I really like Amos; so much, in fact, that I’m ignoring Joel completely today.
Amos is a powerful straight-shooting no-nonsense guy, but also subversive, “confrontational and abrasive. There is no attempt to win over the people he condemns.” (Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: An Inductive Reading of the Old Testament)
Contemporary with Isaiah and Hosea, Amos hails from Tekoa, a small village 10 miles south of Jerusalem, but is sent to the northern kingdom. Unlike Hosea, the evils he preaches against are not so much ritual or theological in nature as human and interpersonal sins. We’re introduced to Amos in the KJV as a “herdman of Tekoa.” Now from this you might conclude that Amos was a shepherd, and further, from Western stereotypes, decide that Amos was a simple guy, probably without much money, who spent most of this time with sheep.
Early scholarship assumed that Amos was a poor manual laborer, a shepherd and goatherd…These early interpretations arose not so much from an understanding of the words used to describe Amos’ profession… as from the thrust of Amos’ message. Scholars assumed that, since Amos was a champion of the poor and a critic of the wealthy, he must have had a modest upbringing…. (“Amos, Book of” Anchor Bible Dictionary)
“Herdman,” however, is not shepherd. In fact, the term used for Amos, noqed (rhymes with OK, plus a D at the end), is extremely rare in the Old Testament. Words derive their meaning from context, and so the more a given word occurs in more contexts, the better we understand it. Words that appear rarely or only once are harder to figure out. (There’s a technical term for a word that occurs only once. It’s called a hapax legomenon, Greek for “said only once.”)
So if there are two occurrences of noqed, and one is Amos, what’s the other context in the Old Testament? It happens to be King Mesha of Moab, who is said to have regularly paid tribute of 100,000 lambs and wool from 100,000 rams in 2 Kings 3:4. King Mesha was no low-class shepherd. Does this suggest something about noqed and Amos?
With rare words, we often turn to cognate Semitic languages, such as Aramaic, Akkadian, or Arabic, to see how existing cognates are used in that language. Usage there is no guarantee of meaning in Hebrew, but the data can be used cautiously. And in fact, this is one place where the rediscovery of the ancient Near East really shifts our ideas.
I’ve mentioned Ugarit once or twice before. The texts from Ugarit were discovered in the 1940’s and have been a major major influence on our understanding of the Old Testament since then.
In the Ugaritic texts, the cognate word nqd is used approximately ten times. It designates not a simple shepherd but somebody in the sheep business; the nqd was responsible for vast herds of sheep; he was a significant person in society, a member of the business elite. Amos, then, was probably not a simple shepherd. We are told that he was also involved with cattle and fruit farming (Amos 7:14–15). In light of the insight derived from the Ugaritic word nqd, we can conclude that Amos was engaged in agribusiness on a fairly large scale. Perhaps his business, selling wool or mutton, took him from his native Tekoa, in Judah, to the northern market places of Israel where he became involved in his prophetic ministry.- Peter Craigie, “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 9:5 (Sep/Oct 1983)
So Amos is probably well-off, and this makes his condemnation of the behavior of the wealthy all the stronger. They cannot dismiss his critiques as mere class jealousy.
Amos is brilliant. In the opening chapters, he carefully leads his listeners into condemning themselves. How so?
With a repeating a pattern, Amos condemns in turn all the nations surrounding the northern kingdom, nations that the Israelites likely competed against, fought against, and probably looked down on. He begins with Damascus, capital of Aram or Syria to the north. (I prefer to say Aram, because Syria sounds so much like Assyria, even though they’re very different places and completely unrelated. Aram is the Hebrew name, Syria is the Greek name, and Assyria is pronounced Aššur in Hebrew, so it’s really only in English they can be confusing.)
As Amos cycles through his condemnation of these peoples, one can imagine his listeners growing in enthusiasm. It plays to their religious and political sentiments to hear God’s prophet condemn all these others in no uncertain terms. It would be like a pro-America political rally in which a prophet condemns Mexico, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East as Godless backwaters… but then Amos does something unexpected. He’s built up to this. After stirring them up and building their feelings, he finishes by condemning them. He breaks the pattern and goes on much longer than with them than with the others. You can imagine his listeners reactions. “Yeah! Those terrible Moabites, yeah, those terrible Phoenicians… wait, what now? Us?”
Amos reminds them of the things God did for them, bringing them out of Egypt, giving them the land, but how have they responded? By becoming corrupt. Amos singles out the wealthy and powerful as particularly guilty. He “makes explicit reference to unfair and aggressive business practices, to luxuriously constructed and appointed homes, and to opulent excesses among the wealthy.”
opening list of Israel’s crimes is principally focused on ethical behavior, particularly acts of venality and greed….the references to religious matters (like reclining at altars on garments taken in pledge, or drinking in the House of the Lord wine bought with money from imposed fines) do not describe religious transgressions per se. There is nothing inherently wrong with lying on garments or drinking wine in the shrine (presumably during pilgrimages and family sacrifices). It is rather the people’s utter disregard of how they attained these goods that raises the prophet’s ire.- Fishbane, JPS Torah Commentary: Haftarot
three realms of daily life for egregious violations of covenant responsibility: injustice in the courts, luxury among the upper class and worship in the sanctuary. The poor were denied their rights in court. The affluence of the rich was the direct result of their exploitation of the poor. Worship was form more than substance; consequently, conduct in the marketplace was totally unaffected by worship in the holy place.- King, “The Marzeah Amos Denounces—Using Archaeology to Interpret a Biblical Text,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 14:4 (July/Aug 1988)
In other words, the religion they claimed to believe in and made a show of following had no effect on their actual behavior. Nothing personal, just business. And so Amos tells them destruction is coming; it will be inescapable. Can’t hide from it, can’t flee from it, can’t defend yourself from it.
“Flight shall fail the swift, The strong shall find no strength, And the warrior shall not save his life. The bowman shall not hold his ground, And the fleet-footed shall not escape, Nor the horseman save his life. Even the most stouthearted warrior Shall run away unarmed that day — declares the LORD.” Amos 2:14-16
Application to our own day, I think, should be obvious.
- Amos 3:2- What does it mean to be chosen? It means God holds you responsible in a way he doesn’t hold others.
- I wrote about the question “Does God Commit Evil?” in response to the KJV/JST of Amos 3:6, over at Mormon Monastery.This is a rough draft of something I wrote a few years ago on Hebrew sod (rhymes with bode), translated as “secret” in Amos 3:7 (PDF).
- And here’s a portion of the article on “the Day of the Lord” from the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, focused on Joel and Amos.
- Amos is good poery and puns. 8:1-2 “Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A basket of summer fruit [Heb. qēṣ]. Then said the Lord unto me, The end [Heb. qayiṣ] is come upon my people of Israel;”