The book of the prophet Amos was written in approximately the 8th century B.C. and is the oldest of what has come to be known as the minor prophets. There is not much that is known about the prophet from a personal standpoint, but we do know that he was a sheepherder from the town of Tekoa, and that he wrote “two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1). In Amos 7:14 Amos also describes himself as a grower of figs.
The mixture of the two seemingly opposite occupations in interesting. On one hand, being a shepherd is a humble occupation and implies that one is of simple means from a monetary perspective. However, to be a grower of figs gives the opposite impression. In the ancient world figs were a delicacy, and to be a grower of them means that one had land on which to do it. This implies that Amos may have been wealthy, or at the very least had little issue with a steady income. Perhaps he had land to raise sheep, cattle, and grow figs.
This background is interesting considering some of the moral and social injustices that the book tells us. At this point the kingdom is divided, and though Amos was from the southern kingdom, he did his prophesying in the Northern Kingdom near Jerusalem. The kingdom was experiencing unprecedented economic growth and expansion because they controlled the most popular trade routes, and Assyria and Egypt were experiencing their own issues that led to their decline as powers of the day.
Amos communicates a series of eight prophecies. The first seven are about the nations that surround Israel, but the eight is directed toward Israel. Each prophecy is about the transgressions of the said nation, but when it comes to Israel the first seven transgressions listed correspond the eight nation which is Israel itself. In Amos Israel is named as breaking the seven covenants that God had given them. Amos is interesting in that the people appear to be very involved in religion. They are observing the rituals that are outlined in other parts of the Old Testament, but they are ignoring the social aspects of it. While they experienced unprecedented peace and prosperity, the people have become complacent, prideful, and only looking out for themselves. Amos warns the people that though they have the outward appearance of holy living their hearts are from God. They have become fascinated with a lifestyle of luxury, disenfranchised the downtrodden, and because of that the Lord will no longer accept their sacrifices (Amos 5:21-24). Their profession of faith was empty and void, and because they failed over and over to have a living faith, the emptiness will eventually bring destruction. The people felt that they were fulfilling their obligation to God, but this was hardly the case. Their hearts of stone reflected lives that were not filled with faith, and thus not changed. As a result the sacrifices set forth from the law were an impediment because they were empty ritual.
It has previously been explained that Israel was devoid of a living faith. This causes eight oracles, or prophecies, to be stated by Amos. Though the Israelites appeared to be pious, the conduct of their lives was anything but. Those with the riches abused their power and this would eventually bring the wrath of YAHWEH. Since they are the chosen people of God they are held to a higher standard, and as a result they are held to a higher standard of morality than the nations around them.
The news is grim as the Lord says that he will destroy the nation, but not the whole nation. A remnant will rise up that will follow the ways of YAHWEH as well as follow the rituals prescribed. Amos sees that YAHWEH will not destroy his covenants but will be faithful to them. Though the Israelites fell time and time again YAHWEH shows his love and mercy for them and ensures that His promise will be kept. Something better than what is currently present is promised. This is quite amazing when you consider the peace and economic prosperity that the nation was experiencing.
In dealing with a living faith as seen in Amos, the most common interpretation appears to be that Israel was going through the motions and their hearts were not changed. They began to think more of themselves that was they should. In short, they began to succumb to pride and though going through the motions was enough. However, God wants every part of a man, and Amos shows us that going through religious ritual without a change of heart will lead to ruin. In Amos 9:7 YAHWEH lays out a very important question, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir (NRSV)?”
It is a call for a change of heart and humility. YAHWEH reminds the people that they were chosen from the beginnings of the world for a specific purpose. When it comes to Amos, there are those who say that some interpretations are racially motivated and that it is a book that advocates for social justice. There is little doubt that the book discusses proper treatment of the poor and the least among the rich. That is also a concept that is echoed in the totality of scripture.
The chosen people of Israel have a sad history of violating the covenants that YAHWEH has made with them. Though the they have been forgiven repeatedly, YAHWEH is holding them to a higher standard. The rituals that they have engaged in have not been enough. Though they may be circumcised physically, their hearts are not, and they are not acting like a people who had been chosen by God. It is not about social justice in the modern sense, but about living the life that God is calling us to live.
. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000) 56.
. Smith, James, The Minor Prophets. Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1994), 29.
. Keith Brooks, Summarized Bible: Complete Summary of the Old Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 200.
. Andrew Knowles, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 364.
. Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed.th ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 351.
. Collins, John, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), 293.
. William S. Lasor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 253.
. Collins, John, Introduction to the Hebrew, 294.
. Ettien Koffi, “Theologizing about Race in Study Bible Notes: The Case of Amos 9:7,” Journal of Religious Thought, no. 1-2 (2005), https://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/222117358?accountid=12085.
. Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 252.