All prophets in the Hebrew Bible exhibit moral outrage, but Amos seems to have been downright hopping mad. Amos lived in the eighth century B.C.E., and though he was from a southern Judean town called Tekoa, he preached his message of judgment and reform to the prosperous populations in northern Israel, especially in Bethel and Samaria.
According to the book that bears his name, Amos did not really consider himself a prophet, instead claiming to be a humble agriculturalist who could not resist speaking the word of God (
Did you know…?
Amos 5:27plays an important role in the Damascus Document, an important Essene text from among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Amos was the first among several important Israelite prophets in the eighth century B.C.E., including Hosea and Isaiah.
- Amos was the first prophet to use the term “the day of the Lord,” which is found in other biblical texts from later periods.
- Amos refers to himself as a “dresser of sycamore trees,” a job description that has puzzled interpreters over the centuries.
- The book of Amos has a complicated compositional and editorial history.
- Amos describes several “visions” whose meanings hinge on Hebrew puns.
Why was Amos angry, and why did he speak in oracles and metaphors?
Throughout the text, Amos voices prophetic rage against the injustices of the day. The entire book is given to denouncing the excesses of eighth-century B.C.E. Israelite life and reminding people of their true covenantal obligations. Those who are “at ease in Zion” and “feel secure on Mount Samaria,” who “lie on beds of ivory” and “eat lambs from the flock,” will “be the first to go into exile” (
Amos’ sayings are often in the form of judgment oracles (sometimes called “woe oracles”) and messenger speeches (“Thus says the Lord …”). Many of the oracles in
This kind of poetic, symbolic language characterizes prophetic speech in the Hebrew Bible more generally, and yet in Amos it becomes an unrelenting expression of divine wrath. Amos converts comforting images of home and abundance into devastating instruments of judgment: “You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (
And these chapters employ themes from nature to convey what the “day of the Lord”—a future time of reckoning—will be like. Though people may expect it to be a good day, it will instead be like a fire that consumes everything in its path, like fleeing from a lion only to confront a bear or resting at home and being bitten by a snake (
If Amos were alive today, what might he say?
Perhaps the most famous line from the book is Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” The context of this powerful statement is a prophetic denunciation of the “sacrifices and meal offerings” of a people who have failed to keep the covenant, which is constituted by justice and fairness. Throughout
Because of these sentiments, this passage has become an important source for some observers of contemporary American religious and political culture. I think Amos would disapprove of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding increase in poverty, and he would rage against the displays of self-importance and exceptionalism in some quarters of American life.
According to Amos, a nation is exceptional by the measure of how it cares for the lowest members of society; and a nation of religious hypocrisy and economic injustice is one that will perish. John Winthrop expressed the message of Amos in his famous work “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630); he knew that for the Puritan legacy to be a “light unto the nations” and a “city upon a hill,” the community would have to be based upon principles of justice, fairness, and regard for others, “that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.” More recently, %%Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the phrase “let justice roll down like water” in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), in which he addresses the moral laxity of his fellow Southern clergymen during the Civil Rights movement.