The Book of Amos: A Retrospect on the Fall of Israel
The book of Amos stands out as a ferocious critique of callous social injustice and economic inequality. It castigates the brazen hypocrisy of pious worship by those who perpetrate the exploitation of their fellow human beings. Creditors commodified their borrowers, drowning them in interest and then foreclosing on even small debts, trapping the borrowers into debt slavery. This is expressed most clearly in the book’s second chapter, where Israel is rebuked:
עמוס ב:ו ...עַל מִכְרָם בַּכֶּסֶף צַדִּיק וְאֶבְיוֹן בַּעֲבוּר נַעֲלָיִם. ב:ז הַשֹּׁאֲפִים עַל עֲפַר אֶרֶץ בְּרֹאשׁ דַּלִּים וְדֶרֶךְ עֲנָוִים יַטּוּ.
Amos 2:6 …Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals, 2:7 you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course.
It describes how the upper class took enjoyment from the property squeezed from the poor and reveled in conspicuous consumption of luxury goods while their economic victims suffered with scarcity and want:
עמוס ב:ח וְעַל בְּגָדִים חֲבֻלִים יַטּוּ אֵצֶל כָּל מִזְבֵּחַ וְיֵין עֲנוּשִׁים יִשְׁתּוּ בֵּית אֱלֹהֵיהֶם.
Amos 2:8 They recline by every altar on garments taken in pledge, and drink in the house of their God wine bought with fines they imposed.
עמוס ו:ד הַשֹּׁכְבִים עַל מִטּוֹת שֵׁן וּסְרֻחִים עַל עַרְשׂוֹתָם וְאֹכְלִים כָּרִים מִצֹּאן וַעֲגָלִים מִתּוֹךְ מַרְבֵּק.
Amos 6:4 They lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches, feasting on lambs from the flock and calves from the stalls.
It is fitting that part of the book of Amos is read as the Haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition for Parashat Kedoshim, which contains that pinnacle of Torah ethics, to love both neighbor (Lev 19:18) and stranger (Lev 19:34) as one’s self.
The book of Amos, with its strong ethical demands, presents YHWH calling upon his hearers to דִּרְשׁוּנִי וִחְיוּ “seek me and live” (Amos 5:4, similarly 5:6) and to דִּרְשׁוּ טוֹב וְאַל רָע “seek good and not evil” (Amos 5:14, similarly 5:15).
The book opens with a claim that Amos prophesied during the overlapping reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam II of Israel:
עמוס א:א דִּבְרֵי עָמוֹס אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בַנֹּקְדִים מִתְּקוֹעַ אֲשֶׁר חָזָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּימֵי עֻזִּיָּה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וּבִימֵי יָרָבְעָם בֶּן יוֹאָשׁ מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנָתַיִם לִפְנֵי הָרָעַשׁ.
Amos 1:1 The words of Amos, a sheepbreeder from Tekoa, who prophesied concerning Israel in the reigns of Kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.
This would have been in the 760s B.C.E. This was a high point of Israel’s power, but Amos predicts that Israel will be destroyed because of their ethical failings. This takes place years later when the kingdom of Israel succumbed to a series of Assyrian military campaigns in the 730s and 720s B.C.E., finally collapsing completely in 722–721 B.C.E. Assyria deported many of the Israelites, replacing them with people from elsewhere in the empire, and transformed Israel into the Assyrian province of Samerina.
Amos predicts such a fall by military attack in several places:
עמוס ג:יא לָכֵן כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ הוִה צַר וּסְבִיב הָאָרֶץ וְהוֹרִד מִמֵּךְ עֻזֵּךְ וְנָבֹזּוּ אַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.
Amos 3:11 Assuredly, thus said my Lord YHWH: An enemy, all about the land! He shall strip you of your splendor, and your fortresses shall be plundered.
עמוס ו:יד כִּי הִנְנִי מֵקִים עֲלֵיכֶם בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְ הוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַצְּבָאוֹת גּוֹי וְלָחֲצוּ אֶתְכֶם מִלְּבוֹא חֲמָת עַד נַחַל הָעֲרָבָה.
Amos 6:14 But I, O House of Israel, will raise up a nation against you—declares YHWH, the God of Hosts—who will harass you from Lebo-Hamath to the Wadi Arabah.
The book predicts a collapse with mass casualties for the Israelite armies:
עמוס ה:ב נָפְלָה לֹא תוֹסִיף קוּם בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל נִטְּשָׁה עַל אַדְמָתָהּ אֵין מְקִימָהּ. ה:ג כִּי כֹה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ הוִה הָעִיר הַיֹּצֵאת אֶלֶף תַּשְׁאִיר מֵאָה וְהַיּוֹצֵאת מֵאָה תַּשְׁאִיר עֲשָׂרָה לְבֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Amos 5:2 Fallen, not to rise again, is Maiden Israel; abandoned on her soil with none to lift her up. 5:3 For thus said my Lord YHWH about the House of Israel: The town that marches out a thousand strong shall have a hundred left, and the one that marches out a hundred strong shall have but ten left.
Exile is specifically predicted several times, with the upper class exiled first:
עמוס ו:ז לָכֵן עַתָּה יִגְלוּ בְּרֹאשׁ גֹּלִים וְסָר מִרְזַח סְרוּחִים.
Amos 6:7 Assuredly, right soon they shall head the column of exiles; they shall loll no more at festive meals.
עמוס ה:כז וְהִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵהָלְאָה לְדַמָּשֶׂק
Amos 5:27a As I drive you into exile beyond Damascus
While all of the above is presented as a prediction, it seems more likely that the book of Amos is a retrospective explanation of the fall of the kingdom of Israel rather than a prediction of the fall in advance.
Knowledge of the Destruction of Calneh and Hamath
This argument is supported from how Amos warns the Israelites to observe the fates of the Syrian cities of Calneh and Hamath as examples of strong cities that could not resist the Assyrian forces:
עמוס ו:ב עִבְרוּ כַלְנֵה וּרְאוּ וּלְכוּ מִשָּׁם חֲמַת רַבָּה וּרְדוּ גַת פְּלִשְׁתּים הֲטוֹבִים מִן הַמַּמְלָכוֹת הָאֵלֶּה אִם רַב גְּבוּלָם מִגְּבֻלְכֶם.
Amos 6:2 Cross over to Calneh and see, go from there to Great Hamath, and go down to Gath of the Philistines: Are [you] better than those kingdoms, or is their territory larger than yours?
Assyrian records indicate that Calneh and Hamath were conquered together by Assyria in 738 B.C.E., after the kings from Amos 1:1 had died. Israelites in the time of Jeroboam II would have seen only thriving cities when looking at Calneh and Hamath, but observers a few decades later would be aware that these strong cities fell to Assyria’s westward campaigns that eventually engulfed Israel.
Worship of Assyrian Deities
Further evidence of the books later date can be seen from how Amos accuses Israelites of worshiping Assyrian deities Ashimah, Sikkut, and Kiyyun:
עמוס ח:יד הַנִּשְׁבָּעִים בְּאַשְׁמַת שֹׁמְרוֹן וְאָמְרוּ חֵי אֱלֹהֶיךָ דָּן וְחֵי דֶּרֶךְ בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וְנָפְלוּ וְלֹא יָקוּמוּ עוֹד.
Amos 8:14 Those who swear by Ashimah of Samaria and say, “As your god lives, O Dan” and “As the way of Beer-sheba lives,” they shall fall, and never rise again.
עמוס ה:כו וּנְשָׂאתֶם אֵת סִכּוּת מַלְכְּכֶם וְאֵת כִּיּוּן צַלְמֵיכֶם כּוֹכַב אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם לָכֶם.
Amos 5:26 And you shall carry off your “king”—Sikkuth and Kiyyun, the images you have made for yourselves of your astral deity.
Two of these deities, Ashimah and Sikkut, are mentioned in Kings as having been venerated by people transplanted by Assyria into Samaria after Israel was conquered:
מלכים ב יז:כט וַיִּהְיוּ עֹשִׂים גּוֹי גּוֹי אֱלֹהָיו וַיַּנִּיחוּ בְּבֵית הַבָּמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ הַשֹּׁמְרֹנִים גּוֹי גּוֹי בְּעָרֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הֵם יֹשְׁבִים שָׁם. יז:ל וְאַנְשֵׁי בָבֶל עָשׂוּ אֶת סֻכּוֹת בְּנוֹת וְאַנְשֵׁי כוּת עָשׂוּ אֶת נֵרְגַל וְאַנְשֵׁי חֲמָת עָשׂוּ אֶת אֲשִׁימָא.
2 Kgs 17:29 Each nation continued to make its own gods and to set them up in the cult places which had been made by the people of Samaria; each nation [set them up] in the towns in which it lived. 17:30 The Babylonians made Sukkot-benot (=Sikkut), and the men of Cuth made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima.
Thus, it seems clear that these gods were only worshipped in Israel after its conquest by Assyria, not before. Yet Amos speaks about them as a contemporary problem.
In aggregate, this evidence suggests that the book of Amos was first composed after the kingdom of Israel’s fall, not before. However compelling the book’s ethical demands are, its author(s) goal was not to change the behavior of the prophet’s ostensible audience in the northern kingdom of Israel. The book seems to have been composed during the period after the fall of Israel, when it was already too late for Israel to change its behavior, or its fate.
The Historical Prophet
What then of the prophet Amos, the historical individual?
Some of the book’s portions could go back to a historical prophet Amos. Nevertheless, the late date of many of the passages surveyed above suggests the book as a whole is not the work of a “prophet,” i.e., a mantic diviner who functioned as such, but is a literary construct.
Our knowledge of prophecy in the ancient Near East provides further support for this understanding of the book and figure of Amos. Prophetic practices of neighboring nations appear to have been similar to the descriptions found in the books of Samuel and Kings: prophets were paid to answer specific questions asked by common folk, or, in some cases, to advise rulers.
Lengthy literary critiques of a nation’s religious and social conditions, cast in the form of prophetic speech, are distinctive to the Hebrew Bible. The disconnect between ancient Near Eastern prophetic practices and preserved biblical prophetic texts calls into question the image of ancient Israelite prophets delivering long, socially-critical speeches to the general public. The balance of evidence points to biblical prophecy as a distinctive literary genre, rather than to Israelite prophecy as a distinctive practice.
The prophet Amos, therefore, is best understood as a character in the book of Amos. Despite his protestation that “I am not a prophet” (לֹא נָבִיא אָנֹכִי, Amos 7:14), Amos as a textual character is indeed intended to be a prophet (albeit not professionally). The text draws upon the authority of a messenger of YHWH to convey a message that its author(s) regarded as being of supreme importance. As such, the book of Amos should be read as piece of religio-political literature, in which a prophet Amos warns Israel in advance of the punishment that the audience knows has already occurred.
Amos as a “Literary-Predictive Text”
The book of Amos is not “prophecy” per se, but rather is a “literary-predictive text”—a text written as prophecy to explain a historical development in terms of divine will. The book is thus both an indictment and an autopsy of fallen Israel, part of the general biblical understanding of Israel’s catastrophes as being due to the Israelites’ own religious and moral failures.
The intended audience of the book would have been the people of Judah in the aftermath of the Assyrian conquest of Israel, a combination of Israelite refugees and the native Judahite population. The book presents to the refugee component of the audience a Judahite perspective on their role in their own fall, as well as an indication of what is morally expected of them in Judah. To the Judahite audience, the book declares that while wealthier Israel might have seemed favored by YHWH, Judah in fact is favored. At the same time, Judah remains vulnerable to suffering Israel’s fate if its people do not learn from Israel’s experience.
The book’s searing indictments of the kingdom of Israel probably come from resentment at Israel’s relative success compared with its southern neighbor, Judah. Israel was always wealthier than Judah, but its wealth is presented as its own undoing: Israel suffered the fate that it deserved, in the book’s view. Such an accounting of catastrophe both defended YHWH from blame for not protecting Israel, and, at the same time, empowered ancient Jews by asserting that they could control their future by their behavior.
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Prof. Jason Radine is Professor of Biblical and Jewish Studies and Chair of the Department of Global Religions, Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan in 2007 and was awarded a Post-Doctoral Humboldt Fellowship for study at the Georg-August Universität, Göttingen, Germany in 2011-2012. He is author of The Book of Amos in Emergent Judah (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010) and various articles on the Minor Prophets.
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