|Amos, Theology of |
Like all biblical prophets, Amos spoke the oracles of Yahweh, Israel's God, to people in a particular context. In order to comprehend the theology of the book that bears his name, one must have a basic understanding of that context.
The original recipients of Amos's message were the citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel in approximately 760 b.c. That Yahweh would call Amos to prophesy to them was, in itself, rather remarkable because he was neither a religious professional nor a northerner, but a farmer from Tekoa in Judah (1:1; 7:14-15). What this signified, to any who might be attuned to perceive it, was that Yahweh was not the sort of God who felt constrained by convention when choosing an individual for the task at hand, even if that person should appear to be unqualified. His task for this layman from the south was that he travel to what was essentially a foreign country and speak a hard message to people living in relative ease.
Israel, during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753) was propelled to heights of power and prosperity unmatched since the days of David and Solomon. Many were buoyed by a sense of well-being and felt optimistic about the future. While the military was strong and the gross national product was high, however, the nation was in an advanced state of social, moral, and spiritual decay. Shocking extremes of privilege and powerlessness, wealth and want had emerged. Judges could be bribed. Religion was a syncretistic mix of ritualistic devotion to Yahweh and various pagan deities. The fact that Yahweh had to summon Amos to address this situation was a damning indictment of Israel's leaders, both religious and secular, who lacked the requisite ethical fiber. A notable exception was Hosea, whose denunciation of Israel's spiritual apostasy complemented Amos's devastating exposé of her tattered social and moral fabric.
Yahweh Any discussion of the theology of the Book of Amos must begin with its portrait of Yahweh. One catches glimpses of many aspects of his character and activity. The three most prominent features of that portrait are his sovereignty, justice, and grace.
Throughout the book, in utterances that contain a remarkable number of first-person singular forms, Yahweh indicates his sovereignty by repeatedly asserting that he initiates things. Eventsboth past (2:9-11; 4:6-11; 9:7) and future (1:4-5; 2:13-16; 5:27; 6:14; 9:11-15)—are not the products of chance but Yahweh's inventions. Furthermore, he reports effects, of which he himself is the cause, in advance of their occurrence (3:6-8).
The prophecy of Amos highlights two major spheres in which Yahweh manifests his sovereignty: nature and the nations. In some passages his lordship over nature is demonstrated in both his role as its creator (4:13; 5:8) and his harnessing of its awesome forces for his own purposes (4:6-11; 5:8-9; 7:1-6; 8:7-14; 9:5-6). These and other parts of the book (1:2; 3:8) reveal the great power and terrible majesty of the God with whom Israel must deal.
Yahweh also manifests his supreme authority over the nations. As might be expected, Amos shows that Yahweh is Israel's sovereign. It is he who elected or chose the people of Israel for a special covenant relationship with himself, who rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and who led them through the blistering wilderness to their territorial inheritance, which he wrested from the Amorites (2:9-10; 3:1-2; cf. Gen 15:12-16). Yahweh now declares that he will punish and disperse the present covenant community, which has been unfaithful to him (2:13; 3:14; 5:26-27). Ultimately he will restore Israel (9:11-15).
However, insists Amos, Yahweh not only rules in Israel's affairs; he also controls the movements of other peoples (9:7), summons other nations to do his bidding (6:14), and judges other states in accordance with the standards he has set for them (1:3-2:3).
Another important feature in Amos's portrait of Yahweh is his justice. Yahweh's justice is a corollary to his holiness and righteousness—attributes that reflect his very essence and that he expects will distinguish those who name him as their God (Exod 19:5-6; Lev 11:44-45; 20:7; Amos 5:14-15, 24). As already indicated, the basis on which Yahweh relates to the Israelites is his covenant with them. In that covenant he sets forth his expectations regarding the way in which they ought to relate to him and to each other. These relationships are to be characterized by the sort of love that manifests itself in loyalty and faithfulness to him (Deut 6:4-14; Amos 5:4-6) and justice and compassion to their neighbors (Lev 19:9-18; Amos 5:15, 24). He also spells out, in terms reminiscent of the treaties between ancient suzerains and their vassal states, the consequences of fulfilling (blessing) and falling short (judgment) of those expectations (Lev 26:3-39; Deut 28:1-68; 29:22-28). He blesses in accordance with the promises of the covenant (Deut 30:1-10; Amos 9:11-15). He judges not as a surly deity who from time to time lashes out at his people in arbitrary and petulant outbursts, but as one who causes the covenantal curses to take effect (Am 7:1-9). This is evident in the references to famine and hunger (4:6; 8:11-12; cf. Lev 26:26; Deut 28:48, 51-57), drought and thirst (4:7-8; 8:13-14; cf. Lev 26:19-20; Deut 28:22-24, 48), disease and plagues (4:9-10; cf. Lev 26:16, 25; Deut 28:21-22, 27, 35, 38-40, 42, 59-61), disaster (4:11; cf. Deut 29:22-23), military defeat and destruction (2:14-16; 3:11, 14-15; 4:10; 5:3; 6:11, 14; 7:9, 17; 8:3; 9:1, 8, 10; cf. Lev 26:17, 25, 30-33; Deut 28:25, 48-57), and exile (4:2-3; 5:5, 27; 6:7; 7:11, 17; 9:4; cf. Lev 26:33-39; Deut 28:36-37, 41, 63-68).
Yahweh's justice is observable, as well, in his dealings with other nations. They are expected to act in conformity with the basic ethical and moral standards that are part of general revelation. These standards are imprinted on the consciences of even those humans who do not have access to Israel's legal code (Psalm 19:1-4; Acts 14:17; 17:24-28; Rom 1:18-32; 2:14-15). When nations fail to measure up to the basic standards, Yahweh sees to it that they experience appropriate retribution (Amos 1:3-2:3).
The Book of Amos also gives clear indication of Yahweh's grace, that is, the lovingkindness and mercy that he lavishes on people without regard to merit. This grace is evident, first of all, in his election of Israel (Amos 3:2a; cf. Exod 19:3-8). Elsewhere, Yahweh assures his people that this privilege was not given to them because they were so numerous or righteous, for they were neither. He chose them and gave them the land that he had promised because of his love for them, his loyalty to the patriarchs, and his revulsion at the wickedness of that land's previous inhabitants (Deut 7:6-9; 9:4-6). Throughout Israel's history he has demonstrated his loving concern for the people by his mighty Acts and marvelous provisions. But they have responded with unfaithfulness and rejection of those whom he has sent to point the way back to himself (Amos 2:6-12; 7:12-16). He has sought to jolt them out of their spiritual lethargy and to bring them to repentance by sending calamities of the sort described in the covenant curses, but to no avail (4:6-11). Yet he continues to invite them to seek him and live as they should (5:4-6, 14-15, 24). Although the situation deteriorates to the point that he can no longer spare the nation (7:1-8; 8:1-2), he still talks in terms of a surviving remnant of the people (5:15; 9:8-10). He also looks beyond the gloom of punishment to a time when he will rejuvenate the land and establish the remnant there (9:11-15). Yahweh's grace is evident not just in his blessings but also in his judgments.
Israel The focus of Amos's prophecy is, of course, the Israelite nation. As already indicated, Amos asserts the fact of Israel's election. But the prophet goes on to say that the privilege of election brings with it a high degree of accountability to the God with whom Israel is in relationship. The standard by which she is judged is more stringent than that for other nations. She is thus especially liable to judgment (3:2) and yet, paradoxically, in judgment she becomes like those other nations (1:3-2:16; 9:7-8).
The basis for Israel's judgment is her unfaithfulness to Yahweh. That infidelity is manifested in a number of ways, but intrinsic to each is the fact that she fails to measure up to Yahweh's expectations for her (7:7-8). Instead of reflecting the humanitarian and egalitarian character of much pentateuchal legislation (Exod 23:9; Lev 19:15; 25:35-43; Deut 17:18-20; 24:14-18), Israelite society is fractured into classes defined by economics and political influence (Amos 2:6-8; 3:9-10, 15; 4:1; 5:11-12; 6:1, 4-7, 11; 7:1; 8:4-6). In the face of detailed covenantal provisions for the care of the poor and disadvantaged (Exod 22:22-27; 23:10-11; Lev 19:9-10; 25:35-55; Deut 10:17-19; 15:7-15; 24:19-22), Israelites with power and wealth oppress those who have neither, further enriching themselves at the expense of these unfortunates (Amos 2:6-8; 3:9-10; 4:1; 5:11-12; 8:4, 6). Despite Yahweh's insistence that justice be meted out in an atmosphere of fairness, truthfulness, and impartiality (Exod 23:1-3, 6-8; Deut 10:17-18; 19:15-19; 25:1-3), Israel's courts dispense lies, exploitation, and verdicts favorable to those with the means to purchase them (Amos 2:6-8; 5:7, 10-12; 6:12; 8:6). In defiance of explicit instructions to conduct honest business transactions (Lev 19:35-36; Deut 25:13-16), greedy merchants cheat their customers by selling goods of inferior quality at inflated prices (Am 8:4-6).
What makes this litany of avarice and corruption even worse is the fact that it describes a nation of people who are known for—and in fact take pride in—their religious involvement (Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-23; 8:10). Furthermore, they have the audacity to claim that Yahweh is with them (5:14). Undoubtedly, those who enjoy the benefits of the nation's power and wealth interpret them as evidences of Yahweh's favor and blessing, which they presume will continue indefinitely (9:10). Amos blasts the advocates of this perverse prosperity gospel for their smug complacency, false sense of security, and pride (6:1-14; 8:7). They are not living in the light of Yahweh's benevolent smile, as they suppose, but in the lull before the storm of judgment (2:13-16; 6:11; 7:7-9; 8:1-2). Obviously to this, some speak longingly of the day of Yahweh (5:18a), a day on which the messianic kingdom (in which they undoubtedly think they will play a prominent part) will violently displace the present order (5:18b-20; 9:8-15). The religion on which they rely to secure a place for themselves in that kingdom, however, is clearly a hollow one that features much ritual and cultic activity designed to appease or manipulate the deity. But it has no appreciable impact on the everyday conduct of its adherents (8:4-6). Beneath the surface, it is not the pure form of the worship of Yahweh envisioned in the Pentateuch with its exclusive devotion to Israel's God and its centralized cult (Exod 20:2-6; Deut 5:6-10; 6:4-5; 12:1-13:18). Rather, it is characterized by a multiplicity of shrines and susceptibility to incursions by pagan deities and their frequently licentious rites (Amos 2:7b-8; 3:14; 4:4; 5:5, 26; 7:9; 8:14). This kind of religion is odious to Yahweh and it provokes him to explode with indignation (5:21-24).
Israel's doom is sealed (3:11; 5:27; 8:1-3) because she has passed up repeated chances to be reconciled to the God of the covenant (4:6-11; 5:4-6, 14-15, 24). Nothing else remains to be done or said except to issue a warning for the nation to prepare to meet the God who is coming in judgment (4:12).
The Nations Although Israel is the focus of Amos's prophecy, he says significant things about the peoples that surround her as well. In this he is comparable to other prophets whose utterances include oracles about foreign nations (cf. Isa 13-23 Jer 46-51 Eze 25-32 Zeph 2:4-15). Most of these oracles are judgment pronouncements. Underlying them all is the understanding that Yahweh's sovereignty extends beyond the borders of Israel, that he controls the destinies of the peoples in those foreign regions, and that they are accountable to him for their actions.
The accountability of the nations to Yahweh appears to be based on a covenant relationship analogous to the one between Yahweh and Israel. This flows naturally from the idea of Yahweh's sovereignty over the nations, whose origins, movements, and destinies, like Israel's, are under his control (Amos 1:3-2:5; 2:9-10; 4:10-11; 6:14; 9:7, 11-12).
Taking a different tack, one may observe that the inhabitants of the nations singled out for special attention in Amos 1-2 could be regarded as Yahweh's subjects. Their respective territories were originally included within the borders of the land that he promised to Abram's descendants (Gen 15:18). Subsequently, these territories were controlled by David (2 Sa 8:1-14) and Solomon (1 Kings 4:21,24) and, ultimately, they will be included in the messianic kingdom envisioned by the prophets. Furthermore, Edom (Gen 25:21-26; 36:1, 8), Ammon, and Moab (Gen 19:36-38) have a common ancestry with Israel. Thus all of the groups mentioned above could be considered to be connected to each other and bound to Yahweh in covenant.
In one way or another, all of these nations have demonstrated persistent disloyalty to Yahweh. With the words, "I will not turn back my wrath" (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6), he announces either his intention not to revoke the thundering pronouncement of judgment against each covenant-breaking nation (1:2), or his decision not to take such a nation back to himself as a covenant partner in good standing. In either case, each will suffer the fate that any vassal state can expect at the hands of the suzerain against whom it has rebelled—devastating military reprisals, including the razing of its principal cities.
Amos's purpose in uttering oracles about nations beyond the borders of eighth-century Israel is not only to declare the impending punishment of others who have been disloyal to Yahweh. In fact, these pronouncements will never be heard by those about whom they are made except, in the course of time, by the people of Judah. The original intended audience for all these utterances is Israel (1:1). As Amos solemnly proclaims the destruction of her nearest adversaries, he undoubtedly gains the sympathetic attention of the people to whom he has been sent to deliver a word from Yahweh. Their expectation is that when, at last, he does speak about their nation, the message will be one of vindication and salvation. But when he proceeds to expose their transgressions just as he has exposed those of their neighbors, he reveals that his strategy all along has been to hem Israel in on every side with the fires of judgment (1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2, 5). She now stands isolated as the last victim of Yahweh's wrath. His patience with her, as with the other nations, has run out (2:6-13).
Judgment The Book of Amos provides some significant insights into the theme of judgment. Yahweh sends retribution on both Israel and the nations for their deliberate and repeated covenant violations. He does not act precipitously in this, but mingles wrath with grace in the hope that the offending party will repent and avoid ultimate destruction. Three additional observations with respect to the prophet's theology of judgment may be highlighted.
First, Yahweh's judgment is frequently talionic. It is just retribution or judgment in kind. Thus those who oppress others and enrich themselves at the expense of the disadvantaged will not get to enjoy the fruits of their treachery (5:11-12). Plunderers and looters will themselves be plundered (3:10-11). The mighty who rely on their physical prowess and boast about military exploits will be bettered on those counts by others who are more capable (2:14-16; 6:13-14). The foremost in Israelite society, complacent and secure, will be among the first to go into exile (6:1, 7). People who have rejected the ministry of Yahweh's prophets will experience a famine for the word of Yahweh and will search for it everywhere, but without success (2:12; 7:12-16; 8:11-12). Those who worship the gods of the nations will be exiled to such nations (5:26-27).
Second, Yahweh's judgment, when untempered by his mercy, is comprehensive and relentless. It will be felt throughout the land (1:2; 5:16-17; 6:14). No one will elude the tireless "Hound of Heaven" (9:1-4). By the time Yahweh's wrath has been sated, there will be pathetically little left of the nation (3:12).
Third, the judgment of Israel and the eschatological day of Yahweh are related events. Israelites in Amos's time are looking forward to that day (5:18), evidently expecting that the Gentile nations will be vanquished and Israel will be elevated to a place of preeminence among the nations because of her special relationship with Yahweh. But Amos brings them up short by pointing out that Yahweh is going to settle his accounts with Israel as well, and not just with other nations (2:13-16; 5:18-20; 8:1-3, 9-14). Amos's association of Israel's soon-coming judgment with the day of Yahweh forcefully drives home the point that this will be the nation's ultimate encounter with him.
Hope and Restoration The message of Amos is largely a gloomy one, but not exclusively so. Even in some of Yahweh's dark pronouncements of retribution against Israel there are glimmers of hope regarding the survival of a remnant of the people (3:12; 5:3, 15; 9:8-10). These passages set the stage for the last five verses of the book, which are so different in tone and perspective that most biblical scholars feel they constitute a later addition. The tone of 9:11-15 is completely positive with no hint of judgment. The perspective seems to be that of an exile from Judah; there are references to returning from captivity (v. 14 cf. Deut 30:1-3; Jer 30:3), repairing and rebuilding of ruins (vv. 11, 14), and possessing the remnant of Edom (v. 12). While it is true that this promise concerning the subjugation of Edom and other nations is to be seen in the context of Israel's longstanding expectation of a restored Davidic kingdom (v. 11 cf. Isa 9:1-7; 11:10-16), the singling out of a presumably chastened remnant of Edom in am 9:12 calls to mind a number of biblical invectives against the descendants of Esau for their gleeful complicity with the Babylonian conquerors of Judah in 586 b.c. (Psalm 137:7; Lam 4:21-22; Ezek 25:12-14; Obad 1:5-21). Whether or not the last section of the Book of Amos comes directly from the prophet of that name, there is no more reason for believers to doubt its place within the inspired canon of Scripture than one would any of the biblical books for which the question of authorship remains open.
The phrase that introduces this section, "In that day" (9:11), associates the events described in this salvation oracle with the eschatological day of Yahweh. Here is portrayed the bright side of that day, the light of which will never dawn on the intransigent Israelites to whom Amos ministers. It will be a day of weal or woe depending on the state of one's relationship with Yahweh (cf. Joel 3:12-21; Obad 1:15-21; Zech 12:1-9; 14:1-21; Mal 4:1-6).
Two main themes form the backdrop for Amos's description of the establishment of Yahweh's everlasting kingdom. The first, alluded to earlier, is a return to the golden age of Israel's history—the time of David's rule (vv. 11-12). Seemingly implied in verse 11 is what other prophets state explicitly, namely, that Yahweh will restore a united kingdom over which an eschatological David will preside (cf. Isa 11:10-14; Jer 33:23-26; Ezek 37:15-28; Hosea 1:11; 3:4-5). In verse 12 we read of the recovery of the territory that once belonged to the Davidic empire. Yahweh will thus reestablish his claim to those nations that were, in David's day, under the aegis of his covenant with Israel. What, in the context of that covenant, is described in imperialistic terms becomes, in the new covenant context, a description of the establishment of Christ's universal church (Ac 15:5-17).
The second major theme of this section is the reversal of the covenant curses (vv. 13-15). This scenario is played out in the land that Yahweh originally gave to the patriarchs and their descendants (Gen 13:14-17; 26:2-3; 28:10-13), but which Israel lost because of her unfaithfulness to him (Lev 18:24-28; 26:27-39; 2 Kings 17:3-23; 21:1-16; 23:26-27; 24:1-4; 2 Chron 36:11-21). The prophet anticipates a time of unprecedented revitalization. Returning exiles will be securely reestablished in the land as they rebuild its ruins and enjoy its lavish bounty. This renewed existence is described in terms that suggest a restored Eden and a new creation (cf. Isa 65:17-25; Ezek 47:1-12; Joel 3:18). It becomes clear that, just as impending manifestations of Yahweh's wrath are seen to be related to his final day of judgment, so also the imminent restoration of the exiles represents the first stage in the establishment of his eternal kingdom. Thus a book whose message is, for the most part, characterized by such foreboding concludes with the kind of hope to which the faithful of all the ages are attuned.
Robert J. V. Hiebert
Bibliography. M. L. Barré JBL 105 (1986): 611-31; R. Clements, When God's Patience Runs Out: the Truth of Amos for Today; P. C. Craigie, The Twelve Prophets; R. S. Cripps, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Amos; E. Hammershaimb, The Book of Amos: A Commentary; J. H. Hayes, Amos, the Eighth-Century Prophet: His Times and Preaching; P. J. King, Amos, Hosea, Micah—An Archaeological Commentary; J. Marsh, Amos and Micah: Introduction and Commentary; J. L. Mays, Amos; J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos; D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah; J. A. Ward, Amos, Hosea; H. W. Wolff, Joel and Amos.