Historical Setting

Establishing a date

Reign of Jeroboam

Assyria in c750bce

Social context

Establishing a date

The superscription to the book dates Amos' activity, first to a period: when Jeroboam (son of Joash = Jeroboam II) was reigning in Israel and when Uzziah reigned in Judah, then much more precisely "two years before the earthquake".

Jeroboam ruled from about 786–746bce, and Uzziah about 783–742bce so the reigns give a possible range from 783-746 or nearly forty years! Potentially the earthquake dated Amos much more precisely to a particular year. This earthquake was remembered generations later, see Zechariah 14:5. However, we now lack the means to identify its date, although the archaeological record may show an earthquake around this time to provide convincing evidence of a particular date is difficult. (We would need to find mention of it in some annals or chronicles...)

So, the direct internal evidence points to a precise date ("two years before the earthquake" suggests a period of under a year, perhaps a very short time) but one that is today unidentifiable precisely.

Reign of Jeroboam

Although the writers of Kings did not approve of him, because of his religious policy, they admit that Jeroboam II was politically and militarily successful (2 Kings 14:23-29). His reign also seems to have been a time of stability and record keeping (see 1 Chron 5:17). The book of Kings claims that he restored the borders of Israel. The exact meaning of the description of this is debatable. However, it seems to imply at least that he achieved the northern part of the ideal "Israel" attributed to David, as the authors mention Damascus, Hamath and the Dead Sea.

Assyria in c750bce

From just before the start of the Iron II period, Assyria was the rising power in the ANE. In particular under Ashurnasirpal II (c.883–859bce) a series of kings who ruled from Calah extended their boundaries and influence. For example the Phoenician cities (Arvad, Byblos, Sidon & Tyre) paid tribute. Eventually this weakened the Aramean city states in Syria and they were gradually annexed or reduced to client status by the rising Assyrian empire. So for example Assurdan III (in about 772bce) organised a successful campaign in Syria.

However, a new power to Assyria's north, Urartu, provided an increasing challenge, and began to distract imperial attention from the west. A. Kirk Grayson in ABD describes the period from 782–745bce as "The Interval". (Grayson, 744-5) During this period Assyria barely survived, and Syria Palestine was little troubled by imperial politics since the dominant Urartu was so far away. Egypt was also torn apart by internal strife at this time.

Such arguments have led scholars who accept the biblical account (2 Kings 14:25, 28) that Jeroboam "restored the borders of Israel from the entry to Hamath to the Dead Sea" to argue for dates both early (while Syria was still reeling from Assurdan's campaign) or late (while Assyria was weak) for Jeroboam's military success.

Social context

Either way, the biblical report of Jeroboam's success can probably be trusted in its tone, not least because the writers did not approve of him! Such success would lead to greater wealth, and the tone and contents of the prophets of the period suggest this was not evenly shared. There is evidence in the monarchic period for cities beginning to develop greater differentiation of housing, and large store pits and houses suggest that at least the temple and palace were able to accumulate a surplus of produce for sale.

The book of Amos provides several glimpses of the luxurious lifestyle and lack of community spirit of the elite. The voices of the poor are less heard, but may also be inferred from the tone of Amos' speech.

Auld (13) argued that the difference of wealth seen in the prophet's words may not result from new wealth, so much as a long slow decline (from the time of Solomon). Hayes based his commentary on this understanding of the archaeological and historical evidence, yet most scholars have retained the traditional picture, which still fits well with much of the evidence.

Amos' accusations against the rich and powerful certainly fit well with sociological descriptions of a "Tributary Mode of Production". Tax (to the king) and tithe (to the temple) are difficult for subsistence farmers, in good years these imposts can be paid with gladness, but in bad years there was often simply not sufficient surplus for the family or village's own needs. Such situations produced debt, which exacerbated the initial problem, producing for many a spiral of poverty. (See e.g. Gottwald, 84-5.)

 


 

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos, if you have reached it as a standalone page,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.