The Place of Amos in the Hebrew tradition of Prophesy

by Stanley Pearson

© Stanley Pearson 2020. All rights reserved.


In this essay I look at the extent to which Amos, as an example of the Latter Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, can be regarded as a typical example of prophecy and also at the way in which certain aspects of prophetic thinking develop as we move from Amos and the pre-exilic prophets into the period of the Exile and beyond. J.F.A. Sawyer (1993: 1-25) and C.D. Stanley (2010: 416-423) have described the main contexts and characteristics of prophetic activity, for example, the nature of the prophetic experience and call, the use of prophetic symbolism, the place of miracles, the relationship of prophets to the court and the cult, and the existence of false as well as true prophecy. I shall start by looking to see how Amos fits this picture. However, the more interesting question, I think, is the place Amos occupies in the tradition of the literary prophets as they develop theological themes such as the nature of Yahweh and his relationship with his people, the nature of righteousness and the tension between judgment and punishment on the one hand and forgiveness, restoration and hope for the future on the other.

The Place of Amos in the Hebrew tradition of Prophesy

H.M. Barstad (1993:46) gives us the following definition of prophecy:

A prophet(ess) is a person, male or female, who (1) through a cognitive experience, a vision, an audition, a dream or the like, becomes the subject of the revelation of a deity, or several deities, and (2) is conscious of being commissioned by the deity/ deities in question to convey the revelation in speech, or through metalinguistic behaviour, to a third party who constitutes the actual recipient of the message.

Prophecy is a phenomenon seen throughout the civilisations of the Ancient Near East. Within the Hebrew Scriptures it extends back to the time of Abraham who is described as a prophet by God in Abimelech’s dream (Genesis 20:7). According to Jewish belief, Malachi is the last of the prophets because Malachi 3:22-23 is interpreted as meaning that the Torah has now replaced the prophets as God’s source of revelation. However, in Christianity John the Baptist is claimed to be a prophet and Jesus himself was regarded as such by some (see for example, Mark 8:27-28). In Islam Muhammad is regarded as the last and greatest of the prophets.

Amos was a sheep breeder from Tekoa ( Amos 1:1), a town in the hill country of Judah about ten miles south of Jerusalem (J.L. Mays, 1969:3), but his prophecy appears to have been delivered exclusively to the northern kingdom at about the same time as Hosea, probably mainly at the sanctuary at Bethel, Israel’s most important religious centre, but possibly also in the capital city of Samaria (H.W. Wolff, 1977: 90). However, the political boundary between Judah and Israel is not the important thing in the sense that Amos’s concern was the relationship between Yahweh and his people rather than with political structures (see E. Jacob, 1965: 49, 52) and it was in the northern kingdom that Amos understood there to be a problem with this relationship (see below). Amos does criticize Judah (Amos 2:4-5), but this oracle is not believed by most scholars to belong to the original series (Mays, 1969: 40).

As a sheep breeder he would have been a person of some substance and not uncultured. He was not, however, a professional prophet (Jewish Study Bible, 1991; marginal notes to Amos 1:1 and Amos 7:14, respectively). The timing of his prophecy is dated to the reign of King Jeroboam II in Israel (786-746 BCE) (see 2 Kings 14: 23-29) and King Uzziah (aka Azariah) in Judah. Uzziah died in 742 BCE but had not reigned for 10 years before his death from leprosy (2 Kings 15:5). This dates Amos’s prophecy to the middle of the 8th century BCE. Mays (1969: 20), working from the reference to ‘two years before the earthquake’ (Amos 1:1) puts the date at around 760 BCE. For how long he prophesied is not known but Wolff suggests it may have been for only a short period, possibly less than a year (Wolff, 1977: 90). The important point about the context of the prophecy is that the reign of Jeroboam in the northern kingdom was a time of comparative peace and prosperity in which territory was expanded (H. Mowvley 1991:5) and living standards for some increased, but this masked the fact, according to Amos, that it was also a malfunctioning society no longer true to the ways of Yahweh.

The majority opinion is that in the book of Amos we have the earliest collection of a prophet’s original words, albeit expanded and redacted in the 7th century BCE and post-exilic times. This is the view of Wolff (1977: 107), but there are other views, for example, that the whole writing was done in the post-exilic period (see J.M. Dines, 2001: 581). It seems to me that the majority view fits better, particularly when we look at the way in which Amos deals with matters of judgment, punishment and restoration and how this compares to the handling of these themes by the exilic and post-exilic prophets (see below). In the block of writing Amos 1:3–2:5, known as the Oracles Against the Nations, those against Aram, Ammon, Moab and Israel are attributed by most scholars to Amos, while those against Edom, Judah, Tyre and possibly the Philistines are believed to be the result of later redaction (J. Barton, 1980: 22-24; Mays, 1969: 13). The Oracle of Salvation in chapter 9 (Amos 9:11-15) is almost certainly a later addition, being quite different from the other oracles in the book in both language and content (see Mays, 1969: 163-169). Thus within chapter 9 itself we can see the contrast between the two halves (Amos 9:1-10 and Amos 9:11-15). This is important when we come to consider the ideas of punishment, forgiveness and restoration in Amos as compared with the other prophets.

In general terms, there are a number of features of prophecy that do not figure in Amos, for example, miracle working, which is prominent in the pre-literary prophets such as Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16,17-24; 18:20-40,41-46) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-7, 18-37, 42-44; 5:1-14), enacted prophecy described in Jeremiah (Jer 19:1-15; 27:1-16;32:6-15) and Ezekiel (Ezek 5:1-41; 12:1-16) and divine possession (1 Sam 10:5-7; Joel 2:28-29). Intercession, though a feature of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:16, a recurrent motif in the book) and the pre-literary prophets, Abraham (Genesis 18:22-33), Moses (Exodus 32:30-32; 34:8-9) and Samuel (1Samuel 7:5-6) (see R.R. Wilson, 1978:12, 16), is not prominent in the other prophets according to S.E. Balentine (1984: 162, 164;) but M. O’Rourke Boyle (1971: 346) disagrees and it does seem to me that Amos 7:1-5 is a form of intercession, for example, ‘O Lord God, pray forgive. How will Jacob survive? He is so small.’(Amos 7:2).

On the other hand, there are a number of ways in which Amos is typical of prophets in general. From the time of Solomon onwards, prophets are seen increasingly as being outside rather than within the establishment (for example, Elijah in conflict with Ahab (1 Kings 21:17-29) and Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:1-18)) and this is particularly true of Amos and the literary prophets (Wilson, 1978: 16). Amos conforms to the pattern of experiencing visions (Amos 7:1-9: 8:1-2) and a call to prophecy (Amos 7:1-9), which cannot be resisted (Amos 8:14-15), (compare Jeremiah 1:4-8,11-19 and Isaiah 6:1-8) and of speaking in the name of Yahweh, recalling people to the covenant and Yahweh’s demands. This is commonly expressed in a form of writing common in the prophets known as ‘messenger speech’ (signalled by the ‘messenger formula’ – ‘thus says the Lord’), which begins with a call from God, a description of the problem and a prediction for the future (see Amos 7:15-17).

In common with the other prophets, Amos also contains woes (Amos 6:4-7; compare, for example, Isaiah 5:8-23), laments (Amos 5:1-2; compare Isaiah 1:21) and hymns of praise to Yahweh (Amos 4:13; 5:8-9; compare Isaiah 52:7-10). A substantial part of Amos is taken up with a block of oracles, known as the Oracles Against the Nations. Oracles are known in the pre-literary prophets (for example, the oracles of Balaam outlined in Numbers chapters 23 & 24) and form a substantial part of all the Latter Prophets, although less prominent in Hosea (Barstad, 1993:55).

However, quite apart from similarity or otherwise in details of literary style and of actions, I believe there are important theological differences between Amos and the other prophets in the view Amos takes of the relationship between Yahweh and his people and the balance between judgment, forgiveness and hope for the future. ‘Amos sings of a God of creation and judgment; Second Isaiah sings of a God of creation and redemption’ (C.I.K. Story, 1980: 68). It is on this aspect of prophecy that I intend to spend the rest of the essay, how the prophets in general and Amos in particular address the tension that exists between the idea of an all-powerful God who makes a covenant with his chosen people who then defy that God with their persistent disobedience. How does such a God deal with such a people, maintaining his authority while also remaining committed to his covenant with them?

In exploring this problem it is helpful to return to the form of writings known as oracles. A number of authors have drawn attention to the similarities between covenant in the Hebrew Bible and the suzerain-vassal treaties of the nations of the Ancient Near East (see, for example, J.C. Laney, 1981: 316-318; C. Potok, 1978: 103-105, 111-112). On this basis, the prophets are seen as representatives of Yahweh in the administration of his covenant with his people and in the oracles they act as prosecuting counsel bringing a lawsuit against the people in the same way as court diplomats did on behalf of the suzerain (Laney, 1981: 317) (see for example, Elijah in 1Kings 17:1 and 2 Kings 1:16; Hosea 4:1; Micah 1:2; compare Amos 3:1-2).  

In each of the oracles in the first two chapters of Amos the pattern is to start and finish with the messenger formula ‘Thus said the Lord:’ and ‘ – declares the Lord’, respectively, while the body of the oracle contains first a description of the crimes (the indictment) and then the announcement of punishment (see Mays, 1969: 22-23). Barton (1980), in his analysis Amos’s Oracles against the Nations, has described how the case against Israel is brought. The oracles begin by condemning Israel’s neighbours for a series of atrocities that Barton argues would have been recognized as being against generally accepted principles for the conduct of war and international relations (Barton 1980:1). There is the assumption of a universal moral law in this regard and, furthermore, Israel’s traditional enemies are seen as responsible to Yahweh for their actions (Barton 1980: 42-45). Yahweh is seen as both the god of Israel and the god of the nations (see also Wolff 1977: 101) and the nations are being condemned for offences against common humanity.

Barton argues that Amos first outlines a case against Israel’s neighbours in such a way that Israel would readily agree it merited Yahweh’s judgment. Amos then moves on to bring the case against Israel herself by placing social injustice and hypocritical religiosity on a par with these atrocities of war (Barton 1980: 48). They are given the same moral status and, furthermore, the special position of Israel in relation to Yahweh carries with it extra responsibilities so that Israel’s failure deepens her guilt (Amos 3:2). Amos is employing the same technique here in building up the case against Israel as is seen in Nathan’s parable (2 Samuel 12:1-15) where Nathan first tells King David a story of wrongdoing (the theft of a poor man’s only lamb by a rich man) which invites David’s condemnation and then confronts King David with his wrongdoing in taking Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah.

Boyle (1971: 340) has argued that the section immediately following the oracles (Amos 3:1 -4:13) constitutes a ‘lawsuit pattern which proclaims Yahweh's litigation against Israel for breach of covenant’. Boyle (1971: 342) gives a more detailed explanation of this statement, but the important point is that issues of disobedience and judgment are put in a legal framework, highlighting the problem of the balance between punishment and forgiveness and restoration. A binding agreement has been broken by Israel and there should be a penalty to pay, but where does that leave Yahweh’s commitment to the future of his people?

In Amos, the emphasis is that Israel has disobeyed Yahweh and so will be judged and punished at the hands of foreign armies. The Day of Yahweh for Amos is something to be feared because it will be a day of judgment (Amos 5:18-20). Sawyer (1993: 64) argues that while this is probably the earliest reference to the Day of the Yahweh in the Prophets, Amos is making use of an older tradition but giving it a more pessimistic interpretation. Joel follows Amos in this but in Joel there is an optimistic side as well in that Yahweh does not forsake those who call on his name (Joel 3:5 – 4:3) while in Isaiah the Day of Yahweh is a time when evil is vanquished and a new era of peace begins (Amos 11:1-10). If the view is correct that Amos 9:11-15 is a later addition then, although Amos does not exclude the idea of forgiveness if Israel repents, this is not something that he considers likely to happen and, indeed, for the northern kingdom there is no hope for they are carried off into exile and lose their identity.

As we move from Amos to the prophets of the later pre-exilic period, the Exile itself and after, the emphasis gradually shifts from judgment and punishment to forgiveness and restoration (see H. McKeating, 1979: sections 3 & 4). Thus Hosea, in the story of his unfaithful wife, emphasizes the love of God and his willingness to forgive. He cannot believe that God would ever abandon Israel (Hosea 11:8-9) but the dilemma is not fully resolved and the book ends with a plea to Israel to repent and return (Hosea 14:2-10). In First Isaiah forgiveness is available but only on strict conditions (Isaiah 1:16- 20) but we also have the beginning of the idea that not all the people will be destroyed but that a faithful remnant will survive (Isaiah 6:13), which allows punishment to occur but hopes of future fulfillment of covenant promises to remain.

Jeremiah develops this further. Whereas Amos takes the view that Israel is unlikely to repent and Hosea sits on the fence, Jeremiah moves to the view that she cannot repent because the drive to sin is overpowering, which is a shift in the emphasis of blame (Jeremiah 2:24; see also Jer 17:9 ‘Most devious is the heart; it is perverse- who can fathom it?’ (Jewish Study Bible), which REB renders ‘The heart is deceitful above any other thing, desperately sick; who can fathom it?’). Corruption is complete but hope remains nevertheless because God will take the remnant of the nation, change the heart of the people and write his laws upon it (Jeremiah 31:31 34), a hope that is symbolized in the enacted prophecy of buying a field in his village in the middle of the war (Jeremiah: 32:6-15).

In Ezekiel the constant willingness of God to forgive is seen in the parable of the unfaithful girl (Ezekiel chapter 16) where punishment and forgiveness go together (Ezek 16:60–63) and, moreover, this forgiveness is there not because of what the girl is or does, but because of what God is. It is in God’s nature to forgive, he does things ‘for the sake of his name’. This hope for the future is expressed in the vision of the Valley of Bones (Ezekiel: 37:1ff). Also in Ezekiel we begin to see the idea that individuals as well as the nation must carry responsibility for their behaviour (Ezekiel 18:14-23).

In Second Isaiah the nature of the relationship between Yahweh and his people moves onto another plane. God is one who creates, chooses, calls and redeems. Repentance as a condition for forgiveness is less prominent than in the earlier Prophets such as Amos, rather it is asked for because forgiveness has already occurred (see for example Isaiah 44:21-22, ‘Come back to Me, for I have redeemed you’ (Jewish Study Bible)). God is portrayed as a God of justice certainly, but also as a God of forgiveness and faithfulness. As we move on from the Exile through the vicissitudes of the post-exilic period and beyond we have the development of apocalyptic literature from the prophetic. The vision of redemption is retained but moves to a resolution at the end of time when the people will be judged and the righteous restored to an eternal life in God’s presence (Dan 12:13).

In summary, Amos is very much a man of his time. He sees the social injustice and religious hypocrisy current in the society of the northern kingdom of Israel, perceives this to be contrary to the will of Yahweh and has an overwhelming sense of the need to warn the people of the judgment that awaits them with the imminent destruction of their society at the hands of a foreign army. Where he differs from the later prophets is that he holds out no hope for the future (excepting chapter 9, which I have treated as a later addition). Israel will not repent and so her future destruction is assured. Themes of forgiveness, redemption and restoration are not present and have to await the later thinking of the Exile and post-exilic periods.


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Copyright © Stanley Pearsoln 2020. All rights reserved.