1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Amos
AMOS, in the Bible, an Israelitish prophet of the 8th century B.C. He was a native of Tekoa, i.e. as most suppose, a place which still bears the same name 6 m. S. of Bethlehem. He was a shepherd, or perhaps a sheep-breeder, but combined this occupation with that of a tender of sycomore figs. It is true, the Tekoa just mentioned lies too high for sycomores; so it has been almost too ingeniously supposed that Amos may have owned a plantation of sycomores in the hill country leading down to Philistia, technically called the Shephēlah (R. V., “lowland”). Here there were sycomores in abundance (1 Kings x. 27). That this was his usual occupation we learn from a better source than the heading (i. 1), viz. a narrative (vii. 10, 17), evidently of early origin, which interrupts the series of prophetic visions on the fall of the kingdom of Israel. Amos, it appears, though himself a Judahite, had been prophesying in the northern kingdom, when his activity was brought to an abrupt close by the head priest of the royal sanctuary at Bethel, Amaziah, who bade him escape to the land of Judah and get his living there. The reply of Amos is full of instruction. “No prophet am I; no prophet's son am I; a shepherd am I, and one who tends sycomore-figs. And Yahweh took me from behind the flock; and Yahweh said to me, Go, prophesy against my people Israel.” The following words show that a prophet in ancient Israel had the utmost freedom of speech. It was far otherwise in the period of the fall of Judah. (See Jeremiah.)
But what had Amos said that appeared so dangerous to the head priest? Amaziah summarizes it thus, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall go away into captivity from his own land” (vii. 11; cf. vii. 9b, v. 27, vi. 7). He omits all the reasons for this stern prophecy. The reasons are that the good old Israelitish virtue of brotherliness is dying away, that oppression and injustice are rampant (ii. 6-8, iii. 9, 10, iv. 1, v. 11, 12, viii. 4-6), and that rites are practised in the name of religion which are abhorrent to Yahweh, because they either have no moral meaning at all, and are mere forms (v. 21-23), or else, judged from Amos's purified point of view, are absolutely immoral (ii. 7; cf. viii. 14). On the details of the captivity Amos preserves a mysterious vagueness. The fact, however, he puts forward with the confidence of one who is intimate with his God (iii. 7), and most probably it was at some great festival that he spoke the words which so perturbed Amaziah. The priest may not indeed himself have believed them, but he probably feared their effect on the moral courage of the people. And it is perhaps not arbitrary to suppose that the splendour of the ritual in Amos's time implies a tremulous anxiety that Israel's seeming prosperity under Jeroboam II. (see Jews) may not be as secure as could be wished. For Amos cannot have been quite alone either in Israel or in Judah; there must have been a little flock of those who felt with Amos that there was small reason indeed to “desire the day of Yahweh” (v. 18; see Harper's note).
But why did Amos so emphatically decline to be called a prophet? A prophet in some true sense he certainly was, a prophet who, within his own range, has not been surpassed. He means this—that he is no mere ecstatic enthusiast or “dervish,” whose primary aim is to keep up the warlike spirit of the people, taking for granted that Yahweh is on the people's side, and that he is perfectly free from the taint of selfishness, not having to support himself by his prophesying. He could not indeed tell Amaziah this, but it is nevertheless true that he was the founder, or one of the founders, of a new type of prophet. He was also either the first, or one of the first, to write down, or to get written down, the substance of his spoken prophecies, and perhaps also prophecies which he never delivered at all. This was the consequence of his ill success as a public preacher. The other prophets of the same order may be presumed to have been hardly less unsuccessful. Hence the new phenomenon of written prophecies. The literary skill of Amos leads one to suppose that he had prepared in advance for this, perhaps we may say, not altogether unfortunate necessity.
That there are many hard problems connected with the fascinating book of Amos cannot be denied. The one point on which we have indicated a doubt, viz. as to the situation of Tekoa, ought strictly to be accompanied by others. For instance, how came Amos to transfer himself to northern Israel? How hard it must have been to obtain a footing there while he was a mere student and observer! And how came he by his wide knowledge of people outside the limits of Israel? The most recent and elaborate commentator even calls him an “ethnologist.” And lastly, whence came his mastery of the poetical and literary arts? Is he really the Columbus of written prophecy? And behind these questions is the fundamental problem of the text, which has been somewhat too slightly treated. The text of Hosea may be in a much worse condition, but a keen scrutiny discloses many an uncertainty, not to say impossibility, in the traditional form of Amos. That the text has been much adapted and altered is certain; not less obvious are the corruptions due to carelessness and accident.
The main divisions of the book are plain, viz. chaps. i.-ii., chaps. iii.-vi., and chaps. vii.-ix. This arrangement, however, is probably not due to Amos himself, or to his immediate disciples, but to some later redactor. A number of passages seem to have been inserted subsequently to the time of Amos, on which see Ency. Bib., “Amos,” and the introduction to Robertson Smith's Prophets of Israel (2), though in some cases the final decision will have to be preceded by a more thorough examination of the traditional text. The most obvious non-Amosian passage in the book is the concluding passage, ix. 8-15, which has evidently supplanted the original close of the section. The meaning of the phrase “the tabernacle (booth) of David that is fallen” (ver. 11) is not perfectly clear. Beyond reasonable doubt, however, the writer seeks to take out the sting of the preceding passage in which Israel is devoted to utter destruction. The penitent and God-fearing Jews of the post-exilic age needed some softening appendix, and this the editor provided.
English readers are now well supplied with books on Amos. Driver's Joel and Amos (see Joel) (1897) and G. A. Smith's Twelve Prophets, vol. i. (1896), supplement and illustrate each other. Harper's Amos and Hosea (see Hosea) (1905) gives the cream of all the good things that have been said before, with a generally sound judgment; it is addressed to advanced students, and is perhaps less cautious than the two former. The German commentaries on the Minor Prophets by Nowack (2nd ed., 1903) and (especially) Marti (1904) must not, however, be neglected. Wellhausen's briefer work (3rd ed., 1898) is especially suggestive for textual criticism. Cheyne's Critica Biblica (1904), cf. his review of Harper in Hibbert Journal, iii. 824 ff., breaks new ground.