Reading Amos has been a pretty interesting journey. I feel like I’ve been trained by the loooong history books to read sectionally, thinking about individual chapters separately. I tend to reserve any ‘whole book’ thinking for the conclusion post, where I note the odd theme that may have stood out for me.
As I was nearing the end of Amos, however, the fabulous Jim Linville let me read a couple of his articles, and I realized just how much I had been missing. After that, I had to go back and re-read the book (several times, as it happens, since I ended up writing a few follow-up posts), and I realized just how interconnected the book actually is. It seems to be much more of a cohesive whole than anything we’ve read previously, except maybe the book of Ruth.
My second great takeaway from Linville’s articles was that I had been taking Amos far too literally. Once I was clued in that Amos is using a lot of puns and double-meanings, I started getting much more from my reading, and appreciating the book more deeply.
I’m very grateful to Linville for all his help, and for taking the time to throw some resources in my direction. Thank you!
The historicity of Amos seems to be rather hotly debated. A lot of my sources, such as John Collins’s A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (which, now that I think of it, I actually bought on Jim Linville’s recommendation a few years ago, so thanks again!), seem to take it for granted that the stated narrator of the book was its author – though most of my sources also argue for a much later editor(s).
In Linville’s “What Does ‘It’ Mean”, he proposes that Amos is merely a narrator in a work of historical fiction (p.402).
Either way, both seem to admit that there are some passages that don’t really make a whole lot of sense if they were written by a historical Amos. And as Collins points out, this can make quite a difference in how we read the book, and how we read later covenantal works, like Deuteronomy. Was Amos (and other prophets like him) a product of the same religious environment that gave us Deuteronomy, or was he helping to create it. (I’m somewhat misrepresenting the discussion in A Short Introduction, which focused more on whether the laws themselves were foundational or written into foundational stories – p.156 – but I think the same logic can be applied to the question of historicity).
Another question that kept coming up in my reading was why Amos should be preaching to Israel when he lived in Judah. Wouldn’t it make more sense for his immediate concern to be the cultic practices in Jerusalem, rather than those in Bethel? Particularly when his home town of Tekoa was apparently a mere ten miles from Jerusalem (A Short History, p.154).
I’ve seen a few theories bandied about: Perhaps Amos saw the border as insignificant, as both north and south were one people under God. Perhaps he targeted the north in the belief that it was “in rebellion” (2 Chron. 10:18) against the Jerusalem Temple and the Davidic dynasty (this latter perhaps finding some support in Amos’s prophecy of David’s dynastic return in Amos 9:11). Maybe his girlfriend lived in Bethel, so he took his prophecy there to spend more time with her. Who knows?
But my personal favourite story is that the whole book of Amos is a trap, and that the introduction in Amos 1-2 provides us the map to figure it out. I think that the audience is meant to cheer with anti-Samarian sentiment, just as they cheer through the oracles against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, etc. – all while being themselves implied in the criticism. In my headcanon, it is Judah that Amos condemns, even while he uses the removed Israel as his straw target.
Amos is not called a prophet within the confines of the book, and he explicitly denies being one, though the book is included in the list of the Twelve Minor Prophets.
I’ve seen quite a few wiggles to try to make sense of this, including the idea that Amos merely claimed not to have been a prophet (past tense), indicating that he now actually is one.
If we take Amos’s denial of prophet status at face value, I find that the most compelling explanation is that he is denying membership in a prophetic guild. Perhaps a modern day equivalent would be for Amos to be proudly displaying his grassroots authenticity – he’s no guild shill!
Yet this all seems to be a fairly silly argument of semantics. After all, the introduction tells us plainly that Amos received visions from God. In the course of the book, he converses with God and relays God’s words to the people. A prophet by any other name would still relay God’s message and challenge authority.
But I’m drawn to something Linville points out in “Dead Prophets Society”: That the introductory verse of Amos defines him as a shepherd (p.57). That is his identity, and perhaps we are to understand what follows as coming in that light. Perhaps Amos denies that he is a prophet in an effort to prevent that identity from overtaking his identity as a shepherd.
If that’s the case, we might look to references to shepherds in the book to understand why. Specifically: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued” (Amos 3:12). As Linville writes, this shepherd “does not succeed in leading the flock to safety, but ends up only with evidence that it has been attacked” (p.75).
We saw a similar fatalism in the rhetorical questions of Amos 3:3-8, where the lion’s roar indicates that the prey has already been caught.
Understanding Amos as the shepherd helps us to understand how he perceives his role: He is the watchman who blows his trumpet as the people are slaughtered (Amos 2:2), he is the observer who sees the danger yet can do nothing but watch. As Linville asks, are we to see prophets as those who are intended to save Israel, or as people chosen merely to “witness […] Israel’s destruction” (“Dead Prophets Society”, p.75).
The salvation twist at the end seems to cause problems, with a lot of commentaries arguing that it can’t possibly be authentic because it doesn’t match with the doom-and-gloom tone of the rest of the book.
But as I re-read Amos, I found that the twist was actually somewhat set up. Not strongly, by any means, but enough to make the ending plausibly authentic.
In particular, Linville points to the possible meanings of the phrase my RSV translates as: “I will not revoke the punishment” (repeated throughout Amos 1-2). In particular, he uses verses like Job 9:12 to argue that the phrase could more properly be translated to mean something like: “I will put a stop to your sinning” (“What Does ‘It’ Mean”, p.414).
Perhaps we could even argue that the phrase is intentionally vague, to hint at the future redemption without allowing the Israelites to rest to comfortably in such a promise.
Once I got a better grasp of Amos, I found that I was really enjoying it. It’s complex and often ambiguous, with very few satisfying “ah-ha!” moments, but it is full of possibilities to consider. I really enjoyed trying to find the puns and the internal references, as well as the process of trying to guess at what it all might mean.
My next book is Hosea, but I think I need a little bit of a break. I wrote quite a few extra posts for Amos, which meant giving up time I had set aside for my fiction writing. As a result, I’m feeling hopelessly behind on that. I had originally intended to begin Hosea at the start of May, but I think I may push my first post back as far as June 3.
I may change my mind before then, but I feel like I need that month and a half to both finish up a novel I’m working on and build up a post buffer for this blog so that I’m not pulling all-nighters again!
So that’s the end of Amos, and more than enough housekeeping for now. Taa!