Studying the book of the prophet Amos is an excellent way to begin a study of the prophetic tradition of Israel.
It is a short book full of passion and anger whose subject matter is a protest in the name of God against social injustice, complacency and hypocrisy. In a world increasingly characterised by cruel inequalities and heartless insensitivity to suffering and need it is uncannily relevant.
Amos compares the voice of God to the voice of a lion warning people and rousing them to a response. Amos asserts that the sovereign Lord is no pussy-cat and will not be placated by pious platitudes but only by lives lived in accordance with the demands of justice and compassion.
The words of this man who lived almost eight centuries before the birth of Christ are most definitely not dead letters for the people of our own time.
Exploring: History and Geography
AMOS- A PROPHET OF ISRAEL
The prophetic work of Amos was carried on in the middle of the eighth century BCE in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dennis Bratcher’s chart shows how, after the reign of King Solomon, Israel was divided into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). A coloured map in an Atlas of the Bible indicates the extent of both kingdoms while another indicates the location of amos’s preaching.
The Northern Kingdom
In the eighth century, Israel, the Northern Kingdom was particularly wealthy and flourishing in contrast to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This was partly due to geographic factors. The Southern Kingdom contained large tracts of barren land and struggled without access to the fertile regions of the North. Visit one of the online photo galleries and see for yourself the contrast between the countryside in the north and the countryside in the south.
A Rich and Prosperous Reign: Jereboam II
Moreover, at the time of Amos, King Jeroboam II had ruled the Northern Kingdom (Israel) for 41 years and under him Israel had reached political and military heights and peace and prosperity unknown since the time of Solomon. Read a brief history of the Northern Kingdom at the Quartz Hill Online Theology site to understand how this situation had come about.
The kings of the North get a very bad press in scripture and are usually judged to have ‘done what is displeasing to the Lord’. Jeroboam II is no exception (2Kings 14:24). The short article from Quartz Hill makes the good point that the scriptural history of the Northern Kingdom was written from the point of view of the deuteronomical writers (see last two paragraphs on this page from Barry Banstra) who were inevitably scornful of the infidelities of the Northern kings.
Temptations to infidelity and extravagance
However, the Northern Kingdom was exposed to much greater temptations to participate in pagan religion and cult, and Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom, while economically poorer, remained the bastion of religious orthodoxy. In addition, the luxury and easy living of the wealthier members of the Northern cities was often built on the exploitation of the poor and indifference to their suffering. Thus, despite their impressive religious ritual, the social offences, exploitation, acquisitiveness, dishonesty and hard-heartedness implicit in their way of life broke the covenant with the God who had brought not just the wealthy but the whole people out of Egypt. It is this kind of infidelity and injustice in particular that is denounced by Amos.
Read the section ‘Prophets and prophecy’ in Old Testament Core Resources.
Distinguish between the biblical and the popular meaning of the words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophets’. Which, if any, of the following are prophets in the biblical sense:
- Lilith, the astrologist in The Age newspaper
- Rob Gell, the TV weather forecaster
- Moira Kelly, the children’s advocate
- George Orwell, science fiction writer
The former prophets
- Who is regarded as the first and greatest prophet of Israel? Why?
- Who are the ‘former prophets’. In which biblical books are their stories told?
- Find out approximate dates for Elijah and Elisha.
- Locate Mt. Carmel and Mt Horeb on a map of ancient Israel.
- Research three key facts each about Baal, Ahab, Jezebel.
The classic prophets
- Name the ‘classic’ prophets of Israel.
- Why are they sometimes called the ‘literary’ prophets?
- Why are twelve of these know as minor prophets?
- What is a ‘prophetic action’? Find three examples.
- Was there anything unique about the religious insight of the prophets?
The Northern Kingdom
- Locate the Northern Kingdom.
- Find Bethel, Samaria, Dan.
- Why was the North more prosperous than the South?
- Note three key facts about Jereboam II.
Examining: Genre and Author
WHAT KIND OF WRITING IS PROPHECY?
As English students know, understanding the genre of a piece of writing, whether it is a poetic, analytic, imaginative piece is important to understanding and interpreting it. A helpful introduction to the concept of genre in scripture is provided on Dr Tim Bulkeley’s Postmodern Bible site. This site also contains a good definition of a prophetic oracle, together with examples of different kinds of oracles. You might also like to read a very brief outline of prophecy in Israel provided in the Scripture Core Resources and Fr Felix Just’s response to the question ‘What is prophecy?’
The book of Amos contains many features typical of prophetic writing:
- oraclesagainst the wrongdoing of the nations and of Israel
- lamentations over the hypocrisy and self-centredness of Israel
- sermons calling the people to repentance
- Amos’ account of his call to prophecy
- vivid symbolicvisions/actionsthat illustrate the circumstances of Israel and its fate
- words of consolation
WHO WAS AMOS?
The text has its origins in the prophetic activity of Amos, a man from Tekoa in Judah, the Southern Kingdom. Amos had no connections with any of the prophetic movements of the times but was from an agricultural background. He experienced an irresistible call from God to leave his home and travel to Bethel in the Northern Kingdom to prophesy at the sanctuary there.
Tim Bulkeley writing about Amos makes the point that the only things we can know about the prophet are the details included in the book of Amos itself. See also his good explanation (hyperlinked within his article) of the relationship between the work of a prophet and the book which bears his name.
- List three or four different writing genres you have encountered in ordinary life this week and note differences in style, theme and purpose.
- Read Amos 3: 1–2; 4:1; 7:14–16; 9:11–12. Notice the differences in style and purpose between them. Can you match any of these verses to the features mentioned above as typical of prophetic writing?
- When, approximately, did Amos exercise his prophetic ministry?
- Where was he from and where did he preach? Find Tekoa on a map.
Examining: Time and Place
FROM THE SPOKEN WORD TO THE WRITTEN WORD
While the text has its origins in the spoken words of Amos, who was active in the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 760 BCE, he himself would most likely not be responsible for the written version we now have. Oracles proclaimed by Amos may have been written down by him or by his followers and edited and even reinterpreted over time before taking their final form.
Usually scripture scholars see the prophetic books as records of what a particular prophet proclaimed and wrote down, refined and distilled, perhaps by several editors/redactors. A rather academic article in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures describes two views of how the book of Amos emerged and shows how scholarly opinion about texts can change as new facts come to light or new ways of thinking emerge.
- What are the stages in the evolution of many of the prophetic books of the Bible?
- What evidence is there within the text that Amos probably did not write it himself?
Encountering: Reading the Text
The book of Amos consists of nine brief chapters. Though its style is a little unusual to people unfamiliar with prophetic writings, it is easily read at one sitting. A well designed online version of Amos can be found on the Bible Gateway site. It uses the New International Version of the Bible but provides many other translations. The text is taken chapter by chapter and is arranged in verses in a large font.
Another useful version is on the New American Bible site. This is a translation commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. A particular feature of this site is the extensive footnotes on each page which briefly explain persons and places mentioned in the text.
Tim Bulkeley’s Amos project contains his own translation of Amos together with a close commentary. This site is challenging to navigate but contains a great deal of useful material on prophecy in general, and the prophet Amos in particular, so it worth spending some time working it out.
As you read each chapter make notes on what you think is happening in the text: i
- the people/entities being addressed,
- the points being made by Amos,
- the emotions being expressed.
These initial responses can be tested as you become more familiar with the text.
Consider keeping the online Atlas of the Bibleopen by so you can see the locations of the major towns and regions mentioned in the book of Amos.
Encountering: Studying the Text
The book of Amos was written to denounce the inequities and infidelities of Israel, to call the people to repentance and a change of life, to warn them of impending disaster and dispersion but also to reassure them that even though God would surely pass judgment on them, all hope was not lost. The relevance of the message of Amos to today’s world, in which the gap between rich and poor seems to be ever widening, is obvious. Amos is known as the prophet of social justice. He calls for a change of heart and a return to a genuine religious spirit not based simply in cult or worship of God but in moral and ethical goodness.
There are several introductions to the book of Amos that set out the themes of the book. Some of the sources already cited discuss the main themes but you might also refer to the introduction to Amos in the New American Bible.
The American Catholic Scripture from Scratch site has a very accessible article comparing themes in Amos and in the New Testament book of James.
A more detailed article on the book of Amos is provided on The Biblical Studies Foundation site. This article discusses the themes, style and implications of the book.
Choose from among these introductory sites approaches that will best help your own understanding and that of your students.
The following outline is a way of understanding the structure of the book of Amos:
1. Judgments against the nations 1:1–2:16
a) Introduction 1:1–2
b) Judgments on neighbouring nations 1:3–2:3
c) Judgments on Judah and Israel 2:4–16
2. Three oracles of judgment against Israel 3:1–5:17
a) A further declaration of judgment 3:1–15
b) The depravity of Israel 4:1–13
c) A lamentation for Israel’s sin and downfall 5:1–17
3. Two oracles of woe against Israel 5:18–6:14
a) Against Israel’s practice of religion 5:18–27
b) Against Israel’s pride and complacency 6:1–14
4. Five visions of judgment against Israel 7:1–9:10
a) The locust plague 7:1–3
b) The flaming fire 7:4–6
c) The plumb line 7:7–9
d) The basket of ripe fruit 8:1–14
e) The judgment of the Lord 9:1–10
5. The promise of Israel’s restoration 9:11–15
- Compare your original notes made on first reading through the book of Amos with what you now know of the themes and purpose of the book. What have you discovered? Are there insights you have had that are not addressed by the commentators? What is the relevance of Amos for today’s world, for Australian society?
Encountering: Biblical Exegesis
Exegesis of a text from Amos for younger students
Choose a text from Amos, for example Amos 7:7–17
Step 1:Read the passage carefully two or three times.
Step 2:Read the sections of the book that come before and after the passage to find out its context.
Step 3:Look at the chosen passage as closely and in as much detail as you possibly can.
These are the kinds of detailed questions you might ask yourself about Amos 7:7–17:
- (Verses 7–9) Who is speaking these words?
- Who does he say is directing what he does?
- What is a plumb-line and what is its usual purpose?
- Why do you think God shows Amos a plumb-line?
- What is going to happen to Israel?
- Find the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) on a map of ancient Palestine.
- Who was Jeroboam? What is his ‘house’?
- What and where was Bethel?
- Who was Amaziah? Why does he reject Amos?
- What message does Amaziah send to Jeroboam?
- What does Amaziah tell Amos to do?
- How does Amos defend himself?
- What is his final word to Amaziah?Use the online resources recommended throughout this site to help you answer these questions. A commentary on this particular section of the book of Amos can be found on Howard Wallace’s page.
Step 4:Now that you have carefully considered these 10 verses, what do they tell you about Amos? What kind of a person is he shown to be? What is his relationship to God, to those in authority? What is his mission? What relation does this short passage have to the message of the whole book? (N.B. Be sure to read the whole book to find out why judgement is being passed on Israel and why Amos is raising his voice.)
Step 5:What is the meaning of this passage for us? Can one person change much in society? Was Amos strong or merely foolhardy? What do this passage and the whole book of Amos suggest about how we might resist wrongdoing and injustice? What does it suggest about our relationship to God, to those in authority, to those in need?
Biblical exegesis for older students
A helpful site for teachers of older studentswho want to familiarise themselves with the aim and a method of biblical exegesis is Richard Ascough’s A Guide to Biblical Exegesis. He proposes a good simple definition of biblical exegesis and a straightforward three-step method:
- What does the author say?
- What did the author mean?
- What does it mean for me?
Ascough suggests a particular way of going about answering these three questions. The first tasks in each section are well within the capabilities of middle-school students. Later tasks and terminology are more appropriate to senior and tertiary students. Hyperlinks within the text of the article direct teachers to a helpful guide to different translations of the Bible and recommendations about various exegetical tools (concordances, dictionaries, commentaries etc.) in print.
- Choose one of the following passages from the book of Amos and prepare an exegesis of the text at an appropriate level: Amos 3:1–8; 5:1–6; 5:18–24; 9:9–15.
Encountering: Praying with the Text
Praying with a text is a very different activity to studying it, though study can and often does lead to prayer. Studying a scripture text implies an active effort to understand and interpret it, while praying a scriptural text invites us to ‘surrender’ to it, allowing it to penetrate at a deeper level than the cognitive alone. See the section headed ‘Praying with scripture’ in New Testament Core Resources.
A Basket of Summer Fruitis an example of an extended prayerful reflection on two verses from Amos (Amos 8:1–2). It is written from an adult perspective but it is easy to see how the writer approaches the text carefully, ponders its meaning and draws out its message for now. It may help you see the possibilities for prayer and reflection in texts from Amos.
As the prophet is closely associated with the message of social justice, you may find some of the prayer suggestions on social justice sites helpful. For example, an English site Fairtrade makes some suggestions for prayer about unjust situations, as does the ACSJC site.
The Institute for Peace and Justice site contains a reflection sheet entitled Me, a Prophet? It is based on the prophet Jeremiah but you could adapt the reflection to Amos by substituting different extracts and reworking the wording.
A Litany of Remembrance and Salvation could also be adapted to Australian circumstances.
Responding: Lived Responses, Then and Now
The early Church
The prophetic voice of Amos protesting against social injustice has always found a response in Church teaching and practice. Since apostolic times concern for the poor and powerless has been a characteristic of the best of Christianity.
The First Centuries – Teachings of the Fathers
A short summary of social service in the early Church is available on the Orthodox site Orthodox Diakonia. It contains brief quotations from some of the leaders of the Church in its first centuries including St Basil of Caesarea, who set up a whole compound round his church in Caesarea to tend to the needs of the poor or sick and the educational requirements of boys and girls, rich and poor. In the same spirit but even earlier was St Nicholas of Myra whose story though shrouded in myth focuses upon his generosity and concern for the poor and marginalised of his community. St John Chrysostom (354–407) a great leader of the early Church was forthright in his defence of justice for the poor, ‘Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs…’ (quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2446) St John makes it plain that justice must precede charity, a point of view that would have been shared by Amos of Tekoa.
The Middle Ages
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church was the chief provider of social succour and education throughout Europe.
Some Influential Individual Responses
The work of 17th century saints Vincent de Pauland Louise Marillacfor poor and dispossessed people and the social response engendered by their influence is well known. In the 19th Century people like Agnes Morrogh Bernard, a nun in Ireland set up woollen mills in Mayo Ireland to address the disastrous social disruption after the Great Famine and closer to home Suzanne Aubert did extraordinary work among desperate people both Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand. Martin de Porres (Peru) and Dorothy Day (USA) are two other individuals whose work for the poor was immensely influential.
Many Christians have been martyred for their commitment to justice for the poor. Read about four American nuns killed simply because they associated themselves with poor people in El Salvador. Martin Luther King’s story is another one worth pondering. A reflection entitled ‘I Have No Hands (or Voice, Eyes and Heart) But Yours’ looks, among other things, at King’s response to the many injustices that he saw around him in the America of the 1950s and 1960s.
Catholic social teaching
With the rise of capitalism and communism in the 19th century, the Church was challenged to formulate a systematic response to the social questions brought to the surface by the Industrial Revolution and the social chaos and inequities that followed it. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII issued the first document of a great body of Social Teachingbuilt up during the 20th century, Rerum Novarum. Prominent among the themes of this body of teaching is the very core of Amos’ prophetic message –justice for the poor. An article drawing the links between the prophets and Catholic parish communities is Communities of Salt and Light.
Several justice sites that help teachers and students respond to the prophetic call to social justice emphasise the importance of being ‘doers’ not just listeners. The Justice Education in Catholic Schools site is one such. The Just 1 World is a secular site that looks at where injustice occurs in our world and at what can be done about it. An account of one family’s efforts to respond to the prophet’s call for social justice can be found in a very down-to-earth article Parenting for Peace and Justice. It sets out concrete examples of how one family has made a conscious effort to live in peace and justice.
Responding: Responses in Art and Music
The Textweek site has a directory of films that deal with themes raised in the book of Amos. Look in the Index of Movie themes under headings such as ‘justice’, ‘greed’, ‘prophets’, ‘doers of the word’, ‘freedom’ and ‘judgement’.
The Seattle Justice Centre tries to convey in its design how the actions and integrity of individuals can have an effect on the whole of society.
An immensely popular novel and musical highlighting the poverty, cruelty and inequality of 19th century England is Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Read about the context of the novel and notice some parallels between Dicken’s scathing attack on the Poor Laws of his time and Amos’ denunciation of social mores in ancient Israel. Are there comparable novels being written in our own time?
Much art is a prophetic comment on social conditions. Think of Picasso’s Guernica for instance, so disturbing that a tapestry reproduction of it was covered during a recent United Nations press conference in relation to the war in Iraq, or Daumier’s visual commentary on the stark contrasts in 19th century French society or the work of Depression artists in America. Interestingly, the prophets themselves often used symbolic actions and visions to make their point. Examples we have looked at in Amos are his visions of the plague of locusts, the flaming fire, the basket of ripe fruit and the plumb-line.
- What are the parallels between what the prophets were aiming to bring about in their day and the aims of the artists mentioned above? What are some differences?
- A variety of pictures depicting Amos himself and images from his message can be found on the Textweeksite. A delightful series of medieval images of him communicating with God as he tends his sheep can be found on the Biblical Art on the Web site, together with a miniature of the Vision of the Plumbline.
Responding: A Personal Response
Amos the prophet felt himself compelled to leave his livelihood and his own familiar surroundings (his comfort zone) to travel to unfamiliar territory to announce an unpopular message that few people, especially those in authority, wanted to hear. He did not particularly want to, but could not withstand the call of God:
‘When the lion roars who can keep from being afraid? When the Sovereign Lord speaks, who can keep from proclaiming his message?’ (Amos 3:8).
- How do the words and action of the prophets especially Amos challenge our image of God?
- Are there any issues on which you have felt ‘compelled’ to act?
- What are our comfort zones? Can we leave them from time to time?
- What are some urgent issues in our society/world that need addressing?
- What can we as individuals or as a class do about one of these things?
- Use some of the ideas on the Families Challenging Materialism page to discuss and implement possible lifestyle modifications in favour of social justice.
- Have another look at ‘I Have No Hands (or Voice, Eyes, and Heart) But Yours’ to remind yourself of the possibility of acting ‘prophetically’ in your own family, classroom, friendship group, community situation.