How to read Amos


  • Content: in a period of rare economic prosperity and political strength for Israel, Yahweh announces their doom because she has failed to keep covenant with him

  • Prophet: Amos, a shepherd/farmer from Tekoa, south of Bethlehem in Judah

  • Date of prophetic activity: ca.760 8.c., for an apparently brief period (at the peak of the reigns of Jeroboam II in Samaria [793-753] and Uzziah in Jerusalem [1792-7401]

  • Emphases: Yahweh is God over all the nations and the whole universe; Yahweh will bring utter ruin to Israel for her covenant disloyalty; syncretistic religion is anathema to Yahweh; Yahweh requires justice for the innocent and mercy for the poor; religious observances are no substitute for doing good and showing mercy


This third in the Book of the Twelve is the earliest of the prophetic books. Its basic message is that Yahweh has utterly rejected Israel's present religious and socioeconomic practices, so much so that he is going to bring the northern kingdom to an end and send the people into exile

(5:5, 27;6:7; 7:11,17). At issue is covenant infidelity in the form of religious syncretism (see "specific Advice for Reading Deuteronomy," and social injustice, carried on especially by the leaders and their indolent wives (4:1; 6:1-6). Indeed, they were glutted on religion, but didn't have a clue about Yahweh and his character (4:5; 5:21-23). So the Lion roars from Zion (1:2), and Amos gives him voice (3:8).

The oracles themselves were probably delivered at the sanctuary-the king's sanctuary-in Bethel (3 :74;7:10-17; cf . 1 Kgs 12:32) and within a brief period of time (Amos 1:1). They come to us carefully arranged. The first series (1:3-2: 16) proceeds from judgment on the surrounding

nations for various forms of treachery (1:3-2:3), to Judah for infidelity (2:4-5), to an opening summary judgment against Israel (2:6-16). Then comes a series of three announcement oracles (3: 1-5: 17; cf . "Hear this word" 3:l; 4:l;5:1) that spell out both Yahweh's coming judgment and the reasons for it. Next are two woe oracles, which reflect Israel's complacency, based on false security-religion (5:18-27) and material prosperity (6:1 -14). Finally, Amos reports five visions, the first two (7:l-6) indicating that the coming judgment will not be like former ones but will

involve total destruction, including the king and his sanctuary 7:7-9). This leads to an encounter with the king's priest at Bethel (7:10- 17), followed by the final two visions of utter destruction (8:1 -9:10).

In all of this there is scarcely a word of comfort and only a few words suggesting that Yahweh might relent (5:5 -6,I4-15). But the book itself concludes with an oracle of salvation (9:11-15) that looks beyond the fall of Israel to the fall of Judah as well, promising that "David's fallen tent" (Jerusalem) will be restored in a future age of abundance.


Amos is the first of our four canonical eighth-century prophets (a contemporary of Hosea, and a bit older than Isaiah and Micah). The historical political background to Amos can be found in 2 Kings 14:23-15:7 (cf. 2 Chr 26). Jeroboam II (in Israel) and Uzziah (in Judah) came to reign at

about the same time , and both had long and prosperous reigns, which included territorial expansion of a kind that together nearly equaled that of David and Solomon. This was made possible mostly because their reigns coincided with a very low period in Assyrian fortunes (782 -745), until the rise of Tiglath-Pileser III. And, of course, the royal house and the wealthy considered this period of growth and expansion as evidence of Yahweh's blessing, with a still brighter day of Yahweh awaiting them (Amos 5:18). But instead it turned out to be a brief halcyon period that lasted barely one generation. Thus, even though not mentioned by name in Amos, Assyria is still the ominous power on the political landscape, whose shadow lurks behind several passages (2: 13-16; 3: 1 1 ; 5:3, 27 ; 6:7, 8-14; 7 :9, 17 ; 9:4). And within less than a generation after the death of Jeroboam the kingdom of Israel ceased to exist altogether (722/1), and Yahweh's voice was no longer heard there (8:1 1-12)-God having used Assyria as his rod of

judgment against his wayward people (see 2 Kgs 17:7 -41).

What Amos saw and spoke most clearly at the peak of this period (Amos 1:1) was that everything was in fact the opposite of what it seemed. Their "blessing" had nothing to do with Yahweh, but everything to do with their own corrupt practices; nor did their religion have much

to do with Yahweh, even though it was undoubtedly still being carried on in his name. Thus only two broad categories of sin need be denounced: syncretistic religion (2:7-8; 4:4-5; 5:21-23 , 25-26; 8: 10, 14) and social injustice (2:6-8; 3:9-10 4:1; 5:7, 10-13, 15,24; 6:12; 8:4-6), which are clearly spelled out in the opening oracle, where they blend (2:6-8), as they do again in 5:21-24 and 8:4-6.It is this combination of oppression of the poor in a context of distorted religious enthusiasm that leads to Yahweh's judgment in the form of exile.

Crucial to this judgment is Amos's own loyalty to Yahweh and his covenant. At the heart of the covenant, as Jesus himself pointed out, is love for God and love for neighbor (Mark 12:30-3 1). Thus the Old Testament covenant, along with regulations for proper worship as a way of maintaining love for God was full of laws that provided a form of equity for all, based primarily on land distribution (and thus creating a mostly rural rather than urban society). And those who were without land (widows, orphans, Levites, foreigners) were to be properly cared for by the others. The reason for this2 as the Israelites were constantly reminded in the law (see e.9., Exod 22:21-27; Deut 16: I 8-20; 24:17 -22), was that Yahweh himself had compassion for the poor (including a slave people called Israel, whom he had rescued and made his own).

But during this halcyon period enormous changes had taken place in both Judah and Israel, especially in the latter. An urban mentality developed with luxurious dwellings and ornate appointments (3: 12, 15; 5: 11 ; 6:4-6), which was helped along by a collusion among royalty, priests, prophets, and judges, which became a wealthy aristocracy at the expense of the poor. Yahweh had had enough, so he chose a man of the land from the south, a Yahweh with powerful abilities of speech, to speak his word of judgment on the whole scene. Thus Amos renewed Moses' kind of prophetism among God's people-addressed to leaders and people alike, not just to individuals-announcing that the ultimate curse for not maintaining covenant loyalty, namely, desolation of the land and exile (Lev 26:27 -45; Deut 28:25-68), was about to be carried out. And he became the forerunner of many others who were to come, most of whom brought the same message to the southern kingdom.




Note several important features of this heading: (1) Amos is a man of the land from Judah (Tekoa), who carefully dates his "words"; (2) note also that verse 2 is Amos's own words about Yahweh's speech through him, imagery that will be picked up again in 3:8; and (3) don't miss the geography: Yahweh roars in Zion; Carmel withers (NNW of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean, & straight line that would cross Bethel and Samaria!).


Judgment on the Nations-and Israel

Watch for three things that give this series its rhetorical power: (1) The patterns repeat ("for three sins ..., even for four"); (2) they are directed against Israel's closest neighbors (beginning with a chiastic NE/SW-NW/SE pattern before going due east and south); (3) all of the sins are forms of treachery until you come to Judah (2:4-5), who has also broken covenant with Yahweh. You can imagine his Israelite hearers cheering Yahweh on-until the shoe drops, on Israel itself (2:6-16).

Though patterned after the rest, this final oracle is considerably elaborated, since the main points of Amos's message lie here: first the reasons for judgment (vv. 6-8), then a brief replay of the Israelites' spurning of covenant history (vv. 9-12), concluding with the pronouncement of coming doom (w. 13-16).


First Announcement Oracle: Failure to Keep Covenant

Watch for the various ways this first "Hear Yahweh's word" oracle sets up the rest of the book. It begins with Israel's covenantal privilege (w. 1-2), followed by Amos's justification for prophesying (w. 3-8)-to a people who have commanded him not to (2:12;7:12-13).Then the Philistines and Egyptians are called on to witness Israel's coming destruction (3:9-10), followed by three announcements of doom (w. 11, 12, 13- 15).


Second Announcement Oracle: Rejection of Divine Warnings

This second "Hear" oracle announces judgment on the indolent wives of the wealthy (w. 1-3), concluding with an ironic invitation to increase their beloved religious practices (vv. 4-5). This is followed by a series of reminders of past judgments Israel has failed to heed (w. 6-11), with a call to prepare to "meet your God" in judgment (v. 1 2); it concludes with a fragment of a hymn (v. 13; cf. 5:8-9; 9:5-6) that describes their God as Creator and Revealer (cf., o.9., Ps 104:2-5).


Third Announcement Oracle: False Religion and Injustice

This third "Hear" oracle in many ways forms the heart of the book. Note its striking chiastic structure. It begins and ends with a lament over Israel's fall (vv. 2-3,16-17), followed by an invitation to "seek [Yahweh] and live" (vv. 4-6, I4-15), while the inner circle spells out the recipients of this mixture of doom and invitation, namely, those who pervert justice (vv.7,10-12). The centerpiece is one more fragment of the hymn, reminding the people that the Creator is also the Judge (w. 8-9).


False Security in Religion

This first "woe" oracle speaks directly to Israel's false security in multiplied religious exercises (more religion - more favor with God), but the day of the Lord they are looking for will in fact turn out to be a nightmare (vv. 18-20). Indeed, Yahweh hates Israel's religious practices (vv. 21-23), because the people themselves are full of injustice (v.24). Note especially how the conclusion (vv. 25-26) makes clear the syncretistic nature of their present worship, ending with a final announcement of doom (v.27).


False Security in Material Goods and Military Success

This second woe is directed at Israel's leaders (v. 1), who will be among the first to go into exile (v.7). Their security lies in their great wealth and luxury (vv. 3-6 [v.2 is much debated]) and in some minor military conquests (vv. 12-13; note esp. the pun on the name "Lo Debar" [="nothing"]); note how both false securities are concluded with announcements of judgment (vv. 8-11, 14).


Three Vision Reports: Locust, Fire, Plumb Line

With these three visions the final series of judgments begins its move toward Yahweh's determined end. Note how the first two indicate that what is to come will not be like former plagues (locusts/drought; cf. 4:6-9); Israel's future will be full of (lit.) "groaning" (NIV "plumb line") because their destruction is now inevitable. Note especially that the king is finally specifically named tn 7:9, which is what raises the ire of the king's priest, Amaziah.


The Encounter with Amaziah

This little report is full of interest. In turn you learn that (1) Amos is at Bethel, and Amaziah, the king's priest, reports him to the king (w. 10-11); (2) when Amos is forbidden to prophesy (w. 12-13), he indicates he is not a prophet by choice, nor does he belong to the prophetic guild (vv. 14-15); and (3) he then uses this encounter to pronounce Yahweh's judgment against Amaziah and his household (vv. 16-17). Thus both the king and the priest are singled out for individual pronouncements of doom.


Two Vision Reports: The Certainty of Israel's Coming Destruction

These two visions spell out the final doom of Israel. The first (overripe fruit,8:1-14) especially recapitulates the issues of the Israelites' false religion mingled with injustice (vv. 4-6), in which their temple songs are turned into wailing (v. 3) and their treatment of the poor turned into the ultimate "famine"-the total loss of Yahweh's word in Israel.

The second (9:1-10) is climactic: Yahweh stands by the altar at Bethel, which crumbles on the heads of the people (vv. 1-4; note the reversal in v.4 of their failing to seek good and hate evil [5:14-15]); after one more hymnic insertion (9:5-6), it concludes with the announcement of Israel's total annihilation (vv. 8-10). Israel is no better than her pagan neighbors (v. 7).


Hope for the Future

After all that has gone before, this word of hope is welcome relief. It comes in two parts, (1) the promised restoration of Jerusalem (vv. 11-12) and (2) the coming of the great messianic age (w. l3-15), which have found their beginning fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

The book of Amos declares an important dimension of the biblical

story in bold relief: True religion and social justice must go hand in

hand or one is breaking covenant with God.