Amos, the prophet

Amos, the prophet

Profession and social status

As a prophet

Use of language

Theology

All that we know about Amos is found out from the book that bears his name. He is not mentioned in other biblical books and he does not (yet) appear in any non-biblical text from that time, or in any inscription that archaeologists have uncovered. (This is not strange, very few individual people except kings and emperors are mentioned in such ways.)

Although some scholars still try (e.g. Andersen and Freedman, 83-88), we cannot write any kind of biography of Amos, since the information we would need is simply not supplied. This raises questions about the relationship of the book to the person. In this commentary I recognize that we have access to Amos only through the book, so it is the Amos presented by the book that I seek to discuss. (Rather than trying to dig back behind the book to some presumed ipsissima verba.)
 
This is what the book itself tells us:

We can also infer quite a bit about his intelligence, education and anger from his words!

Profession and social status

It seems strange that we should be uncertain of Amos' social status. Indeed many people feel that his sharp criticism of the rich, and of oppression, make it clear that he was a poor shepherd. Yet:

Whether he was employee or owner, keeping flocks in Tekoa involves moving during the year, and survival in a hard place. Among the palaces and temples of Bethel, Amos is in every way an outsider:

Small wonder the luxury of these impressive buildings and their inhabitants shocked him.

As a prophet

(see also the article on "prophets")

At first it seems strange to call Amos a "prophet" - after all in 7:14 he seems to deny this title! Yet his opponent there - Amaziah, priest of Bethel - seems convinced that he "prophesies", and Amos himself says that God told him to "prophesy"!

When we look beyond the immediate conflict between Amos and the royal priest, things seem even clearer. The book of Amos contains almost all of the material commonly found in prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, because its contents are so typical, and because the individual speeches are fairly distinct and easy to identify, Amos is often taken as the typical example of a prophetic book.

If Amos is identified by the book as a "prophet", and if the book that bears his name is typical of prophetic books, what does this book tell us about prophets? Amos proclaims himself God's spokesperson (note the use of messenger formulae particularly in 3:9-15). Prophets were like messengers who - being entrusted with an authoritative message - must deliver it (cf. 3:3-8; 7:10-17). Modern understandings of prophets often focus on foretelling, yet Amos seldom predicts - except in somewhat vague terms - rather he warns. For example he reminds his hearers that:

The story in 7:10-17 shows this prophet confronting the authority of the state, and refusing to compromise his message. Indeed he proclaims disaster for the entire family of the priest who seeks to moderate his preaching, and for the king in whose name Amaziah attempted to quiet him. Elsewhere too, his words create clear but horrible pictures of the punishment to come. (The blessings described in 9:11-15 are equally vivid.)

Use of language

Much of the speech in Amos is tightly written poetry often with three word-units to the line - such brevity is typical of earlier Hebrew poetry.

Most of what is not strictly poetry (because it lacks clear rhythm or has weak parallelism) nevertheless shows care and artistry in its composition (often a sort of semi-poetry, Kunstprosa). Features that contribute to this impression include:

The speeches in the book use strongly developed rhetorical features. These include:

Theology

This section will discuss the theological principles that underlie the preaching in the book. Since we do not know who wrote the book, or when, this may not be quite the same as discussing the theology of the prophet Amos. This difference is particularly important in my last sub-section "Promise of blessing". There many (historico-critical) scholars treat the final verses of the book as inauthentic, and so not relevant to discussion of the theology of the historical Amos. Yet since they are the final verses for our purposes they are crucial to understanding the theology of the book.

Sovereignty of God

The hymn quoted as superscription to the book (1:2), with its vivid picture of the devastating power of Adonai's voice, sets the tone for what follows.

By itself this verse describing the authority to bring devastating drought to the most fertile areas, and the way it localizes Adonai, might be compared to the praise of a pagan deity like Ba'al who was also master of the rains. Yet quickly this possibility vanishes. Other punishments God threatens include:

That Adonai's authority is neither localized, nor circumscribed by the interests of other "gods" is clear in the other hymnic fragments that punctuate the book (4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6). There both explicitly and by implication Adonai is the creator, and as such has authority over all.

Although Israel is bound to God in a special (covenant?) relationship (a claim Amos shares with his audience), God's authority is not at all diminished with respect to this people. God could choose to treat them like any other (9:7f.), indeed may make more stringent demands on them (3:1-2).

Finally God's total sovereignty is revealed after the destruction in gracious and marvelous reconstruction by a renewed people (9:11ff.).

Justice and righteousness

In the teaching of later users of the Bible, as in Martin Luther King, Amos is remembered not least for the couplet:

But let justice roll like water,
and righteousness as a permanent torrent.
(5:24)

5:1-17 is the turning point of the book. Here it is clear that for Amos justice in public life (“setting up justice in the gate5:15) is the same as “seeking good, not evil”. This in turn is what “seeking Adonai” means (cf. 5:14-15 with 5:4-6).

We shall see time and again that the prophets do not see justice and righteousness as a desirable add-on to true worship, they are its necessary precursor. It is because of what was described in vv.7 & 10-12 that in vv.21-23 God refuses to stomach their fine and exuberant worship.

This vision of Israel's faith demands justice as the standard for participation in its ritual. It is rooted in the nature of God and of Israel’s experience of God (Lev 19:1ff.; Dt 15:12-15). So the law often bases its demands on God’s nature and acts for Israel – especially the liberation from Egyptian slavery – and so requires justice. This is Amos’ theology too (3:1-2).

Judgment on abuse of power

Many of the particular acts mentioned by Amos as the reason for judgment concern the abuse of privilege. So, in the oracle against Israel in 2:6ff. the crimes listed are:

The description of the luxury enjoyed by the rich at the expense of the poor is vividly described in 6:4ff.: ivory decorations, choice meat, music, wine and (anointing) oil.

The sovereign God will not tolerate such distortions of the social covenant, if the leaders of Israel are corrupt then the nation will be ended (e.g. 6:7).

Promise of blessing

Yet, in all of this, the book affirms that God remains sovereign, so Adonai can perform an "exodus" for Israel's enemies (9:7). A glorious restoration is even possible too, once the proudly independent human "authorities" are humbled (9:11-15). It is striking that almost every line in this last section of the book overturns a judgment pronounced earlier. Such a turnabout is possible because the restored community will be "planted" by God, rather than reliant on human authority.


This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.