From the Mouth of a Lion
They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defence; and your strongholds shall be plundered. Thus says the LORD: As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who live in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.
The book of the prophet Amos addresses a crisis, but it is not entirely clear which crisis it addresses. Towards the end of the eighth century BCE, during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel, the crisis took the form of the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s westward expansion into the Levant. This is the historical context in which the prophecy of Amos is set, but there are a number of problems in assuming this crisis to be the crisis addressed by the book. Amos presupposes, for example, the destruction of Samaria and the exile of Israel, and the oracle against Judah (Amos 2:4–5) — if indeed it is a later insertion — undermines this assumption. The presupposition of the fall of Samaria and the possible Judah insertion both point to a later crisis — the Babylonian crisis of the late sixth century.
It is, however, not unreasonable to imagine the prophecy of Amos addressed both crises; in a reduced oral form [perhaps] in the mid to late eighth century BCE and in a written and redacted form in the late sixth century. We can only speculate about this. Yet, what is clear from the text we have is that it addressed the Babylonian crisis in Jerusalem and Judah in the sixth century, and, as it purports to do in Israel in the time of Jeroboam II, its prophecy to Judah is dire. This is a prophecy of the complete and utter destruction of Judah. The biblical authors’ understanding of the fall of Samaria was that it was the will of Yahweh, that the god of Israel used Assyria as an instrument of retribution:
After this, while King Sennacherib of Assyria was at Lachish with all his forces, he sent his servants to Jerusalem to King Hezekiah of Judah and to all the people of Judah that were in Jerusalem, saying, “Thus says King Sennacherib of Assyria: On what are you relying, that you undergo the siege of Jerusalem? Is not Hezekiah misleading you, handing you over to die by famine and by thirst, when he tells you, ‘The LORD our God will save us from the hand of the king of Assyria’? Was it not this same Hezekiah who took away his high places and his altars and commanded Judah and Jerusalem, saying, ‘Before one altar you shall worship, and upon it you shall make your offerings’? Do you not know what I and my ancestors have done to all the peoples of other lands? Were the gods of the nations of those lands at all able to save their lands out of my hand? Who among all the gods of those nations that my ancestors utterly destroyed was able to save his people from my hand, that your God should be able to save you from my hand?”
2 Chronicles 32:9–14
The message then to Judah during the Babylonian crisis is the same; because Judah has not kept its covenant with Yahweh he is going to send his ‘servant,’ King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, to utterly destroy Judah and the surrounding nations:
Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the LORD, even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these nations around; I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace.
Amos is unaware of the life of the Judean exiles in Mesopotamia. This book does not envisage a reality in which the Judean exiles in Galut will preserve their culture and religion and ultimately return to Jerusalem. There is no after the exile in the book of Amos. Rather, Amos presents an image of a remnant ‘rescued’ as though from the mouth of a lion — a symbol of both Assyria and Babylon; a rescue and salvation which is no salvation at all. From the mouth of the lion the shepherd pulls two legs or a fragment of an ear. What the shepherd is rescuing is nothing but proof that the victim is dead. This remnant is nothing more than a corner of a couch or a bed. Judah, in the aftermath of the Babylonian assault, will be — like Israel after the Assyrian assault — no more.
Because the people of Judah have stored us חָמָס וָשֹׁד (‘violence and destruction’) — the opposite of Yahweh’s desired justice and righteousness (מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה, Isaiah 33:5) — he will blot them out entirely and utterly remove them from the land. This coupling of justice and righteousness very much betrays a later Jerusalemite theology. These are the two attributes [possibly deities according to Thomas Römer] that attend the Yahweh of Jerusalem. This reference to ha-mas va-shōd certainly lends itself to the idea that Amos, in its final form, is a prophecy addressing the Babylonian crisis and that it reached this form before the destruction of Jerusalem. It does not, like Jeremiah, see the possibility of continued life for the Judean cult of Yahweh in captivity and it certainly does not see the possibility of a future return to ‘the land.’
In this regard, then, Amos presents its first readers with a decree absolute — the final end of the marriage between Yahweh and his people. While this was not ultimately the case for Judean Yahwism, which survived and was transformed by exile, it was the case in the case of Israel. The ‘remnant’ of Israel that fled to Judah during the Assyrian crisis was forever subsumed by the Judahite ideology and the exiles would never return.
What is apparent in the text is a significant re-imagining of the power of Yahweh. Where in the eighth century Yahweh was a god among gods — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, he had become, by the Babylonian crisis in the sixth century, a god with power over other nations. In Jeremiah 25:9 we have the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, being described as the servant of Yahweh. This is a game changer for the Jerusalemite ideology; a restructuring of Yahwistic theology which sets the stage for monotheistic Judaism and the continuation of Judean culture even in exile. But this is not yet fully worked out in Amos.