Amos (prophet)

From New World Encyclopedia

Books of the

Hebrew Bible

Amos (Hebrew: עָמוֹס—"Burden"—apparently a shortened form of Amasiah, meaning "the Lord carries") is one of the 12 minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible, whose speeches are reported in the Book of Amos.

Amos is regarded as the first of the "literary prophets," whose words were recorded for posterity. Both the style and content of his prophecies had a lasting influence on later Jewish prophets as well as on Christian ministry. In the modern era, he has become particularly influential as the prophet of social justice. He excoriated those who practice "mere" religion, and his denunciations of religious hypocrisy produced some of the Bible's most memorable verses, such as:

I hate, I despise your religious 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. (Amos 5:21-24)

Audience and ministry

Engraving of the Prophet Amos (1891)

Amos prophesied in the days of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.E.) of Israel, while Uzziah (792-740 B.C.E.) was king of Judah. He likely performed most of his prophetic work c. 765-755. He was born in Tekoa, a town in Judah about six miles south of Bethlehem and 11 miles from Jerusalem in the territory of the tribe of Asher. Although a native of the southern Kingdom of Judah, he was called to prophesy in the northern Kingdom of Israel, especially in Bethel, one of Israel's ancient consecrated places (another being Gilgal) where sacred objects were kept and where the upper classes worshiped. [1] Amos is not seen as a "professional" prophet, in contrast to many other Old Testament prophets such as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha.


Amos had three occupations before Yahweh called him to be a prophet, as a shepherd, a herdsman of cattle, and a tender of sycamore-fig trees (7:14). However, since it is clear from his particularly expressive, vivid, and forceful language and style of his writing that he was well educated, it is suggested that he was most probably from a wealthy background, and thus the owner of flocks, herds and sycamore groves rather than simply a herdsman or a farmhand. Sycamore-fig trees grew at a lower altitude than Tekoa, so Amos undoubtedly had to do some traveling to lower altitudes to tend these trees. This was the wild fig (siq-mim in Hebrew) which exuded a ball of sap when nipped at the right season, and which hardened into a sort of edible fruit which the lower classes were able to afford.

Amos also probably would have done a large amount of traveling to the wool and cattle markets of Israel and Judah. Thus he became aware of the social, and economic conditions and practices of both the higher and lower classes of society, yet shaped by his rural experiences, maintained a clear perspective of the evils that he saw as he traveled. While the Israelites felt their lifestyle was normal, the prophet perceived it as hateful to God.

The Book of Amos records that two years after Amos received the visions contained therein, an earthquake struck the area (1:1). Josephus, the first century CE Jewish historian, believed that the earthquake happened at the same time as Uzziah's seizure of the role of high priest and his subsequent bout with leprosy (2 Chr. 26:18-20). Archaeological findings unearthed at Hazor, about ten miles north of the sea of Galilee, show that an unusually strong earthquake occurred about 760 B.C.E. Amos was a contemporary of Isaiah, Micah and Hosea.

Israel in Amos' time

Under Jeroboam II, the Kingdom of Israel reached the zenith of its prosperity and enjoyed a substantial period of peace and security marked by artistic and commercial development. Samaria, its capital, boasted of beautiful and substantial buildings of hewn stone and ivory decorations rather than brick. Abundance, comfort and luxury so abounded that northern Kingdom of Israel had attained a prosperity unprecedented since the time of Solomon. However, the division between rich and poor increased and social corruption and the oppression of the poor and helpless were common. In addition, although there was a great outward show of religious observance, including sacrifices and offerings, the priesthood had been defiled by appointment of non-Levites, many new holidays were celebrated that had their origins in pagan tradition, and even certain idols were kept in the places of worship. Amos was called from his rural home to remind the rich and powerful of God's requirement for justice (e.g. 2:6-16). He claimed that religion that is not accompanied by right action is anathema to God (5:21ff.), and prophesied that the Kingdom of Israel would be destroyed (e.g. 5:1-2; 8:2).

Amos' message was, perhaps understandably, unwelcome in Israel. Not only was he a foreigner from the southern kingdom, but his prophecies of doom were completely at odds with the prevailing political climate of hope and prosperity. Israel under the leadership of Jeroboam II had extended its territory into modern day Syria, taking advantage of the nation's weakness after a recent defeat by the Assyrians. Assyria, the major threat to Israel's power, had withdrawn itself temporarily due to internal strife, allowing Israel to flourish politically and economically. The nation's resultant affluence, however, was the main focus of Amos' mission as a prophet, and soon after Jeroboam (who for 12 years had served as co-regent with his father Jehoash), came to sole power in 781 B.C.E., Amos was called to speak to the people of the Northern Kingdom.

Amos vs. Amaziah of Bethel

Amos was continually in conflict with the governing authorities, as demonstrated in the narrative by way of a conversation between Amos and Amaziah, a priest of Bethel. The priest, loyal to Jeroboam, accused Amos of stirring up trouble and conspiring against the king, and commands him to stop prophesying. Amos responded with an oracle: “Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land." (7:17) While some have held that Amaziah eventually had Amos killed, there is no biblical evidence of his martyrdom.[2]

One of Amos' well known claims is, "I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd,[3] and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.'" (7:14) While this was often understood to mean that Amos was reluctant to prophesy or that he was poor, scholars today see it as a claim to be financially independent and not a part of the corrupt religious system of his day. His agricultural holdings as a shepherd and a tender of trees were seen in his day as s sign of means, which he used to point out that he was not in the prophetic ministry for money, and that his efforts were only in response to God's command.


The large opening oracle in Amos 1:3-2:16 predicted that many of Israel's neighbors would suffer, including Damascus, capital of the Aramean state directly north of Israel; Gaza, a Philistine city that guarded the entry to Canaan from Egypt; Tyre, the dominant Phoenician city once allied with Israel; Edom, the nation descended from Esau southeast of Judah; Ammon, an area east of the Jordan River whose main city, Rabbah (Amman, Jordan today), was singled out for destruction; and Moab, a country east of the Dead Sea that was a perpetual enemy of Israel. However, Israel faced special tribulations, because she "knew" God, yet rebelled. After pronouncing judgment on Israel's neighbors for various atrocities (judgments that Israel would naturally applaud), Amos announced God's condemnation on His own kingdom for failure to keep His commandments:

For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath].
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:6-7 NIV)

Later, after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel validated Amos's prophecies, a Judean redactor who brought his message south added a suitable opening superscription:

The Lord roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers. (Amos 1:2 NIV)

Much of the prophecy of Amos is directed at the heartlessness of wealthy merchants who ignore the plight of the poor, at the lack of justice for the righteous, and at the emptiness of religious ritual in the place of reverence and devotion to God's laws. Through Amos, God expresses his disgust with religiosity devoid of righteousness:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings
and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for 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. (Amos 5:21-24, NIV)

The prophet was particularly concerned with the well-being the poor and the purity of heart of the prosperous. He did not have the millennial apocalyptic views of later prophets, nor does he rely on esotericism or mystical signs. The prophecy of Amos is clear and direct, and foretells the Assyrian captivity of Israel (which began in 722-721 B.C.E.), a judgment that would not merely be a punitive warning blow, but an almost total destruction. The prophet recounted five visions indicating God's determination to decisively punish His people: locusts devouring the land (7:1-3), great fire (7:4-6), a plumb line (7:7-9), a basket of ripe summer fruit (8:1-3) and the Lord standing beside the altar (9:1-10). He also had a high view of God as the Creator, and periodically his prophecy breaks into peals of praise:

He who forms the mountains,
creates the wind,
and reveals his thoughts to man,
he who turns dawn to darkness,
and treads the high places of the earth—
the Lord God Almighty is his name. (Amos 4:13 NIV)

Literary style

Amos utilizes many agricultural metaphors drawn from his experiences in agriculture. Note the agricultural imagery in Amos 7:

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king's share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, 'Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!'

Amos uses simple language, being straightforward and direct with his messages from God, not only for Israel and Judah, but also for the surrounding nations. However, the style and organization of his writings reveals literary excellence. It is likely that Amos or one of his followers compiled and carefully organized his writings after he had finished his ministry in Israel and returned to Judah. Probably, the prophesies were not delivered orally exactly as recorded, as many of the topics are given poetic flair. The prophesies are meant to be read as a unit, but are not necessarily in the chronological order of his spoken messages. He may have repeated them on many occasions to reach as many people as possible. Amos is one of the first of the prophetic messengers whose words were preserved in permanent book form that would accompany Israel through the coming captivity and beyond.


As recorded prophesy, the writings of Amos undoubtedly affected later prophets especially as predictors of doom and in their hostile attitude toward Canaanite influences in both religion and culture.[4] It was one of the works used by Ezra to accompany the Torah and later become part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

Today Amos is often cited and remembered as a prophet of social justice. A 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Amos in his December 6, 1955 Dexter Avenue Baptist Church sermon following Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to sit in the back of a public bus:

"We are going to work with determination to achieve justice on the buses. We are not wrong in what we are doing." [Shouts, cheering]. "We are determined here in Montgomery to fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King from Montgomery to Selma, has explained that the prophet emphasized for the first time in history the linkage between faith on the one hand and ethics on the other, that one cannot be truly a person of faith if he/she isn’t also moral and concerned for the well-being of all God’s creation.

A 2006 campaign by the NAACP for a "living wage" was entitled "Let Justice Roll," an overt reference to Amos 5:24.


  1. A third important shrine was established at Dan by Jeroboam I. Other shrines are also mentioned in the biblical texts.
  2. The source of the tradition regarding Amos' martyrdom is the apocryphal Lives of the Prophets, a work from the second century C.E.
  3. The Hebrew word here relates to cattle rather than sheep as in 1:1
  4. It is interesting to note, however, that in his denunciation of the corruption of Bethel, Amos does not mention the golden calf icons that the author of the Books of Kings found so abhorrent.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anderson, Bernhard W. & Foster R. McCurley The Eighth Century Prophets: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. London: Wipf and Stock, 2003. ISBN 1592443540
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Westminster, TN: John Knox Press, 1996. ISBN 0664256392
  • Gigot, F.E.. Amos. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  • Gomes, Jules Francis. The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity. Walter de Gruyter, 2006. ISBN 978-3110189933
  • Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 2001. ISBN 0060936991
  • Podhoretz, Norman. The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are. Free Press. 2002. ISBN 0743219279
  • Rosenbaum, Stanley Ned. Amos of Israel: A New Interpretation. Georgia, Mercer University Press, 1990. ISBN 0865543550

This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.

External links

All links retrieved June 18, 2021.


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