Engraving of the Prophet Amos (1891)
Amos 1:1 says he was "among the shepherds of Tekoa", this is likely to refer to modern Tekua, about 12 miles south-east of Bethlehem. He is often assumed to have been a rich shepherd. He was (according to 7:14) neither a "prophet nor a prophet's son" but "a herdsman and a dresser of sycomore trees," R.V. However, the Hebrew words used in 1:1 and 7:14 suggest the proprietor of flocks rather than a shepherd. However, some scholars, John Calvin among them, believe that in this particular case it is unlikely that Amos would be a wealthy person due to the geographical attributes of the land surrounding Tekoa.
He prophesied in the days of Jeroboam II of Israel, while Uzziah was king of Judah. The writer of the book remembers that two years after he spoke an earthquake struck the area (1:1). Josephus, the Jewish historian, believed that the earthquake happened at the same time as Uzziah's seizure of the role of High Priest and his subsequent bout with leprosy. Amos was contemporary with Isaiah, Micah and Hosea. Under Jeroboam II, the kingdom of Israel rose to the zenith of its prosperity. The gulf between rich and poor widened at this time. Amos was called from his rural home to remind the rich and powerful of God's requirement for justice (e.g. 2:6-16). He claimed that religion that is not accompanied by right action is anathema to God (5:21ff.), and that the kingdom of Israel would be destroyed (e.g. 5:1-2; 8:2).
Amos had reasons to be reluctant about accepting his vocation. For one, he was commanded to give his message of judgment to the Northern Kingdom, and he was not only a Southerner, but his audience was not particularly inclined to listen to prophecies of death and judgment. In fact, Samaria under the leadership of Jeroboam II had extended its territory into modern day Syria, taking advantage of the nation's weakness after a recent defeat by the Assyrians. Assyria, the major threat to Israel's power, had withdrawn itself temporarily due to internal strife allowing Israel to flourish politically and economically. The nations resultant affluence, however, was the main focus of Amos' mission as a prophet, and soon after Jeroboam came to power in 781 BC/BCE, Amos was called to speak to the people of the Northern Kingdom. He was continually in conflict with the governing authorities. The narrative shows this by way of a conversation between Amos and a priest of Bethel, Amaziah. The priest, loyal to Jeroboam, accuses Amos of stirring up trouble and conspiring against the king, and asks him to stop prophesying. Amos responds with an oracle: “Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land."(Amos 7:17)
One of Amos' most famous claims is Amos 7:14, "Amos answered Amaziah, 'I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.'" While this was often understood to meant that Amos was reluctant to prophesy or that he was poor, scholars today see it as bolstering Amos' claim to be financially independent and not a part of the corrupt religious system of his day. His agricultural holdings as a shepherd and a tender of trees were actually seen in his day of signs of means, which he used to point out that he was not in the prophetic calling for money.
The oracle predicted that many of Israel's neighbors (including Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab, but especially Judah) and Israel would suffer because they "knew" God, yet rebelled.
Much of the prophecy of Amos is directed at the heartlessness of wealthy merchants who ignore the plight of the poor, the lack of justice for the righteous, and the emptiness of religious ritual apart from true faith. Amos is a classical prophet, concerned with the well-being of the people and the purity of the faith. He does not have the millennial apocalyptic views of later prophets, nor does he rely on esotericism or mystical signs. The prophecy of Amos is clear and direct. He ends his message with a proclamation of hope and restoration for the people of Israel if they mend their ways: "The days are coming, declares the LORD, when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them, says the LORD your God.” (Amos 9:13-15) It is disputed whether this final passage was indeed written by Amos, as the style and message is different from the rest of the book.
Amos uses a simple language on one level, being straightforward and direct with the messages he has received from God, not only for Israel and Judah, but also for the surrounding nations. However, Amos also utilizes many agricultural metaphors most likely drawn from his experiences in agriculture. Note the agricultural imagery in Amos 7: "This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king's share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, 'Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!'"
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