In Amos 4:1, Amos turns his attention to the women of Israel, who are compared to “cows of Bashan.” As I wrote at the time, the surface meaning seems clear enough. Bashan seems to have been a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that Amos is essentially calling the women of Israel “fat cows.” As for the crimes, I wrote in that post that:

The women’s crimes are pretty terrible. You see, they have oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and asked their husbands for something to drink. Yikes. Fat cows and hen-peckers? For this, their days are numbered and they will be cast forth into Harmon.

To the charge that the women were not suitably subservient to their husbands, Jim Linville adds that, according to many readers, “the women maintain their lifestyle by exploiting the poor” (“Who Were Amos’ ‘Cows of Bashan’?”).

But as with so much else in Amos, there appears to be another layer to the intended meaning.

Amos on women

It’s not exactly uncommon for the Bible to gloss over women. They are counted in general population terms (sometimes), but their unique experiences tend to be ignored. The book of Ruth was one of rare (and welcome) exceptions to this.

Given our readings, it’s not exactly striking that Amos would only mention women once, and then in a way that is condemning.

But even though women often aren’t mentioned, they are there. Linville turns to Judith Sanderson, who points out how shallow Amos’s concern over social justice may be: “Amos clearly saw the suffering of the poor, but did not see it fully for its impact on women, who would represent a disproportionate amount of the poor” (“Cows of Bashan”).

Sanderson points out that, in all the horrors, women’s particular experiences are only mentioned when their pregnant bellies are ripped open in Amos 1:13. While undeniably horrible (and a war crime that we saw before in 2 Kgs 8:12 and 2 Kgs 15:16), it’s easy enough to find an uncharitable explanation for Amos’s revulsion: Is it concern for the women who are ripped open? Is it the destruction of the innocent? Or is it the offence the act commits against patriarchal fertility? Which aspect of the act made it so terrible to the people at the time that it was evoked as a horror of war?

This becomes particularly salient in Amos 7:10-17, when Amos drops mic on Amaziah by predicting his wife’s prostitution. “This is the punishment of her husband, a priest, who would perhaps be particularly dishonoured if his wife engaged in such activities” (“Cows of Bashan”). Her own suffering and destitution are irrelevant, as her experience is relevant only for its effect on her husband.

Linville points out that the same thing happens again in Amos 2:6-8, where a man and his father are condemned for sleeping with the same “girl.” Who is this girl? Was she consenting to these relations?  We don’t know because it doesn’t matter: “No blame is attached to her, nor is there any concern for her experiences. As Sanderson points out, she seems lost in theological accusation” (“Cows of Bashan”).

Considering all of this, the easy interpretation of Amos 4:1 seems perfectly plausible: Women are condemned for their participation in social practices over which they have as little control as the poor, and doubly condemned for ‘hen-pecking,’ or trying to find some small way to hold power in a society that largely denies it to them.

The Women

But if women are often seen merely as stand-ins for male pain, perhaps the women in Amos 4:1 only “stand as metaphors for the greater populace” (“Cows of Bashan”). The personification of Israel as a woman is certainly something we’ve seen before, such as Lam. 1:1 where Israel is a lonely widow, or even later in Amos 5:2 where Israel is a maiden.

One possibility is that they represent religious adherents. We’ve seen quite a few examples of Yahweh associated with bulls. The most obvious example is the Golden Calf story in Ex. 32. We’ve also seen it associated with more establishment ritual, in both the north (with Jeroboam’s bulls in 1 Kgs 12:26-30) and the south (when the Temple’s Molten Sea is supported by twelve oxen in 1 Kgs 7:23-26). So Linville points out that the term ‘cows’ may be “the self-designation of female worshippers of a bull-like manifestation of Yahweh” (“Cows of Bashan”).

The commentary, then, may be most properly seen as an extension of Amos’s criticism on Israel’s religious practices. We might read the passage more properly as: “You so-called faithful who oppress the poor and crush the needy.”

The Men

If women serve as stand-ins for the people, who are the husbands who are ordered to bring drinks?

If the women are adherents, then we may see the husband as God (or perhaps the husbands are their gods). The point, then, may be that these devotees are making presumptuous demands of their gods, rather than being appropriately worshipful and subservient.

Linville underscores this idea by linking the demand for drink with the threat of drought in Amos 4:7-8. And perhaps the image of plenty evoked by the cows of fertile Bashan is evoked again in Amos 8:11, when there will be “a famine of the divine word” (“Cows of Bashan”).

We haven’t seen much of the bridal imagery so far in our readings, but it is elsewhere. In Isaiah 54:5, God is explicitly called Israel’s husband. In Jeremiah 3:1-5, we find that the wifely Israel has committed adultery on her divine husband.

Finding a metaphorical interpretation does not, of course, negate the surface interpretation. If anything, the metaphor only works because of the imagery invoked by the surface interpretation. When the Israelites boss around God, they are wrong in the same way as the women who boss around their husbands.

Bashan

Bashan may well have been chosen just because it was a fertile area. I noted above that the image of plenty evoked by the cows of Bashan may have been intentionally chosen to contrast with the later image of famine.

This is supported in places like Deut. 32:14, where God nourishes Jacob with meat products from Bashan.

But there may be a more ominous connotation to the land. Linville points to Psalm 22:12-13, where the narrator is encircled by the “strong bulls of Bashan,” whose mouths are “like a ravening and roaring lion.” As Linville points out, Bashan may well invoke both the fertility and plenty, and these more menacing images.

Linville also points to Psalm 68:22, where Bashan is “imagined as a place of exile, of absence from God.” Perhaps even more telling, Linville points out that Psalm 68 also explores Yahweh’s concern for the underprivileged. In the Psalm, the women announce the defeat of enemies and the bringing in of spoils (Ps. 68:12-14). It could be, then, that Amos 4:1 is intended as an “ironic reversal of the imagery in the Psalm” (“Cows of Bashan”).

It seems, then, that Amos may have chosen his words very carefully, making each pull at least double duty.

NOTE: For this post, I have been using a draft of a paper Linville presented to a conference (which he believes took place in 2000). Citations are appropriately vague.