New Perspectives on Amos: The Vision Reports in 7:1–8:2

To sum up, I contend that the vision reports in Amos 7–8 cannot be dated to the 8th century. Rather, they appear to be literary products from the post-monarchic period. But why would someone add such “pseudepigraphic” material, presented as visions seen by Amos himself? I suggest, and here I agree with Georg Steins, that the vision reports represent profound theological reflections, in an attempt to cope with the catastrophe that took place in 586 BCE.

See Also: Amos (Yale University Press, 2017).

By Göran Eidevall
Professor of Hebrew Bible
University of Uppsala, Sweden
January 2018


While working on a commentary on the book of Amos (Eidevall 2017) I developed a new hypothesis concerning this book’s history of redaction and composition: While the first two parts, chapters 1–2 and 3–6, contain an original core of prophecies from the monarchic period, the final part, comprising chapters 7–9, consists of exilic and post-exilic additions.

This hypothesis throws new light on the section 7:1–8:2, featuring four vision reports and one prophetic legend. Assuming that the visions represent the call experience of the eponymous prophet, scholars have often argued that this section is misplaced. On the basis of my own analysis, as well as the work of Georg Steins (2010), I suggest that the vision reports make more sense if they are read as theological reflections, written during or after the exile. Before developing the arguments in favor of this new approach, I will offer a review of previous scholarship.

The vision reports in previous research

Much previous research is based on the presupposition that records of actual experiences made by the prophet Amos in the 8th century BCE have informed the four vision reports in Amos 7:1–8:2 (often regarded as a series of five visions, including 9:1, as well). This can be seen as a part of “the quest for the historical Amos,” that is: the exegetical desire to get in close contact with the eponymous prophet, to recover at least a few of his ipsissima verba. Because of the autobiographical form of the vision reports, underlined by the introductory formula “This is what the Lord YHWH showed me,” even historical-critical scholars such as Wolff (1977) and Jeremias (1998) have taken it for granted that they express Amos’s own, private experiences.

There is thus a long-standing tradition of reading the vision reports in the light of the prophet’s biography, and vice versa. But from such a perspective it is far from self-evident how the visions relate to the surrounding oracles, or why they appear towards the end of the book, rather than at its beginning. Let us see how a number of scholars have tackled these problems, from 1950 until around 2000.

According to Ernst Würthwein (1950), Amos went through two distinct phases in his prophetic career. The former herdsman started out as a cultic prophet. In that capacity, he proclaimed judgment over other nations (1:3–2:3), while acting as an intercessor for his own people (7:1-6). Later, having received a second calling from YHWH, he became a radical prophet of doom, dissociated from the official cult—a development reflected in the series of vision reports, where Amos first ceases to pray for the people (in the third vision, 7:7-8) and then proclaims that the judgment is irrevocable (the fourth vision, 8:1-2). In this way, Würthwein managed to account for the diversity of theological perspectives in the book. However, he had to presuppose two contrasting call experiences, and an unparalleled transition from prophet of salvation to prophet of doom. Further, his complicated theory fails to account for the position of 7:1–8:2 in the overall structure.

A few years later ([1958] = 1997), John Watts proposed a somewhat different development. According to him, two different collections evolved in parallel: one “book of words,” comprising chapters 1–6, and one “book of visions,” preserved in chs. 7–9. While the prophecies were recorded and transmitted in the north, the visions were written down in Judah. Watts surmises that each vision represents a separate period in the prophet’s public activity. Gradually, year by year, vision by vision, the character of the message changed.

Thus, according to Watts, the first vision “describes Amos’s early impression of what his message must be,” namely warning and repentance (1997:3). Unfortunately, though, no oracles from this period have been preserved! During the second period, connected to the vision of fire (7:4-6), Amos continued to pray for his people, but his message became more harsh. According to Watts, oracles from this period are preserved in chs. 1–3. During the third period, related to the vision of the tin/lead (’anak) in 7:7-8, and reflected in chs. 4–6, Amos was ejected from Bethel and Israel, as recounted in 7:10-17. The prophecies collected in chs. 8–9, representing stages four and five, originated in Judah (Watts 1997:5-7, 118). This theory may seem attractive, because it presupposes a perfect match between the personal process of the prophet and the order of presentation in the book. However, on a closer examination this turns out to be an illusion. Words from the first period are missing. Moreover, there is no contrast between the prophecies in chs. 1–3 and chs. 4–6, no significant change in tone or perspective that might be connected to the sudden switch from successful intercession to inevitable destruction within the cycle of visions.

In their Anchor Bible commentary, Francis Andersen and David Noel Freedman offer a detailed account of Amos’s career, which differs from Watts’s reconstruction (Andersen and Freedman 1989:83-88, 724-34). For instance, they posit that there is a historical, causal connection between the catalogue of catastrophes in 4:6-11 and the series of visions in chs. 7–8 (1989:83). Thus, the first vision (in 7:1-3) matches the locust plague referred to in 4:9. However, the sequence of events in 4:6-11 and in 7:1–8:2 is not the same, and there are in fact very few correspondences between these two passages.

Just like Watts, Andersen and Freedman assume that each vision corresponds to a separate stage in Amos’s career, but these stages are defined differently. They suggest that Amos’s first “mission” engendered the exhortations in chapter 5. Apparently, this mission failed: the addressees did not repent. Also the second “mission,” connected to the second vision (7:4-6) and represented by the harsh prophecies in ch. 6, “ended in failure” (Andersen and Freedman 1989:84). Then, in the third vision (7:7-8), Amos received a new message: “the period of grace is over.” At this stage he delivered the oracles in chs. 3–4. Having received the fourth vision, he gave “the Great Speech of chaps. 1–2” (1989:85). This took place in Bethel, shortly before his confrontation with Amaziah, reported in 7:10-17. After that event, Andersen and Freedman aver, Amos was put in prison, from where he may have dictated to his disciples the prophecies that we find in chs. 8 and 9 (1989:86-87). It is worth noting that, according to this reconstruction, the book of Amos presents the oracles in a very strange order: stage 4 – 3 – 1 – 2 – interlude – stage 5. The authors do comment on this discrepancy: “If our hypotheses are true, why was it not written up that way?” But the answer they provide is far from satisfying: “It is difficult to say” (Andersen and Freedman 1989:87). Further, one wonders why the uncompromising prophecies of disaster in chapter 6, directed against Israel, are attributed to an early stage accompanied by intercession, whereas the oracles against other nations (in chs 1–2) are attributed to a late stage, linked to the declaration “the end has come for my people Israel” (8:2).

Jörg Jeremias’s Amos commentary (1998) represents a different approach, involving radical redaction-critical hypotheses. Nonetheless, Jeremias insists that the vision reports (in 7:1-8 + 8:1-2) originated in the 8th century. Like Wolff before him, he characterizes the content of the vision reports as “extremely personal and private experiences” (Jeremias 1998:124). At the same time, though, Jeremias maintains that the cycle of visions constitutes a necessary background for the cycle of oracles against the nations (Jeremias 1996:165-66). Indeed, the judgment proclaimed in 8:1-2 is said to provide the key to understand the somewhat enigmatic “it” in the refrain that recurs again and again in chapters 1–2, “I will not revoke it (lō’ ’ăšîbennû).”

The answers provided by Jeremias raise new questions, such as: Why are the visions placed at the end of the book, if they constitute an essential background for all the judgment oracles in chapters 1–6? Jeremias is forced to assume that an editor moved the vision reports from their natural place, at the book’s beginning, and thereby left the refrain, “I will not revoke it,” without a clear reference. In his own words: “Die gegenwärtige Abfolge von Völkersprüchen und Visionsberichten ist keine biographische. Sie ist vielmehr eine redaktionelle” (1996:167).

Observations and arguments in support of the new perspective

Why, then, are the visions placed toward the end of the book? In accordance with the principle called Occam’s razor I am offering a simple solution to this perceived problem: The visions were added as a supplement to a pre-exilic collection, comprising large parts of chapters 1–6. Therefore, they were quite naturally placed after that collection.

A number of observations indicate that something new begins in 7:1. I cannot go into details in this article, I have to refer to my commentary (Eidevall 2017: 22-23, 191-200). To put it briefly, chapter 7 introduces new genres (vision report, legend), new theological motifs and emphases (intercession, forgiveness), as well as a different vocabulary. In addition, 7:1 introduces the prophet as an acting character in the drama.

In 7:1-6 Amos is pictured as a “prophet like Moses,” as he intercedes for his people. But it is perhaps even more to the point to describe him as a prophet like Jeremiah. The resemblances with Jeremiah are indeed striking, throughout Amos 7:1–8:2. To begin with, Jeremiah and Amos receive visions of the same type, reported in the same style (Jer 1:11-14; 24:1-5; Amos 7:7-8; 8:1-2). There are, above all, several intriguing similarities between the second pair of visions in Amos 7–8 and two passages in the book of Jeremiah: Jer 1:11-14 and 24:1-5.

Moreover, both Jeremiah and Amos are described as intercessors with the power to exert influence on YHWH (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11; Amos 7:2-3, 5-6). Finally, there is the fact that both of them are involved in a conflict with a priest who tries to silence the prophetic message. Whereas Amos is attacked by Amaziah (Amos 7:10-17), Jeremiah is persecuted by Pashhur (Jer 20:1-6). In both cases, the prophet gets the last word, and predicts that the priest will be deported (Jer 20:6; Amos 7:17).

Leaving the vexed question of literary dependence aside, it seems reasonable to assign a late monarchic or post-monarchic date for all the vision reports under discussion, those in Jeremiah as well as those in Amos. Notably, the notion of prophetic intercession appears to be a Deuteronomistic construction (Spieckermann 1997).

“Deutero-Amos:” A literary supplement with a theological purpose

To sum up, I contend that the vision reports in Amos 7–8 cannot be dated to the 8th century. Rather, they appear to be literary products from the post-monarchic period. But why would someone add such “pseudepigraphic” material, presented as visions seen by Amos himself? I suggest, and here I agree with Georg Steins, that the vision reports represent profound theological reflections, in an attempt to cope with the catastrophe that took place in 586 BCE.

In that situation, the existing collection of “words of Amos” probably failed to provide answers to a number of urgent theological questions, for instance concerning YHWH’s ability and willingness to protect his own people, but also concerning the role of YHWH’s prophets. An update was needed, for instance in the form of a corrective supplement. The first version of the emerging “book” of Amos, comprising large parts of chapters 1–6, had served as a theological explanation of the downfall of the Northern kingdom, Israel. It assured its Judahite readers that this disaster was not due to YHWH’s inability to save Israel from the Assyrians. It was due to the many sins and crimes of the people of the Northern kingdom and their leaders. They had supposedly reached a point where no prayers, no sacrifices, no intercession, and no acts of repentance could appease YHWH.

The other side of the coin, of this harsh judgment on the northern neighbor, was a relatively hopeful message for Judah. Their mighty rival, Israel, had ceased to exist as a kingdom. But this did not happen because YHWH was too weak to help Israel. On the contrary, YHWH had demonstrated his power as he orchestrated the disaster. In other words, the people of Judah, the new Israel, were safe with YHWH as their patron – as long as they did not provoke his wrath…

After 586, the words of Amos against Israel could not comfort a Judean audience anymore. Now this oracle collection seemed to imply that everything was over, also for Judah. No mercy, no hope for the future. In order to become relevant for a new generation, the prophecies ascribed to a certain Amos from Tekoa had to be revised, or updated. Both the prophet’s image (Prophetenbild) and YHWH’s image (Gottesbild) needed a makeover.

Using the theology and the terminology of his own time, the anonymous theologian that we might refer to as “Deutero-Amos” added new dimensions to the image of the book’s eponymous prophet. He introduced the notion of a prophet who sympathized with his people, with the oppressed and their oppressors alike, and who interceded for them, begging YHWH: “O Lord YHWH, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small” (7:2).

At the same time he revised the narrative about YHWH’s role in the development that led to the downfall of the Northern kingdom. According to Amos 7, YHWH is indeed a loving and merciful God. Again and again, despite the fact that the Israelites did not repent, YHWH relented. Planned catastrophes were cancelled. But eventually the divine wrath could not be held back, not even by praying prophets like Amos. Read in this way, the vision reports in Amos 7–8 could incite hopefulness among the addressees, despite the message in 8:1-2, “the end has come…” This is because the first pair of vision reports emphasize the notions of forgiveness and mercy.

It is perhaps possible to draw a line from the visions of disasters in chapter 7 to the concluding paradisiac vision in Amos 9:11-15. Far from being an erratic block, an addition that stands in opposition to everything else in the book, as Wellhausen maintained, I suggest that the hopeful epilogue to some extent can be seen as a logical continuation of the theological ideas expressed in 7:1–8:2. In 9:7-8, a truly pivotal passage, it is stated that YHWH, the god of the exodus, has the power to change the destiny of every nation (v. 7). Although he is determined to strike against each “sinful kingdom,” he is not willing to “completely destroy the house of Jacob” (v. 8). Finally, it seems, the intercessory prayers of “Amos” on behalf of little “Jacob” has received a definite, and positive, answer. Thus, the much debated end of this prophetic book, the passage 9:11-15, would seem to provide what was missing in chapters 7–8, namely a vision of what the future might look like if mercy would prevail and if YHWH would decide to restore the fortunes of his people, after all.

Literature cited

Andersen, F. I. and D. N. Freedman, 1989. Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 24A; New York: Doubleday.

Eidevall, G., 2017. Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible 24G; New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jeremias, J., 1996. Hosea und Amos: Studien zu den Anfängen des Dodekapropheton. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 13; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
_____ 1998. The Book of Amos. (Trans. D. W. Stott; German orig. 1995.) Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Spieckermann, H., 1997. “Konzeption und Vorgeschichte des Stellvertretungsgedankens im Alten Testament.” Pp. 281-95 in: Emerton, J. A. (ed.), Congress Volume Cambridge 1995, VTSup LXVI; Leiden: Brill.

Steins, G., 2010. Gericht und Vergebung: Re-Visionen zum Amosbuch. Stuttgarter Bibelstudien 221; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk.

Watts, J. D. W., 1997 [1958]. Vision and Prophecy in Amos. Macon: Mercer University Press; first published in 1958, expanded edition 1997.

Wolff, H. W., 1977. Joel and Amos. (Trans. W. Janzen et al.; German orig. in 1969.) Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress.

Würthwein, E., 1950. “Amos-Studien.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 62: 10-52.

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