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Old Testament: Amos

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Summary

Amos, Russian Orthodox icon (18th Cen.)

The book of Amos is a collection of prophetic messages delivered by the prophet Amos. The book also includes a narrative description of an event in Amos's life and a few fragments of hymns, which have been interspersed throughout the book (probably by an editor). Most of Amos's messages are announcements of God's anger with and impending judgment on Israel (the northern kingdom). Amos also announces God's judgment on Israel's neighbors, including Judah. Amos's messages focus on Israel's oppression of the poor and lack of justice. Amos consistently criticizes Israel's worship life, which has deteriorated to rote ritual observance disconnected from daily life. The prophet draws on both Israel's history and its moral/legal tradition to support his condemnations of the people's actions.

So What?

The messages of Amos insist that God's relationship with people includes all of their lives. Amos insists that because of injustice and oppression, God's anger has been provoked and judgment will come. The judgment that Amos announced was not a final judgment, but a part of God's relationship with the people. This message of God's anger and judgment remains relevant for people of faith today. Because God still loves people, God still is provoked to anger when people cause others to suffer.

Where Do I Find It?

Amos is the thirtieth book in the Old Testament. It is third among the so-called "minor" (or shorter) prophets, the twelve books that make up the final portion of the Old Testament.

Who Wrote It?

Most of the messages in the book of Amos were spoken by Amos. We do not know if he wrote them down himself; it is likely that his words were collected by followers who were convinced that Amos spoke for God. It is likely that an editor placed Amos's messages in the present order and composed the narrative description of the clash with Amaziah (7:10-15). It is also likely that the editor placed fragments of three hymns within these chapters (4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6) during the editorial shaping of the book.

When Was It Written?

Amos most likely spoke his messages sometime around the year 760 B.C.E. Sometime after that, the messages of Amos were collected, edited, and copied. It is not clear when this process was completed, but it is likely that it was finished before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

What's It About?

The book of Amos is about God's passion for justice, anger with injustice, and judgment as an ongoing part of God's relationship with the people.

How Do I Read It?

The prophetic messages in the book of Amos are to be read both individually and together as a group. As individual messages, the reader should isolate a speech and understand what it says and how it applies to life today. Using the notes in a study Bible will help readers understand Amos's metaphors, references to history and tradition, and references to social practices of his time. To comprehend the message of the book, readers should understand that the judgment that Amos proclaimed was neither a departure from God's history of dealing with the people nor an end to that history, but an ongoing part of it.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

I. Introduction (Amos 1:1-2)

An editor titles the book as "the words of Amos" and gives some historical and biographical information regarding Amos. The editor has placed a brief message from Amos in v. 2 as a summary of Amos's preaching: "The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem."

II. Judgment against Foreign Nations…and Israel (Amos 1:3-2:16)

A series of seven messages announces God's judgment on foreign nations and on Israel. The order of messages is important. The first five nations that are condemned are the nations surrounding Israel and Judah: Aram, Gaza, Tyre, Ammon, and Moab. The sixth nation mentioned is Judah, Israel's rival nation to the south. After Israel is encircled in this "noose" of judgment, the seventh message announces judgment on Israel.

III. Judgment against Israel (Amos 3:1-6:14)

A series of prophetic messages announces judgment on Israel. An editor has again placed a brief message first to serve as an introduction to this section: "Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities" (3:1-2).

IV. Five Prophetic Visions of Judgment (Amos 7:1-9:10)

This is a series of five prophetic visions of judgment against Israel. The first four visions begin, "This is what the Lord God showed me." The last begins, "I saw.…" This section also includes one narrative account about Amos and his encounter with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel (7:10-17). In addition, this section contains a few miscellaneous fragments of messages (7:5-10).

V. A Promise of Restoration (Amos 9:11-15)

This closing section announces that God will remain faithful to the promise to David and will rebuild the house of David.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

The Book of Amos is the oldest of the four books that come to us from prophets who were active during the eighth century B.C.E. (the others are Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah). This does not mean that there were not other prophets active during that time or before. Rather, these are the only prophets whose words survived to reach us.

Amos most likely had a very short prophetic ministry, perhaps as short as a year. This probably occurred around the year 760 B.C.E., when Jeroboam II was king of Israel. During this time, the people of Israel were divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was known as Israel (also poetically as Ephraim, Jacob, and Isaac); its capital was Samaria. The southern kingdom was known as Judah (also poetically as Zion); its capital was Jerusalem.

Amos was a prophet from Tekoa, a town in the southern kingdom of Judah. He was not a professional prophet or a member of a prophetic guild, but a farmer ("herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees," 7:14). God called him and sent him north to prophesy in what to him would have been the foreign country of Israel. Other details about Amos, including his fate, are unknown.

The time during which Amos prophesied was a time of relative peace and prosperity for the kingdom of Israel and her neighbors. During that time, the small countries such as Israel and Judah experienced no threat from the major empires of the region such as Egypt or Assyria, although that would soon change (see Assyria, Tiglath-Pileser III). Amos contended that the prosperity of the wealthy of that society was built upon the backs of the poor.

Amos announced God's condemnation of both Israel and the surrounding nations for their greed, injustice, brutality, and particularly for the oppression of the poor by the wealthy. Amos did not announce a new morality. Like the other prophets, his message was fundamentally conservative in that he called people to obey the laws of Moses. Amos also condemned the rote worship life of the people, proclaiming that ritual observance alone does not mask injustice. God wants justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. The people's injustice is seen as a sign of their rejection of the Lord. One cannot worship the Lord and lead a life of injustice; to do so is to reject the Lord.

Nevertheless, a promised restoration concludes the book, giving hope to readers.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Day of the Lord. Amos's preaching suggests that the people of Israel expected that the "day of the Lord" (5:18-20) would be a day when God acted to deliver Israel from her foes. The "day of the Lord" here is not the final eschatological judgment at the end of time, but the acting of God within history. Amos announced that God's action would come, but would be a day of judgment on Israel, not a day of deliverance.


God's actions in nature. Amos proclaimed God's actions within and lordship over nature. Like many other parts of the Old Testament, Amos saw God's hand at work within nature (4:6, 7, 9, 10; 7:1, 4).


Political situation. Amos prophesied during a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Egyptian Empire (to the southwest) and the Assyrian Empire (to the northeast) were at lower ebb. But that was soon to change. During this window, Israel was relatively powerful and prosperous.


Prophetic literature. The book of Amos is a book made up of messages once spoken by Amos, but Amos is not the "author" of the book. The speeches in Amos were once spoken by Amos, but they were most likely collected by other people--probably followers or disciples of Amos--and gathered into a book by these people. Why? The book was collected and copied for future generations for the purpose of instructing us in the ways of God.


Use of the legal/moral tradition. Amos does not preach a new social morality, but calls Israel to faithfulness to the Law of the Lord (2:4, 6-8).


Use of the historical tradition. Amos is aware of the history of Israel and draws on that history to condemn the people. He refers to traditions from the exodus (2:9-11; 9:7-8), the settlement of the land (5:11; 8:9-10), Sodom and Gomorrah (4:11), and traditions of Israel's election by God (3:2). One point that this use of history scores is that God's judgment of the people is not at odds with the history of God's dealings with the people, but consistent with it.


Worship life. Throughout the book of Amos, the prophet criticizes the worship life of the people. At times, he mocks the language of the worship liturgies (4:4-5; 5:4-7, 14-17) to drive home the point that rote ritual observance will not fool God, who expects a connection between our worship life and our daily life.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

God's anger. Some people think that God's anger is the opposite of God's love, but God's anger is an integral part of God's love. Because God loves people, God is angry when they suffer. God's commitment is to all people, including the poor and oppressed, which fuels God's anger at oppressors. Without the concept of God's anger, God's love is an empty concept.


God's judgment. God's judgment is not final; rather, God's judgment is a middle step. On the other side of God's judgment, a relationship with God continues. God judges Israel for the purpose of instructing Israel in what God requires of the people. God's judgment is "instrumental," that is, it is an instrument that God uses to instruct or teach.


Prophetic authority. The priest Amaziah challenges Amos about his preaching and instructs him not to prophesy in Israel, but to go home to Judah and "earn bread there." Amaziah is a professional religious man; he claims authority from the king of Israel. Amos responds that he is not a professional religious man, only a farmer. But God sent him to deliver God's word; he claims authority directly from God.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament