Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel. We have now made our way through Hosea and Joel. Amos is our featured prophet for November. After studying this truth-telling, justice-seeking, Yahweh-exalting messenger, you will want to name your next born child Amos.
Normally, we read a chapter or two from the prophets each week as part of our Bible Reading Challenge. This week, however, to give Amos, the man, his proper introduction, I won’t make it past the first two verses. These two verses put Amos in his proper historical context, so they are worth dissecting at the outset. Also, before we dive into the nuts and bolts of each chapter, I want to introduce Amos’s main themes and the organizing structure of his book.
The book of Amos begins with a historical superscription: “The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.”
Amos’s introduction is one of the most detailed among the minor prophets, especially compared to Joel who as you remember gave us nothing in the way of historical clues. Amos supplies us with his hometown, vocation, political setting, and intended audience. Tekoa, Amos’s hometown, was a Judean town, twelve miles south of Jerusalem and visible from Bethlehem. Scripture names Tekoa several other times. For example, Tekoa is associated with the wise woman who persuaded King David to reconcile with his son Absalom (2 Sam. 14). King Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, included Tekoa in the fifteen towns he tried to fortify against Egyptian attack (2 Chron. 20:20). Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, described Tekoa as the most remote town in the Judean highlands. Today, ruins of biblical Tekoa cover about seventeen acres of Eastern Gush Etzion. If you happen to stopover near the Tekoa canyon, you can ride horses at a family-run horse farm or visit Tekoa’s boutique winery.
Though Amos was a citizen of Judah, his ministry was to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That put Amos in the awkward position of trying to deliver God’s word to a people who saw him as an outsider. Amos made matters worse by preaching the continued legitimacy of Jerusalem and the line of King David as Yahweh’s eternal capital and royal lineage. In 1:2, Amos says “Yahweh roars from Jerusalem.” Though Amos’s message went far beyond the confines of a Judahite patriot, he took issue with the illegitimacy of the Israelite kingship and their sanctuaries in Bethel, Dan, and Gilgal (4:4; 5:5). Amos prophesied that “the sanctuaries of Israel will be laid waste” and that Yahweh “will rise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword” (7:9). Both were unappealing messages to Israel’s elite and stood in contrast to the more flattering prophecies of the professional prophets. And, yes, professional prophets were a thing in Israel around this time.
Amos described himself in the first verse as a shepherd. In 7:14, we also learn that he tended fig trees. At times, his oracles take on the imagery most familiar to a shepherd-prophet. Describing the reach of Yahweh’s voice, Amos says “the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up.” However, put aside any mental image of Amos as a humble illiterate shepherd of little means. In his first two chapters, Amos displays an unusual knowledge of the politics and history of Israel’s neighbors. Scholars wonder if Amos was well-traveled or well-educated. Amos also possesses a broad knowledge of Israel and Judah’s history, as well as the Mosaic laws and religious traditions in both Judah and Israel. The literary styles and forms of Amos are highly developed. His writing possesses a sophistication and ease that stands in sharp contrast to his near contemporary Hosea who wrote in short abrupt phrases.
The Historical Setting
Amos ministered during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam II of Israel, as he affirms in his superscription. Biblical chronologists date Uzziah’s reign from 791—740 BCE and Jeroboam II’s reign from 793—753 BCE. In the latter half of Jeroboam’s kingship, Israel experienced unprecedented wealth and power, a phenomena Amos mentions in chapter 6. Knowing that, most Amos scholars place the prophet in these later years of Jeroboam II’s reign when he also overlapped with King Uzziah, around 760 BCE. If correct, that makes Amos probably the earliest of all the minor prophets, appearing on the scene slightly before Hosea.
In the preceding century, around 870 BCE, Israel regularly fought with the Arameans of Damascus. Aram’s army pushed back Israel’s military and took over Israel’s borders. 2 Kings 14 says Yahweh saw how bitterly the people of Israel were suffering and he decided to save them by appointing Jeroboam II as king.
Jeroboam II later took advantage of a rare moment of weakness among Israel’s neighbors. Egypt and Assyria, the largest of the neighboring empires, had internal problems that left them weakened and distracted, looking inwards. Assyria temporarily subdued Aram. A clever diplomat and military strategist, King Jeroboam II went on the offensive, reclaiming Israel’s lost territory and even expanding Israel’s borders northward to Damascus. Jeroboam II also reversed the policies of his father toward Judah. He understood that peace with Judah, Israel’s sister kingdom, was critical to Israel’s ability to build military alliances in times of external threat.
Eventually, Jeroboam’s military success translated into economic growth. Israel had beneficial relationships with the Phoenician merchants and control over two international trade routes. Luxury goods like ivory and imported wines were soon readily available (6:4; 4:1). But 2 Kings 14:24 notes that despite Jeroboam’s success, he continued “to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” just as his father had done.
Amos stepped onto the prophetic stage during this unusual time in Israel’s history. Unlike Joel, Amos did not have the advantage of prophesying to a hungry people sick with despair and eager to repent. Amos had to direct his message at a people who were at the height of their political, military, and economic comeback. But they were deluding themselves, convinced that their newfound prosperity was a direct blessing from Yahweh. They ignored the ethical and moral responsibilities proscribed by Yahweh, and they blended Yahweh worship with elements of Baal and Ashtarte worship.
In addition to political context, Amos also introduced his oracle with reference to a natural disaster. Amos wrote that his calling as a prophet came “two years before the earthquake.” We do not know if his ministry only lasted two years or if he continued in his role of prophet after the earthquake as well. Two years would have been a short time to serve for a prophet, but Amos made clear that he was no professional prophet. Either way, his oracles were validated by an earthquake soon after he began speaking to the people.
Israel sits on the border of the Syrian African Rift, so minor earthquakes are common. But large-scale destruction because of seismic activity around the time of Amos has been identified. The late Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin discovered what he believed was evidence of a massive earthquake at the biblical site of Hazor during the eighth century BCE. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist connected with Tel Aviv University, confirmed Yadin’s date for seismic destruction at Hazor sometime around 765 to 750 BCE. Archaeologist David Ussishkin also found a massive destruction level from the same period at his site of Lachish. If correct, Hazor and Lachish are but two of the Northern Israelite towns with clear evidence of Amos’s earthquake. The prophet Zechariah, writing over a hundred years after Amos, recalled a massive earthquake from the days of King Uzziah (Zech. 14:5). The massiveness of the tremor seared its memory into the collective conscious for decades.
The Book of Amos is elaborately structured and includes every type of prophetic style: speeches of judgement, laments over the sins of the people, visions of coming judgement, and predictions of restoration. The three oracles of judgement are pronounced first against the foreign nations who have acted against even the most basic codes of morality. Then Amos’s pronouncements target Israel’s elite who have acted as hypocrites who worship God with their lips and know his standard in their heads, but who mistreat their neighbors and ignore God’s standards of justice.
Amos’s oracles are laid out three times in the covenant lawsuit form, a manner of speaking that was common to all the Minor Prophets. The covenant lawsuit form first introduces the accused and then proceeds to list the accusations against the accused. The judge, Yahweh, pronounces their guilt as they have breached their covenant. Lastly, the judge assigns the punishment.
Interestingly, the covenant lawsuit form has also been identified in other texts from the Ancient Near East, dating as far back as 1325 BCE. For example, historians have located the same type of covenant lawsuit format in the annals of Hittite King Mursilis II. In the Hittite context, the accusation is against vassal states who have not held to their part of the treaty responsibilities, whether that be tributes and tithes or military alliances.
Amos is the prophet best remembered for championing the poor, oppressed, and ostracized. He was most concerned with Israel’s corrupt socioeconomic systems. He understood that Israel’s institutions of power were misinterpreting their financial gain and the country’s military victories as approval from Yahweh. Despite their wealth and advancement, the people were not living according to Yahweh’s standard of justice. Abuses and corruption were widespread. The rich were exploiting the poor. The powerful were afflicting the weak (2:6-8; 3:10; 5:11). Amos accuses them of “trampl the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:7; 5:11). They were supposed to be image-bearers, but instead their drunkenness and sexual immorality profaned the name of Yahweh. They were supposed to be listening for the voice of God, but instead they abhorred those who spoke truth (5:10).
Chosen by Yahweh to speak His mind and reveal His plans, Amos felt the burden of his vocation and his unpopular message. Israel’s destruction was decades away, but their wealth and sense of security acted like faith blinders.
Amos, like our founder Jim Hutchens, spent much of his ministry exalting the name of Yahweh. In three different hymns of praise, Amos reminds his audience of the power of Yahweh’s name. Amos glorifies Yahweh as He “treads on the heights of the earth” (4:13). Only Yahweh “turns deep darkness into morning” (5:8). And Yahweh, God of hosts, “touches the earth and it melts” (9:5). The whole theology of Amos focuses on the sovereignty of Yahweh.
In Amos’s epilogue, he gives a final offering of hope and restoration that should connect with New Testament believers as well. Amos’s vision includes an extension of the House of Yahweh to all who believe, including the nations. The fulfillment of Amos’s message was not lost on James the Just at the Council of Acts in Jerusalem (Acts 15). He saw Gentiles coming into the body of believers as consistent with the prophetic vision of the “Tent of David” (Amos 9:11) and the new covenant.
We are going to unpack all of this as we go deep into each chapter of Amos in the coming three weeks, so stay tuned!
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Have a question or comment? Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. For next week, be sure to read Amos 1—2 ahead of time. This is what is called Amos’s Oracle to the Nations. And there is a lot to study in those two chapters.