Ceiling mural of Prophet Amos
Prophet Amos keeping an eye on things

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 30 is Amos 7:10-17. Here’s the text (Inclusive Bible version), followed by my exegetical notes:

10Amaziah the priest of Bethel then sent the following message to Jeroboam ruler of Israel: “Amos is plotting against you in the midst of the House of Israel. The country can no longer tolerate what he keeps saying. 11For this is what he says, ‘Jeroboam is going to die by the sword, and Israel is going into exile from its land.’”

12Amaziah told Amos, “Go away, seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there. Do your prophesying there. 13We want no more prophesying in Bethel. This is the royal sanctuary, the national Temple!”

14Amos answered Amaziah: “I am no prophet. Nor am I the disciple of a prophet. I was a shepherd, and gathered figs for food. 15But YHWH took me from herding the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16So listen to the word of YHWH! You say: “Do not prophesy against Israel. Utter no oracles against the House of Isaac.’ 17Very well, this is what YHWH says: “Your spouses will be forced to take the most demeaning work, your children will fall by the sword, your land will be parceled out by measuring lines, and you yourself will die on unclean soil. And Israel will go into exile, far from its own land.’”

First reading: Amaziah sounds like someone who is supporting conventional standards of decorum, as much as anything else. (“How rude! What a lunatic!” etc.) We could imagine similar situations today. Amos sounds like he was holding back before his speech in vv 16-17; so, the updated prophetic speech is kind of “take that, then.” If he was a shepherd and gatherer of figs, would that mean he was somebody or nobody? If nobody, again, it may lend some credence to the “how rude/what a lunatic” response, maybe. The whole thing makes me wonder, seriously, how seriously these prophets were really taken in their own day.

Background: Amos is a prophet to Israel, the northern part of the divided kingdom, during the first half of the 8th century BCE, not too long before the fall of Samaria (722 BCE) and the exile of the northern Israelites to Assyria. Amos 1:1 identifies Amos as being from Tekoa, a city in Judah; Tekoa appears in 2 Samuel 14 as the home of the “wise woman” who conspires with Joab to convince David to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem. Whether this suggests that Tekoa has a reputation, and if so, what that reputation is … ?

The book dates Amos’s prophecies to the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:23-29), 786-746 BCE. It’s a time of expansion – Jeroboam II reportedly restores land to Israel that had been taken by the Arameans – and also, based on Amos’s denunciations, a time of severe economic inequality.

Bethel (see map at bibleatlas.org) has a long history as a named place, and a place associated with divinity, in the Bible, starting with Abraham and Jacob (e.g., it is the site of Jacob’s dream, (Gen. 28:10-22); it is mentioned as a worship site in Judges (Judges 20:18-28); it is established as a site for worship under Jeroboam I, with an altar and an image of a golden calf (Dan is a counterpart worship center; 1 Kings 12:25-33). Amos specifically prophesies against Bethel (3:14; 4:4-5; 5:4-7) as a place not to seek God. From a prophetic perspective, Bethel is a symbol of everything that is wrong with northern Israelite worship and the orientation of the northern monarchy.

Amos 7:10-17 is the only place the priest Amaziah is mentioned; I Kings 12:31 says the first Jeroboam appointed his own priests, from “all the people” rather than just the descendants of Aaron, so we might presume that Amaziah (a) wouldn’t be eligible to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem as a priest and (b) depends for his position on the politics of supporting/staying on the good side of the king. That might matter for how we understand his statements and actions in Amos 7:10-17.

The book is mostly a collection of short denunciations of practices, followed by judgments; there are visions, and this text, which is a brief narrative. It’s possible the prophet’s sayings, or some of them, were collected by followers; a couple of passages might possibly be later additions (2:4-5, identifying Judah; 9:11-15, a blessing on David’s kingdom).

Text analysis: 7:10-17 divides into four speeches, two by Amaziah the northern establishment priest of Bethel, two by Amos, the prophet of Judahite origin. Amaziah speech 1 is a report to the king, Jeroboam II, charging Amos with “conspiracy,” saying the land is not able to bear (lit. “contain” or “hold,” Hebrew chul) all his words, and quoting some words; I don’t find in preceding chapters anywhere evidently from 7:9, where Jeroboam, the sword, and exile all come up. He is far more disparaging of Bethel and current worship practices. Not hard to see how Amaziah could take offense.

Amaziah speech 2 addresses Amos as a “seer” (chozeh – but, maybe essentially interchangeable with nabi, “prophet”), uses imperative verbs, tells him to return to Judah, to “eat” (achal) his bread there. The rationale for not prophesying at Bethel (and against Bethel, presumably) is that it belongs to the king, as a sanctuary and a “house,” or court. So implicitly Amaziah identifies the king as most consequential or important. (And he probably is, for Amaziah.) So Amaziah tells Amos to go back home, and keep his mouth shut in the north, out of deference to the king.

Amos speech 1 addresses Amaziah about Amos’ origin & occupation. “I’m not a prophet or a ben-nabi [“son of a prophet”] seems to mean it’s not his profession. He’s a follower of flocks, and takes care of sycamore trees [evidently sycamore-figs, or fig-mulberries, or Ficus sycomorus, trees that have grown in the area for a long time, that produce a kind of fig fruit; to ripen properly, the fruit needs to be punctured with a knife or other implement during the growing cycle; this seems to be what it means to be a “dresser” of sycamores]. He received direct instructions from YHWH. [YHWH is more important than Jeroboam II.]

Amos speech 2 establishes the consequences of the suppression of prophecy by the northern establishment. Amos contrasts what “you” say with what YHWH says; you say “don’t prophesy” and “don’t drop [lit.] a word on the house of Isaac;” YHWH says what will happen: literally, “your wife in the city she will be a zonah,” which is usually translated harlot or prostitute, but which might not be restricted to having sex with men for money, but might refer to another form of non-marital sex; the bigger issue would be the shame associated with this [forced] option. Your children will die, your land will be given or sold to someone else, you will die in an “unclean” land, and Israel will go into exile [the word for going into exile is literally “to be uncovered,” which might suggest that when people go into exile they are stripped, if not literally, then at least figuratively]. The idea that “you” will die in an unclean land is more than a little ironic, since Amos’s denunciations indicate that Israel is not exactly “clean” at the moment.

The structure of the speeches is chiastic; judgment speech, prophet’s origin speech, prophet’s origin story, judgment speech.

Conclusions & questions: The intensification of the judgment speech is a direct consequence of the suppression of prophecy being attempted; possibly because the suppression of Amos’s prophecy would have the effect of suppressing the opportunity for taking appropriate action. Since Amos’s speeches have called out Bethel specifically, Amaziah may take particular offense.

I wonder whether anyone takes Amos seriously. It’s easy to think of contemporary situations in which someone using emergency services or sounding an alarm would be regarded as a crackpot by the conventional respectable community members. Also easy to think of situations in which the dominant powers would promote an alternative narrative, disputing the critical [prophetic] description of the situation, etc. I really wonder what percentage of Amos’s audience took him really seriously at the time. It’s hard to imagine the well-to-do people he was denouncing would have thought “You know, this Amos fellow sure is persuasive, we really ought to stop being so greedy and self-absorbed and start questioning our normative religion and turning back to YHWH.” It seems more plausible to think they would have thought of him as an extremist and a nuisance. That is, Amaziah probably didn’t just represent himself, but a whole stratum of Israelite society.

Unfortunately, Amos’s themes seem uncomfortably timely.

[Edited 7.26.17, because I just missed reading Amos 7:9 until then, I guess.]