Commentary on Amos 7:7-17
Amos 7:7-9 describes the third in a series of four visions. After the first and second visions of destruction, Amos intercedes for Israel, asking for forgiveness, and appealing to God’s compassion for their smallness. God relents.
The third and fourth visions begin with less frightening sights than the first two. God shows the prophet an ordinary situation but a word in its description links the vision to God’s words of judgment. Amos reports seeing the Lord standing next to a wall, probably the defensive wall of a city. (Compare judgments on city walls and strongholds in Amos 1:7, 10, 14; 2:2, 5; 3:11; 6:8.) He gives no description of the Lord, other than the anak held “in his hand.”
This Hebrew word, anak, occurs four times in this passage and nowhere else in the Bible. It describes the wall—”an anak kind of wall”—and the object held by the Lord. Most scholars translate the word as “tin,” based on a cognate word in Akkadian with that meaning.
Most translations have interpreted anak as “plumb line.” The Lord measures the straightness of the wall with a plumb line, but when Israel is measured by the same tool, it is crooked, and deserving of punishment. Tin, however, is not heavy enough to work as the weight on a plumb line.
James Nogalski suggests that readers are meant to hear a wordplay on anahah “sigh, groan.”1 That word does not occur in verse 8, but it would make complete sense within God’s word of judgment. Perhaps the first hearers of this report of a vision and audition heard the foreign word, anak, and thought of the more familiar word, anahah.
The prophet doesn’t ask God to forgive Israel and God does not relent. The Lord’s word in these visions is cause for their greatest grief, “I will never again pass over them” (author’s translation), that is, “I will never again spare them” or “pardon them.”
Bethel and politics
Yahweh’s specific judgment on the sanctuaries of Israel and the royal house of Jeroboam (Amos 7:8) introduces the account of how Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, responded to Amos’ prophesying. Amaziah reports to the king and forbids Amos to speak.
Bethel’s significance to the people of Israel begins with their ancestors. Abram builds an altar near Bethel before he travels to Egypt, and eventually returns there (Genesis 12:8; 13:3-4). On his way into exile in the east Jacob has an encounter with Yahweh at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22). He makes a vow and sets up a pillar in response to God’s promise of blessing. The priest of Bethel summarizes God’s word of judgment through Amos as death for the king and exile for the nation of Israel, the Northern Kingdom (Amos 7:11).
Following Solomon’s death, Jeroboam I established his sovereignty over the ten northern tribes of Israel (922 BCE). First Kings 12:25-33 tells of the measures that he took to secure his throne by erecting places of worship at Dan in the north and Bethel in the south, appointing a priesthood, and establishing a new festival for the worship of “your gods, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28).
Bethel’s exact location is disputed, but it was certainly near the southern boundary of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, approximately ten miles north of Jerusalem. A temple from this period has been excavated at Dan.
Amaziah calls Bethel “the king’s sanctuary, and … a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:13). In this political theology, the monarch supports the worship of the national deity and that god preserves the ruler’s power. These ideas have existed among Israel’s ancient neighbors and in countless nations since then. Yahweh’s relationship with David’s dynasty, promised in 2 Samuel 7:4-17, follows similar lines of thought.
Contemporary people recognize the many dangers of a nationalized religion. The kingdom of God preached by Jesus goes back to the expanded understanding of Yahweh’s sovereignty that had emerged from the ashes of the two Israelite kingdoms. God’s people can live faithful lives without government support and protection. They must be free to recognize fault in leaders, congresses, and military commanders.
Amaziah treats Amos’ prophesying in Israel, the northern kingdom, as political agitation by a representative of the southern kingdom, conspiring against Jeroboam the king. Earlier Israelite dynasties had been overthrown by the words of prophets, so his concern is understandable (for example, 2 Kings 9.) He orders Amos to cease prophesying at the royal sanctuary.
Amos’ answer to Amaziah is confusing. He denies being a prophet (7:14), but he claims that God sent him to prophesy (7:15). This apparent contradiction makes sense if Amos is using “prophet” in the way that Amaziah understands the title. Amos says that he does not earn his living as a royal official (a prophet or a son of a prophet), but in agriculture, as a herdsman and sycamore dresser.
Amos prophesies in and to Israel in obedience to God’s command. The order of the book implies that he continued to obey God rather than Amaziah, since further indictments and judgments follow in chapters eight and nine. This episode highlights Amos’ vulnerability, courage, and faith.
This portrayal of Amaziah the priest gives a face to the Israelites who refused to repent and amend their lives in response to God’s word. His family will suffer all the horrors of the Assyrian conquest (Amos 7:17). Bethel itself will not escape destruction (Amos 3:14).
Amaziah epitomizes a limited, parochial, nationalistic understanding of the function of the king’s sanctuary at Bethel as the temple of the kingdom and a narrow understanding of the character of God. The oracles against neighboring nations—including Judah—in chapters one and two and the hymn fragments scattered through the book (Amos 4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6) point to a much broader view of the Creator’s sovereignty, justice, and compassion.
- James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve, Hosea – Jonah. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2011. Pages 339—340.