Commentary on Amos 7:7-15
Our text is part of what in scholarly discussion is called the “Book of Visions.” It is the third vision followed by the encounter with Amaziah, the priest of the Northern Kingdom (Amos 7:10-15). Amos’ vision is not as important as YHWH’s interpretation. God announces through this vision that the end of Jeroboam’s dynasty is coming. The divine warrior is coming with a sword to desolate and lay waste. It is surprising to read Amaziah’s reaction to the oracle of destruction; after all, the prophetic voice describes a vision—probably the least verifiable way to communicate a message from YHWH. Amos’ vision proves nothing, for how does anyone listening to its recounting know that the speaker is not self-deceived, inebriated, or plainly lying (see also Jeremiah 14:14; 23:16; Ezekiel 13:7)? This is part of the reason there are fewer prophetic materials using visions to communicate a divine message.
It is history that validates the oracle and not any claim of a possible historical figure stating that the vision comes from God. In other words, the authority of the vision does not reside on any hypothetical origin that proves whether the prophet was inspired by God. To believers across time and through generations, the effect of the words proves the authority of the text to “speak” to new contexts and communities.
For those who lived centuries after the destruction of Jeroboam’s dynasty, Amos’ words spoke to them at least in two ways: First, they provided comfort because the text states that God is actively intervening in history to set things right. Jeroboam is remembered in the biblical drama as the king who established two high places, one in Bethel (where Amaziah is priest) and one in Dan. People would not need to travel south to Jerusalem. He provided worship places for the northerners (1 Kings 12: 25-33). For southerners, worship places outside of Jerusalem were idolatry.
Second, the oracle and the prophetic material in general were an ancient catechism to form younger generations within the worldview of the Israelite community as the chosen people of YHWH. If God intervened in history for previous generations, then the value of the prophetic material entails its capacity to shape the faith of new believers, providing hope that YHWH continues to be involved with them.
Even to this day people claim as justification for their actions that God speaks to them. They assert God’s presence in their lives providing hope to face all kinds of circumstances. Whether Jeroboam’s destruction happened or not does not matter because we have no way to verify it. The power of the text is its capacity to shape a believer’s faith that God continues to set things right from ancient times to our times.
However, one of the dangers of looking at the prophetic material as catechism is the tendency to domesticate the text. Believers may consider that God is always on their side and setting things right means that those outside of their community are against them and thus against God. Perhaps the divine warrior imagery of Amos 7:7-15 also represents a way of saying that God’s patience has its limits and even the people of God may experience God’s wrath. Other prophets express it more explicitly, especially Ezekiel, who recounts Israel’s history as one of continual rebellion (for example, Ezekiel 2:1-5).
The biblical tradition describing a patient God, waiting for the people to change, was an attribute that Israel continually celebrated. This is the God who is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7). However, this theological pearl in the Hebrew Bible may become cheap grace. God may relent from evil, but our text also states, “I will never again pass them by” (verse 8b). This seems to be one of Amos’ ways of saying that God runs out of patience. The angel of death passed over the Israelites in Egypt and no Hebrew firstborn were killed (Exodus 12:13). Amos claims that God has had enough and brings death upon the people.
The idea of God relenting or changing God’s plans may surprise many Christians who were brought up believing in God’s immutability. Yet, the Hebrew Bible and specifically the prophets constantly show a God who repents from evil or runs out of patience with the people and brings evil upon them (see Genesis 6:6, Jeremiah 18:8, 10, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 3:9). The mutability of the divine will suggests that for God, as represented in the Hebrew Bible, the future is open. Usually, it is characterized as God’s changing God’s mind to bring mercy instead of wrath. However, Amos 7:7-15 is one of many examples in the prophets where God has had enough. This malleability of the divine will symbolizes the biblical tradition of God’s sovereignty. Neither divine mercy nor wrath reflect mechanical processes based on human behavior, because God decides to exercise grace or punishment upon the guilty on account of divine freedom, that is, God chooses when and how to act and human repentance does not force God into one action or the other.
Although Amos intercedes for the people in the first two visions, in the third one intercession does not occur. It is replaced with the account of Amaziah’s rejection of the prophet and thus of the divine message. As a result, YHWH determines that Jeroboam’s kingdom will end.
One wonders how to apply Amos’ message to the postmodern, pluralistic world. It is difficult to ponder the God of Amos as a God of death. However, a starting point is to consider this message for personal self-reflection on the alliances we make today as communities in the 21st century. The oppression Amos addressed of wealthy individuals and nations taking advantage of poor people continues to be a problem in today’s society.