Amos is one of the best known prophetic books, because of its emphasis on justice for the poor. The prophet Amos is generally believed to be the earliest prophet with his own book (see Date and authorship).
It is the third of the twelve so-called ‘minor prophets’.
The book forms a single complete composition; but as one of the ‘Twelve’, it may have been shaped as part of an ultimate editorial unity.
The book opens with a series of prophecies against neighbouring states, announcing the destruction of their capitals, generally for war crimes. This series culminates in a much longer denunciation of Israel for social injustice. The rest of the book consists largely of prophecies of the destruction of the state of Israel: this means the so-called northern kingdom. A few verses at the end hold out hope of reconstruction.
Date and authorship
The historical context of these prophecies is before the actual fall of the kingdom in 722 BCE. 1:1 and 7:9-11 date the activity of Amos in the reign of Jeroboam (II: died ca. 745 BCE), earlier than any of the other prophets with books named after them (except, partially, Hosea). Traditionally, readers have followed the indication of the book itself (1:1) that Amos spoke all the prophetic words in the book. Some scholars still consider that virtually all of the sayings in the book were spoken by Amos. A few believe that large parts or most of it come from a later time.
But the most widespread opinion is this: the majority of the words are Amos’s, but the book was actually written by others and edited more than once. In the process a number of passages have been added to update the prophecy for contemporary hearers. The object of the editing would have been to show that the fall of Israel was God’s judgment on a corrupt society, and to warn later generations, especially in Judah, of the danger that they might suffer the same fate.
The final editing of the book would have been during or after the exile in Babylon, when it may be that the few hopeful verses were added. The passages most commonly believed to date later than Amos are these: 1:1-2, 9-12; 2:4-5, 10-12; 3:1b, 7; 4:13; 5:6b, 8-9, 13, 14-15, 25-27; 7:9-11; 8:11-14; 9:8b-15 (about a quarter of the book).
The most difficult question of interpretation is whether the prophecies of disaster were intended to present the kingdom with its inevitable fate, or as a warning to encourage repentance. The majority of modern scholars think that Amos himself announced inescapable doom for at least the wealthy elite who were exploiting the poor. As an edited book the prophecy makes it clear that the words of Amos portended Israel’s actual downfall, and the words suggesting there was a chance of repentance are few. As the book builds up to a fearful climax in 9:1-4, it may suggest that while there was once a chance of escape, this has now been lost.
Mark Daniel Carroll R., a biblical scholar who has worked with Christians in Latin America, suggests that one way of getting to the heart of Amos is to treat it as ‘a poetic reading within a rich understanding of the cultural context in which it is to be interpreted’. In other words, begin where we are now, with our own culture and situation. Treat it as poetry, accept the anonymity of the characters, but pause and ponder words and concepts which have a local or contemporary resonance. To help the process Walter Brueggemann suggests that we draw on ‘a zone of imagination’, releasing that bit of ourselves which stands between the input of the text and that intensely personal area, the outcome of our attitudes, belief or behaviour, full of ‘baggage’ based on what we have always been told, a mix of powerful interests, deep fears, and unresolved hurts, because once we give freedom to the text and our imagination Amos has the capacity to come alive in a new way. Seeds we did not even know were there may begin to shoot and blossom. For example, Amos sees three failed harvests as a wake-up call to a recalcitrant people (4:6-12). So what might it say to us as we survey the last 1000 years of our history or contemplate three different parts of the world we live in today?
The book was for a long time not very prominent in the work of Jewish and Christian writers and preachers (though see Acts 15:15-18).
The Dominican Savonarola gave a series of powerful sermons on Amos in Florence in Lent 1496 denouncing a society where the rich dominated and exploited the poor. Many preachers and writers in the late 19th and 20th centuries took up this view of the book, and based their critique of industrial capitalism upon it.
Barton, John. The Theology of Amos. Old Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Brueggeman, Walter. The Bible and Postmodern Imagination: Texts Under Negotiation. London: SCM Press, 1993. See Chapter 3.
Carroll R., Mark Daniel. Contexts for Amos: Prophetic Poetics in Latin American Perspectives. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992. See Chapter 5.
Hagedorn, Anselm C., and Andrew Mein, eds. Aspects of Amos: Exegesis and Interpretation. Library of Biblical Studies. London: T&T Clark, 2011.
Houston, Walter J. Amos. Phoenix Guides to the Old Testament. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2015. Repr., Amos: An Introduction and Study Guide. Justice and Violence. London; Oxford; New Delhi; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Jeremias, Jörg. The Book of Amos. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.