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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
BOOK OF AMOS
We can distinguish with more than ordinary certainty the outlines of the individual addresses, and the arrangement of the book is clear and simple. The text, also, has been on the whole faithfully preserved; and though in a few places critics profess to find the traces of later editorial hands, these conclusions rest mainly on subjective grounds, and will be estimated differently by different minds.
1. Its Divisions:
The book falls naturally into three parts, recognizable by certain recurring formulas and general literary features.
(1) The first section, which is clearly recognizable, embraces Am 1 and 2. Here, after the title and designation of the prophet in Am 1:1, there is a solemn proclamation of Divine authority for the prophet's words. "Yahweh will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem" (verse 2). This is notable in one who throughout the book recognizes God's power as world-wide and His operation as extensive as creation; and it should be a caution in view, on the one hand, of the assertion that the temple at Jerusalem was not more sacred than any of the numerous "high places" throughout the land, and, on the other hand, the superficial manner in which some writers speak of the Hebrew notion of a Deity whose dwelling-place was restricted to one locality beyond which His influence was not felt. For this God, who has His dwelling-place in Zion, now through the mouth of the prophet denounces in succession the surrounding nations, and this mainly not for offenses committed against the chosen people but for moral offenses against one another and for breaches of a law binding on humanity. It will be observed that the nations denounced are not named in geographical order, and the prophet exhibits remarkable rhetorical skill in the order of selection. The interest and sympathy of the hearers is secured by the fixing of the attention on the enormities of guilt in their neighbors, and curiosity is kept awake by the uncertainty as to where the next stroke of the prophetic whip will fall. Beginning with the more distant and alien peoples of Damascus, Gaza and Tyre, he wheels round to the nearer and kindred peoples of Edom, Ammon and Moab, till he rests for a moment on the brother tribe of Judah, and thus, having relentlessly drawn the net around Israel by the enumeration of seven peoples, he swoops down upon the Northern Kingdom to which his message is to be particularly addressed.
(2) The second section embraces Am 3 to 6, and consists apparently of a series of discourses, each introduced by the formula: "Hear this word" (Am 3:1; 4:1; 5:1), and another introduced by a comprehensive: "Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and to them that are secure in the mountain of Samaria" (Am 6:1). The divisions here are not so clearly marked. It will be observed e.g. that there is another "Woe" at Am 5:18; and in chapter 4, though the address at the outset is directed to the luxurious women of Samaria, from 4:4 onward the words have a wider reference. Accordingly some would divide this section into a larger number of subsections; and some, indeed, have described the whole book as a collection of ill-arranged fragments. But, while it is not necessary to suppose that the written book is an exact reproduction of the spoken addresses, and while the division into chapters has no authority, yet we must allow for some latitude in the details which an impassioned speaker would introduce into his discourses, and for transitions and connections of thought which may not be apparent on the surface.
(3) The third section has some well-marked characteristics, although it is even less uniform than the preceding. The outstanding feature is the phrase, "Thus the Lord Yahweh showed me" (Am 7:1,4,7; 8:1) varied at Am 9:1 by the words, "I saw the Lord standing beside the altar." We have thus a series of "visions" bearing upon, and interpreted as applying to, the condition of Israel. It is in the course of one of these, when the prophet comes to the words, "I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword" (Am 7:9) that the interposition of Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, is recorded, with the prophet's noble reply as to his Divine call, and his rebuke and denunciation of the priest, ending with a prophetic announcement of the downfall and captivity of Israel (Am 7:14-17).
2. Its Outlook:
If the discourses are put down in chronological order of their delivery, it would appear that Amos did not immediately take his departure, since more visions follow this episode, and there is a special appropriateness in the intervention of Amaziah just at the point where it is recorded. As to the closing passage of this section (Am 9:11-15) which gives a bright prospect of the future, there is a class of critics who are inclined to reject it just on this account as inconsistent with the severe denunciatory tone of the rest of the book. It is quite possible, however, that the prophet himself (and no succeeding later editor) may have added the passage when he came to write down his addresses. There is no reason to believe that any of the prophets--harsh though their words were--believed that the God of Israel would make a full end of His people in captivity: on the contrary, their assurance of God's faithfulness to His promise, and the deep-seated conviction that right would ultimately prevail, lead us to expect even in the sternest or earliest of the prophets the hope of a future glory--that hope which grew brighter and brighter as the nation's outlook grew darker, and attained intensity and clearness in the Messianic hope which sustained them in the darkest days of exile. It is difficult to believe that any of the prophets were prophets of despair, or to conceive how they could have prophesied at all unless they had a firm faith in the ultimate triumph of the good.
3. Value of the Book:
The Book of Amos is particularly valuable from the fact that he is certainly one of the earliest prophets whose writings have come down to us. It is, like the Book of Hosea which belongs to about the same time, a contemporaneous document of a period of great significance in the history of Israel, and not only gives graphic sketches or illuminating hints of the life and religious condition of the people, but furnishes a trustworthy standard for estimating the value of some other books whose dates are not so precisely determined, a definite starting-point for tracing the course of Israel's history.
(1) As a Picture of the Social Condition.
The book is valuable as embodying a contemporary picture of society and the condition of religion. From the abuses which the prophet denounces and the lifelike sketches he draws of the scenes amid which he moved, taken along with what we know otherwise of the historical movements of the period, we are able to form a fairly adequate estimate of the condition of the age and the country. During the reign of Jeroboam II the kingdom of Israel, after having been greatly reduced during preceding reigns, rose to a degree of extent and influence unexampled since the days of Solomon (2 Ki 14:25); and we are not astonished to read in the Book of Am the haughty words which he puts into the mouth of the people of his time when they spoke of Israel as the "chief of the nations" a first-class power in modern language, and boasted of the "horns" by which they had attained that eminence (Am 6:1,13). But success in war, if it encouraged this boastful spirit, brought also inevitable evils in its train. Victory, as we know from the Assyrian monuments, meant plunder; for king after king recounts how much spoil he had taken, how many prisoners he had carried away; and we must assume that wars among smaller states would be conducted on the same methods. In such wars, success meant an extension of territory and increase of wealth, while defeat entailed the reverse. But it is to be remembered that, in an agricultural country and in a society constituted as that of Israel was, the result of war to one class of the population was to a great extent disastrous, whatever was the issue, and success, when it was achieved, brought evils in its train which even aggravated their condition. The peasant, required to take up arms for offense or defense, was taken away from the labors of the field which, in the best event, were for a time neglected, and, in the worst, were wasted and rendered unproductive. And then, when victory was secured, the spoils were liable to fall into the hands of the nobles and leaders, those "called with a name" (Am 6:1), while the peasant returned to his wasted or neglected fields without much substantial resource with which to begin life again. The wealth secured by the men of strong hand led to the increase of luxury in its possessors, and became actually the means of still further adding to the embarrassment of the poor, who were dependent on the rich for the means of earning their livelihood. The situation would be aggravated under a feeble or corrupt government, such as was certainly that of Jeroboam's successors. The condition prevails in modern eastern countries, even under comparatively wise and just administration; and that it was the state of matters prevailing in the time of Amos is abundantly clear from his book. The opening denunciation of Israel for oppression of the poor and for earth-hunger (Am 2:6,7) is re-echoed and amplified in the succeeding chapters (Am 3:9,10; 4:1; 5:11,12; 8:4-6); and the luxury of the rich, who battened on the misfortune of their poorer brethren, is castigated in biting irony in such passages as Am 6:3-6. Specially noticeable in this connection is the contemptuous reference to the luxurious women, the "kine of Bashan" (Am 4:1), whose extravagances are maintained by the oppression of the poor. The situation, in short, was one that has found striking parallels in modern despotic countries in the East, where the people are divided into two classes, the powerful rich, rich because powerful and powerful because rich, and, the poor oppressed, men who have no helper, no "back" in the common eastern phrase, dependent on the rich and influential and tending to greater poverty under greedy patrons.
(2) As a Picture of the Religious Condition.
In such a social atmosphere, which poisoned the elementary virtues, religion of a vital kind could not flourish; and there are plain indications in the words of Amos of the low condition to which it had sunk. There was, indeed, as we gather from ins addresses, no lack of outward attention to the forms of worship; but these forms were of so corrupted a character and associated with so much practical godlessness and even immorality, that instead of raising the national character it tended to its greater degradation. The people prided themselves in what they regarded the worship of the national God, thinking that so long as they honored Him with costly offerings and a gorgeous ritual, they were pleasing Him and secure in His protection. Bethel, Dan, Gilgal, Beersheba, and we know not how many other places were resorted to in pilgrimage by crowds of worshippers. With all the accompaniments of ceremonious ritual which the newly found wealth put in their power, with offerings more than the legally prescribed or customary (Am 4:4,5) the service of these sanctuaries was maintained; but even these offerings were made at the expense of the poor (Am 5:11), the prevailing luxury forced its way even to the precincts of the altars (Am 2:8), and justice and mercy were conspicuously absent from the religious life. The people seemed to have settled down to a complacent optimism, nourished no doubt by national prosperity, and, though there had not been wanting reminders of the sovereignty of a righteous God, in convulsions of Nature--drought, famine, pestilence and earthquake (Am 4:6-11)--these had been of no avail to awaken the sleeping conscience. They put the evil day far from them (Am 6:3), for Yahweh was their national God and "the day of the Lord," the good time coming (Am 5:18), when God would come to their help, was more in their mind than the imperative duty of returning to Him (Am 4:6,8, etc.).
(3) Testimony to History.
The book is valuable for the confirmation it gives of the historical statements of other books, particularly for the references it contains to the earlier history contained in the Pentateuch. And here we must distinguish between references to, or quotations from, books, and statements or hints or indications of historical events which may or may not have been written in books or accessible to the prophet and his hearers. Opinions differ as to the date of composition of the books which record the earlier history, and the oldest Biblical writers are not in the habit of saying from what sources they drew their information or whether they are quoting from books. We can hardly believe that in the time of Amos copies of existing books or writings would be in the hands of the mass of the people, even if the power to read them was general. In such circumstances, if we find a prophet like Amos in the compass of a small book referring to outstanding events and stages of the past history as matters known to all his hearers and unquestionable, our confidence in the veracity of the books in which these facts are recorded is greatly increased, and it becomes a matter of comparatively less importance at what date these books were composed. Now it is remarkable how many allusions, more or less precise, to antecedent history are found in the compass of this small book; and the significance of them lies not in the actual number of references, but in the kind of reference and the implications involved in the individual references. That is to say, each reference is not to be taken as an isolated testimony to some single event in question, but involves a great deal more than is expressed, and is intelligible only when other facts or incidents are taken into consideration. Thus e.g. the reference to the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (Am 4:11) is only intelligible on the supposition that the story of that catastrophe was a matter of common knowledge; and it would be a carping criticism to argue that the destruction of other cities of the plain at the same time and the whole story of Lot were unknown in the days of Amos because they are not mentioned here in detail. So, when we have in one passage a reference to the house of Isaac (Am 7:16), in another to the house of Jacob (Am 3:13), in another to the house of Joseph (Am 5:6) and in another to the enmity between Jacob and Esau (Am 1:11), we cannot take these as detached notices, but must supply the links which the prophet's words would suggest to his hearers. In other words, such slight notices, just because they are incidental and brief, imply a familiarity with a connected patriarchal history such as is found in the Book of Gen. Again, the prophet's references to the "whole family" of the "children of Israel" whom the Lord "brought up out of the land of Egypt" (Am 3:1), to the Divine leading of the people "forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite" (Am 2:10) are not odds and ends of popular story but links in a chain of national history. It seems to be on the strength of these and similar references in the books of Am and Hos, whose dates are known, that critics have agreed to fix the date of the earliest historical portions of the Pentateuch as they understand them, namely, the parts designated as Jahwist and Elohist, in the 8th and 9th centuries BC, i.e. at or shortly before the time of these prophets. It may be left to the unbiased judgment of the reader to say whether the references look like references to a newly composed document, or whether it is not more probable that, in an age when written documents were necessarily few and not accessible to the multitude, these references are appeals to things well fixed in the national memory, a memory extending back to the things themselves. Or, if the prophet's words are to be taken as sufficient proof of the existence of written sources, the fact that the matters are assumed as well known would rather encourage the conclusion that the written sources in question go back to a much earlier period, since the matters contained in them had by this time become matters of universal knowledge.
(4) Testimony to the Law.
(a) The Ritual.
And what about those other elements of the Pentateuch of a legal and ritual character which bulk so prominently in those books? The question whether the Book of Amos indicates an acquaintance with these or not is important because it is to a great extent on the silence of prophetical and historical writers that critics of a certain school relegate these legalistic portions of the Pentateuch to a late date. Now at the outset it is obvious to ask what we have a reasonable right to expect. We have to bear in mind what was the condition of the people whom Amos addressed, and the purpose and aim of his mission to the Northern Kingdom. It is to be remembered that, as we are told in the Book of Kings (1 Ki 12:25 ff), Jeroboam I deliberately sought to make a breach between the worship of Jerusalem and that of his own kingdom, while persuading his people that the worship of Yahweh was being maintained. The schism occurred some 170 years before the time of Amos and it is not probable that the worship and ritual of the Northern Kingdom tended in that interval to greater purity or greater conformity to what had been the authoritative practice of the undivided kingdom at the temple of Jerusalem. When, therefore, Amos, in face of the corrupt worship combined with elaborate ritual which prevailed around him, declares that God hates and despises their feasts and takes no delight in their solemn assemblies (Am 5:21), we are not justified in pressing his words, as is sometimes done, into a sweeping condemnation of all ritual. On the contrary, seeing that, in the very same connection (Am 5:22), he specifies burnt offerings and meal offerings and peace offerings, and, in another passage (Am 4:4,5), daily sacrifices and tithes, sacrifices of thanksgiving and free-will offerings, it is natural to infer that by these terms which are familiar in the Pentateuch he is referring to those statutory observances which were part of the national worship of united Israel, but had been overlaid with corruption and become destitute of spiritual value as practiced in the Northern Kingdom. So we may take his allusions to the new moon and the Sabbath (Am 8:5) as seasons of special sacredness and universally sanctioned. Having condemned in such scornful and sweeping terms the worship that he saw going on around him, what was Amos to gum by entering into minute ritual prescriptions or defining the precise duties and perquisites of priests and Levites; and having condemned the pilgrimages to the shrines of Bethel, Gilgal, Beersheba, Samaria and Dan (Am 4:4; 5:5; 8:14), what was he to gain by quoting the law of Deut as to a central sanctuary? And had one of his hearers, like the woman of Samaria of a later day, attempted to draw him into a discussion of the relative merits of the two temples, we can conceive him answering in the spirit of the great Teacher: "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship" (Jn 4:22 the King James Version). A regulation of the form was of no avail while the whole spirit of the observance was corrupt; the soul of religion was dead, and the prophet had a higher duty than to dress out the carcass.
At the root of the corruption of the religion lay a rottenness of moral sense; and from beginning to end Amos insists on the necessity of a pure and righteous life. In this connection his appeals are in striking agreement with the specially ethical demands of the law books, and in phraseology so much resemble them as to warrant the conclusion that the requirements of the law on these subjects were known and acknowledged. Thus his denunciations of those who oppress the poor (Am 2:7; 4:1; 8:4) are quite in the spirit and style of Ex 22:21,22; 23:9; his references to the perversion of justice and taking bribes (Am 2:6; 5:7,10 ff, 6:12) are rhetorical enforcements of the prohibitions of the law in Ex 23:6-8; when he reproves those that "lay themselves down beside every altar upon clothes taken in pledge" (Am 2:8) we hear an echo of the command: "If thou at all take thy neighbor's garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him before the sun goeth down" (Ex 22:26); and when he denounces those making "the ephah small, and the shekel great, and dealing falsely with balances of deceit" (Am 8:5) his words are in close agreement with the law, "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in mete-yard, in weights, or in measure. Just balances, just weight, a just ephah, and a just hin shall ye have" (Lev 19:35,36, the King James Version).
(b) Ethical Teaching.
As a preacher of righteousness, Amos affirms and resists upon those ethical parts of the law which are its vital elements, and which lie at the foundation of all prophecy; and it is remarkable how even in phraseology he agrees with the most ethical book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy. He does not, indeed, like his contemporary Hosea, dwell on the love of God as Dt does; but, of sterner mould, in almost the very words of Deuteronomy, emphasizes the keeping of God's commandments, and denounces those who despise the law (compare Am 2:4 with Dt 17:19). Among verbal coincidences have been noticed the combinations "oppress" "crush" (Am 4:1; Dt 28:33), "blasting" and "mildew" (Am 4:9; Dt 28:22), and "gall" and "wormwood" (Am 6:12; Dt 29:18). Compare also Am 9:8 with Dt 6:15, and note the predilection for the same word to "destroy" common to both books (compare Am 2:9 with Dt 2:22). In view of all of which it seems an extraordinary statement to make that "the silence of Amos with reference to the centralization of worship, on which Dt is so explicit, alone seems sufficient to outweigh any linguistic similarity that can be discovered" (H. G. Mitchell, Amos, an Essay in Exegesis, 185).
(5) The Prophetic Order.
As Amos is without doubt one of the earliest writing prophets, his book is invaluable as an example of what prophecy was in ancient Israel. And one thing cannot fail to impress the reader at the very outset: namely, that he makes no claim to be the first or among the first of the line, or that he is exercising some new and hitherto unheard-of function. He begins by boldly speaking in God's name, assuming that even the people of the Northern Kingdom were familiar with that kind of address. Nay, he goes farther and states in unequivocal terms that "the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Am 3:7, the King James Version). We need not search farther for a definition of the prophet as understood by him and other Old Testament writers: the prophet is one to whom God reveals His will, and who comes forward to declare that will and purpose to man. A great deal has been made of the words of Amaziah the priest of Bethel (Am 7:12), as if they proved that the prophet in those times was regarded as a wandering rhetorician, earning his bread by reciting his speeches; and it has been inferred from the words of Amos himself that the prophets of his day were so disreputable a class that he disdained to be named along with them (Am 7:14). But all this is fanciful. Even if we admit that there were men calling themselves prophets who prophesied for hire (Mic 3:5,11), it cannot be assumed that the expression here to "eat bread" has that meaning; for in other passages it seems simply to signify to lead a quiet or ordinary life, to go about one's daily business (see Ex 24:11; Jer 22:15). In any case we are not to take the estimate of a man like Amaziah or a godless populace in preference to the conception of Amos himself and his account of his call. It was not by man or by any college of prophets but by Yahweh Himself that he was appointed, and by whatever name he might be called, the summons was "Go, prophesy unto my people Israel" (Am 7:15). There is no trace here of the "prophets becoming conscious of a distinction between themselves and the professional nebhi'im, who were apt simply to echo the patriotic and nationalistic sentiments of the people, and in reality differed but little from the soothsayers and diviners of Semitic heathenism" (Ottley, The Religion of Israel, 90). Whoever the "professional nebhi'im" may have been in his day, or whatever he thought of them if they existed, Amos tells us nothing; but he ranges himself with men to whom Yahweh has spoken in truth (Am 3:7,8), and indicates that there had been a succession of such men (Am 2:11), faithful amid the prevailing corruption though tempted to be unfaithful (Am 2:12); in short he gives us to understand that the "prophetic order" goes back to a period long before his day and has its roots in the true and original religion of Israel.
(6) The Prophetic Religion.
Finally, from the Book of Am we may learn what the prophetic religion was. Here again there is no indication of rudimentary crudeness of conception, or of painful struggling upward from the plane of naturalism or belief in a merely tribal God. The God in whose name Amos speaks has control over all the forces of Nature (Am 4:6 ff; 5:8,9), rules the destinies of nations (Am 6:2,14; 9:2-6), searches the thoughts of the heart (Am 4:13), is inflexible in righteousness and deals with nations and with men on equal justice (Am 1 and Am 2; Am 9:7), and is most severe to the people who have received the highest privileges (Am 3:2). And this is the God by whose name his hearers call themselves, whose claims they cannot deny, whose dealings with them from old time are well known and acknowledged (Am 2:11), whose laws they have broken (Am 2:4; 3:10) and for whose just judgment they are warned to prepare (Am 4:12). All this the prophet enforces faithfully and sternly; not a voice is raised in the circle of his hearers to dispute his words; all that Amaziah the priest can do is to urge the prophet to abstain from unwelcome words in Bethel, because it is the king's sanctuary and a royal house; the only inference is that the people felt the truth and justice of the prophet's words. The "prophetic religion" does not begin with Amos.
W. R. Harper, "Amos and Hosea," in the ICC; S. R. Driver, "Joel and Amos" in Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges; H. G. Mitchell, Amos, an Essay in Exegesis (Boston); A. B. Davidson, two articles in The Expositor, 3rd ser, V, VI (1887); W. R. Smith, The Prophets of Israel; G. A. Smith, "The Book of the Twelve Prophets," in Expositor's Bible; J. J. P. Valeton, Amos und Hosea (1894); C. von Orelli, Die zwolf kleinen Propheten, 3. Aufl. (1908) and ET; Nowack, "Die kleinen Propheten," in Hand-commentar zum Altes Testament; Marti, "Das Dodekapropheton erklart," in Kurzer Hand-Commentar zum Altes Testament.
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'book of amos'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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