job (shepherding and tending fig trees), but God called him to prophesy.

Though there is no consensus is to which tense is preferable,[35]Not only is there no consensus, but the variety of approaches to Amos 7:14 is almost endless. The following represent some of the approaches not covered in the body of this article. Driver understood the negative particles as interrogatives and, therefore, translated 7:14 as “Am I not a prophet and am I not a prophet’s son?” See S. R. Driver, “Amos vii. 14,” Expository Times -07 (1955-56): 91-92. A second approach to understanding Amos 7:14 is found in the works of Zevit, who argues that the negative particle lo should be understood emphatically “surely.” This results in the translation, “No! I am a prophet, but not the son of a prophet.” Zevit argues that Amos rejects the title of hozeh (an indication of royal patronage) and argues that he is an independent prophet. See Ziony Zevit, “A Misunderstanding at Bethel: Amos vii 12-17,” Vetus Tes­tamentum 25 (1975): 783-90. Y. Hoffman argues against Zevit’s proposal in “Did Amos Regard Himself as a Nabi?” Vetus Testamentum 27 (1977): 209-12. this writer prefers the present tense because of the chiastic structure of verse 12, as well as the idea that the present tense understanding seems to fit the overall context of Amos 7:12-15. Amaziah implies an economic motivation for Amos’s preaching and Amos denies it.


Amos: His Times

The superscription in Amos 1:1 gives a time reference for the ministry of Amos by mentioning the current kings of Israel and Judah. Uzziah ruled the land of Judah from 783-742 B.C.E., and Jeroboam II ruled the land of Israel from 786-746 B.C.E.[36]The chronology that will be followed for the dates of the kings is the chronology of Albright/Bright. See John Bright, A History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981), 257. However, one should note that two other major systems of chronology are current among scholars: E. R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983) and J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986). Thiele dates the reign of Jeroboam II as 793-753 B. C. E. and Uzziah as 792-740 B. C. E. However, Miller and Hayes date the reign of Jeroboam II as 785-745 B. C. E. and Uzziah as 791-740 B. C. E. A further temporal note in Amos 1:1 asserts that Amos’s ministry occurred two years before the earthquake. Most commenta­tors suggest a date of about 760 B.C.E. for the earthquake. Paul even argues that the event is remembered because it authenticated Amos’s prophetic pronouncements (cf. Amos 9:1).[37]Paul, Amos, 35-36. The basis for dating the earthquake results from excavations at Hazor where a destruction at stratum VI is assumed to be the result of the quake. See Yigdal Yadin, Hazor II: An Account of the Second Season of Excavations, 1956 (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1960), 24-26, 36-37. Thus, a date for the prophetic ministry of Amos in the middle of the eighth century is preferred, for example, 765-760 B.C.

Political Context

The middle of the eighth century was a time of political prosperity and independence for Israel. The reasons for Israel’s political expansion are primarily related to external factors concerning Assyria and Syria. Israel’s archenemy during the ninth century had been Syria (2 Kings 10:32; 12:17-18; 13:7). This changed, however, when Adad-nirari III of Assyria subjugated Syria in 802 B.C.E. Syria did not regain dominance over Israel. Rather, Israel apparently dominated Syria during the first half of the eighth century (2 Kings 14:28).[38]Wayne T. Pitard, “Arameans,” in Peoples of the Old Testament World, ed. Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly, and Edwin M. Yamauchi (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 222. In the meantime, Assyria could not continue her westward march because of a series of internal problems at home and trouble on her northern border with Urartu.[39]Bright, A History of Israel, 256. This left Israel in a power vacuum which was filled under the leadership of Jeroboam II. During his reign, Israel’s sphere of influence reached into the Transjordan from Hamath in the north to the brook of the Arabah in the south (cf. Amos 6:14).[40]Ibid., 257-58. Amos prophesied, however, that a power was coming that would bring to an end the peace and power of Israel. This came to pass with the westward advances of Tiglath-Pileser in 743 B.C.E.[41]Ibid., 270-71.

Economic Context

The political power of Israel led to a prosperity unknown since the time of Solomon, stemming from Israel’s control of the trade routes that flowed through her territory. The two major trade routes connecting Asia Minor and Egypt were the Via Maris and the King’s Highway.[42]Morris Silver, Prophets and Markets: The Political Economy of Ancient Israel, Social Dimensions of Economics (Boston: Kluwer-Nijhoff Publishing, 1983), 41-42. In the eighth century, Judah and Israel controlled major sections of each of these trade routes. Israel controlled the Via Maris from the Plain of Sharon to Damascus and the King’s Highway from Hamath in the North to the border of Edom in the South where Judah then took control. The control of these trade routes allowed Israel to collect tolls and tariffs on goods entering the country, thereby gaining tremendous wealth through commerce and trade.[43]Ibid., 49-52.

Evidences of increased wealth are indicated in Amos by references to large homes, ivory, luxurious living, and a general sense of security and blessing (cf. Amos 3:15; 5:11; 6:1, 4-7, 11). Indications of a higher standard of living are reflected in the architecture of the period. The royal cities of Samaria, Hazor, and Megiddo were built with ashlar masonry (dressed stones) and decorated with proto-Aeolic capitals (which are stylized forms of the palm tree).[44]Philip J. King, “The Great Eighth Century,” Bible Review 5 (August 1989): 27-28. Furthermore, the size of the typical four-room house in Israel was expanded at Hazor, Shechem, and Tirzah. This leads Mazar to argue that “the houses of this type appear to have belonged to high officials, rich families, or land­ lords, as they are the largest and most elaborate buildings in the town.”[45]Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000 -586 B C. E., The Anchor Bible Reference Library, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 487. In Tirzah, the four-room house varied in size, which could reflect an increasing social differentiation hinted at by Amos.[46]Ibid.

Besides the architectural indications of wealth, archaeologists have uncovered over five hundred Samaritan ivories which may date to the eighth century. These ivories were used primarily as inlays or insets for furniture, boxes, and walls.[47]King, “The Great Eighth Century,” 29-30. Mazar contends that many of these ivories found their way to Israel by way of Phoenicia. This conclusion is based on the techniques used in the carvings, as well as the motifs which reflect a Phoenician origin.[48]Mazar, Archaeology, 505.

The wealth of Israel was condemned by Amos, not because it was inherently evil but because the wealth tended to dull the people’s perception of God’s demand for covenant loyalty and human compassion. The prosperity and greed of the day led to humankind’s ignoring of God’s law and humanity’s need (cf. Amos 8:4-6).

Social Context

The reader should note that Amos did not have a broad social agenda which would fix the state of affairs in Israel. It is unfair to the prophet to char­acterize him as a social revolutionary. Instead, he was a theological revolutionary. He believed the covenant basis of Israel’s faith ought to make an impact upon the social conditions within Israel.[49]John Bright, Covenant and Promise: The Prophetic Understanding of the Future in Pre-Exilic Israel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 84. God’s standard for Israelite culture is reflected in the familiar word pair, mishpat (justice) and s’daqah (righteousness)(cf. Amos 5:7, 24; 6:12). While these terms are basically synonymous when used in parallelism, there is a subtle difference in their emphases. Birch argues that mishpat refers to every person’s right to be a part of the community and to enjoy equity in legal matters, whereas s’daqah refers to the fulfillment of expectations within relation­ships, whether communal or individual.[50]Bruce Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 259-60. For Amos, neither the order of justice or its companion, the conduct of righteousness, was reflected in the behavior of Israelite society.

The failure of Israel in its social responsibilities is evident throughout Amos (cf. 2:6-8; 3:9-11, 13-15; 4:1-3; 5:7, 10-13; 6:1-8, 11-12, 8:4-7). As one begins to examine the various passages, Israel obviously was guilty of a variety of social sins that can be summarized as an abuse of power in the pursuit of wealth.[51]Herbert B. Huffman, “The Social Role of Amos’ Message,” in The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall, ed. H. B. Huffman et al. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 111. This abuse of power is reflected by the treatment of the poor (Amos 2:6-7; 4:1; 5:10-12; 8:4, 6). Specifically, the poor faced abuse in two ways. First, they were often forced into debt-slavery over the price of a pair of sandals.[52]Anderson and Freedman, Amos, 313. Though the Covenant Code allowed for debt­ slavery (Exod. 21:2-11), the intent was to allow a man to pay back his debt and maintain his dignity. That is not the case in the time of Amos.

The second abuse of the poor took place in the gates of the city. The gates of cities and villages consisted of rooms or alcoves where the leaders of the village would gather and transact legal business.[53]Mazar, Archaeology, 469. In this place of justice, the poor felt the sting of corrupted courts. Judges were bribed by the rich to attain judgments against the poor either leading to debt-slavery or to the confiscation of land because of debt (cf. Amos 2:7; 5:10-12).[54]Hubbard, Joel & Amos, 172-73. In the end, the potent image of the powerful trampling the poor as if they were dust under their feet (cf. Amos 2:7; 8:4) is a uncomfortable image of the state of society in the time of Amos.

Religious Context

The overall mood of Israel in the eighth century was optimistic, especially in the realm of the religious. The change in Israel’s political and eco­nomic situations apparently led to the assumption God was blessing his people. This spiritual optimism culminated in the belief that the Day of Yahweh was near.[55]There is still no critical consensus as to the Sitz in Leben (setting-in-life) of the Day of Yahweh. For Sigmund Mowinckel, the setting or origin for the concept was in the cult of Israel during an annual New Year Festival in which Yahweh would be enthroned as king. See Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh trans. G. W. Anderson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954). A more popular theory concerning the beginning of the concept is proposed by Gerhard von Rad, the Day of Yahweh is a prophetic reinterpretation or application of the Holy Wars of Israel during the conquest. Gerhard Von Rad, “The Origin of the Concept of the Day of Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies 4 (April 1959): 97-108. Another option suggests the idea of theophany as the setting for the Day, see Meir Weiss, “The Origin of the ‘Day of the Lord’ Reconsidered,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 37 (1966): 29-60. Finally F. C. Fensham argues that the background of the day originates from a covenant context, when the covenant curses will go into effect. See F. C. Fensharn, “A Possible Origin of the Concept of the Day of the Lord,” in Biblical Essays (South Africa: University of Stellenbosch, 1966), 90-97. This popular perspective is reflected in Amos 5:18-20 by the use of the Hebrew verb ‘avah. This verb is used in Num. 11:34 and 2 Sam. 23:15 to describe desire created by hunger and thirst.[56]Hubbard, Joel & Amos, 178. Therefore, the people have an intense longing for the day.

The people of Israel were longing for a day that would be marked by “light” and “brightness” (Amos 5:18, 20). These terms suggest day of blessing and salvation. This salvation is character­ized by the belief that Yahweh would rout the enemies of Israel.[57]Hans M Barstad, The Religious Polemics of Amos, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, ed. J. A. Emerton, et al., vol. 34 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), 96. Therefore, the people believed that the current political and economic prosperity under Jeroboam II was a harbinger of the coming intervention of God.

Amos surprised the people, however, by turning the concept inside out.[58]Paul, Amos, 185. He pronounced a woe­ oracle on the people who were longing for the day. This implies the day would bring death .and not life. Amos’s surprise reversal of the day is further substantiated by the use of the words “darkness” and “gloom”[59]The two terms “darkness” and ”gloom” speak of trouble or distress. See Hubbard, Joel & Amos, 179-80; Douglas Stuatt, Hosea-Jonah, in Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard, et al. (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 354. as well as the parable, which suggests Murphy’s Law is in effect. For Amos a day is coming when God will intervene, but i will be an intervention of judgment and not blessing.

The pronouncement of Amos concerning the Day of Yahweh must have shocked his audience. In light of their activities in the cult of Israel, they must have thought themselves secure in their relationship with God. This was not the case. Amos described the cultic worship of Israel in several passages in the prophecy (3:14; 4:4-5;5:4-7; 5:21-24; 8:10; 9:1). If one examines all of these passages, there emerges a thematic chiastic structure:

3:14 Destruction of Bethel’s Altar
4:4-5 Emptiness of Israel’s Worship
5:4-7 Seek Yahweh
8:10; 9:1 Destruction of Bethel’s Altar and Services

Though this structure cuts across the entire book and is drawn out of various pericopes, it does reflect Amos’s polemics and theology concerning Israel’s worship. The people of Israel should have focused upon their relationship with Yahweh and not upon the ritual of their cult.[60]Wolff, Joel and Amos, 139 .

As one begins to examine Amos’s message against the religious activities of his day, Amos begins and ends by affirming God’s intention to destroy the altar at Bethel (3:14; 9:1). Of course, it was Jeroboam I who set up an alternative cult system in the North after the split of the kingdom in 922 B. C. E. (cf. 1Kings 12:25-33). He was condemned for this because it led Israel into religious syncretism, since the chosen symbol of Jeroboam I was the bull calf, which also happened to be the totem animal of Baal (cf. 1Kings 14).[61]King, Amos, 96-97. Oddly enough, Amos does not speak directly to the issue of syncretism, as does Hosea. Rather, Amos makes oblique references to God destroying the altar at Bethel (3:14; 9:1).

The focus of Amos’s preaching against the cult of Israel was the cult’s failure to have impact upon the society. Worship became an end in itself. Regardless of the abundance of the offerings (Amos 4:4) and their various types (Amos 5:22), God would not accept them because they were given for the benefit of being seen and did not reflect heart­ felt repentance (cf. Amos 4:5).[62]Hubbard, Joel & Amos, 158. In the end, what God wanted was justice and righteousness, not sacrifice and song (Amos 5:24).

In the center of the above chiasm and at the heart of Amos’s preaching against the cult of Israel was a plea to seek Yahweh (Amos 5:4-5). Though many suggest that Amos’s call to seek Yahweh is incompatible with his preaching of judgment,[63]Various attempts at reconciling Amos’s call to seek the Lord have been attempted. Weiser argues the call is filled with irony and thus offers no. hope for change. A. Weiser, Die Profetie des Amos, Beiheft zur Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, no. 53 (Giessen: Topelmann, 1929), 190-92. Alt argues that the call to live is extended to the masses but not to the religious and political leadership. A. Alt, Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel, 3 vols. (Miichen: Beck, 1953- 1959), 2:269. this writer believes Amos was holding out hope for the people if they would return to Yahweh (cf. Jer. 18:5-10).

The emphasis on hope is captured in Amos 5:4-6 with another chiastic structure. The outside frame of the chiasm repeats the call to seek Yahweh and live, whereas the heart of the structure is a renun­ciation of the major cult centers of Israel:

5:4 Seek/Live
5:5 Do not Seek Bethel
5:5 Do not Seek Gilgal
5:5 Do not Seek Beersheba
5:5 Do not Seek Gilgal
5:5 Do not Seek Bethel
5:6 Seek/Live

Life occurs in relationship with God. However, if Israel continually seeks God’s favor at the sanctuar­ies without a change of heart, then death would stalk the people of Israel.[64]Paul, Amos, 164-65.


As the reader evaluates the messages of Amos from the perspective of history, clearly the people of Israel did not heed the warnings of
the shepherd/prophet. Perhaps they were too busy pursuing a livelihood or enjoying life. In the end, they were too preoccupied with life to notice the shadow of God’s judgment creeping upon them. May the interpreter of Amos allow Yahweh’s roar to be heard.


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