The early prophets of Israel—Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and many others—are known from stories included in the historical books of Samuel and Kings. Amos was the first of the prophets whose name goes with a book entirely concerned with his life and message; nothing is known about him from any other source. The composition of his prophecy represented the creation of a new kind of literature. It was followed by other books that carry the names of a succession of prophets: three large books (“major” prophets) and twelve small ones (“minor”).
The authors behind these shorter books were by no means “minor” in stature. Amos himself is one of the giants of the ancient world, one of the most powerful of the biblical prophets. He brought the prophetic word against social injustice and international terrorism and he preached repentance—and, when that failed, he denounced the impenitents. As a visionary (“seer”: 1.1; 7.12) he located the domestic wrongs within Israel, and the crimes within the community of nations in a global, indeed cosmic setting. He held the rulers responsible for the evils in the world (1.3–2.16) and addressed his messages primarily to them. He placed Israel, the chosen people of Yahweh, on the same footing as other nations (3.9; 4.11; 6.2; 9.7). God expects the same morality from them all; but the words of reproach, condemnation, and judgment are addressed most directly to Israel because of its domestic wrongs.
Amos was not only a prophet of doom; he also called the people to reform, and when they failed and disaster became inescapable, he pointed to the hope of future restoration (9.11–15).
Amos's career is set in the time of two kings, Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel. Both monarchs had exceptionally long reigns, covering most of the first half of the eighth century BCE. Many scholars date Amos toward the end of that period (about 750 BCE), or even later; but recent research into the political situation disclosed by the book suggests that it could be earlier than that. Assyria is nowhere recognized as a factor (except in the Septuagint text of 3.9), and the six nations surrounding Israel are addressed in 1.3–2.3 as if they are all still independent: this more accurately describes the early decades of the eighth century.
On first reading, the literary materials in the book of Amos seem to be diverse and poorly coordinated. There is some narrative in chaps. 7–9, but the main ingredients are prophetic oracles of many different kinds. In addition, the book contains a considerable number of wisdom sayings as well as several liturgical hymns.
The vocabulary and grammar are closer to standard Hebrew prose than to the lyrical poetry of Psalms, or even to the prophecy in Hosea. It is, nevertheless, highly rhythmic in form and rhetorical in artistry, a distinctive medium that may be identified as “prophetic oratory.” The originally oral message has been transformed into literature by skillful editing that has integrated the variegated material into a coherent composition. The result is a real book. Each constituent oracle may have had a limited application when it was originally delivered, but their arrangement brings these pieces together into a comprehensive statement about Amos's lifework, and one that is of enduring value and significance.
Scholars who expect Amos's message to be consistent, almost uniform, have doubted his authorship of some portions because they differ from the rest. Several of the oracles against the nations (Tyre, Edom, Judah) have been bracketed out by some scholars because they seem more appropriate to later times; but all eight are needed, not only for complete geographical coverage, but also to secure the intricate and remarkably symmetrical design that unifies the great speech of chaps. 1–2 and secures its total impact on ancient hearer and modern reader alike.
The three short poems that celebrate the power of Yahweh in creation and history (4.13; 5.8–9; 9.5–6) are distinct hymnal‐credal statements, possibly fragments of earlier epic recitals. They have been skillfully used in the final composition of Amos's message so as to secure a vital theological component. Their scope is cosmic; God's claims on the whole world—all nations, not just Israel—are grounded in his relationship and interest as creator, owner, and judge of the universe.
The historical perspective is likewise vast. God's dealings with Israel are reviewed in the light of events that have taken place over centuries, with the Exodus as a major point of reference (2.10; 3.1; 5.25; 9.7).
The book falls into three distinct sections, each with its own message and mood. The last, the Book of Visions (7.1–9.8) contains the only narrative material. The autobiographical report of five visions (7.1–9; 8.1–3; 9.1) provides a framework that carries the dramatic report of Amos's confrontation with Amaziah, priest of Bethel (7.10–17), as well as prophetic oracles.
In the first pair of visions (7.1–6), Amos is able to secure a reprieve for Israel by his intercession. This situation, in which there is still some hope, corresponds to the central message of the Book of Woes (5.1–6.14), which is built around the exhortation (at 5.24):
Let justice roll down like waters,and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
There is still time for repentance. The plagues reported in chap. 4 were intended as chastisements that would lead to contrition and reparation; but they failed to achieve this, and turned into destructive judgments.
In the second pair of visions (7.7–9; 8.1–3) the situation has completely changed. There is no intercession; rather, the Lord says twice that he will never pass by them again. This new attitude corresponds to the message of certain doom that pervades the first four chapters, and especially the opening speech, with its note of finality. The situation has become hopeless. Amos's early messages, corresponding to the intercessions of the first two visions, have been presented in the middle of the final book (chaps. 5–6); his final message comes first (chaps. 1–2), with the following material analyzing the causes and justifying the decision.
The major cause of the change in attitude between the first and second pairs of visions, the final proof that repentance will never be forthcoming, is the refusal to listen to the prophets, and worse, the attempt to silence them altogether (2.12; 3.8; 7.10–17). Amaziah's ban is the turning point: when the highest religious leader rejects the word of God and his messenger, judgment is inevitable (4.12). The fifth vision and the oracles that go with it (9.1–10) predict the total destruction of “all the sinners of my people” (9.10).
That is not the end of everything, however. As elsewhere in the Bible, death can be overcome by the miracle of resurrection; and Amos promises the recovery of Israel's life and institutions in a new age of prosperity and bliss (9.11–15).
Francis I. Andersen