Amos has been connected to the sheep, a social justice prophet, and a shepherd by trade, who had a tremendous concern for the downtrodden.
A contemporary with Hosea and Jonah, Amos composed his book in the second half of the eighth century B.C, concerning the northern kingdom of Israel. His ministry lasted for about a ten year span, from 760-750 BC., during the last part of Israel’s Jeroboam II’s reign (the son of Joash) and the first part of King Uzziah of Judah’s reign.
One other clue to Amos’ time period is the massive earthquake mentioned four times in his book. Archaeological evidence found at Hazor and Samaria attests to this catastrophic temblor, corroborating Amos’ writing.
To get a feel for Jeroboam’s reign, read through 2 Kings 14:23-29. He ruled from 788-747 BC, just about sixty years, and built the northern kingdom of Israel into a wealthy trading empire by controlling the trade routes to Damascus on both sides of the Jordan.
King Uzziah began his reign in Judah in 785 BC. He was a great king in many ways, and built up the southern kingdom of Judah, but had to relinquish his throne just a few years into his career because he contracted leprosy—a fascinating story really, of over-confidence. In any case, though he continued to govern from behind the scenes, it was his son Jotham who became the face of the king until Uzziah’s death after decades of seclusion, in 733 BC.
A native of the southern kingdom of Judah, Amos grew up a farmer and herder, tending fruit trees and raising livestock in the small village of Tekoa, ten miles south of Jerusalem. He strongly avowed he was not a prophet, nor a son of a prophet, by trade. That much is established. However, two very different portrayals of Amos emerge.
A poor farm boy
Amos is introduced at the beginning of the book that bears his name by the ancient curator of his material: “one of the shepherds of Tekoa,” a simple man making a simple living. Evidently, he also seems to have worked in an orchard, according to his own description of himself. The sycamore tree he dressed was the Ficus Sycomorus, a type of wild fig poor people gathered. Though it produced an inferior fruit to the domesticated fig, because it was a native and plentiful tree that naturally sprung up, it was easily available even to those who had no land. By “dressing,” or gashing the figs, a farmer could hasten their ripening.
Like other small businesses, Amos and his family struggled to eke out a living as wealthy landowners scooped up surrounding estates, farms, and fields through the manipulation of small loans. Very like what has been happening to household farms in the United States for the last couple of decades or so, families had begun to lose their ancestral lands at an alarming rate.
The growing prosperity both the northern and southern kingdoms had been enjoying was not “trickling down.” Instead, gross inequity developed between the cities and the outlying country, the elite and the laborer, the rich and the poor.
Wealthy country esquire
Amos was first portrayed as a sheep and cattle herder, and evidently, the Hebrew word used to describe him doesn’t just mean shepherd, it means the affluent owner of large flocks and herds. It’s the same word used to describe King Mesha of Moab, a sheep breeder, who used to deliver to the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs, and the wool of one hundred thousand rams.
Sycamore figs, though they grew wild and were an inferior fruit to the domesticated Ficus Carica, they also were a hardy tree that could be cultivated on a grand scale.
As the owner of a prosperous and sprawling estate, yet also a man who loved and worshipped God, who observed God’s just laws, and grieved over the abuses he was seeing, Amos could sense the increasing urgency for speaking up and taking a stand.
God called upon Amos to denounce the top 1% for hoarding 80% of all the wealth in the land, leaving the rest of the nation to struggle and die destitute.
Whether farm boy or wealthy esquire, it was going to be a tough job for a plain-spoken man who was unused to the politics of the palace and the powerful religious establishment. But, God’s choice of Amos was perfect for his time—he knew from his own life, or from the lives of those who worked for him, what it was to scratch out an existence with the poor. He had courage, endurance, tenacity, and righteous zeal. And like his dressing knife, Amos’ tongue was sharp and to the point.
Yet, rather than repentance and a return to God’s righteousness, after delivering his polemics Amos would find himself kicked out of Bethel, and forbidden to publicly prophesy ever again.
That’s when he returned to Judah to write all his sermons down.
- Chapters 1-3, Amos prophesied about God’s plans to judge Israel and surrounding nations, eight in all.
- Chapters 4-5, Amos reviewed God’s call to Israel to repent.
- Chapters 6-7, Amos depicted God’s plumb line by which Israel was being measured.
- Chapters 8-9, Amos testified that God’s destruction of Israel would not be total or permanent, allowing a small note of hope.
With many thanks to a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project,” let’s begin our study of Amos with this overview.
[Ficus Sycamorus | איתן פרמן 13:46, 8 July 2006 (UTC) / Public domain]