Amos: a Prophetic Book

Kinds of Speech
Sayings of the Prophet
Prophetic Drama

What kind of work is the Book of the Prophet Amos ? To say that it is a "prophetic book" names this genre , but does not describe it. What kinds of speech/writing do such books contain? What are they seeking to do or say? How are they structured and composed?

Kinds of Speech

All prophetic books contain a large proportion of "oracles " (with the exception of Jonah, which only contains one and that very short, Jon 3:4b). In the prophets dated before the exile these are predominantly judgment oracles while in the exilic prophets salvation oracles are more prominent.

Other forms of speech are also common. Amos is fairly typical in the genres it contains, as it is in other respects.
There is a PROSE INTRODUCTION, or title ( 1:1 ), situating the words that follow according to:
their speaker - "The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa",
their origin - "which he saw",
their subject - "concerning Israel", and their
setting in Israel's story - "in the days of Uzzi'ah king of Judah and in the days of Jerobo'am the son of Jo'ash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake."

The introduction is followed by a small piece in the form of a hymn , Am 1:2

He said:
Adonai roars from Zion,
and from Jerusalem gives voice;
the shepherds' pastures wither,
and Carmel's crest dries.

This is but the first of several such fragments (4:13 ; 5:8-9 ; 9:5-6 )

REPORTS OF VISIONS ( 7:1-9 ; 8:1-3 ; 9:1-4 comprising a series of five related reports) are also a typically prophetic genre. The best known cases of vision reports are in the context of the prophet's "call". Is 6 and Jer 1 both recount the call experience of the prophet and in so doing report his vision(s), Ez 1-3 have been interpreted in this light, but other examples of vision reports outside the context of a prophetic call do not permit too close a link to be made (1 Kgs 22:19ff .; Jer 18 ; cf. Is 30:27f.; 63:1ff.; Nah 2:2ff.). Clearly these reports do not have a common form, or structure, and apart from the visionary element itself they show little resemblance to each other in content or manner of working. Amos' vision reports are relatively poor in visual details. Here the vision serves only to introduce the words, and is wholly subservient to them (compare & contrast Ezekiel).

Another major genre present in Amos is NARRATIVE (7:10-17 ). The story of the conflict between Priest and Prophet at Bethel is well told, sparing in its use of description, yet vivid in its impact. However here also the prophetic "word" is most important and indeed this story has been seen ( Wolff ) as an oracle with an extended introduction. It is evident that the term "biography" does not truly apply, for it is precisely biographical details that are missing or obscure.

What happened to Amos after this?
Where did he come from and where will he go?
What was Amaziah's reaction and his fate?
Did the oracle "come true"?

However, nor do these missing factors permit us to see Amaziah (the priest) as "the actual theme which unites the pericope in 7.10-17" Wolff p.308). So, the description "oracle with extended introduction" raises questions as it solves others, for normally oracles do not have introductions of this kind, and no other oracle in Amos has any such introduction. The theme of these verses is clearly the prophet and the word, and they tell a story. If the terms "biography" and "oracle with extended introduction" do not apply then perhaps we may simply call this piece a "prophetic narrative".

Other less characteristically prophetic genres are present too. In 3:3-8 we find a series of rhetorical questions framed to argue a case. This is clearly a DISPUTATION SPEECH.

In 4:4-5 the form of the saying is like that of a priestly instruction, TORAH .

In 5:13 we have what appears to be a PROVERB: "So, at a time like this a sensible person keeps quiet; for it is an evil time."

Most prophetic books contain a similar mixture of different types of material. Much of it would fit well in the mouths of the prophets, but some would not - like the biographical story in Amos 7.10-17 , and probably the hymnic material which looks as if it is being quoted from a complete poem.

In the other "books of the prophets" there are PSALMS, and fragments of psalms, of various kinds (e.g. Is 42:10-13; Jer 15:10-21; Ez 19:1-14; Jonah 2:2-9; Hab 3). There is plenty of NARRATIVE (e.g. Is 6; Jer 26-29; Hos 3:1-4). INSTRUCTION (torah) is found too (e.g. Is 1:10-17; Hos 6:6; Mal 2:10-17). So this kind of mixture of genres must be seen as part of the nature of a prophetic book.

Sayings of the Prophet

One common way of thinking about prophetic books sees them as collections of the "words of the prophet". The headings found in the first verse(s) of many of the books can suggest this view. Amos and Jeremiah seem strongest:

Jer 1:1 "The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah..."
Am 1:1 "The words of Amos..."

However the biggest group, which stresses that this word is "Adonai's word" also suggest that the books are collections of "words":

Hos 1:1 "The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri..."
Joel 1:1 "The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel..."
Mi 1:1 "The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth..."
Zeph 1:1 "The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah..."
Zech 1:1 "the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah..."

Malachi (whose name meaning "my messenger" also focuses on the divine speaker) is similar:

Mal 1:1 "An oracle. The word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi."

Another group speak of these "words" as "visions":

Nah 1:1 "An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh."
Is 1:1 "The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz..."
Obad 1:1 "The vision of Obadiah..."
Hab 1:1 "The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw."

However Haggai's longer form begins to point in another direction. Here we are not only introduced to the speaker, but also to the people addressed:

Hag 1:1 "...the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel..."

In Amos too, as well as presenting and situating the prophet, the addressees were present in the heading to the book:

"...who was among the sheep farmers from Tekoa, and had visions about Israel, in the time of Uzziah King of Judah and of Jeroboam son of Joash King of Israel, two years before the earthquake."

These hints suggest something more like a drama than a collection of sayings. This becomes clear if we look at the introduction to Jonah:

Jon 1:1 "Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai..."

Although the introduction reads just like those to Hosea, Joel, Micah, Zephaniah and Zechariah this book is not a collection of sayings indeed it only has only one very short saying!

As we have seen, prophetic books contain a wealth of varied material with songs, narrative and so on as well as "prophetic sayings". This material too must fit into our description of the nature of a prophetic book - ideally even the extreme case of Jonah will fit.

Prophetic Drama

Most of the prophetic books seem to encourage us to imagine the interaction of prophet and hearers. Sometimes the words even include elements of audience response, Mi 2:6 is an explicit example:

“Do not preach”—thus they preach—
“one should not preach of such things;
disgrace will not overtake us.”
7 Should this be said, O house of Jacob?
Is the Lord’s patience exhausted?...

Even where the audience participation is not shown in the text, we often imagine it. Can one read 1:3-2:5 without visualizing the glee of his Israelite hearers as the prophet castigates their neighbors one after another? Then, as we hear the climax where Israel gets a harsher condemnation than any, we expect some justification and defense of his words, which we find in chapter 3 . Critical scholars, at the end of their analysis of the text, build up clear and vivid pictures of Amos and his life, though the text tells us next to nothing about Amos, the only biographical information being in 1:1 and the story of 7:10-17 . Perhaps this lack of information explains why their pictures are so very different one from another! ( Bulkeley, 1991)


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, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.