The Historical, Literary and Archeological Background of Three Indictments Against Israel in Amos Essay

The Historical, Literary and Archeological  Background of Three Indictments Against Israel in Amos

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This paper is a discussion of the ideas of Amos relative to the literary tradition of Israel as revealed in archeology. In this case, archeology assists us in tracing the ideological core of Israelite self-definition in the sense that it provides a powerful moral background to make sense out of the harsh and condemnatory words of Amos. In this paper, three specific attacks will be dealt with: class stratification, perversion of temple worship and the false eschatological hopes of the Israelite establishment.

1. Introduction:

            1.1 Amos was a prophet in Israel during the prosperous but corrupt reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). Amos was a man of the people, a shepherd from Tekoa. It is no exaggeration to hold that his primary prophesy was against Israel, and specifically, that the prosperity of Israel was purely vacuous and hollow, based around corrupt practices taken from Tyre and other major trading cities. This paper will skip the concerns with the nations such as Aram or Edom, and deal solely with his attacks on Israel proper. His complaints were legitimate, albeit common,  prophetic attacks on the chosen people who had, again, gone astray. The approach of this paper is largely based on the literary archeology of Israel, as reported by major scholars in this field. The basic ideas of Amos, the condemnation of class stratification, the corruption of worship and the eschatological ideas of the Israelite upper classes are not really to be understood in terms of physical artifacts, but in terms of the literary heritage of Israel and the surrounding peoples, an approach that is certainly archeological, though dealing with Israel’s self-identification at its root.

            1.2 The three attacks that Amos makes against the people and practices of Israel that will be investigated are, first, the common prophetic attack on the rich oppressing the poor (Amos, 2:6), second, the falsity of the temple services when paid for with the oppression of the poor (5:21-24), in other words, hypocritical, false worship, and finally, the false hope of the “day of the Lord,” (5:18) something akin to the modern Protestant doctrine of the rapture, where, it was thought, God would appear and bring Israel to victory and salvation in his embrace. Many of the prophets did speak of the day of the lord, but only that it will be a punishment for the wayward in Judah and Israel, not a day of victory, as the corrupt and hypocritical upper classes in Israel thought.

2. The Poor Oppressed

            2.1 The oppression of the poor is a constant theme of the pre-exilic prophets. In the case of Amos, the background is rather clear. During the reign of Jehoahaz, Israel had suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Syrians. However, a short time later, the Assyrian king Adad-nirari IV (810-782 BC) rose up, and, as a rival of Syria, became Israel’s “saviour.” The subsequent battle between Syria and Assyria permitted Israel the breathing room necessary to develop its own internal economy under Jeroboam II (Smith, 1925, 56).

            2.2 Amos describes himself as a dresser of vines as well as a shepherd, and hence, a man of the people and not, as is so emphatically mentioned, a “prophet.” This was because Amos was deliberately separating himself from the professional “temple prophets” who prophesied according to their paymasters, the state in this case, and told the monarch what he wanted to hear (Smith, 1925, 58). But Amos made the class divisions within Israel central, Smith writes: It was a post war period, when even as here, the rich seem to have been getting richer and the poor poorer. It was the great merit of Amos that he insisted upon fundamental morality as the supreme thing in human relations with God. . .It was out of deep sympathy with men of his own kind that he spoke words of indignation and scorn against the rich oppressor (Smith, 1925, 59).

     2.3 Needless to say, this is highly linked with his condemnations of the temple ritual.

Irwin, however, holds that the mentality of Amos in condemning the class divisions of Israel was not based on any kind of “universal” moral sense, but rather the simple fact of opposing the ancient law of Moses, where such divisions were prohibited and ultimately, the families that made up Israel were to be basically equal in terms of income and social position (Irwin, 1933, 105). In other words, one need not approach these things from the point of view of universal moral condemnations, but as something more specific, the attack on the transgression of the specific laws given to Israel, and hence, itself interfering with temple worship. Irwin shares the contempt of Amos for the “comfortable and well-fed piety” if Israel, but his condemnation does not come from some universal moral idea, of which, so Irwin holds, none such ever existed in Israelite thought. It is a far more simple cause and effect relation: God’s law is violated, Israel will be punished. There is no “universal ordinance” that is being transgressed here: Yahweh remains a “tribal” God (Irwin, 1933, 106). Irwin writes, “Amos has three axiomatic ideas: God is righteous, God is supreme, and the people are wicked.” (Ibid). His thought does not go any farther than this. What is more, it is the “force of his utterance” rather than any form of moral sense, that is to condemn the world of Israel. In other words, Irwin holds that, even apart from specifically law-based considerations, the method of Amos takes advantage of the art of rhetoric rather than that of law or theology. Amos is a man of specificity, not universality.

            2.4 In the work of Wolf (1947), there is seen a strong sense of “primitive democracy” in Israel, both law based and purely moral, that gives more and more force to Amos’ prophesy. In other words, there is a strong moral sense of ethnic and religious solidarity that is coming under attack by the class stratification of Israel (Wolf, 1947, 100). What Wolf holds more generally is that there is a moral sense (though nothing of a universal sense) in which equality and solidarity befit a specifically chosen, theo-centric community. This is the sense that Amos is trying to provoke with his words. Wolf holds that there is a strong sense of social egalitarianism in ancient Israel, and that there was no aristocracy except that which developed through the worship of money. The reality is that historically, the ancient community of Israel made all-important decisions in common, with no aristocratic leadership at the helm. Hence, egalitarianism was strong and, even more, the increasing class divisions of Amos’ time were abhorrent for this main reason (Wolf, 1947, 101-103).

3. Falsity of Worship

            3.1 The falsity of the temple worship derives directly from this same problem. Smith writes:

class=WordSection5>The difficulty was not that the worshippers were not wholly sincere and devout in the practice of ritual, such as it was; but that, while zealous in the practice of ceremonial, they were living lives that lacked the fundamental moral qualities without which no worship, however, elaborate, could be pleasing to Yahweh. (Smith, 1925, 61).

        3.2 The real problem, according to Smith, was the paganization of the Temple services which sought, not the worship of Yahweh, but rather the protection of their lifestyles and money making. In other words, Smith is arguing that the pagan idea in the Levant concerned magic, the attempted control of natural or supernatural forces for the sake of gain. This was the very opposite of the true Israelite mentality, which was the worship of Yahweh because of what he had done for Israel and to magnify his greatness.  “Amos would not have had them give up ritual; but he did insist that their ceremonial should be the expression of a devout and humble faith. . “ (Smith, 1925, 62).

            3.3 Whitley holds that the corruption of the temple worship is really a breaking of the covenant (Whitley, 1963, 39). The real issue here is that Yahweh was seen to have revealed himself to only one people, that of Israel. Hence, both the moral life of Israel and the temple service were expressions of this knowledge. This intimacy between “father and daughter,” Israel and Yahweh, is a sort of adultery, a breaking of the family bond by perversion of the family worship for the sake of gain, for “magical protection” against those that might harm the lifestyle of the Israelite upper classes.

            3.4 Lineham holds that the relation between sin and sacrifice was being violated by the Israelite upper classes (1905, 89). There are several historical issues here. Lineham reminds us that the sins of any part of Israel were seen to affect all of Israel. Hence, the moral transgressions of the upper classes were basically the sin of the whole people and hence, the punishment would also affect the whole. Secondly, the nature of the sacrifice itself was becoming automatic. The upper classes were heavily involved in sin, and hence, they used the temple worship, not to magnify the greatness of Yahweh, but rather to engage in the ritual expiation of their sins. However, there is no sense of repentance here. The temple sacrifice was used to make their work seem rational and social, rather than to glorify God. Lineham writes, “To the prophets sin was the denial or disregard of Yahweh’s righteous character; it took the form of false worship and was frequently associated with foul rites” (Lineham, 1905, 89). What is being said here is that the worship of Yahweh had taken the form of the worship of Baal. Baal served as the protector of the upper classes, the oligarchy of the Phoenician trading cities. He was invoked for the sake of profit. But Yahweh was not like this, as Amos protested. He was the God of righteousness and moral order, not the God of the trading classes. Amos, in this sense, is now condemning the religious syncretism that was creeping into the rites of the temple, a syncretism with Baal and general Levantine paganism that served the interests of the upper classes (Lineham, 1905, 89-90).

            3.5 Staples (1947) takes this idea even further. He holds that the basic falsity of the moral code that corrupted the temple worship was the idea of “debt.” There were two senses of this word. The first was the corrupt model, the one engaged in by the Israelite oligarchy. The debt was seen as just that, something owed, and once paid, gone forever. But this was the background idea to the corrupt practice of the perfunctory sin offering, the constant engagement of this offering so as to bribe Yahweh for forgiveness of their sins. This approach, over time, seemed merely to act as a mechanical forgiveness with an equally mechanistic ritual. It had nothing to do with repentance or moral norms, but a mere “repaying” of a debt no different from a financial one. The second model is the righteous one, that the debt is eternal, that God saved Israel from the Egyptians and from the Syrian menace (more recently) and hence, man should worship God as would a son thanking a strong father for his benefits, with humility and a desire to live according to the family rules. Amos fought for the latter, but the Israelite traders opted for the former, since it served their interests (Staples, 1947, 69-70).

4. The Day of the Lord

            4.1 The final question is the day of the Lord. This was an important idea in ancient Israel, in that it had developed during this era is a form of sudden salvation, the appearance of a leader who would lead Israel to victory and salvation permanently. It was popular, or so it seems, among the upper classes, whose money and social position would be preserved by this deliverer in the “day of the Lord.” The prophets, however, went out of their way to say that this day was a day of punishment. Amos makes mention of this idea at 5:18, “Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord! What will this day mean for you? Darkness and not light!” Buchanan spends quite a long time on this phrase and its meaning. It is without doubt an eschatological idea, one saturated with messianic and nationalist hopes. Universal morality is openly rejected, and the nations, the enemies of Israel will be destroyed (Buchanan, 1961, 188).

            4.2 Buchanan makes this concept clearer in its relevance to its utterance in Amos. It is amazing how many interpretations of this famous phrase exist within the Old Testament. In general, the corrupt upper classes and the state normally saw this as salvation and the coming dominancy of Israel in the world. Only for the prophets is it interpreted as days of punishment, the despoiling of Israel and the destruction of the upper classes (Buchanan, 1961, 189). Hence, one of the important missions of Amos in this context is to destroy the self-satisfaction that came from the idea. The Day of the Lord meant, to those who had power, that their behaviour meant nothing, that God will deliver Israel as a whole and hence, their immorality in their current practices would be set at naught. In other words, God will personally come and rescue Israel and hence, their current practices would have no moral meaning one way or another. It was the idea of pure self-satisfaction. It is thence not surprising to see the violent reaction to the prophets, including Amos, who said that their day of the Lord is coming, but that they will not benefit from it. Ultimately, only a remnant will be saved.

            4.3 Another article of Staples (1966) holds that Amos reverses the eschatological ideas of Israel, and that this is part of the Epic mentality of the Levantine religions in general. The destruction that will be wrong by Yahweh in the day of the Lord partially derives from a long tradition in the Middle East for these epic tales of destruction. Amos holds since that God has built up Israel, he can also destroy it. This is central to Amos and needs to be placed in a broader near Eastern context (Staples, 1966, 108). The lion, as mentioned in Amos, is a common motif for punishment and destruction on the enemies of Israel (cf. Amos 3:4). Since the Israelite state and its elites are guilty against Yahweh, all forms of punishment are described that are designed to reverse the common expectation: famine instead of plenty, invasion and defeat instead of eternal victory, poverty instead of riches (Staples, 1966, 109-110). Staples also mentions that the destruction prophesied by Amos is unavoidable. He makes mention of many pagan myths of the area that hold to the concept that man cannot change his ways. For Amos, the destruction of Israel and the elimination of its hollow prosperity derives from the fact that the Israelite is now so deep into sin that he cannot turn away from it. They have angered Yahweh to the extent that he will not forgive, and hence, since the sin offerings have been perverted, there is no ritual that can help Israel. Nothing can now be done, Israel is done for. The very fact that Amos is mocked and attacked by the “elders of Israel” shows to what extent Israel is reaching its end. The end of Israel is coming, but just not in the way that the elite and many in the common population will hope. The concept is that eschatological ideas were all over the near East at the time and before, but Israel, in its corruption, chose only those ideas that served its interests. This becomes the centre of Amos’ prophesy.

5. Conclusion

            In conclusion, this paper has attempted to trace the literary and ideological archeology of ancient Israel in dealing with the three themes of Amos: class stratification, the perversion of temple worship and the perversion of the eschatological ideas common to the area. In other words, this paper has sought to see that the complaints of Amos were not specific to him, but part of a long tradition of Israelite law and literature that came to define the Israelite people. It was these forms of self-identification, found in the literary archeology of the era, that was both forgotten and hence, violated by the Israelite upper classes. The facts of archeology are clear: this period in Israelite life saw the fighting between the Assyrian and Syrian empires which permitted Israel to grow and prosper. But this prosperity was seen by the upper classes as divine favour. But Amos saw it as a curse, the material conditions for the rejection of the law, custom and the literary self-identification of Israel.


Buchanan, George W. (1961). “Eschatology and the ‘End of Days’” The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 20, 188-193

Irwin, WA (1933) “The Thinking of Amos.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 49, 102-114

Lineham, J. (1905) “Sin and Sacrifice.” International Journal of Ethics, 16, 88-98

Smith, JM (1925). The Prophets and Their Times. University of Chicago Press.

Staples, WE (1947) “Some Aspects of Sin in the Old Testament.” The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 6, 65-79

Staples, WE (1966) “Epic Motifs in Amos.” The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 25, 106-111

Whitley, CF (1963) ‘Covenant and Commandment in Israel.” The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 22, 32-48.

Wolf, C. (1947). “Traces of Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel.” The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 6, 98-108


1. Introduction:

            1.1 background to Amos

            2.2 Structure and thesis of the paper

2. Oppression of the Poor

            2.1 Oppression as a theme

            2.2 Amos and class

            2.3 Moral universalism

            2.4 “Democracy” in Israel according to Wolf

3. Falsity of Temple Worship

            3.1 Causes for Perversion

            3.2 Difference between pagan and Israelite worship in theory

            3.3 Whitley’s idea on the Covenant

            3.4 Lineham and the Israelite idea of sin

            3.5 Staples and the Israelite idea of sin

4. The Day of the Lord

            4.1 Importance and meaning of the Day of the Lord

                        4.2 Buchanan’s ideas on the Day of the Lord and its relation to Israelite class stratification

            4.3 Staples and the archeological evidence for the Day of the Lord throughout the Levant

5. Conclusion: The Importance of Amos and his critique

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