Listen Up People! The Lion Has Roared: A Study of Amos 1-2

Kevin Hall  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 38 - Fall 1995


The words of the Lord through the prophet Amos have teeth in them. They are the words of a lion (Amos 1:2; 3:8). Majestic and regal, this awesome predator roamed the hills of ancient Palestine, inspiring kings, devouring sheep, killing shepherds, or preparing them to conquer giants (1 Sam. 17:33-36). The image of the roar of this ancient icon of strength and danger perfectly suits the message Amos delivered for Yahweh. This predatory word may be ignored only at the risk of great peril.

The Lion Roars (Amos 1:1-2)

The first two verses of the book of Amos treat the reader to not only “the most complete superscription to be found in all of prophetic literature”[1]Shalom M. Paul, Amos, Hermeneia, ed. Frank Moore Cross (Min­neapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 33. but also a bracing “cascade of associated ideas”[2]Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 229. that invite contemplation but defy rationalization. The mixture of ideas, motifs, and metaphors is comprised of: (1) a reference to the “words” that Amos “saw” (v. 1),[3]All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted. (2) a prophet who would rather be reckoned “among the shepherds” (v. 1), and (3) a God whose ominous voice is manifest as the roar of a lion or a peal of thunder, and brings withering desolation to all fertile places (v. 2).

Words Which Have Been Seen

The reference in verse one to the “words” which Amos “saw” bears attention. Some recent transla­tors prefer to read the second relative clause of verse one, “which he saw,” as a reference to Amos, not his words, so that the phrase would be rendered who had visions.”[4]Andersen and Freedman, 183; cf. Paul “who prophesied,” 33. Though the Hebrew verb rendered by the NRSV “he saw,” (c)hazah, implies in this context prophetic visions and insinuates that Amos was a prophet (a common Hebrew term for prophet is (c)hozeh, usually translated “seer”), it seems unnecessary to proffer a translation that minimizes the verbal aspect of (c)hazah in an attempt to overcome the inherent incongruity of “words” that are “seen.” Other prophets testified to the same connection between visions and their words (e.g., Isa. 1:1; 2:1; Mic. 1:1; Hab. 1:1).[5]The arguments made by Andersen and Freedman for their translation are overdrawn. They note that in the other instances where the verb (c)hazah appears with dabar (“word”), the word which was seen was the word of the Lord, not the words of the prophet (e. g., Isa. 2:1). The “word of the Lord” and the “words of the prophets,” though distinctive phrases, hardly have “independent meanings” (Andersen and Freedman, 189) since the prophet’s words always derived their value from their status as the word of Yahweh. In fact, Habakkuk was instructed to “write the vision” (Hab. 2:2). The argument below will be that the nature of words that are somehow seen goes a long way toward explaining the literary character of Amos’s book. For now it suffices to note that the words of the book of Amos somehow express the perceptive insights of a prophetic visionary.

ls Amos Among the Shepherds?

A prophet who would rather be reckoned “among the shepherds” raises some intriguing issues. Though the use of the verb (c)hazah in reference to the production of Amos’s book (1:1) compared with Amaziah’s identification of Amos as a (c)hozeh (7:12-13) would lead one to establish that Amos was a prophet, Amos’s flat denial that he was (or possibly had been) a nabi (7:14-15)[6]Nabi is the most commonly used Hebrew term for a “prophet.” Amos’s denial in 7:14 takes the form of a verbless nominal sentence in the Hebrew, meaning that the “to be” verbs of English translations, like the NRSV’s “am” (“[ am no prophet”; “I am a herdsman”) are supplied and the tense of these linking verbs become a matter of interpretation based upon the context. continues to “baffle the exegetes.”[7]Paul, Amos, 244. For a convenient, current introduction to the issues and literature concerning Amos’s statements in 7:14-15 see Ger­hard F. Hase!, “Amos’ Nature as a Prophet,” chap. in Understanding the Book of Amos: Basic Issues in Current Interpretations (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 41-47. Likely, however, the reference in the prophetic superscription to Amos being “among the shepherds” was intended to provide more than biographical data. Could it be Yahweh’s nabi highlighted his association with the shepherds of Tekoa as a way of distancing himself from the professional prophets of his day[8]By the eighth century, there had developed a class of professional prophets for hire (Mic. 3:5-7). Andersen and Freedman consider Amos’s denial of being “a prophet’s son” (7:14) a denial of any “institutional affiliation” (Andersen and Freedman, 778). Paul contends that Amos denied earning his living as a prophet (Paul, Amos, 247). One should remember, however, that “the most notorious crux interpretum of the Book of Amos remains largely unsolved” (Hasel, Understanding Amos, 45). and to offer a subtle critique of Israel’s leaders? In other words, whereas later prophets offered straightforward denunciations of Israel’s shepherds/leaders,[9]For Israel’s leaders as “shepherds,” the following may be noted: (1) Joshua was appointed to succeed Moses so that Yahweh’s congregation would not be “like sheep without a shepherd” (Num. 27:14); (2) when the tribes of Israel affirmed David’s kingship over all Israel they confessed that Yahweh had told David he was to be “shepherd of my people Israel” and “ruler over Israel” (2 Sam. 5:2); (3) the book of Jeremiah uses the image as a general reference to a variety of rulers within and without the cult (e. g., Jer. 2:8; 3:15), offering a scathing critique of their failures (10:21) while predicting their downfall (25:34-38; cf. Ezekiel 34; Zech. 11:3). For a helpful summary of human leaders as shepherds in the biblical literature see David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992) (hereafter, ABD), s. v. “Sheep, Shepherd,” by Jack W. Vancil. Amos’s refusal to give up his status as a shepherd[10]The word translated “shepherd” in verse one is not the common word for shepherd, ro’eh, but is the term noqed, used only one other time in the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Kings 3:4). It is, therefore, difficult to translate with precision. Paul offers an excellent review of the appearances of the term’s cognates in the extra-biblical sources and concludes that the term depicts Amos as a “herdsman/a breeder of cattle and sheep” (Paul, Amos, 34). Andersen and Freedman also survey the pertinent cognate literature and dispute the claims of some that the use of the term in 2 Kings 3:4 to describe the Moabite king Mesha means that Amos held a higher social rank than commonly assumed. They note that “terms for social rank are notoriously unstable and tend to slide down the scale” and do not believe that Amos’s social/economic standing can be determined from available evidence (Andersen and Freedman, 188). The fact that Amos referted to himself by a third term, boqer (“herdsman”; 7:14) and also was a “dresser of sycamore trees” (7:14) has led to continued speculations about Amos’s occupation(s). See conveniently, Hasel, Understanding Amos, 29-40. after he was called to be a prophet enabled him to provide his own effective comment on those leaders who remained “shep­herds” of Israel though they had forsaken the word of Yahweh.[11]Jeremiah spoke more directly to the issue: “For the shepherds   are stupid, and do not inquire of the Lord; therefore they have not prospered and all their flock is scattered” (Jer. 10:21).

The reader should note that Amos spoke more directly to the people of Israel than to the leaders – as a matter of fact this is the hallmark of the classical prophecy of which Amos was the vanguard[12]Cf. Hans Walter Wolff, “Prophecy from the Eighth Through the Fifth Century,” in Interpreting the Prophets, ed. James Luther Mays and Paul J. Achtemeier (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 16; Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 86-88. Holladay described the shift from court prophecy (the prophet addresses the king) to classical prophecy (the prophet addresses the people) against the backdrop of the changing Assyrian poli­cies, John S. Holladay, Jr., “Assyrian Statecraft and the Prophets of Israel,” in Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity, ed. David L. Petersen, Issues in Religion and Theology 10 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1987) 122-43. – but this did not preclude Amos from making direct and indirect references to doomed kings and rulers.[13]13 1:4, 5, 15, 2:3; 6:1; 7:9; cf. also the message attributed to Amos by Amaziah (7:11). Furthermore, there seems to be an intentional link between the reference in verse one that Amos was “among the shepherds” and the reference in verse two that the “pastures of the shepherds” wither at Yahweh’s roar. Shalom Paul notes that “pastures of the shepherds” is an unusual phrase most likely deliberately selected “to describe the effect of the roar of God upon the shepherds themselves.”[14]Paul, Amos, 40. He dismisses, however, the possibil­ity that the “shepherds” could be understood in anything other than a literal sense.[15]Ibid., n. 71. The argument below will be that the phrase’s primary function was to indicate, in conjunction with the reference served to bolster Amos’s critique of Israel’s failed leadership while allowing him to maintain a dis­missive posture toward them.[16]According to Holladay’s paradigm, Yahweh by this time had cut the leadership “out of the loop” and issued his warnings directly to the people (Holladay, “Assyrian Statecraft,” 134-35). Thus, the legacy of this great prophet of Yahweh who remained among the shepherds evinces an instructive irony similar to the effect of the proverb that circulated among Israel during the early days of the monarchy in the form of the question, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 10:11; 19:24).

The God Who Roars

At the heart of the introductory verses to the book of Amos is the incredible image of a God who roars (1:2). The roar of a lion is connoted (compare 3:8), but the image is intensified by being coupled with the image of thunder. When applied to Yahweh, the expression translated “utters his voice” normally connotes the roar of thunder (e.g., 2 Sam. 22:14; Pss. 18:13; 77:17-18 [Hebrew, 18-19]; 104:7). The same coupling of theophanic images occurs in Job 37:4 with equally terrifying results. When this powerful combination of images is linked to the withering prospect of the desolation of every fertile place from the “pastures of the shepherds” to “the top of Carmel,”[17]The reference in verse two to “the pastures of the shepherds” and “the top of Carmel” employs merismus, a poetic device which parallels two polar or opposite terms in order to evoke a single image of totality. In this case, the shepherd’s pastures and the top of Carmel represent the two topographical poles of the land, both of which are associated in biblical thought with fertility (e. g. Jer. 33:12; Isa. 35:2). the dreadful portrait of a God who roars is chillingly complete.

The cohesiveness of the swirl of images and ideas in Amos 1:1-2 actually derives, however, from the initial incongruity – these are somehow words that Amos saw. Amos’s literary efforts, thus, were an expression of his visionary experience.[18]Andersen and Freedman, 228-29. Privy to the divine council of Yahweh, Amos became Yahweh’s/the roaring lion’s messenger (3:7-8).

The Prophecy’s Setting

Within such an imaginative literary context Amos was able to supply an important historical notice while keeping it in proper perspective. Amos saw these things concerning Israel “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel” (1:1). There is a general consensus that these two kings ruled over kingdoms whose combined splendor rivaled the glory of the Davidic-Solomonic empire and that Amos prophesied during prosperous times for the elite of Israel and Judah.[19]For the biblical description of the reigns of Uzziah (Azariah) and Jeroboam II, see 2 Kings 14:17-15:7 and 2 Chronicles 26. For modern his­torical, archaeological analyses of the period see John Bright, A History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminter Press, 1981), 257-62; Philip J. King, Amos, Hosea, Micah-An Archaeological Commentary (Philadel­phia: Westminster Press, 1988), 29-60; idem, “The Great 8th Century,” Bible Review 5 (August 1989): 22-44. For a view that runs counter to the consensus, see the forceful argument by Hayes that the glory days were past by the time of Amos and his preaching addressed an Israel in politi­cal and economic decline (John H. Hayes, Amos the Eighth-Century Prophet: His Times and His Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 16-27. The reference, however, to the reign of these kings is as superficial as was the prosperity and security of their reigns.[20]Bright called the prosperity of these times, “the hectic flush of its (Israelite society) mortal illness” (History, 259). As the superscription notes, these visions came a mere “two years before the earthquake.” This earthquake evidently impacted Israel’s conscious­ness enough that it could fire the imagination of eschatological preaching centuries later (Zech. 14:5).

The juxtaposition of these two historical notices deftly anticipates the real setting of the prophecy­ the shadow of the looming day of Yahweh. Not a day which to look forward with delight (Amos 5:18-20; compare Isa. 5:18-19), the punitive darkness of that day would match the spiritual darkness that allowed the Israelites to trample the poor and push aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:10-13).

In the ancient Near East, shepherds, lions, and kings formed a traditional symbolic nexus. The opening verses of the book of Amos adroitly probe and prod this nexus with the declaration, “the Lord roars from Zion.” The statement introduces a predatory word, ready to devour Israel’s pride and complacency.

The People Fall Prey (Amos 1:3-2:16)

The predatory word introduced by the declaration “the Lord roars from Zion” may be identified with the entirety of Amos’s message since the irresistibly of Yahweh’s roar explains why Amos prophesied (Amos 3:8). The first explication of that roar, however, follows the “thus says the Lord” of Amos 1:3. Through a series of eight such statements (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6) the first two chapters of Amos bring charges against Israel and its neighbors and declare Yah­weh’s judgment upon them. Commonly called the “oracles against the nations”,[21]For this common designation and a convenient introduction to the scholarship pertaining to these oracles see Hasel, Understanding Amos, 57-69. Andersen and Freedman consider the oracles of Amos 1-2 one “great oracle against the nations including Israel or against Israel among the nations” (341). these eight declarations of judgment, as an expansion of Amos 1:2, give the vivid impression that Israel and its seven neighbors are doomed as Yahweh’s prey.

Several features of the oracles manifest their rhetorical unity. In addition to the eight “thus says the Lord” statements mentioned above, there is the eight-fold repetition of the formulaic expression “for three transgressions of …and for four.” This phrase occurs in all eight oracles in order to set the stage for the announcement of judgment and punishment. For example, Amos 1:3 states, “for three transgressions of Damascus and for four.” Oracles against the other five non-Israelite nations, Judah, and finally Israel are each introduced by this same expression. Attempts to understand this rhetorical device have generated an abundance of scholarly discussion.[22]In addition to the commentaries, see the good, recent discussion by Robert B. Chisolm, Jr., “‘For Three Sins…Even for Four’: The Numerical Sayings in Amos,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (April-June 1990): 188-97. The suggestions of Paul, however, seem the most judicious.[23]Paul, Amos, 29-30. He considers Amos used the traditional “x/x + 1” graded numerical saying in a novel fashion in order to express the concepts of totality and climax.[24]Cf. the use of such a pattern in wisdom literature, e. g., Prov. 30:18, 21, 29; cf. also the recent assertion of Dell that Amos took the traditional graded numerical saying and “transformed it considerably” (Katharine J. Dell, “The Misuse of Forms in Amos,” Vetus Testamentum 45 [1995]: 53-55). Both the number three and the number seven (which is present in the addition of the numbers in the saying and in the seven nations condemned before the oracle against Israel) represents completeness. The fourth transgression and the eighth nation (Israel) add the climatic dimension to Amos’s rhetoric. Thus the individual crimes which Amos mentioned-for most nations he only specified one-are illustrative of a completely corrupt international scene in which Israel’s crimes were paramount.

Another rhetorical feature of these oracles is the repetition of the phrase “I will not revoke the punishment.” The phrase appears in each of the eight oracles between the formulaic expression “for three transgressions …and for four” and the statement of the actual transgression(s) and punishment (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). The word “punishment” is not found in the Hebrew and represents the NRSV’s interpretation of what, in the Hebrew, is an enigmatic pronominal suffix. A literal rendering of the Hebrew might read “I will not cause it/him to return.” The meaning of this phrase is further clouded by its verb shub, “to return or turn back,” which in its hiphil form, “to cause to return,” may be translated plausibly in a variety of ways suggesting a number of different connotations.

Anthony R. Ceresko recently undertook a fresh evaluation of this phrase, concluding that it is an example of “Janus Parallelism.”[25]Anthony R. Ceresko, “Janus Parallelism in Amos’s ‘Oracles Against the Nations,”‘ Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994): 485-90. This type of parallelism, Ceresko explains, exploits two possible meanings of an expression in order to create a two-fold parallelism that looks both forward and backward. Thus, whereas many scholars understand the phrase to be implying that Yahweh will not revoke or recall the punishment subsequently to be announced,[26]Paul, Amos, 46. Ceresko contends the phrase antici­pates the punishment to be announced and also points back, as M. L. Barre recently proposed, to the nation of the oracle, implying that Yahweh will not allow him (the nation) to return.[27]Ceresko, 487; cf. M. L. Barre, “The Meaning of ‘shbnw in Amos 1:3-2:6,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 611-31. As Andersen and Freedman point out, however, the eight-fold repetition of this exact phraseology suggests that there is a single referent for the pronominal suffix throughout the whole set of oracles giving the impression of a coherent prophecy. The best candidate for such a referent is the voice of Yahweh that roars from Zion in Amos 1:2.[28]Andersen and Freedman, 235. Hayes translates the phrase “I will not recall it,” stating that “the ‘it’ which Yahweh will not recall in 1:3-2:16 is his ‘voice’ which will blast forth from Zion with withering force.”[29]Hayes, Amos, 66.

A third feature that gives a rhetorical unity to these oracles is the fact that each nation is charged with pesha’im (transgressions). In what sense, however, were the crimes of Israel, Judah, and their non-Israelite neighbors pesha’im.

The question has received a number of answers.[30]For a succinct view of the major approaches, see Hayes, Amos, 56-59.

Some have suggested the pesha’im were acts of rebellion against Yahweh who, through the Davidic empire, had established his sovereignty over the entire region now controlled by the nations Amos accused of various pesha’im.[31]The most recent and thorough argument for this view is found in Max E. Polley, Amos and the Davidic Empire: A Socio-Historical Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). While this theory finds some support in the term pesha’ , which does connote rebellion, the theory’s chief weakness is that it vests Amos’s concerns too much in notions of the covenant.[32]See the critique of Hayes, Amos, 57-58. In particular the theory fails to recognize that Amos envisioned Yahweh’s sovereignty over nations beyond the domain of David’s empire (Amos 9:7).[33]See this critique of the Davidic empire theory in Paul Noble, “Israel Among the Nations,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 15 (1993): 56-62.

Another view of the nations’ pesha’im is repre­sented in the work of John Barton.[34]John Barton, Amos’s Oracles Against the Nations: A Study of Amos 1.3-2.5, Society for the Study of the Old Testament Monograph Series, ed. R. E. Clements, (Cambridge: University Press, 1980). According to Barton, the pesha’im represent crimes against “international customary law.”[35]Ibid., 43. This is also the view adopted by Hayes, Amos, 58-59. While this view finds a logical impetus in the extreme nature of the crimes which should make them manifestly wrong to anyone, this writer doubts Amos based his preaching on anything less than the will of Yahweh, which, like his sovereignty, was not restricted to the Davidic empire.[36]Noble, “Israel Among the Nations,” 63-66.

Andersen and Freedman agree that universally recognized principles of justice do seem to underlie Amos’s charges, but they also stress that pesha’ “is a very strong term” that “should be interpreted as a deliberate and serious violation of the terms of a covenant.”[37]Andersen and Freedman, 91. The term pesha’ , perhaps, combines the concept of Yahweh’s sovereignty over all nations, which is analogous to the sovereignty of ancient Near Eastern overlords who made covenants with their vassals, with the notion of universally recognized standards of conduct that manifest Yahweh’s universal law.

Oracles Against Non-Israelite Nations
(Amos 1:3-2:3)

The first six oracles are against non-Israelite nations: (1) Damascus (Aram/Syria) {1:3), (2) Gaza (Philistia) (1:6), (3) Tyre (Phoenicia) (1:9), (4) Edom (1:11), (5) Ammon (1:13), and Moab (2:1). As noted above, Amos accused each nation of transgressions (pesha’im), and declared that each nation stood under the irrevocable judgment of Yahweh’s word.

The transgressions of which the nations were accused vary. Identification of the precise historical and cultural events underlying Amos’s charges remains impossible.[38]Hayes points out that “proposals regarding the historical referents have varied from such indefinite suggestions as ‘traditional examples of inhuman conduct’ or ‘the most recent memorable atrocities’ to suggestions of specific historical contexts” (Amos, 55). The various, and ulti­mately unsatisfactory suggestions, of specific historical contexts are chronicled thoroughly in Paul’s discussion of this section (Paul, Amos, 45-76). The generalized nature of the accusations may reflect an intentional emphasis on the “deplorable act itself ‘ rather than the particular parties involved[39]Paul, Amos, 61. and/or be a function of Amos’s literary artistry.[40]Andersen and Freedman, 207. At the least, Amos intended to chronicle acts of oppression that indicated a “trend toward inhumanity” in the social world of his hearers.[41]Gary V. Smith, The Prophets as Preachers: An Introduction to the Hebrew Prophets (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 54-55, quote from footnote 17.

Damascus, capital of the Aramean/Syrian state, was charged with having “threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron” ( 1:3). The agricultural practice of threshing was commonly employed by the biblical writers as an image of ancient warfare (e.g., Isa. 41:15; Mic. 4:13; Hab. 3:12). The image is descriptive of the use of overwhelming military force that left one’s foe like “the dust at threshing” (2 Kings 13:7). Gilead, the object of the threshing, was a disputed border territory between Aram and Israel as far back as the days of Laban the Aramean and Jacob/Israel (see Gen. 31:22-55). During the reign of Jehu of Israel (843-815 B.C.), the Aramean king Hazael (Amos 1:4) wrested control of Gilead from Israel ( 2 Kings 10:32-33). Hazael’s successor, Benhadad, (Amos 1:4) continued the Aramean aggression toward Israelite territories (2 Kings 13:3). By the time of Jeroboam II, however, Israel once again ruled over Gilead and even Damascus (2 Kings 14:25-28).

Gaza, a metonym for Philistia, was charged with having “carried into exile entire communities, to hand them over to Edom” (1:7). This seems to be a reference to the profitable slave trade for which later prophecies indicted both Philistia and Tyre (Ezek. 27:13; Joel 3:4-7 [Hebrew, 4:4-7]; compare Amos 1:9). Andersen and Freedman agree with the NRSV translation which indicates the forced slavery involved the captivity of a whole popula­tion (compare Jer. 13:19), thus making the crime “peculiarly cruel and repulsive.”[42]Andersen and Freedman, 258. The reference to the exiled slaves being handed over “to Edom” may indicate that the Edomites employed slave labor in their copper and smelting operations or served as middlemen for slave buyers in Africa and Southern Arabia.[43]Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos, trans. Waldemar Janzen, S.Dean McBride, Jr., and Charles A Muenchow, Hermeneia, ed. S. Dean McBride, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 157; Paul adopts Wolffs conclusions on this point (Amos, 57). One must remember, however, that little is known with certainty about Edom in this regard.[44]King, Amos, Hosea, Micah, 56; cf. Andersen and Freedman, 278. Haran was so doubtful that Edom could ever have been involved in the slave trade to the magnitude suggested by these verses that he argued for emending le’ edom, “to Edom,” to la’ aram, “to Aram,” a scenario he found historically more credible (M. Haran, “Observations on the Historical Background of Amos 1:2-2:6,” Israel Exploration Journal 18, no. 4 [1968]: 203-7); on the textual difficulties of this emendation see Andersen and Freedman, 259.

Tyre, like Gaza, was charged with having “deliv­ered entire communities over to Edom.” The heinousness of Tyre’s involvement in this activity is heightened by the reference to Tyre’s having failed to “remember the covenant of kinship” (1:9). Literally a “covenant of brothers” (‘achim berith), the expression signifies a political treaty relation­ ship between peoples of equal status for which the concept of brotherhood is particularly appropriate. For example, King Hiram of Tyre, who entered into a treaty relationship with Solomon ( 1Kings 5:12 [Hebrew, v. 26]), called Solomon “my brother” ( 1Kings 9:13).Though Amos may have had in mind the treaty relationship between Tyre and Israel fostered by David (2 Sam. 5:11), Amos did not mention the other member of the   covenant. This may have been an intentional omission that enabled him to champion “brother­ hood” as the model for all international relations.[45]Paul makes this point and provides an excellent review of the tech­nical political/covenantal use of ‘achim and its Akkadian cognates throughout the ancient Near East (Paul, Amos, 61-62).

Edom, like Gaza and Tyre, fractured interna­tional brotherhood by pursuing “his brother with the sword,” casting off “all pity,” maintaining “his anger perpetually,” and keeping “his wrath forever” (1:11). “Brother,” here, most naturally connotes the perpetually strained relationship between the descendants of Jacob and Esau, but the term for brother, as noted above, commonly appears in covenant contexts. Furthermore, throughout these oracles against non-Israelite nations, Amos does not appear to be concerned with demonstrating their culpability with regard to offenses specifically against Israel and Judah.[46]In earlier oracles against foreign nations, the so called “war oracles” (e. g., 1 Kings 20:28), the sin of the nation was not always identified and when it was, it was always a sin against Israel or Israel’s God. In Amos,. however, the nation1s crime is always explicitly stated, though it seems relevant whether or not the crime was against Israel (Paul, Amos, 10). For convenient studies of the use of these oracles in Israel see John H. Hayes, “The Usage of Oracles Against Foreign Nations i Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968): 81-92; Duane L. Chris­tensen, Transformations of the War Oracle in Old Testament Prophecy: Studies zn the Oracles Against the Nations, Harvard Dissertations in Reli­ gion Series, no. 3, ed. Caroline Bynum and George Rupp (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975). Thus, the Jacob and Esau narratives may provide an illustrative backdrop for Edom’s crimes while the generalized nature of the charges – Edom’s “brother” could be anyone with whom Edom had a treaty – establishes a continuity between Edom’s crimes and those of Gaza and Tyre. Edom, which is mentioned in four of the six oracles against non-Israelite nations, is emblematic of “the endless hostility and hatred” among the nations that led to “every imaginable combination” of allies and enemies, creating a climate in which “the main purpose of a treaty was to provide an opportunity for treachery.”[47]Andersen and Freedman, 278.

The brutality of such international treachery is all too apparent in the charge against the Ammonites. “They have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their terri­tory” (1:13). Such an atrocity, far too common in ancient warfare (2 Kings 8:12; 15:16; Hos. 13:16 [Hebrew, 14:1]), demonstrates the horrific rending the aggressive breaking of borders actually represents. The Ammonites wished to break down territorial boundaries and enlarge their territory. Ancient Near Eastern kings often boasted that they enlarged their nation’s borders. Far from benign, however, such actions were prophetically identified with the tortuous ripping of impregnated wombs. The imagery suggests that no safe haven exists in such a world. Even the sanctum sancto­rum of the womb may be savaged by the aggressor’s knife.

“If the Ammonites exterminated life before birth,” the Moabites were charged with “extending their atrocities beyond death”[48]James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, Interpretation, ed. James Luther Mays (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 89. by burning “to lime the bones of the king of Edom” (2:1). Here, the treachery is evident not only in the grotesqueness of such an act,[49]The burning of the corpses which were most likely disinterred may have actually been for the purpose of procuring lime for the plastering and whitewashing of homes (Hebrew rendered “to lime” lasid may also read “for lime;” Paul, Amos, 72). but also in the macabre twist in which the “most prominent evildoer” becomes the victim.[50]Andersen and Freedman, 286. The reader should note that in this final oracle against the non-Israelite nations, when the victim of the atrocity is explicitly identified, the victim is not Israel or Judah. This underscores the fact that the inhumanity of the atrocities is the most relevant issue of these oracles.[51]Paul, Amos, 72; Andersen and Freedman, 287.

A False Climax: The Oracle Against Judah
(Amos 2:4-5)

The oracle against Judah allowed Amos to reach a forceful but false climax in his speech against the nations. The climactic nature of the oracle against Judah derives from several factors. First, Judah was the seventh nation condemned by Amos. With Judah’s condemnation the judgment on all of Israel’s neighbors was complete. Second, the crimes of Judah transcended those of the other nations. Judah’s crimes were tantamount to a personal ‘ rejection of Yahweh. They rejected his law ( torah) which was seen in their failure to keep his statutes (2:4). Yahweh’s torah did more, however, than provide the basis for a legal, contractual relation­ ship. Torah was Yahweh’s gift to his people. Through the teaching and instruction of Yahweh’s torah they were to gain intimate knowledge of Yah­weh (Hos. 4:6) and hear his words (Isa. 5:24; Jer. 6:19). By rejecting Yahweh’s torah Judah rejected a personal expression of Yahweh’s character. Judah was doomed, therefore, to the same fate as the other nations (Amos 2:5). Judah, however, was Yahweh’s own nation and the home of the prophet who delivered the word of judgment. What could be more climactic than that?!

Amos, however, had not completed his prophecy against the nations. One more nation remained in his sights. To this point, Amos might have been understood by his audience as performing the traditional prophetic function of condemning hostile foreign powers. In fact, the long-standing hostility between Israel and the nations Amos condemned probably led many in Israel to expect that Yahweh would judge those nations. Amos, therefore, “under divine direction” was able “to capitalize on their anticipation.”[52]D. David Garland, Amos, Bible Study Commentary (Grand Rapids: Lamplighter Books, 1966), 22. As Hayes points out, however, Amos’s rhetorical intention for these oracles displays deeper motivations than merely setting a trap for his audience.[53]Hayes, Amos, 60-61. In the first place, each of the nations were rightfully and genuinely being condemned. Second, since Amos portrayed Yahweh as the rightful judge of Israel’s enemies first, his Israelite audience was primed to accept Yahweh as judge and even long for the justice he would mete out. Finally, having established the principles of Yahweh’s justice while at the same time moving his audience into concurrence with Yahweh’s claims, Amos was in a stronger position to convince his audience that they too stood under the judgment of Yahweh’s word.

The Main Course:
The Oracle Against Israel (Amos 2:6-16)

The oracle against Israel is unique in several respects. First, the transgressions of Israel receive greater elaboration than in any preceding oracle. Second, Israel is accused of crimes against its own citizens rather than against peoples of other lands. Third, the first part of the oracle, which most resembles the preceding seven (2:6-8), does not end with the standard announcement of destruc­tion by fire; rather, it opens into a description of Yahweh’s historical commitment to Israel (v. 9) that turns into a direct address to Israel (vv. 10-12) which issues into the lengthiest and most personal declaration of the coming judgment to be found in any of the oracles (vv. 13-16). The oracle against Israel, therefore, in style and substance, stands apart from the rest. The real prey, or at least the main course, is clearly at last in sight.

Amos looked past the pomp of Israel’s public worship (cult) and exposed their social abuses (2:6- 8; compare 5:21-24). Amos declared that Israel “sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6). Amos implied that money was the only leverage that counted in Israelite society; persons of integrity and those with genuine need were of no more value than any other commodity. Their existence, if recognized, was something to be bought and sold by those with a merchant mentality (see also 5:12; 8:4-6). In images insinuating an egregious arrogance, Amos added that they thought nothing of trampling “the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” or pushing “the afflicted out of the way” (2:7; also 4:1; 5:11; 8:4). Israel’s lavish worship did not hide their crimes. In fact, their arrogant abuse of power was most apparent as they came to worship.[54]In the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, social and cultic critique are often woven together as they are in Amos 2:6-8. This implies an inextricable link between what for many modem readers seem to be separate concerns. On Amos’s social and religious critique see A. G. Auld, Amos, Old Testament Guides, ed. R. N. Whybray (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986), 60-72. For instance, the “garments taken in pledge” upon which they reclined at their altars probably were garments seized from the poor who had defaulted on loans.[55]See Paul, Amos, 83-84, for this interpretation. The social situation that Amos described, therefore, was one in which the perni­cious profanity of Israel’s social abuses made their hallowed practices hollow. “In the house of their God,” raged Amos, they dared to “drink wine bought with fines they imposed” (2:8).

Following the declaration of Israel’s social crimes, Yahweh spoke through his prophet about the more exalted purpose for which Israel had been brought to their land (2:9-11). Before Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt, he cleared the land of the arrogant cedars (the Amorites), whose height and strength belied their vulnerability to Yahweh’s just intentions (v. 9). Having uprooted the arrogant, Yahweh had brought Israel out of Egypt in order to live on the land with a sense of commitment exemplified by prophets and nazirites (vv. 10-11). A nazirite was a “consecrated one,” (see Num. 6:1-21). As a nation, however, Israel subverted those persons explicitly committed to Yahweh’s ideals (v. 11). Rather than cultivating the righteousness and justice Yahweh expected of the people he planted in the land (Isa. 5:7), Israel apparently constructed a society that cherished the ideals of strength and military might (2:13-16; cf. Isa. 2:7; 30:15-17). Yahweh already cleared the land of the mighty cedars and oaks so that now he needed simply to roll his cart through the land (v. 13). Israel’s mightiest warriors would flee, their weaponry would fail them, and their “stout of heart” would flee naked in the face of Yahweh’s judgment (vv. 14-16).


The final verse of Amos’s magnificent prophecy concerning the nations ends with the phrase “in that day” (2:16). As a reminder of the “eschatological denouement”[56]Andersen and Freedman, 325. of all prophecy, this phrase links Amos 1-2 with the rest of the book vis-a-vis the Day of the Lord concept that Amos so devastatingly employed (3:14; 5:18-20; 8:3, 9, 13; 9:11). The wording also demands that each generation who reads this prophecy remember that events which unfolded in Amos’s day did not,exhaust the significance of the Day of the Lord. As the prophet Obadiah later declared, “the day of the Lord is near against all the nations” (Obadiah 15). Thus it behooves the nations of the world at the close of the twentieth century to be mindful of Amos’s message to the nations of his day.

What, however, might it mean for twentieth­ century nations to heed the word of the Lord that Amos delivered? What values of the Almighty might be articulated for and applied to contempo­rary society based upon the authority of Amos 1-2?

First, Amos was a messenger for a God who does not tolerate reckless violence and ruthless interna­tional policies. The nations targeted by Amos may have championed their own sovereignty and respected when prudent the sovereignty of others, but Amos’s word against them recognized only one absolute sovereignty. Yahweh, Amos 1-2 makes clear, will not leave unchecked an international scene wrecked by self-serving strife. Those today who promote an ideal for the international community of nations based upon the kinship of all the peoples of the earth do so with the authority of the divine word delivered by Amos. Ancient Israel made two errors with respect to its special relation­ship with Yahweh: (1) failing to live up to the responsibility incumbent upon a nation that Yahweh favors (Amos 2:9-12), and (2) losing sight of its link to all the other nations of the earth among whom and on whose behalf Yahweh was also active (Amos 9:7). Any nation. today that considers itself especially blessed by God would do well to remember its responsibility to promote jus­tice and to seek the welfare of the other nations cared for by God.

Another insight that Amos’s denunciation of ancient Israel provides is that proclamation of the word of the Lord involves being an advocate for the powerless.[57]No one should undertake a serious study of Amos or any other bib­lical prophet without reading James Limburg, The Prophets and the Power­ less (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977), a work which articulates suc­cinctly and forcefully this mission of the prophets. Preaching of the gospel that ignores this responsibility is remiss at best and arguably is culpable in the abuses societies tend to inflict upon their most helpless members. The consistent center of prophetic preaching was the call for justice and righteousness (e.g., Amos 5:7, 15, 24; Isa. 5:7; Jer. 21:12; 22:15-17; 23:5); and the gospel that Jesus was anointed to preach was described by the prophets as good news for the poor and oppressed (compare Luke 4:18-19; Isa. 61:1-2). On the lips of the prophets, however, righteousness and justice were not vacuous platitudes. In their demand for justice and righteousness the prophets insisted upon concrete and specific actions that accorded to others what was due to them.[58]Gene M. Tucker, “The Role of the Prophets and the Role of the Church,” chap. in Prophecy in Israel, 164. In particular, they championed the rights of widows, orphans, and aliens, those who were “the least, the last, and the lost” of society (e.g., Isa. 1:17; Jer. 22:3; Ezek. 22:29; compare Jame1, 1:27).[59]For the phrase, “the least, the last, and the lost,” I am indebted to a sermon I heard delivered by Dr. Major Jemison of St. John Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for the chapel service at Oklahoma Baptist University, February 1, 1995. Seen in this light, righteousness and justice are “the foundations of society at its best.”[60]Tucker, 164. As believers today begin to face squarely “the difficulty of being a good person in the absence of a good society,”[61]Robert N. Bellah, et al., The Good Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 4. the need for this type of prophetic preaching will become more apparent. Amos addressed a society that effectively organized for lavish worship and demanded that they mobilize for the just and right­eous treatment of the poorest and neediest members of their society. Those who would faithfully minister the word of God today may demand no less.

Amos’s message also challenges contemporary believers to see the connection between worship of God and concern for others. When the benevo­lence budget of churches is minuscule in propor­tion to the budget for buildings where worshipers may gather in comfortable isolation from the hurting in their communities, something is desperately wrong. One wonders how comfortable the pews would be if Amos were invited to fill the pulpit. How many of the poor of the community would Amos see trampled into the dust by the neglect of those who are too busy going to church? How often are concerns for worship space and adequate parking viewed from the vantage point of community needs and the impact on the neighbor­hood? How is it that churches move out of neighborhoods that have become “run-down” without feeling any responsibility for the decline or for those whom they will leave behind? Such questions are not meant to oversimplify complex issues or to imply that the use of resources for public worship should be pitted against the use of funds for social ministries, thereby creating an either/or situation. God-honoring public worship should not be neglected and is worthy of the investment of resources. As the people of God, however, rediscover the sacred character of their social responsibilities, their worship will gain an immeasurable integrity and will be more reflective of the character of the God they worship (James 1:27-2:7, 14-17; 1 John 3:16-17).

Amos’s interpretation of the failures of ancient Israel and its neighbor nations continues to provide the people of God and the nations of the world with a remarkable challenge. Through the word that Amos delivered, Yahweh still roars from Zion. Though it causes us to tremble, the Lord’s mighty call graciously shatters the silence that would otherwise be our spiritual shroud. May we awaken from our slumber and live in the light of this magnificent vision.


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