Introduction to Amos
The prophet Amos came from Tekoa in Judah, 10 miles south of Jerusalem, and was a "sheepbreeder"—a term used elsewhere in Scripture only of King Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3:4). Mesha's business was enormous—regularly paying 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams as tribute to Israel. In contrast, Amos' was obviously a small business. For, like David, he took care of the flocks (Amos 7:15), and he tended sycamore fig trees (Amos 7:14). "The sycamore fig tree bears thousands of figs very much like the common fig, but smaller and not as good. Before this fruit could ripen properly, a small hole had to be pierced in the bottom of its skin. This piercing was done by hand and was a tedious and time-consuming task. Why was Amos obliged to tend the sycamore? Western Judah, the oasis of Jericho, and lower Galilee were the regions where sycamore figs grew most abundantly. The shepherds needed to bring their flocks to one of these regions in late summer, after the desert pastures had dried up. Since this was the time for piercing the sycamore fruit, landowners would exchange grazing rights for labor. A shepherd could watch his flock while sitting on the broad limbs of the sycamore, piercing its fruit. Thus Amos was not a wealthy man. Wealthy sheepbreeders hired shepherds to tend their flocks. Amos followed his flock himself (Amos 7:15), and when that meant piercing sycamore fruit, he pierced sycamore fruit" (Nelson Study Bible, introductory notes on Amos).
His preaching took place during a time of great prosperity in both Judah and Israel. Uzziah was on the throne in Judah and Jeroboam II ruled in Israel. The nations were going through a period of great optimism, business was booming and both countries were extending their borders. But as is often the case in times of prosperity, the attitudes of people degenerated, greed and injustice became commonplace, and a careless attitude toward religious practice replaced true godly worship.
Amos's prophecy is dated to a time "two years before the earthquake" (Amos 1:1; referred to also in Zechariah 14:5). According to the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, this earthquake happened when Uzziah sinned in attempting to offer incense (Antiquities of the Jews,Book 9, chap. 10, sec. 4). Since this action was perpetrated 11 or so years before Uzziah's death, the earthquake would have occurred around 751 b.c., thus dating Amos' prophecy to around 753 b.c. The earthquake being used as dating, "along with Amos's dialogue with Amaziah, the priest of Jeroboam's temple at Bethel (Amos 7:10-17), reveals that the period of Amos's prophetic activity was very short, unlike many of the other prophets. Amos went to Bethel from Tekoa, delivered his prophetic oracles, and returned home. He probably stayed in Bethel only a few days" (introductory notes on Amos). Very soon after the prophet's appearance at Bethel, Jeroboam II died, beginning Israel's rapid decline.
Amos Preaches Against the Nations
As the book begins, Amos appears before a throng of Israelites worshiping at Bethel. Prior to his oracle against Israel, he pronounces God's judgment against the surrounding nations, including Judah. Each of the first seven oracles follows the same format.
1. Damascus (verses 3-5) was the capital of Syria, one of Israel's long-term rivals. The Syrian king Hazael and his son Ben-Hadad (verse 4) were cruel in their treatment of Israel (see 2 Kings 8:12-13). Gilead (verse 3) was a rich forest area east of the Jordan River. "It had belonged to Israel since they had taken over the land, but Aram often had fought Israel for possession of northern Gilead, gaining control there in Israel's times of military weakness" (Nelson, note on Amos 1:3). It is likely that the threshing attack is the same incident referred to in 2 Kings 13:7. "The metaphor Amos used is that of a threshing sledge, an agricultural implement made of parallel boards fitted with sharp points of iron or stone.... The intensity of the metaphor, however, implies the most extreme decimation and may hint at especially cruel or inhuman treatment" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Amos 1:3).
Concerning the Valley of Aven and Beth Eden, "Amos may have intended a play on words here. Aven means 'Sin' in Hebrew; Damascus was a verdant oasis city on the edge of the desert that could be compared to Eden. However, Amos may also have been referring to the Beth Eden region on the north bank of the Euphrates" (Nelson, note on verse 5). Or perhaps the reference to Aven (Awn in Hebrew) "may be rather to the valley between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, called El-Bekaa, where are the ruins of the Baalbek temple of the sun; so the LXX [i.e., Septuagint] renders it On, the same name as the city in Egypt bears, dedicated to the sun-worship (Genesis 41:45; Margin, Ezekiel 30:17, Heliopolis, 'the city of the sun'). It is termed by Amos 'the valley of Aven,' or 'vanity,' from the worship of idols in it" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commenatary, note on Amos 1:5). Kir, where Amos said the Syrians would be taken captive, was "a region subject to Assyria (Isa. 22:6) in Iberia, the same as that called now in Armenian Kur, lying by the river Cyrus which empties itself into the Caspian Sea. [Assyrian ruler] Tiglath-pileser [III] fulfilled this prophecy when Ahaz [king of Judah] applied for help to him against Rezin king of Syria, and carried away its people captive to Kir" (same note). This occurred "in 732 b.c. Amos later referred to Kir as the place from which the Syrians had originally come (9:7)" (Nelson, note on verse 5).
It is also stated that God's punishment is to send "fire" to "devour." The JFB Commentary explains this as "flames of war (Psalm 78:63), [and notes that it] occurs also in vss. 7, 10, 12, 14, and 2:2, 5" (note on verse 4). However, the book later speaks of actual conflagration, such as destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (4:11). Fiery destruction is referred to as "it" in chapters 1 (verse 14) and 2 (verses 2, 5). The Anchor Bible Commentary states: "All eight oracles refer to the same 'it' which will not be retracted or reversed. There was a single decree covering them all... declaring judgment on the entire region as a unit.... This unity suggests one cosmic holocaust, not just several invasions that would pick these countries off one by one" (note on Amos 1). Thus, rather than the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian invasions of the region, this seems to point to a great end-time destruction, which is elsewhere pointed to in the book.
It is interesting to note that the inhabitants of Syria in our day have continually tried to take control of the northeastern territory of the modern state of Israel by force and remain some of Israel's most implacable enemies.
2. Philistia (Amos 1:6-8): The southern coastal plain of Palestine was occupied by the Philistines, who lived in five main cities (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath and Gaza). Four of these are mentioned in this oracle. Indeed, among all the biblical prophecies of the Philistines hereafter, Gath is conspicuously left out. "It is noteworthy that Gath is not mentioned in these prophecies, from which it may be inferred that Gath ceased to be of any major significance after the time of Uzziah" ("Philistines," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1986, p. 843).
Of taking "captive the whole captivity," the JFB Commentary says, "i.e., they left none.... Under Jehoram already the Philistines had carried away all the substance of the king of Judah, and his wives and his sons, 'so that there was never a son left to him, save Jehoahaz'; and after Amos' time (if the reference includes the future, which to the prophet's eye is as if already done), under Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:18), they seized on all the cities and villages of the low country and south of Judah" (note on 1:6). Then we learn that they "deliver them up to Edom" (verse 6). "Judah's bitterest foe; as slaves (vs. 9; cf. Joel 3:1, 3, 6). [Commentator] Grotius refers to the fact (Isaiah 16:4) that on Sennacherib's invasion of Judah [yet future at this point], many fled for refuge to neighboring countries; the Philistines, instead of hospitably sheltering the refugees, sold them, as if captives in war, to their enemies, the Idumeans" (note on Amos 1:6). God's punishment is to send "fire." Again, JFB says, "i.e., the flames of war (Numbers 21:28; Isaiah 26:11). Hezekiah fulfilled this prophecy, smiting the Philistines unto Gaza (2 Kings 18:8). Foretold by Isaiah 14:29, 31" (note on Amos 1:7). It is, of course, possible that these statements refer dually or even solely to events that are yet future. A large part of the territory of ancient Philistia is today the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
3. Tyre (Amos 1:9-10) was a major Phoenician port city to the north of Israel and southwest of Damascus. God brings the same charge against the Tyrians as against the Philistines. However, the betrayal in this case is worse, considering "the covenant of brotherhood" between Israel and Tyre—perhaps the league of King Hiram of Tyre with David and Solomon. "The Phoenicians were master seafarers. Tyre and Israel had forged an alliance that was profitable for both. However, Tyre ignored the long-standing covenant of brotherhood, and sought commercial gain by selling Israelite slaves to Edom" (Nelson, note on 1:9). As punishment, God sends "fire" (verse 10). Tyre was beset by literal fire when "many parts of Tyre were burnt by fiery missiles of the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar" (JFB, note on verse 10). And old Tyre was eventually destroyed in 333 B.C. by Alexander the Great.
A similar scenario will occur in the last days. As Tyre was a major center of commerce in the ancient world, "Tyre" is also given as the name for the end-time global trading bloc in Ezekiel 27 (called Babylon in Revelation 18, it is dominated by a final revival of the Roman Empire centered in Europe). Here we also see Israel and Judah as trading partners in this alliance (Ezekiel 27:17). Yet this friendly relationship will come to an end. Modern Israelites and Jews will be conquered by this system, the survivors taken captive as POWs, then to be bought and sold as slaves (compare Ezekiel 6:8-9; Leviticus 26:33, 38-39; Jeremiah 30:3, 8; Revelation 18:9-13). Yet God will bring great fire and destruction on end-time "Tyre" at the return of Jesus Christ.
4. Edom (Amos 1:11-12), as noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Obadiah, lay to the southeast of the southern tip of the Dead Sea, in modern Jordan. Indeed, it is interesting that the ancient territories of the next three nations mentioned by Amos are all now embraced by the same country. In a prophecy of the last days in Daniel 11, "Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon" (verse 41) are grouped together still—apparently meaning the modern state of Jordan and perhaps, since most Jordanians are Palestinian, the Palestinians in general. (The Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Obadiah explained that many of the Palestinians are evidently of Edomite descent.) The Edomites were descended from Esau, the twin brother of Jacob, so there was a close relationship between them and Israel, and God considered them as brothers (Numbers 20:14; Obadiah 1-12; Deuteronomy 23:7). But Edom was always set against Israel (Numbers 20:14-21; 1 Samuel 14:47; 2 Kings 8:20-22), an enmity beginning from the time Esau lost his blessing to Jacob (Genesis 27:41). In so many cases, "Edom chose the day of Israel's calamity for venting his grudge. This is the point of Edom's guilt dwelt on in Obadiah 10-13" (JFB, note on Amos 1:11). Indeed, when Judah was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, Edom, as a closely related nation, should have helped Judah's refugees. But instead of offering sympathy and help, Edom handed Judeans over to the conquering Babylonians. The Edomites even murdered some of the refugees" (Nelson, introductory notes on Obadiah).
Teman (verse 12), named after the eldest grandson of Esau and Edom's first tribal chief (Genesis 36:10-16), is believed to have been one of the largest cities in Edom, and Bozrah was a major fortress. Both were overrun by the Nabataeans—although the punishment of verse 12 may refer to destruction that is still future (compare Isaiah 34). Today the Edomites may be found among the Palestinians and Turks and in other areas of the Middle East (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Obadiah).
Over the centuries, Edom has not been compassionate—suppressing even the natural feeling of pity for a brother in distress—and this is one of the reasons for God's judgment. How much more should we be compassionate today? (Psalm 86:15; Zechariah 7:9; Matthew 18:33; Mark 1:41; Luke 10:33; 1 Peter 3:8.)
5. Ammon (Amos 1:13-15) was further to the north in the area of modern day Amman in Jordan. The city of Amman now sits on the site of the ancient city of Rabbah (verse 14). The Ammonites (like the Moabites to the south) were descended from the incestuous incident of Lot's daughters with their father (Genesis 19:30-38). As Lot was Abraham's nephew, Ammon and Moab were related to Israel, though not as closely as Edom. Horribly, as Hazael of Syria had done (2 Kings 8:12), the "Ammonites killed pregnant women in order to prevent the increase of the Israelite population in Gilead, which they were trying to wrest from Israel's control" (Nelson, note on Amos 1:13). The Ammonites were later to rejoice at the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Chaldean-Babylonian Empire (Ezekiel 25:1-7). Indeed, they "joined the Chaldeans in their invasion of Judea for the sake of plunder" (JFB, note on Amos 1:13). But the Ammonites were to suffer the same downfall during Nebuchadnezzar's onslaught. At the end of this age, the Jordanians are prophesied to escape the initial invasion by the European "Babylon" (see Daniel 11:41). However, Zephaniah 2, Isaiah 15-16, and 34, Jeremiah 48-49 and Obadiah foretell the ultimate destruction of Ammon, Moab and Edom at the time of Christ's return.
6. Moab (2:1-3) lay between Ammon in the north and Edom in the south, again in modern-day Jordan. Moab, like Ammon, was a descendent of the incestuous incident of Lot's daughters. Both Ammon and Moab would have been blessed if they had behaved toward Israel as brothers, but their refusal to grant Israel passage through their territory at the time of the Exodus caused God to reject them (Deuteronomy 23:3-4). Later, the Moabites were to join forces with Ammon and Amalek against Israel for 18 years (Judges 3:13-14). One of Moab's crimes was the desecration of the remains of the king of Edom, "a heinous act in ancient times and a great dishonor to the person's memory" (Nelson, note on 2:1). This probably refers to the Edomite king who was allied with Jehoram of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah against Mesha, king of Moab (see 2 Kings 3:4-27). "The reference here in Amos is... to the revenge which probably the king of Moab took on the king of Edom, when the forces of Israel and Judah had retired after their successful campaign against Moab, leaving Edom without allies. The Hebrew tradition is that Moab in revenge tore from their grave and burned the bones of the king of Edom, the ally of Jehoram and Jehoshaphat, who was already buried" (JFB, note on verse 1).
In any case, "highly significant is the fact that Amos here pronounced the punishment of Yahweh on a social crime involving a non-Israelite. In his other oracles, the crimes were, for the most part, against the covenant people. Amos understood that an aspect of God's law transcended Israel. He affirmed a moral law that extended to non-covenant nations, a law that would surely bring punishment if violated. It is not the complex legal code of Sinai for which the Moabites were held liable but the law of social responsibility, respect for human dignity and the rights of all people" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Amos 2:2-3). Certainly, this was within the spirit of the laws God revealed to Israel—indeed, such principles were revealed by God from the very beginning of mankind (and all of mankind is thus accountable).
Moab was eventually conquered by Nebuchadnezzar. Yet, again, the devouring fire of verse 2 seems to mainly point to a coming latter-day destruction, as described in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zephaniah.