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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Career of Amos

We know very little about the career of Amos. He came from the village of Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but he delivered his oracles in the Northern Kingdom, especially around the temple of Bethel, just north of the border. He did not, in any case, attach great importance to political boundaries. It is a theme of his prophecy that all peoples are equal in the sight of God.

Only one episode from his career is recounted in the book. In 7, 10–17 we hear of an encounter between Amos and the priest of Bethel. The priest was worried because Amos was prophesying against the king in the Temple precincts. The priest could not afford to offend the king, and so he told Amos to go back to Judah. Amos's reply has given rise to much debate. Literally the Hebrew says “No prophet I, nor the son of a prophet.” The NAB opts for one possible interpretation of this utterance: “I was no prophet” (until the Lord called me). An alternative view is that he rejected the very name “prophet.” In either case, the point at issue is that Amos is not a member of a guild of professional prophets, such as we see in action in 1 Kings 22 , the story of Micaiah, son of Imlah. He was an independent agent. He was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores (the fruit, resembling a fig, had to be tended in order to prevent insects from destroying it), and so had his own means. He did not depend on king or priest for support and was not beholden to them, and thus did not require their permission to prophesy. This independence left him free to speak the truth as he saw it, without political constraint.

The style of Amos is blunt, even offensive. He calls the women of Samaria “cows of Bashan” ( 4, 1 ) and tells the priest Amaziah that his wife will be a harlot in the city ( 7, 17 ). This is not the way to make friends and influence people, and it is not a style recommended by professors of homiletics. Amos makes no attempt to win the sympathy of his audience, as Nathan did with David (2 Sm 12 ) or as Jesus does in the parables. He is a prophet in the mold of Elijah, whose denunciations come close to cursing. This crude style of preaching must be seen in its social context. Nathan was a trusted adviser to David and could expect to have an effect on him. Amos, like Elijah, was an outsider. He did not have the ear of the king and saw no likelihood that the upper classes would change their ways. Consequently, he does not appeal for repentance. He simply proclaims the doom that is coming. He testifies to the conditions of his time and puts them on record, but he does not suggest that the catastrophe could be avoided.

The oracles of Amos are grouped in distinct blocks. The first two chapters contain a series of oracles against various nations, culminating in a denunciation of Israel. Amos 3, 1–5, 9 contains three long oracles (or strings of short utterances), which are introduced as “words.” These are followed in 5, 7–6, 14 by three “woes” against Israel and Judah. (The verses in 5, 7–9 are out of order and must be rearranged. See OT, p. 1193 .) Chapters 7 , 1 through 9 , 8b contain a series of visions of destruction. Chapter 9 , 8c–15 is an epilogue, probably added by a later editor.

The Oracles against the Nations

The book begins with oracles of judgment against Israel's immediate neighbors, in the area now occupied by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and part of the occupied territory of Palestine. The oracle against Judah may have been added by the editor of the book to bring it up to date, after Israel had been destroyed. It was not unusual in the ancient world for a prophet from one country to denounce or curse other nations: see Numbers 22–24 , where Balaam is called to curse Israel. What is unusual here is that Amos doesn't stop after he has denounced the other nations, but goes on to pronounce a similar judgment on Israel. His listeners would surely have expected to hear that Israel would be glorified when Edom was humiliated (as we saw in Joel 4 ). Amos, however, insists that Israel is no different from other nations in the eyes of God. Any nation that sins deserves punishment. The sins of the other nations are not all offenses against Israel. Moab is condemned for burning to lime the bones of the king of Edom ( 2, 1 ), which is an outrage against humanity as such, or against natural law. The sins of Israel, too, are sins against humanity: they sell the just man for silver and the poor man for a pair of sandals ( 2, 6 ).

The oracle against Israel in Amos 2, 6–16 can be read as a “covenant lawsuit,” that is, a speech in which the prophet indicts Israel for failing to keep the Sinai covenant. The covenant had three essential elements: (1) the recollection of salvation history, culminating in the Exodus; (2) the commandments, and (3) blessings for keeping the commandments and curses for breaking them. The history as well as the curses and blessings both provided motivation to keep the commandments. The typical argument of a “covenant lawsuit” is that (1) God earned the loyalty of Israel by bringing it out of Egypt but, (2) Israel proved disloyal by breaking the commandments. In Amos 2 , the sins of Israel are listed first (vv. 6–8 ). Then the prophet recalls the Exodus and the obligation it entailed. He concludes with a threat, which is in effect a curse: “Beware, I will crush you into the ground” ( 2, 13 ). Many scholars think, however, that the recollection of the Exodus here was added by an editor, who wanted to put the prophetic preaching in the context of the theology of Deuteronomy (which is also exemplified in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Amos himself had a wider frame of reference. The practices he condemns are, to be sure, forbidden by the law of Moses, but that is not the point in Amos. People of any nation should recognize that it is criminal to sell a just man for silver. So it makes no difference to Amos whether or not a particular nation knows the law of Moses. The basic requirements of justice should be obvious to all. In short, Amos appeals to natural law, as it was understood in the ancient Near East. The law of Moses coincided with that law to a great extent, but the essentials of ethical behavior should be known even to pagans. In the New Testament, Saint Paul makes the same point in Romans 1, where he says that pagan idolaters have no excuse, “for what can be known about God is evident to them.”

Amos and the Covenant

The equivalence of Israel and other nations in the sight of God is a theme that runs through the book of Amos. It raises a question as to whether the prophet regarded Israel as a chosen nation in any sense. He was certainly familiar with the story of the Exodus and the recitation of salvation history. For Amos, however, the Exodus guarantees Israel no privilege, but only adds to its responsibility. Two other passages in the book address this question very directly.

  • 1. In 3, 2 we read “You alone have I favored, more than all the families of the earth.” We expect this statement to be followed by a reassurance, such as “therefore I will protect you like the apple of my eye” or the like. Instead we read “Therefore I will punish you for all your crimes.” Here, as in the oracles against the nations, Amos deliberately shocks his audience by telling them what they neither expect nor want to hear. (Jesus uses a similar technique in the parable of the good Samaritan.) In a sense he is only spelling out the implications of the covenant, which always carried the threat of the curses for breaking the laws as well as the promise of the blessings for obedience. This is not how most people in Israel understood the covenant, however. They thought, naturally enough, that the Exodus guaranteed them divine protection, that they were already “saved.” According to Amos, the only way Israel differs from the other nations is that it should know better and therefore is all the more blameworthy for its crimes.

  • 2. Amos puts the Exodus in perspective even more bluntly in 9, 7 : “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me? … Did I not bring the Israelites from the land of Egypt as I brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” Israel is special in the eyes of God … but so is every other people. The Philistines and Syrians had their salvation history too. None of this means that the Exodus was not important. It was absolutely fundamental to the identity of Israel. It did not, however, mean that Israel would be favored in any way, except that it should know more clearly than others what was demanded of it.

Amos's sustained denial that Israel was any different from other peoples has its best parallel in the Wisdom literature (especially Proverbs), which ignores the special revelation to Israel and focuses on the universal moral law. Amos seems to have been an educated man. He displays an impressive knowledge of international affairs, and he was certainly no ignorant peasant. We do not know how he acquired his learning. He was probably well versed in traditional wisdom, whether he was formally educated in a school setting or not.

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