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Introduction and Overview of Amos

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND DATE

 

            The period in which Amos prophesied was one of great peace and prosperity. Some, such as Gerhard Hasel, have referred to the period as "a Golden Age in Israel.”[1] The favorable conditions of this period "resulted from a number of factors, one of the most important being the removal of Benhadad III of Syria (c. 796-776) as a military threat to the northern kingdom.”[2] Assyria, during the time of Amos, was not a major threat to Israel. "Assyria’s power had waned under a succession of inept rulers who had all they could manage in defending themselves against the kingdom of Urartu. Until the accession of Tiglath-Pileser III (745), Syria-Palestine was free from danger.”[3]

            During this time of turmoil for Assyria, "Jeroboam was able to restore Israel’s previous northern and southern borders east of Jordan. International trade expanded and produced new wealth.”[4] The book of Amos gives the reader insight into what went on during this period as a result of this expansion and freedom. From the writing of Amos, one can deduce that a class system had developed in Israel. The wealthy upper class oppressed the poor lower class.

We may conjecture as to the methods used by the wealthy in their oppression of the poor. The small farmers often had to borrow money in order to plant their crops, but rates of interest were very high. In the Assyrian empire of this period interest rates were often 20 percent or higher. In the sixth century B.C. the Jews of Elephantine in Egypt had to pay interest rates as high as 60 percent. In Palestine the rate of interest may well have been 25 percent or more. With such exorbitant rates, drought and other causes of crop failure could readily bankrupt a man, and bankruptcy often meant being taken into slavery.[5]   

 

The aforementioned proposal is speculation on the part of Hyatt, but it may not be too far-fetched since the class system and oppression of the poor must have been brought about by some factor.

            The archeological record attests that the class system mentioned by Amos was set up in Israel during this period:

The excavations at Tirzah (Tell el-Farah) uncovered evidence of the social revolution that had occurred. While the city’s houses in the tenth century had been of uniform size, in the eighth century by contrast there was a quarter of large, expensive houses, and one of small huddled structures. The result was the stark contrast between the luxury of the rich and misery of the poor which Amos repeatedly indicts. The rich enjoyed an indolent, indulgent existence (4:1f; 5: 1-6) in winter and summer houses (3:13; 6:11). The poor were a tempting target for legal and economic exploitation.[6]

 

            As a result of military might, international wealth, and other factors, Israel began to stray away from God. "Still enjoying the luxury of military victory during the reign of Jeroboam II, Israel allowed temporal security to replace her trust in the living God.”[7] Because Israel did not show love for the poor and did not have the attitude of righteousness and justice, God raised up Amos to call Israel back to covenant relationship.

            The question of the book’s date is easy to answer according to the book. "Without doubt Amos’ words were delivered in the days of Jeroboam ben Joash (Jeroboam II), who ruled Israel 793-755.”[8] "His date cannot date later than the 15th year of Uzziah’s reign for he tells us he prophesied ‘in the reigns of Uzziah king of Judah, and Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.’”[9] One may question whether or not the author was honest about the book’s dating. The validity of time offered by most scholars, namely 760, depends on whether or not the person believes in predictive prophecy or not.

For some, the popular mood of confidence in the nation and the freedom from any fear of invasion points to the period ca. 760. For others, notably R.S. Cripps, Amos’ certainty that Israel is soon to be invaded indicates that he had knowledge of Tiglath-pileser III’s westward movement which began in 745 B.C. But Amos’ prediction of doom was based not on his knowledge of developments in Assyria, but rather on his conviction that such corruption and unfaithfulness as he saw in Israel could not long remain unpunished by Israel’s God.[10]

 

A person who does not believe in predictive prophecy, like R.S. Cripps, will attempt to explain the book’s prophesy in a more naturalistic way. However, if Amos was not aware of the accession of Tiglath-pileser III and his movements to the west, then Amos truly was a prophet because he prophesied specifically that Israel would go into exile beyond Damascus, though he did not tell who would take them there. 

            If a date for the earthquake under discussion could be nailed down, the mention of Amos’ ministry being two years before the earthquake would give a definite date for his work. Concerning the earthquake, Jack Lewis said, "It must have been of considerable magnitude, for four hundred years later people were still referring to it (Zech. 14:5).”[11]J. Merideth noted, "Josephus says it took place in connection with Uzziah’s trespass, but we do not know if he was correct.”[12] Since we do not know the exact time of the earthquake and are not sure which earthquake the author has in mind, the mentioning of it in Amos does very little to help us date the book. 

 

THE MAN: HIS HOME AND VOCATION

 

            Little is known about the man Amos. His name means "burdensome or burden-bearer.”[13] The book of Amos is the only time that Amos is mentioned by name in the Bible. From the biblical account, Amos was by profession a shepherd and dresser of sycamore figs. Amos hailed from Tekoa. Tekoa’s "written history begins with the period of the Conquest, in which it is noted that Ashur, Caleb’s half-brother, was the father, i.e. the founder, of Tekoa.”[14] Tekoa is mentioned more in the Bible than Amos is. "There are some 14 Biblical references to Tekoa, and at least one from the Apocrypha.”[15] In the Bible, one of David’s "mighty men” came from Tekoa. The ISBE notes concerning the city, "It was made a ‘city for defense’ by Rehoboam (2 Ch 11:6), and it may have in fact received its name from its remote and exposed position.”[16] "Tekoa is a small town about twelve miles south of Jerusalem, overlooking the ‘Wilderness of Judea’…It was in Judah rather than Israel; so Amos was a ‘foreign missionary’ – in part at least.”[17]  

            Regarding Amos’ job, some have noted that he must have been of humble birth and humble financial means. Hyatt says, "While some interpreters have thought that Amos was a wealthy sheep-owner, it seems more likely that he was a hired shepherd, who knew the oppressions of the poor from the inside. Since the Bible does not give even his father’s name, his family was probably very humble.”[18] However, people such as Mays maintain that the term ‘sheepbreeder’ is used of Amos, and that "‘sheepbreeder’ probably means an owner in charge of other shepherds, a substantial and respected man of his community.”[19] No matter what one may think of Amos and his profession, when God called him, he left Tekoa and entered a new profession of prophesying.

            Not only did Amos have a job that dealt with shepherding, but he also had a job that dealt with dressing sycamore figs. Many problems have to be addressed concerning Amos’ second vocation. Sycamore figs do not grow in Tekoa today, and it is likely that they did not grow in Tekoa during Amos’ time either. Hyatt notes that the sycamore fig "does not grow today at so great a height as Tekoa, but in lower regions such as the Shephelah and Jordan valley. In practicing this seasonal occupation Amos had to travel.”[20] The fact that Amos had to travel in order to do this occupation may account for his acquaintances with various parts of the country and his ability to know the distinct conditions and use them in his preaching.

            The question arises as to just what type of job tending sycamore figs is. There is evidence to suggest that these trees do not need to be pollinated or anything of the sort, and one wonders what Amos did to these trees to tend them. We cannot be sure, but many have made plausible suggestions. One such suggestion is made by John Watts who said, "Commentators have understood this activity as the process by which the unripe sycamore figs are nipped or cut at the tip in order to let the juice run out and promote the process of ripening. This is a plausible suggestion, but there is no assurance that this is exactly what is meant.”[21] While this may not be exactly what is meant, T.J. Wright collaborates the view by noting, "Dried sycamore fruit and wood have been found in Egypt dating as far back as the pre-dynastic period, i.e. more than 3000 years B.C. Gashed sycamore fruit are depicted in many paintings and reliefs.”[22] While the practice of gnashing the fruit may have not been the job Amos did, he was in someway associated with the sycamore figs and the occupation is a part of his livelihood.

            Amos’ final occupation is the one with which most readers are acquainted: prophesying. According to many Biblical scholars, Amos was the first of the literary prophets. Most agree that he was a prophet, but a problem arises for many Biblical scholars over his statement found in Amos 7:14.

Amos who is obviously a prophet, apparently denies that he is one. Perhaps some help in understanding the verse may come from the recognition that in Hebrew there is no finite verb in the sentence. A literal rendition of the words would be: ‘No prophet I, nor son of a prophet I.’ It is common in Hebrew to leave out an expressed form of the verb ‘to be.’ Such grammar pictures a situation, not an action nor a state of being. The situation is static. It is, therefore, clear that any argument about whether this refers to Amos’ past or present status misses the point.[23]

 

Because of this, one cannot claim that Amos outright denies that he is a prophet. He may have been speaking to his past and telling Amaziah that he did not desire to be a prophet, and that he was only doing it because God has determined for him to do it, but that he did not go to school to cry out against Israel and was not in it for the money. It is also likely that the statement is a rejection of what Amaziah classifies as a "seer.”

 

 

 

STRUCTURE

 

            The structure and the message of the book is one that is easy for readers to quickly identify.

 

I.                    Oracles against the nations, Chapters 1-2.

II.                 Oracles of doom for Israel Chapters 3-9.

A.     Chapters 3-5 "Hear this word.”

a.       Condemnation of Israel’s sins.

B.     Chapters 7-9 "The Lord showed me.”

a.       Visions of Amos for which he pleaded for the people:

1.      Locus

2.      Great fire devouring the land.

b.      Visions of Amos for which he did not plead for the people:

1.      The plumb line

2.      Basket of summer fruit

III.               Oracles of hope, Chapter 9:11-15.

a.       Vision of hope

1.                  The Lord at the altar

 

Amos’ Message

 

            The message of Amos is one that is easily understood. Philip Hyatt simplifies the message more than anyone I have been able to find:

            Because of the sins which you have repeatedly committed, especially sins of social injustice, the Day of the Lord is about to come. This Day of the Lord will be the opposite of what you expect it to be, for it will bring national defeat, destruction of you land, and exile of many of you to a foreign nation. There is only a small ray of hope for you: if you will "seek the Lord” and establish justice in your land the Lord may be merciful to a remnant of your people.[24]

 

Theological Themes

 

1. The nation’s accountability to God: The opening of Amos shows that God will punish various nations because they have pushed the limits concerning sin and international affairs. Amos teaches that all nations, not just Israel, must ultimately answer to God for the way they conduct themselves. The nations that are called into judgment by Amos are not done so based on their geographical order. Instead,

Beginning with the more distant and alien people 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.[25]

 

            For too long, Israel had oppressed the poor, dishonestly traded, sold the righteous, shut the mouths of the prophets, and become relaxed in their evils on couches of ivory. God was telling them through Amos that they had to pay up. Amos shows how God holds every nation accountable, including His own people.  

2.The Day of the Lord: The Day of the Lord was not what Amos’ audience expected it would be. They thought it would be a great day, but Amos’ message was that it would be a day of great judgment and not a day to which they should look forward. The Day of the Lord bespeaks a time period when judgment or calamity is brought upon a nation. Israel’s rebellion and refusal to come back to God was the reason that the wrath of God was kindled against Israel. The Day of the Lord for Israel would result in an exile of the people from their land into the land of Assyria.

3.The Restoration of the booth of David: Though Amos’ message foretold of certain doom for the nation of Israel, Amos also envisions a day when Israel would once again serve God and be restored. The remnant of Israel would be saved when the kingdom was restored. The restoration of the kingdom refers to the time of the church and how those who accept by faith the gospel of Christ are citizens of the Israel in which Jesus sits upon the throne of David. 

 

CONCLUSION

 

"In the last quarter of the eighth century the word became history. The kingdom of Israel passed through four decades of crisis, defeats, and assassinations on the way to the abyss, and then was swallowed up by the Assyrian empire.”[26] Israel’s failure to take prophets like Amos’ seriously resulted in their destruction. When one dismisses the word of the Lord doom is certain to follow.


Bibliography

 

G.E.L.C. "Amos.” Pages 87-88 in vol. 1 of Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by H.B. Hackett. 4 vols. Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971.  

Hall, Gary. "Amos.” In Old Testament Introduction. Ed. by M. Mangano. The College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, Mo: College Press, 2005.

Harrison, R.K. "Amos.” Pages 143-50 in vol. 1 of The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Edited by Merrill C. Tenney. 4 vols. Michigan: Zondervan, 1975.

Hasel, Gerhard F. Understanding the Book of Amos. Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991.

Heicksen, Martin H. "Tekoa: Historical and Cultural Profile.” Journal of Evanglical Theological Society. 13 (1970): 81-89.

Hyatt, James Phillip. "The Book of Amos.” Interpretation. 3 (1949): 338-48.

La Sos, William Sanford, David Allen Hubbard, and Fredric William Bush. Old Testament Survey The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.

Lewis, Jack P. The Minor Prophets. Michigan: Baker Book House, 1966.Mays, James Luther. Amos. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

Merideth, Noel J. "Amos.” Gospel Advocate. 117 (1975): 107-09.

Robertson, Jas. "Amos.” Pages 120-25 in vol. 1 of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by James Orr.  4 vols. Hendrickson Publishers, 1939. 

R.O.C. "Amos.” Pages 61-61 in vol. 1 of Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, and John Rea. 3 vols. Chicago: Moody Press, 1975.

Smart, J.D. "Amos.” Pages 116-21 in vol. 1 of Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by Emory Stevens Bucke. 4 vols. New York: Abington Press, 1962.  

Watts, John D.W. "Amos, The Man.Review and Expositor. 63 (1966): 387-92.

Wright, T.J. "Amos and the ‘Sycamore fig.’” Vetus testamentum. 26 (1976): 362-68.

 



[1]Gerhard F. Hasel, Understanding the Book of Amos (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 12.

[2]R.K. Harrison, "Amos,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia 1:143-50.

[3]James Luther Mays, Amos (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 2.

[4]Gary Hall, "Amos,” in Old Testament Introduction, e.d. by M. Mangano The College Press NIV Commentary. ( Joplin Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 2005), 552.

[5]J. Philip Hyatt, "The Book of Amos,” Interpretation 3 (1949): 338-48.

[6]Mays, Amos, 2-3.

[7]R.O.C, "Amos,” Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia 1:61-62.

[8]William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 320.

[9]G.E.L.C., "Amos,” Smith’s Dictionary on the Bible 1:87-88.

[10]J.D. Smart, "Amos,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1:116-21.

[11]Jack Lewis, The Minor Prophets (Michigan: Baker Book House, 1966), 16.

[12]J. Noel Merideth, "Amos,” Gospel Advocate 117 (1975): 107-09.

[13]Jas. Robertson, "Amos,” ISBE 1:120-25.

[14]Martin H. Heicksen, "Tekoa: Historical and Cultural Profile,” ETS 13 (1970): 81-89.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Robertson, "Amos,” 120.

[17]Hyatt, "The Book of Amos,” 343.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Mays, Amos, 1.

[20]Hyatt, "The Book of Amos,” 343.

[21]John D. W. Watts, "Amos, The Man,” Review and Expositor 63 (1966):387-392.

[22]T.J. Wright, "Amos and the ‘Sycamore Fig,’” Vetus Testamentum 28 (1979): 362-368.

[23] Watts, "Amos, The Man,” 391.

[24]Hyatt, "The Book of Amos,”

[25]Robertson, "Amos,” 122.

[26]Mays, Amos, 1. 344. 




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