notes on 1:3-2:16


A series of oracles with a strong repeating framework strengthening their sense of coherence. Each begins:

  "Thus says Adonai:
   Because of three rebellions by [somewhere], because of four... 
   I will not call it back;

This is followed by reasons, and by the punishment which God will impose. This linkage of reason and punishment is typical of judgment oracles.

Series of oracles against foreign nations are found in other prophetic books (Is 13-23; Jer 46-51; Ez 25-32; Zeph 2:4-15). Though there is not a standard shape for these oracles they have enough common features to distinguish them from other Judgment Oracles. In his discussion of those in Is 13-23, Sweeney (p.214) claims that "the purpose of the collection... is to announce the imposition of YHWH's rule in the world."

Sitz im Leben

Scholars have discussed a range of possibilities for the situation in the life of Israel that such collections might address. It may be that their function was like Balaam's curse in Num 22-24 and that they would be attached to war traditions (Bentzen). However this could only apply to individual oracles and not presumably to collections such as this where the items, because of their standard form, can hardly be envisaged separately from the collection.

Bentzen's comparison of these oracles with the Egyptian execration texts (summarised & discussed by Wolff, p.144-148) points to a cultic rather than a battlefield setting.

It seems likely that a series of oracles against foreign nations might have its customary setting at an annual festival celebrating Adonai's sovereignty (Bentzen and Reventlow p.56-75, followed by Hayes p.49-61, have proposed such a setting for Amos' series).


We can imagine Amos at the great feast, perhaps invited as the prophet who proclaimed Adonai's sovereign judgment on surrounding peoples, or perhaps as an "outsider" addressing the crowd but unable to enter the sacred courts yet seeming to mimic the official proclamation inside.


"For three transgressions... and for four", although the prophets generally do not use this n, n+1 formula, examples are common in wisdom texts. Such phrasing suggests a continuing series, it is used more often of bad actions than good (e.g. Pr 6:16-19; 30:21-23). Elsewhere each of the n+1 is mentioned, but sometimes there is a clear stress on the last. Sir (Ecclus) 26:5-6 evidently seeks to emphasise the seriousness of the last mentioned item through association with those that go before:

  Of three things my heart is frightened,
    and a fourth I fear meeting:
  Slander in a city, 
    the assembly of a mob,
      and false accusation
  —all of these are worse than death!
  But it is heartbreak and sorrow when a wife is jealous of a rival
    a tongue lashing when she tells everyone."

So Amos' use of this progression, only mentioning what we suppose to be the last item is not difficult for his hearers to understand.

Two factors disturb this reading, first in some cases two actions rather than one are described:

This on its own might mean nothing, however the final oracle in the series contains the four accusations that one would expect from the "for three... for four" formula:

(The claim that there are four sins here is not arbitrary, or merely thematic, the grammatical structure of the accusation supports these divisions. So the verbs in v.7a are participles and the main verb was found in v.6. While 7b introduces a new subject for the verbs "a man and his son..." )

Thus the very wording of the accusation formula in the series "for three... for four" points to the accusation against Israel as being the one that "counts"!

"I will not call it back" (or even more literally "I will not cause it to return") the "it" is unspecified, but we may suppose that "it" is the punishment described later.


The two oracles that close the series, against Judah (2:4-5) and Israel (2:6-16), are significantly different from the others and longer (this is particularly true of the last - against Israel). This suggests the notion that the series serves to "lead up to" this climax. The oracles against pagan nations round about build up rapport between prophet and hearers, and remind of the sovereignty of the God Israel worships.

The oracle against Judah would have been especially impressive, to his Israelite hearers, on the lips of this Judean prophet. Finally, 2:6-16, they realise the most detailed condemnation is reserved for them.



This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos , if you have reached it as a standalone page, to view it in context, go to © Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2006, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.