During the eighth century B. C., prophecy took a different turn in Israel. After the rise of the prophetic movement in Israel in the days of Samuel, the work and ministry of the prophets who ministered in Israel and Judah changed. That change is clearly described in 1 Samuel 9:9:
“Formerly in Israel, anyone who went to inquire of God would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer’; for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.”
This passage says that early in Israel’s history, an inspired person who spoke on behalf of Yahweh was known as the “seer” (Hebrew ro’eh). Most of the seers were visionaries or clairvoyants who attained prophetic inspiration through ecstatic experiences.
One classical example of prophetic inspiration through an ecstatic experience is the case of Elisha. When Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, wished to consult a prophet of the Lord to know whether he should go to war with the king of Israel, the king of Israel summoned the prophet Elisha, the son of Shaphat, to render an oracle and ascertain whether they should go to war against their enemies
When the prophet came before the two kings, Elisha said: “‘As the LORD of hosts lives, whom I serve, were it not that I have regard for Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would neither look at you, nor see you. But now bring me a minstrel.’ And when the minstrel played, the power of the LORD came upon him” (2 Kings 3:14-15). Music helped Elisha enter into an ecstatic mood in order to receive the Spirit of the Lord.
The prophets who began to prophesy in the eighth century were different from the seers. A prophet was overpowered by the Spirit of God and sent to the people with a message received directly from God. The prophet was known as the nabi. The word nabi means “one who is called.”
The early prophets came together in groups, popularly known as “school of prophets,” a term that does not appear in the Bible. The leader was known as “the father” and the followers were known as “the sons of the prophet.” The earlier prophets were political activists. The prophets who began to prophesy in the eighth century were not political activists. Their mission was to proclaim the word of God to a rebellious nation.
When Amos began to preach, he made an effort to distinguish himself from the ecstatic prophets. When Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, tried to stop Amos from preaching at Bethel, Amaziah told Amos: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there”
(Amos 7:12). In response, Amos told Amaziah: “ I am no prophet, or one of the sons of the prophets; I am a headman and one who takes care of sycamore-trees” (Amos 7:14).
Little is known about Amos. According to the superscription of his book, he prophesied in the days of Jeroboam, king of Israel (786-746) and in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah (783-742). Amos began to prophesy “two years before the earthquake.” Although no precise date can be given to when this earthquake occurred, it is clear that this was a major event in Israel since this earthquake was remembered two centuries later (Zechariah 14:5).
The severity of the earthquake probably had done much damage to the cities of the Northern Kingdom and caused panic throughout Palestine. It is also possible that those who collected the oracles of Amos realized that the earthquake had validated Amos’ message.
According to the opening words of the book, Amos was from Tekoa, a town that was situated about five miles south of Jerusalem. The town was a strategic location for the defense of the nation. After the death of Solomon and the division of the united monarchy, Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, fortified Tekoa in order to defend against possible invasion from the south (2 Chronicles 11:5-6).
When the word of the Lord came to Amos, he was “among the shepherds of Tekoa” (Amos 1:1). In addition, in Amos 7:14, Amos called himself “a herdsman.” This expression may indicate that Amos and his family possessed both sheep and cattle.
Amos also said that he was “a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14). The meaning of Amos’ second occupation has been interpreted differently by scholars. Some scholars believe that the word “dresser” means “to scrape” or to “scratch open” in order to promote fast ripening of the sycamore fig. Others believe that Amos gathered the sycamore figs either for sale or to use them as cattle fodder.
In light of this information about Amos’ occupation, it is impossible to decide the nature of his economic situation. Was Amos a poor man who needed two jobs to survive? Or was Amos a wealthy man who had sheep and cattle and who was a seller of sycamore figs? The book does not provide enough information for a conclusive answer.
What the book of Amos tells its readers is that Amos did not belong to one of the prophetic guilds in existence in Israel and that he was gainfully employed when the Lord took him from following the flock and said to him: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). In obedience to the divine call, Amos left his home and what he was doing and went north to proclaim God’s word to a rebellious people.
In a future post I will discuss the call of Amos.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary