In the collection of the prophetic books of the Old Testament – simply titled ‘The Prophets’ or nebi’îm in the tripartite classification of the Hebrew Bible – Amos is the earliest prophet with a book to his name. Despite the twelve so-called Minor Prophets coming after the longer books of the Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the Bible, Amos began his ministry before any of them, though he overlapped with Isaiah and Hosea.
We don’t know a great deal about Amos, but he was the first to write his message as well as speak it (Elijah and Elisha, of course, were well-known, and there were other prophets before them, but none have whole books dedicated to their ministries). Amos 1:1 sets the scene: ‘The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa – the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.’
Amos’s prophesies can be dated with a reasonable degree of confidence to around 760 BC or shortly after, within the overlap of the reigns of the two kings. There is archaeological evidence for the earthquake that apparently devastated the area around that time, two years after the events of the book. The same earthquake is apparently referenced by Zechariah, centuries later. ‘You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.’ (Zechariah 14:5)
Not your average prophet
There are a couple of unusual features about Amos’s ministry. The first is that he was not sent to Judah, his home country. Amos was from Tekoa, 12 miles south of Jerusalem, but he preached to Israel. A little like Jonah, then, he speaks to a tough audience. Jonah brought his message to Nineveh – the capital of Assyria, which oppressed Judah and destroyed Israel. Amos is from the southern kingdom of Judah, but he speaks to the northern kingdom of Israel. Whilst they share a common history, only splitting into two lands in the time of Solomon, Israel and Judah have grown apart since then and hostilities occasionally erupt into war.
Secondly, the Prophet Amos was, in his own words, ‘not a prophet’. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel – one of the Israelite sanctuaries against which Amos had been prophesying – confronts him: ‘Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.’ (Amos 7:12-13)
Amos answers him with the enigmatic words, lo’ navi anokhi. The Hebrew can be interpreted in several ways. The word ‘I’ comes at the end of the phrase, and is the honorific form, indicating some emphasis: ‘I’m not a prophet! (or a prophet’s son).’ Because the verb is understood, it’s not clear whether he’s saying he isn’t a prophet, or wasn’t – but is now. It’s the same with his CV: it’s not clear whether Amos is saying he is still a shepherd and sycamore fig-tree tender, or that he was before he was called to speak.
It’s even unclear what ‘prophet’ means in this context. Amos could mean that he doesn’t consider himself a proper prophet; he is simply a shepherd who was called by God to deliver a message – just as Christians might not consider themselves Evangelists, but nevertheless are involved in evangelism. But it might be that he is referring to the formal, professional prophets who were attached to the Temple – the ‘sons of the prophets’ as they were sometimes known.
Whichever of these is correct, Amos obviously takes exception to Amaziah’s description of him as a prophet – something which may be down to Amaziah’s evident contempt for his prophecies as much as the profession itself.
Preaching to the choir
It’s hardly surprising Amaziah had issue with him. Amos’s message was carefully crafted to shock and even insult his listeners. It begins in the traditional manner, with a series of attacks on the surrounding nations. Amos preaches like a boxer, landing blow after blow on a sequence of Israel’s neighbours. The message is broadly the same: they have engaged in unnecessarily cruel and oppressive wars. The Arameans, Philistines, Tyrians, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites – they have all brutally punished their neighbours, butchering and enslaving whole communities.
But then Amos’s message takes a turn for the unexpected. The prophet from Judah turns his criticism onto – Judah itself. Israel’s neighbour is being added to a list consisting of the surrounding nations, with their vile religious practices. Judah, whilst lacking the others’ belligerence, has forsaken the Law of the Lord and is no better than them!
At this point, you can imagine his hearers nodding quietly and experiencing a certain Schadenfreude. They’d always known the Judeans were a bad lot, breaking away from the true Israel like that and acting all holier than thou with their ‘one true Temple’ propaganda. The fact that a prophet from Judah is now admitting this openly is surely a knockout blow.
Unfortunately, it turns out to be only a feint. Because as comfortably familiar as the criticism of the surrounding nations was, and as surprisingly welcome as the attack on Judah is, the majority of Amos’s message is reserved for none other than Israel itself. The rest of the book is a series of stinging rebukes of Israel for their sins, chiefly their failure to ensure to social justice, as well as their disregard for the Law. They have become well off – Amos delivers his message at a time of material prosperity – but have neglected the poor and needy. ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.’ (Amos 2:6-8)
Many of Amos’s messages are directed at the wealthy elite, who find whatever ways they can of defrauding the poor to enrich themselves. They deny them justice in court; they impose high taxes on those who cannot afford them (5:10-12). They bulk out grain with dust and dirt and end their Sabbaths and festivals as early as they can to sell more (8:5-6).
And although they observe a form of religion, it is empty: going through the motions of sacrifice and festivals, but omitting what really matters. It resonates with Jesus’ message, centuries later: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.’ (Matthew 23:23) Enough is enough, says Amos: judgment is coming.
There’s a lot the Church can take away from Amos’s message – some encouraging, some less so.
- We’re unprofessional. Amos didn’t see himself as a professional. He wasn’t a priest or a ‘real’ prophet: he was just a shepherd whom God decided to call to speak. And yet an entire book in the Bible is devoted to his message. That should be an encouragement to millions of ‘non-professional’ Christians going about their daily work and lives.
- We’re unprepared. Amos speaks at a time of relative peace and prosperity. Financial Crisis notwithstanding, we are also experiencing a time of unprecedented peace and material prosperity. Amos’s critique of no-holds-barred capitalism and the corruption of the political-economic elites, as well as the lacklustre faith of the Israelites more broadly, should prove a warning to us to ‘fix the roof while the sun is shining’.
- We’re undeserving. The Israelites looked at the nations around them and told themselves what so many other nations have told themselves: They’re not like us. Amos’s message is challenging: You’re exactly like them – except worse. Surveys suggest that self-identifying evangelical Christians often don’t live lives much different to non-believers in areas as diverse as money, sex and racism (all of which feature in Amos). Whilst also prompting us to rethink our lifestyles, this uncomfortable truth should also reinforce a message of grace. We are undeserving of God’s love, but we receive it anyway.
 See Ronald J. Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker Books, 2005). Sider writes of the American Church; due to the political motivation for research more statistics exist for US Christians than for the UK.