Next fall quarter I will be teaching the book of Amos to my students at Northern Seminary. I enjoy teaching the book of Amos because his message of social justice is as relevant today as it was in the eighth century B.C.
I have written several studies on Amos and his book. In order to help my students, I will be posting a series of studies on Amos throughout the summer. If you want to read my previous studies on Amos, click here.
The book of Amos does not provide much information about the prophet or his family. The little information we know about Amos is found in the book that contains his oracles and visions.
It is probable that Amos himself wrote most of his oracles and visions. However, it is evident that the two biographical sections of the book, recorded in the third person, were written by the redactor of the book or by one of his disciples.
The first of these sections, Amos 1:1, provides three key pieces of information about the prophet. First, it says that Amos was from the village of Tekoa, a small town about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. Second, the superscription of the book says that Amos prophesied during the reigns of Jeroboam, King of Israel, and Uzziah, King of Judah. This means that Amos’ prophetic activities took place circa 760 B.C. Third, this short biographical section also says that Amos was one of the “shepherds of Tekoa.”
The second biographical information about Amos is the only section of the book that is written in the third person. This biographical section provides another look at Amos’s occupation and describes his call to the prophetic ministry. In his confrontation with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, Amaziah called him a “seer.” However, Amos told Amaziah that he was not a prophet or a son of a prophet. Rather, he claimed to be “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14).
In previous posts I studied the call of Amos to be a prophet and the five visions associated with his call (see here). In the present post I want to study Amos’ profession. My goal is to clarify the meaning of Amos’ words, that he was “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”
Amos says that he was one of the shepherds of Tekoa (Amos 1:1). The Hebrew word for “shepherds” is nōqedîm. This means that Amos was a keeper of small cattle. The word used to describe Amos’ profession appears once more in the Old Testament. The word appears in 2 Kings 3:4 to describe the king of Moab: “Now King Mesha of Moab was a sheep breeder (nōqēd), who used to deliver to the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs, and the wool of one hundred thousand rams.”
The text says that the king of Moab sponsored sheep breeding on such a large scale that he was able to supply the king of Israel with one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams.
This unique word also appears in an Ugaritic text, in a poem dedicated to Baal and to Anath. The word refers to a herdsman who supplied cattle to the temple (ANET 141). Because of this mention of the word in Ugarit to refer to an individual who supplied animals to the temple, some scholars have proposed that Amos was a man associated with the temple. However, there is no evidence that Amos was a cultic functionary or that he supplied animals for the sacrifice in the temple.
In Amos 7:14, Amos uses another word to describe his profession. He said that he was “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” The Hebrew word for “herdsman” is (bōqēr), a word that means a breeder of large cattle.
In his commentary on Amos, Mays wrote: “He lived a secular life as a landed peasant before his prophetic activity. But the use of nōqēd in the Old Testament and Ugarit does suggest that Amos was no ordinary shepherd, but a breeder of sheep who would have belonged to the notable men of his community” (1969:19).
The meaning of the expression “a dresser of sycamore trees” is not very clear and has been interpreted in different ways. Sycamore trees were abundant in certain places in Judah. The writer of the book of kings compared Solomon’s riches with the sycamores of the Shephelah: “The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedars as numerous as the sycamores of the Shephelah” (1 Kings 10:27).
In his commentary on Amos, Mays wrote: “The sycamore is a tree of the mulberry family which produces a fig-like fruit; the species was abundant in the land at altitudes below the frostline, especially in the Shephelah. ‘Dresser’ (bōlēs) means some kind of work as a husbandman of the tree, probably puncturing the forming fruit to make it sweeten and become more edible” (1969:138).
What Amos was saying to the priest Amaziah was that he did not make his living as a prophet or that he was not one of the visionaries that was economically dependent on the temple. Amos was simply a shepherd on a mission for God, one who had taken the prophetic task on a temporary basis. He was not a prophet for life. He was a prophet long enough to proclaim the message that Yahweh had entrusted to him.
Wolff, in his commentary on Amos said that it is unclear whether the expression a dresser of sycamore trees “designates only someone who actually performed the work or might refer to someone who supervised such labor. It is certain, however, that Amos is here pointing out an additional source of income” (1977:314).
The eloquence of Amos’ writing style seems to indicate that Amos was an individual well informed about the culture and politics of the people of the Northern Kingdom and the neighboring nations. It is possible that Amos was more than just a poor shepherd. His oracles reveal that Amos was a gifted individual and not a manual laborer. As Mays and Wolff suggest, it was possible that Amos was the owner of a large flock.
When the text says that the king of Moab was “a sheep breeder,” it does not mean that he was a common shepherd. It means that he employed people to take care of his flock. It is also possible that Amos employed people to take care of his sheep and to take care of his sycamore trees.
Amos probably was busy doing his work when he had five visions from God announcing the coming judgment against Israel. Amos did not have to go to Bethel, but God had summoned him to prophesy to a rebellious people: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). So, Amos went, in obedience to God’s call. People looked at him with suspicion because he was from the Southern Kingdom.
Nevertheless, Amos faithfully proclaimed the message he had received from Yahweh. His message was rejected. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, ordered him to return home. His expulsion from the Northern Kingdom probably ended his ministry. If Amos returned to his profession as a shepherd, which he probably did, his life would never be the same again.
Other Studies on Amos:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Mays, James L. Amos . Old Testament Libraries. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.
Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts [ANET]. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Joel and Amos. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.