In his book The Prophets, Abraham Heschel wrote: “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction” (pp. 17-18). There is much truth in this statement, because a study of the ministry and the message of the prophets whose books appear in the Old Testament, reveals that what they had to say was not well received by the people of Israel. As Heschel stated, His mission is repugnant to the people who whom the prophet was sent. He bears scorn and reproach and “he is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries” (p. 18).
This quarter I am teaching a course on the Minor Prophets. The students in my class will be exposed to the message of these servants of God whose work was rejected by most people in Israel and Judah. In class today we will study the prophet Amos. For this reason, I have decided to give a brief introduction to Amos, his book and his message.
Amos was the first of the four great prophets of the eighth century B.C. The other three prophets were Hosea, who like Amos, also preached in the Northern Kingdom, and Isaiah and Micah who preached in Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern Kingdom.
Amos preached in the Northern Kingdom at a time of peace and great prosperity. He became God’s messenger to a people who had forgotten the ancient traditions of the nation and had rejected the laws that made Israel a community in relationship with Yahweh.
Israel had abandoned the God who had redeemed them from the house of slavery, from their Egyptian oppression.
After they settled in the land of Canaan, after the death of Joshua and the generation that conquered the land God promised to give to Abraham and to his descendants, the people began worshiping the gods of the Canaanites. In the days of Amos, the people of Israel were not only worshiping Baal and Asherah, but also the gods of Mesopotamia and were following the religious practices “of the nations whom the Lord had driven out from before Israel” (2 Kgs 17:8 NET).
Because of Israel’s apostasy, the Lord was bringing judgment on his people. In order to warn the people about their sin and the disintegration of the social, political, and religious life of Israel, the Lord took Amos from his profession as a shepherd and commanded him to go to Israel and preach a harsh message to a rebellious people.
Amos’ message was addressed to the political and religious leaders of the Northern Kingdom. He criticized the political leaders of Israel because they oppressed the poor. Amos criticized the leaders of the religious institutions of the nation, the priests and the prophets, because they contributed to the oppression of the poor and because they failed to be faithful to their task of teaching the law of God to the people.
Amos criticized the rich people of Samaria and the merchants of Israel because their behavior was contrary to the ideals of the ancient traditions of the nation. These people broke the solidarity imposed on them by the religious and social traditions of the nation.
Amos was not a professional prophet. He was a shepherd from Tekoa (Amos 1:1) and a cattle breeder (Amos 7:14). In addition, he probably supplemented his living by being a dresser of sycamore trees (Amos 7:14).
Although Amos preached in the Northern Kingdom, in Bethel and in Samaria, he was a citizen of the Southern Kingdom. When Amos received his call, he “was among the shepherds of Tekoa” (Amos 1:1). Tekoa was not a very big place. Tekoa was a small village in the Judean hills, about six miles south of Bethlehem and twelve miles south of Jerusalem.
Nothing is said in the Bible about the life and family of Amos. According to the introduction to his book, Amos prophesied during the reign Jeroboam II, king of Israel (786–746 B.C.), and during the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah (783–742 B.C.). Although no date is given for his ministry, the book says that Amos preached two years before the great earthquake. It is possible that Amos prophesied about the coming of the great earthquake (Amos 8:8).
This earthquake cannot be dated with certainty. However, the earthquake was a significant event in Israel, because it was remembered 200 years later (see Zech. 14:5). According to Amos (Amos 8:7-9), the earthquake was accompanied by an eclipse of the sun. Assyrian records refer to an eclipse of the sun on June 15, 763 B. C. Thus, Amos’ ministry could be dated between 765-760 B. C.
During the reign of Jeroboam, Israel enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. Jeroboam was a successful king. As a king, he was able to enlarge his kingdom through conquest (2 Kgs 14:23-29). Jeroboam’s military expansion brought to Israel a time of great prosperity which contributed to the accumulation of wealth and the expansion of trade with the neighboring nations. In his oracles, Amos mentions the great prosperity of Israel and the riches of its inhabitants. Amos’ criticism was against the political leaders of Israel, against the merchants, and against the notable people of the nation who “oppress the poor and crush the needy” (Amos 4:1).
One of the main emphases in the preaching of Amos is a call for justice. Amos uses two words to summarize his message. These words are mišpaṭ (“justice”) and ṣedāqā (“righteousness”). The word mišpaṭ refers to the decision of the court in cases where a person brings a legal case before the judge. Amos condemns the judicial system of Israel because the judicial process had been corrupted and the poor people of Israel could not depend on the courts to hear their case fairly.
The words ṣedāqā refers to acts that conform to an ethical or moral standard. In the case of Amos, he criticizes the judges of Israel because their decisions are not according to the truth because they were partial in their judgment to the detriment of the rights of the oppressed.
Amos’ use of these two words reflects the prophet’s zeal for social justice. Although the book gives evidence of a significant amount of unrighteousness and injustice in Israel, the book does not provide much information about the people who were the victims of this injustice. What Amos says about these people is that they were being mistreated, exploited, and that they were denied justice in the courts. It is as if the perpetrators of these injustices failed to recognize that the poor and powerless were fellow human beings.
In addition to his criticism of the injustices he saw happening in Israel, Amos was also concerned with what was happening in other places. The book of Amos begins with several oracles against foreign nations.
Amos proclaimed oracles against Damascus, Philistia, Ammon, Moab, Tyre, and Edom. These nations are condemned for crimes against humanity, for their violent treatment of one another, and the violation of human dignity. According to Amos, these nations stand guilty before God, who is the sovereign judge. God holds these nations accountable for their violence and for their mistreatment of other human beings.
Another section of the book that deserves a closer scrutiny is the section dealing with the five visions Amos saw. These visions are important because they are part of the call of Amos to serve as a prophet of Yahweh. These visions are the vision of the locust (Amos 7:1-3), the vision of the fire (Amos 7:4-6), the vision of the plumb line (Amos 7:7-9), the vision of the basket of fruit (Amos 8:1-3), and the vision of the destruction of Israel (Amos 9:1-4).
I have written five posts dealing with Amos’ visions. If you are interested in reading more about Amos’ five visions, follow the links listed below.
The oracles of Amos deal with divine justice and divine providence. The God proclaimed by Amos is a God who blesses, but also a God who judges. God does not tolerate the injustice and the unrighteousness of his people. God will no longer put up with their violation of the demands of the covenant or with their mistreatment of the poor and the oppressed.
Amos teaches that the God of Israel is also the God of the nations. God is sovereign over every nation. He is not just the God of Israel and Judah; he is Lord over the entire world. God will not only bring his judgment against Israel, but he also will bring his judgment upon other nations because of their crimes against people. According to Amos, the violation of human dignity was a violation of a person created in God’s image.
Amos affirms that life is precious to God. Any person or any nation that violates the sanctity of human life must give an account to God for that life. As the Lord said,” I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being” (Gen 9:5).
The book of Amos proclaims primarily a message of God’s judgment upon the Northern Kingdom. However, the book concludes with a message of hope. Israel had violated the demands of the covenant, but had made a promise to Abraham that his descendants would as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Gen 15:5). God will judge his people because of their sin, but in the end, God will restore them to their land (Amos 9:11-15).
Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets New York: HarperCollins, 1962.
Other Studies on Amos
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Posts on Amos’ Five Visions: