Why Did Amos Go to Samaria?

By Hallvard Hagelia
Professor, Old Testament Studies
Ansgar College and Theological Seminary
Kristiansand, Norway
May 2012

Amos is probably the earliest of the prophets in the book of The Twelve. We date him to around 750 BC. Among The Twelve, Amos is one of the very significant prophets and one of the most studied.

Amos is presented as “among the shepherds of Tekoa” (1:1), and calls himself “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (7:14). Tekoa is mentioned also in Josh 15:50 LXX; 1 Sam 14:2; 2 Sam 23:26; 1 Sam 27:9; 2 Chr 11:6; 20:20 and 2 Macc 9:33. The site has been identified with modern Khirbet Tequ’a, ca 6 miles (10 kilometers) south of Bethlehem (Eerdmans Dictionary to the Bible, ed. D N Freedman, 2000, pp. 56A and 1278 B). Except for this, we know Amos as just a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel, prophesying notably against its capital Samaria and its southern cult center at Bethel, as a border-crossing emissary. Amos is not known from other biblical books.

Amos himself is eager to underline that “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son’”(7:14), probably meaning that he was no part of a prophet guild of the kind known from e.g., 1 Sam 10:5. But on the other hand, Amos confesses: “… the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’” (7:15). It seems like Amos would say: I am no professional prophet; I am rather an occasional “prophet.”

Amos’ vocational narrative is given in 7:10-17, occasioned by the charge against Amos from the priest at the sanctuary of Bethel that Amos conspired against King Jeroboam. In 3:7-8, his vocation is given in a more subtle way: The LORD reveals his secrets to the prophets, and when he reveals these secrets, it is experienced like a lion’s roaring, frightening and compelling. Amos felt a divine demand to deliver messages, “words,” from the LORD. These “words” were addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel.

Amos got his “words” while Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam (II) was king in the northern kingdom of Israel (1:1). These reigns covered the period between ca. 787 and 737, around half a century. In the latter part of the 9th century and the first part of the 8th century, the Arameans and the Assyrians had alternated on being a constant threat to Israel and Judah. But during the long reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam, there had been enough relief to give them a breathing space and recover politically and economically. The problem was that this had caused great social problems. Some had become rich and affluent, whereas others hand sunk down in poverty. There is reason to believe that this social difference was greater in the northern kingdom than the southern kingdom because the population was higher in the north than in the south and natural resources, both water and land, were better in the north. Judah had much arid highlands and the dry Negev.

In addition to that, as seen from Jerusalem and Judah, the northern state of Israel with its cult places was an illegitimate entity. According to the royal ideology, Yahweh had elected David and Jerusalem as king and cultic center. When Saul had failed to execute his royal duties, Samuel had anointed David (1 Samuel 16). After Saul’s death, David conquered Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5) and transferred the Ark of the Covenant to the city (2 Samuel 6), thereby concentrating all political and religious power to Jerusalem. His kingdom was in the end confirmed by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 7:1-16).

After the kingdom was split as a result of the power struggle after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom was cut off from the sanctuary of Jerusalem. Therefore, King Jeroboam (I) established sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan to prevent his people from going to Jerusalem and bringing their sacrifices into the temple (1 Kings 12:25-31). This practice was heavily attacked by an anonymous “man of God” (1 Kings 12:32-13:10). In the Hebrew Bible, the sanctuary at Bethel gets more attention than that at Dan, but there is no doubt that this cult was seen as illegitimate from Jerusalem.

This is the background against which we should see Amos’ appearance in Samaria and Bethel. Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, responsible for the country’s political demise, whereas Bethel was the religious center responsible for the religious demise. On this background, we see that Amos had both an ethical and a religious agenda against the northern kingdom.

Whom did he represent? On the one hand, we have seen that he felt a divine vocation. On the other hand, it is possible to see an indication of a political motif in 1:2:

The LORD roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.

Zion was the sanctuary and Jerusalem was the capital of Judah, like Bethel was the sanctuary of Israel and Samaria its capital. This verse stands as a central introduction to the Book of Amos, like similar verses in Isa 1:2 and Mic 1:2. It is like the editor of the Book of Amos will signal that Amos is not only following a personal vocation, he is simultaneously an official emissary from Zion and Jerusalem with a religious and ethical message to Samaria and Bethel.

Why was a peasant from Tekoa selected with such a mission? Barry A. Jones argues that Amos was “possibly a person of some means” because he “owned sheep, cattle, and land sufficient to raise sycamore figs as cattle fodder” (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 56A). Possibly, but could it be that he felt a call and asked the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem for a backing? We can only speculate.

The Book of Amos presents Amos as an emissary from the south occasionally prophesying in Samaria and Bethel, as if he represented Zion and Jerusalem, but with a self-understanding of being divinely called to attack the social politics of the northern kingdom and its illegitimate cult in Bethel.

Comments (1)

I recognise that Amos had a valuable message about the increase in prosperity and the risk it poses that we will become indifferent to inequality amounting to injustice. A message still important today. But critical questions should also be asked.
Amos creates a link between state (il)legitimacy, particularly in the Samarian Kingdom, and social (in)justice. But would there have been no grounds for concern over social justice in the Jerusalem Kingdom - could their social systems have been that different?
The rulers in Samaria and in Jerusalem seem to have worked together on some, perhaps many, occasions. Could they have consistently proclaimed each other's illegitimacy? Or is Amos' work, along with the rather strange story in Kings of the Man of God who is not named and did not survive his journey to Samaria, the product of a later time when 'only Jerusalem' was the key tenet of a dominant ideology? Was there really one land with two kings, as in Sparta? These suggestions are speculative or worse but, as I say, the text needs to be questioned in order to yield its full meaning, perhaps its full God-given meaning, to us.

#1 - Martin - 05/18/2012 - 19:57

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