This series will attempt to analyze a sefer of Tanach using the contemporary Literary-Theological analytical approach as has been developed and pioneered in recent decades. Our subject will be Sefer Amos (The Book of Amos), the third of the Trei Asar (Twelve minor prophets). This series will be delivered on two consecutive levels. The first will be my own analysis of the sefer using the Literary-Theological methodology. Having already completed a prior thorough surface examination, this level of the series will follow my analysis as I complete the requisite hermeneutical circle with a second examination of the entire sefer. The second level of updates will be my third examination of the sefer, this time with a systematic integration of traditional Jewish commentators, midrashim, as well as secular commentaries and academia. Therefore, the entire series will hopefully accomplish not only a thorough exposition of Sefer Amos, but also act as a demonstration of the new methodology, as well as the advantages of integrating traditional and secular commentators into that methodology.
Historical Background and Religious Messages
A necessary prerequisite for the study of any of the Neviim Achronim (Latter Prophets) is a thorough familiarity with the specific historical context in which the Navi lived and operated. Neviim are responding directly to societal and religious circumstances which exist within their societies, and as a result we must understand the state of their society historically in order to understand and appreciate what they are saying.
Sefer Amos is dated to the reign of Uzziah, King of Yehuda, the southern kingdom, and Yeravam II, King of Yisrael, the northern kingdom. The sefer opens two years before the earthquake which famously occurred during the reign of Uzziah. The earthquake was a major historical and theological event, and earthquake imagery was responsively employed by Neviim during this time period, including Amos. Amos was a northern Navi, who criticized the socioeconomic oppression of the lower classes, as well as the morally reprehensible aristocratic lifestyle, which he saw as hedonistic and self-serving. Yeravam II was the last strong successful king of the north before its sharp and steady decline into eventual Assyrian exile some forty years later, and Amos seems to be responding to the moral issues which attached themselves to the kingdom’s current economic success and newfound status.
His other primary target was the religious apparatus which existed in the north, centered around an illegal temple at Beit-El whose purpose was to replace the Beit Hamikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) for northerners. The ritual system was technically illegal since the construction of the Beit Hamikdash as the sole center of worship, but Amos’s issue is more fundamental. He attacks the hypocritical nature of the people’s commitment to ritual observance while their society is built on corruption and oppression. He sees this type of observance as a form of avodah zarah (idolatry), and condemns it as self-serving and duplicitous. It is important to realize that the participants of this ritual system, the people Amos is speaking to, do not conceive any religious wrong-doing here. They are still in their minds serving God, albeit in Beit El, and consider their religious observance to be valid and their consciences clean, an attitude which Amos must attempt to derail.
Historically, we know Amos was unsuccessful, and the era of Yeravam II was succeeded by a period of geopolitical turmoil in the north which included multiple conspiratorial assassinations, regional Assyrian intimidation and invasion, and a steady decline of the kingdom into complete Assyrian exile. Thus, the sefer exists on a crucial and dangerous historical precipice, as Amos must attempt, by exhorting fundamental societal and religious reform, to avoid the foretold, imminent, and complete destruction of the Northern Kingdom.
Some Notes On Nevuah (“Prophecy”)
There are, generally speaking, four major categories of prophetic material, three of which we will employ to classify various material within Sefer Amos. They are the four P’s of Nevuah — Paradigm, Prophecy, Potential, and Polemic.
The Paradigm: The rarest category, this is material which sets paradigmatic conditions of future reality which will always exist and hold true, beginning from the time of the utterance of the material onward. An example is Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:3-45, which sets down the conditionality of divine reward and punishment. Follow God’s law, and the result will be certain blessings. Reject God’s law, and there will be a series of certain punishments, culminating in exile. Included also are the extended circumstances of exile as well as the return from exile. This equation which is presented in Vayikra is constant, and events which occur hundreds of years later can be drawn back to its formulation and realization. There are no occurrences of this category within Sefer Amos.
Prophecy: A straight prediction of a future event. Examples includes Yeshaya’s (Isaiah) prediction of the miraculous defeat of the Assyrian army at the walls of Yerushalayim, and Second Yeshaya’s prediction of the rise of Koresh (Cyrus). These prophecies exist in a vacuum, and their realizations are not affected by factors such as the sin or repentance of the nation. The purpose of revealing the future in this way varies from case to case.
Potential: Oftentimes a Navi will illustrate a picture of an ideal or bleak future not as a straight prediction, but as a motivational exhortation to his audience. Many messianic nevuot work this way, by showing an ideal future which has the potential to be attained and realized, depending on whether the Navi’s audience internalizes and responds to his message, which will vary based on the specific context of the Navi. On the other hand, a Navi may employ a futuristic picture of destruction and doom to show precisely what will happen unless the nation repents and reforms in order to avoid the fulfillment of the nevuah. The realization of Potential Nevuot are based on the behavior and reaction of the Navi’s audience.
Polemic: This category has nothing to do with the future, but is the Navi criticizing a fault he sees in the society around him, be it social, spiritual, economic, or political. To a Navi, all of these societal issues are fundamentally religious issues, because God desires a truly just and moral society, not just a ritualistically observant one.