Who Was Amos?

<!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:"MS 明朝"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:fixed; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} @font-face {font-family:"MS 明朝"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:fixed; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;} —In Amos we see an early, amateur, southern kingdom prophet in the grand cycle of prophecies that take us through Conquest, Exile, and Return, leading us to the climactic works of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Slightly older than the professional ,Northern Kingdom prophet Hoshea, although operating at roughly the same time, Amos brings us the perspective of the Southern Kingdom, which did not support an official prophetic class for regulating other aspects of government and society.

As with other prophets, professional or otherwise, Amos opens his writing with a brief statement of authorship:

The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Yerovam the son of Yoash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake. –Amos 1:1

And this introduction provides us with two intriguing pieces of information:  that Amos was among the “herdsman” and that he was (at that point in time, at least) staying in Tekoa.

Tekoa was founded as an administrative city and fortress, south of Jerusalem, by the Calevites of Hevron (to the south) and the Ephrathites of Bethlechem (to the north).  The Calevites, as indicated by their name, were the descendants of Calev the Kennite (Yehoshua’s successor), and so would have been an important clan. 

The Ephrathites were a Levitical family with many significant members in the biblical narrative.  Shmuel’s father was an Ephrathite, as was the father of Rut’s first husband.  By extension, Boaz was as well, and, therefore the Davidic line (both genetically through Boaz and legally through Rut’s first husband).   The Ephrathites of Bethlechem were both prominent and powerful. 

The cooperation between the Calevites and Ephrathites would have made for a noteworthy and authoritative alliance, and the city of Tekoa carried with it the reputations of its founding families.  It also, having been founded as an administrative center in the days before the northern and southern kingdoms, would have existed in Amos’s time as a symbol of bygone times and of the shared past and cultural unity of Israel and Yehudah.  Amos, by citing Tekoa as his location, is not simply naming his hometown.  He is invoking the authority of Calev, Shmuel, the Levites, the heritage and lineage of David, and the memory of a united Israel. 

Beyond the symbolism of the location, Amos indicates other important information by noting his location.  Tekoa, as stated above, was a fortified city and administrative center.  That Amos was writing from that locale indicates his access to current information and the opinions of powerful people.  The implication is similar to prefacing a commentary on the stock markets by saying one works on Wall Street.

The other intriguing piece of identification with which Amos provides us is his occupation.  He is, in his own words, “among the herdsman.”  Rashi’s commentary notes here that the word translated as “herdsman” (נֹקֵד) is used in 2 Melechim (2 Kings) 3:4 to indicate ownership of herds.  In other words, Amos is a rancher.  He is not a manual laborer engaged in the mundane work left to the young David by his older, more favored brothers.  In a culture that historically relied on livestock as a form of wealth, owning herds is an expression of wealth and influence.  Amos was most likely a successful businessman in his time, whose flocks helped to supply meat for the city—a city that also served as a convenient point of contact for him to by and sell stock and other goods as part of his business.  The fate of the kingdom in which he lived and that kingdom’s neighbors was a matter of special concern to him.  His fortunes rose or fell with those of Yehudah.

As an Israelite rancher, Amos would also have had frequent contact with the priesthood.  After all, he owed the firstborn lamb of every ewe to the Temple.  For the average country bumpkin, that would have been one or two head a year.  For rancher, the number would be much greater, and some of his business may well have involved selling livestock to urbanites who owed offerings or needed animals to observe the various chagim and moedim that punctuate the biblical year.  He would also have known the condition of the people under his professional care—his shepherds, servants, messengers, and possibly merchants.  A rancher in his time and place was not simply a well-to-do individual, but a man at the nexus of society.  He would have had access to political information (foreign, domestic, local, and national), the condition of urban and rural life, and the welfare of both rich and poor.  Amos was a man who was in the know.

Just as with citing his location, though, the citation of Amos’s profession contains a two-fold meaning.  Herdsmen in the biblical narrative, whether owners or simple keepers of the flocks, are leaders.  Throughout the TaNaKh, the imagery of the shepherd (albeit using a different Hebrew word in most cases) with his flock is used to symbolize the relationship between the king and his people, between Hashem and His Holy Nation.  Tehila (Psalms) 23 is, perhaps the most famous example:

The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want.

The patriarchs owned flocks, and their descendants were granted land to settle in Egypt based on that profession.  Moshe first encountered Hashem while keeping his father-in-law’s flocks in Midian, and then “shepherded” his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.  King David was a shepherd, giving a certain factual spin to the monarchy’s later use of the metaphor.  The prophets following Amos frequently turned to the imagery of the shepherd, both in their condemnation of the monarchy and priesthood and in their heralding the coming redemption of the kingdom in the Persian period. 

In this metaphorical sense, Amos’s forthright profession of his occupation is a powerful statement.  He see’s himself as a leader of Israel, albeit not through inheritance or temporal appointment.  Just as Yehezkiel employed the role of the watchman over a city to describe his responsibility toward the people of Yehudah, Amos uses the role of the shepherd to describe what he sees as his responsibility to guide the people in the coming crisis, surrounded as they are by menacing predators.  Amos might not be a king or a priest or a prophet in the traditional sense, but he is a leader among his people, and, like Moshe, makes himself available through his message to lead them out of the bondage of corruption and into the wilderness of imperial rule under the Assyrians.
Here it is worthwhile to know that נֹקֵד in modern Hebrew means “dot” or “point” and is the name of the pointing systems used to indicate vocalization in written Hebrew. Like these systems, Amos (and other prophets) points, leads, and directs his audience in the correct direction.


Finally, as intriguing as the identifying information Amos chooses to share with his readers (and listeners, as prophetic writings would have been shared orally in ancient times) is the information Amos chooses to withhold.  Amos does not disclose the name of his father or his clan or even his tribe.  As a rancher in a specific region, most of his ancient readers could probably deduce his ancestry accurately from his profession and location, but that is not the point.  Throughout history, and especially in cultures rooted in herding, parentage and kinship are of the utmost social importance.  That a serious individual, writing a serious work, and intending his work to be received as a prophecy that will influence individual, political, and religious institutional behavior would leave out the name of his father or fail to invoke the name of a notable ancestor is shocking.

Instead, Amos deliberately chose to step away from his familial history and allegiances in order to deliver a message that went beyond kinship, clanship, regional politics, or even monarchical borders.  His message is one that decries the corruption of the great hereditary institutions of his time and place and announces the coming deconstruction of those institutions, not to mention the tribal inheritances of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  When Assyrian armies burn the fields and raze the cities, it will not matter who is a Levite or a Benyaminite or a Calevite or an Ephrathite.  It will not matter who one’s father was or who was descended from a Shofet.  It won’t even matter if you hail from Jerusalem or from Tyre.  Thus, the past is not his point.  His point is the future.  The monarchy is only as good as the individuals within it, likewise with the priesthood.  To rely on pride of pedigree or name-dropping would only serve as a distraction. Amos, therefore, chooses to stand on the merits of his own knowledge and the message he has been sent. 


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