The Book of Amos, which is the earliest of the prophetic writings to be preserved in book form, consists of nine chapters. Not all of the material found in these chapters came from Amos himself. Editors and copyists added comments to the prophet's original oracles that they deemed appropriate in light of events that occurred after his death. Whether Amos' words constitute a series of speeches or belong to one single address is unknown. The theme that runs through all of the material is one of protest against the social injustices that prevailed in northern Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. Along with this protest is the warning that Yahweh will surely punish the nation for violating the demands of justice. The punishment will be nothing short of captivity by a foreign power and the end of Israel's national existence.
Amos was a shepherd who lived in the region of Tekoa, not many miles from the city of Jerusalem. He made his living by raising sheep and taking care of sycamore trees. When his produce was ready for market, he went to the towns and villages of Israel. His journeys took him through the country districts, where he observed the hardships imposed on the working class of people by the wealthy landowners who lived in the towns or cities in the midst of comparative luxury. While in the cities, Amos was deeply troubled not only by the contrast between the rich and the poor but by the way in which the political and religious leaders tried to justify this disparity. These leaders insisted that Yahweh materially rewards those who are faithful in the performance of their ritualistic obligations to him. Hence they interpreted their own prosperity and that of the nation as a whole as evidence that the divine favor rests on them and will continue to do so for all time to come. At the same time, they reasoned that poor people deserve their hard lot in life because they do not regularly participate in the sacrifices and other religious activities practiced at the established places of worship. Amos was not impressed by this kind of argument. He was raised in an environment where it was understood that loyalty to Yahweh involves fair dealings among people rather than observance of religious rites and ceremonies.
As Amos pondered the situation that prevailed in northern Israel, he began to have dreams and visions, three of which he recorded. In one of them, Amos sees a man with a plumb line measuring a wall that is about to fall. The man is told that the bulging wall is none other than the house of Israel: Just as a wall of this kind will soon collapse, so the nation that it represents will surely go into captivity. In a second vision, Amos sees a basket of summer fruit that represents the people of Israel, whose material prosperity is like the fully ripe fruit. But ripe fruit lasts only a little while and then rots and decays. So the peaceful years of the Israelite nation are about to come to an end. The third vision is one in which Amos sees a swarm of locusts about to devour the produce of the land. This vision is also interpreted as a warning of the evil days that lie ahead.
After a time, Amos reaches the point where he can no longer keep quiet about his dreams. Addressing a group of people who have gathered at the place of worship known as the Bethel sanctuary, he declares that Yahweh has this to say to them:
I hate, I despise your feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. . . . Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?
Amos' statements are daring for him to make because they directly challenge the generally accepted religious practices of his time. Strong opposition to Amos developed at once when Amaziah, a priest, sent word to King Jeroboam that Amos was a dangerous character and should be expelled from the land. Although Amos insisted that he spoke only the words that Yahweh told him to proclaim, Amaziah told him to leave the country and never to prophesy again in the land of Israel.
The coming downfall and the utter collapse of the northern kingdom are two major themes in the Book of Amos. The basis for these predictions is not the rise in power of the Assyrian empire, with its threat of invasion from the north, but rather the immorality expressed in the political, economic, and religious life of Amos' contemporaries. Amos is convinced that Yahweh is a god of justice; Yahweh's power over the nations of the earth is evidenced by the fact that transgression of the principles of justice and social righteousness will inevitably be followed by ruin and decay. This cause and effect is illustrated in the book's first two chapters, which record oracles concerning Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Judah, and Israel. The first four of these oracles tell of calamities that have fallen upon the respective kingdoms because of their utter disregard for what is just and right. The last two indicate that both Judah and Israel are subject to the same kind of treatment.
The nation of Israel, because it "sells the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals," and because of the many other instances in which it violated the principles of justice, is doomed.
The luxurious homes of the rich will be spoiled, the women who have spent their time in idleness and pleasure will be dragged away into exile, and the entire country will be laid waste, a point about which Amos is especially emphatic. He insists that the coming captivity is a certainty and will mean final and complete destruction. He declares, "Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again." Whatever remnants remain after the approaching invasion from the north will be insufficient for rebuilding the nation. These remnants will be comparable to "only two leg bones or a piece of an ear" that a shepherd rescues from a sheep that has been torn to pieces by a lion or a bear.
According to Amos, Israel's fate is fully deserved. That its religious and political leaders have overconfidently believed that their manner of worshiping Yahweh will bring them continued peace and prosperity avails them nothing at all. They had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of the past that Yahweh's relationship to them is conditional on their obedience to his moral requirements. Because their opportunities in this respect have been greater than those of other nations, they must bear the greater responsibility. Yahweh, no longer obligated to protect them, will not be influenced by their prayers, offerings, or solemn assemblies.
Amos interprets the coming of the Day of Yahweh — God's kingdom on earth — in sharp contrast to what generally was accepted by the priests and other contemporary rulers of the land, in whose opinion the coming Day of Yahweh will be a triumphant day of gladness for the people of Israel, a time when their enemies will be subdued and their own peace and prosperity made permanently secure; these acts will be the final realization of the divine purpose that from the very beginning has guided the destiny of Israel. But for Amos, the coming Day of Yahweh means nothing of this kind. If Yahweh is indeed the god of justice, he cannot show special favor to the Israelites by allowing them to escape the type of punishment that he brought down upon other peoples for exhibiting the same kind of irreverent and disrespectful conduct. The Day of Yahweh will, therefore, be a dark day for the Israelites: "Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord. . . . That day will be darkness, not light." The nation's captivity will not mean the overthrow of the god of Israel but rather the supremacy of the god of justice.
The prophecies of Amos mark an important point in the development of the religion of the Old Testament. The prophet was indeed a spokesman for Yahweh. That he was not speaking for himself or trying to please his listeners is made clear by the content of the message he delivered. Critics have often maintained that the Old Testament prophets created the god of whom they spoke out of their own imaginations. However, had these prophets done so, it does not seem at all likely that Yahweh would have spoken so critically of what was being done by the prophets' own people.
In the ancient world, each nation customarily had its own god, a deity whose power and influence were limited by the boundaries of the country over which it presided. Evidence indicates that Yahweh was so conceived by the Hebrew people. But for Amos, Yahweh is not subject to these limitations. As a god of justice, Yahweh's demands are universal and consequently affect all nations alike. Israel is no exception. Dishonesty and transgression of the rights of people will bring about the destruction of this nation just as surely as they did in the cases of Tyre, Moab, Damascus, and Gaza. The implication is clear enough that Yahweh is the god of all nations. If Amos is not to be regarded as a pure monotheist, we can at least say that his thought is moving in that direction.
The opposition of the priests toward Amos can be understood in light of what Amos says concerning the solemn assemblies, sacrifices, public prayers, and other ritualistic observances. One function of the priests was to ensure that these activities were maintained; Amos insists that these rituals are worthless and should be abolished entirely. His position appears to be extreme, for properly used ritual can be an aid toward spiritual ends. On the other hand, when observance of ritual becomes a substitute for morality, nothing less than its total abolition seems to be appropriate — undoubtedly the case with Amos.
Several passages in the Book of Amos, especially in the last chapter, indicate that the Israelites will return from captivity and will be happy and prosperous in their own land. Whether these passages are from Amos or were added to the original by persons who lived at a later time is a question concerning which there is some difference of opinion. However, the weight of the evidence seems to indicate that such passages are later additions. As the manuscripts were copied from time to time, Amos' message inevitably was viewed from the perspective of later events; naturally, insertions were made in order to bring his message into harmony with such subsequent events. Furthermore, the type of restoration that is indicated in the closing chapter of the book is not the kind that one would expect from Amos since it indicates material prosperity rather than a moral transformation.