The Words of Amos
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.
The first thing we can know of Amos of Tekoa is that he is a prophet, but this identification is not without its problems. Later in the book Amos says of himself: ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees’ (Amos 7:14). What can it mean then to speak of the prophet Amos as a prophet, when he himself appears to deny it? Well, this of course depends on what we mean by the term ‘prophet’ and how Amos’ prophecy would have been understood by himself and his audience. When Amaziah, the priest of the temple of Yahweh at Bethel, tells Amos to leave Bethel and earn his bread in Judah (Amos 7:12), he refers to him as a seer (חֹזֶה) and not a navi (נָבִיא). The seer and the navi are two distinct charisms of prophecy in ancient Israel and Judah.
In suggesting that Amos go and earn a crust as a prophet in Judah, Amaziah is saying that Amos should become, like himself, a state-sponsored prophet (navi) but in his own country. And it is to this suggestion that Amos replies that he is not a navi nor the son of a navi. Amos is a prophet, but he is not that kind of a prophet. He is a seer. This may imply he was a charismatic prophet, one whose prophecy was vocational rather than professional — much like the ish elohim (‘prophet’ as ‘man of god’). By denying that he is the son of a prophet he is at once pointing to the nepotistic and hereditary nature of the professional navi’im of sanctuaries like Bethel and indeed Jerusalem and denying that he belongs to a professional guild of prophets such as the בְּנֵֽי־הַנְּבִיאִ֥ים (‘the sons of the prophets’ as a prophetic order or guild, see 2 Kings 2:3,5; 4:48; 5:22). Yet, this does not mean necessarily that Amos did not belong to an order or community of seers.
This seer-prophetic nature of Amos’ prophecy is confirmed in that he saw the word of Yahweh which came to him (אֲשֶׁר חָזָה). The seer sees; the word of Yahweh is not something to be heard. This construction may point to prophetic visions. It may also point to some sort of augury or divination; practices which we know to have been part of Yahwistic religion (Exodus 28:30 and Joshua 18:6 for example). The word that he saw was concerning the Kingdom of Israel.
Amos, we are told, was ‘among the shepherds of Tekoa.’ Tekoa is a village 14 kilometres almost due south of Jerusalem in the Judean highlands, and the area would have been associated with oviculture in the eighth century BCE. It is entirely plausible then that Amos is intended to be read as a simple shepherd called by Yahweh to a prophetic mission in the northern kingdom. The content of his prophecy, however, is simply too sophisticated for this to be reasonable. Unless it can be established that Tekoa was a centre for sheep-rearing and dealing — which it may have been, then Amos as a נֹקֵדּ (‘shepherd’ or ‘sheep trader’) in a community of shepherds or sheep traders is as likely to signify some type of prophetic guild. The ‘shepherds of Tekoa’ reads very much like the designation of an organised society or guild in and around the village of Tekoa, and we know that such guilds did exist.
We see Yahweh described as a shepherd in Psalm 23:1 — albeit with the Aramaic cognate רְעָא. Evidently, the terminology of shepherding carried with it the same metaphorical meaning as it does in English today; that of protection, guidance, and leadership. It is conceivable then that the ‘shepherds of Tekoa’ imagined themselves as guides of the people of Yahweh, and given the prophetic mission of Amos and the nature of the book this is the likely intention of the text. Amos has come as a guide to the people of Israel and he does this as a seer-prophet.
It is interesting to note that this prophecy is set during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel, perhaps — according to the archaeological evidence — the greatest king in the history of the Kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam extended Israel to its largest territorial extent following the defeat of Damascus by the Assyrians and in all likelihood held the Kingdom of Judah in vassalage. He is a king the scribes (Judahite and refugee Israelite scribes) of Jerusalem after the destruction of Samaria (722 BCE) simply could not ignore. He is undoubtedly the model on which the Jerusalemite legends of kings David and Solomon are based, and his kingdom provides the framework for the imagined great united monarchy of Israel and Judah retrojected back into the tenth century. In a word, the prophecy of Amos has been deliberately set (by later — probably seventh and sixth century — authors) in Israel at the very height of its power and influence in the southern Levant.
This is not in then a prophetic warning to the Kingdom of Israel. Regardless of the historicity of Amos the man, this is a text which could not have been composed before the destruction and exile of Israel. The warning that the time is coming when people shall be led away with hooks through the breaches in the wall (Amos 4:2–3) is a warning to Jerusalem and Judah; what happened to Israel will happen to Jerusalem and Judah if the kingdom and the people of the kingdom fail to keep their covenant with Yahweh the god of Israel qua Israel and Judah. This of course may point to a later date of composition, to the final redaction of the text taking place during the Babylonian exile. It is unclear, however, whether or not the book of Amos presupposes the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus, it at least serves as a theological explanation for the destruction of Samaria and a warning to Judah. Yahweh was not defeated by the Assyrians, rather Yahweh used Assyria as an instrument of divine retribution — and he can do the same again.