Shiur #101: The Prophecies of Amos: DAY OF RETURN

  • Rav Yitzchak Etshalom
In commemoration of the yahrzeit of Elke bat Binyamin Tzvi z"l 
whose yahrzeit falls on 28 Elul, 16/17 September.
Now that we’ve completed our study of Amos, we are well-positioned to look back and take a panoramic look at the entire book. Whether or not the book records Amos’s prophecies in the sequence in which they were orally presented is an issue we will take up towards the end of this shiur. First, we’ll take a look at the final, edited version of the book, regardless of how accurately it represents Amos’s prophetic career.
When we invoke “Amos’s prophetic career” we also need to step back and ask what we mean by that. In other words, was Amos a rancher and dresser of sycamores who then had an abrupt midlife change of vocation, summoned by God, and spent the rest of his life preaching to the people? Perhaps we can imagine instead Amos’s prophetic experience as a short interruption in an otherwise uneventful life, that after his agency to Shomeron he returned to his cattle and his sycamores. A more extreme, but no less likely, scenario would have Amos journeying to the North for a single visit, delivering his series of diatribes and then returning to Judea. There is nothing in the text of Amos or, for that matter, any other extant text, that would definitively determine which of these biographies accords most closely with reality. Unlike some of the other prophets, there is no mention of the passing of time in Amos.
Perhaps the clearest example of a “prophetic career” is Yirmeyahu. We learn that his career begins in Yoshiyahu’s thirteenth year and lasts through the Destruction of Jerusalem, which means a career of no less than forty years and likely more. In addition, there are numerous narrative scenarios in the book which mark the passage of time and make it clear that we are reading about a life — a life of torment and pain, to be sure. Similarly, there are enough narrative interjections in Yeshayahu to confirm that we are hearing about a prophetic career, not a short burst of activity.
The prophets of Trei Asar are in that collection because their outputs are relatively sparse. Nonetheless, some of them (notably Hoshea, Zekharya and Chaggai) have several “real-time” interactions with others which give the reader the impression of a “career” prophet. Even Malakhi (for example), whose work includes no narrative per se, shifts in tone and evidently addresses a different audience at the beginning of the book than the one he speaks to at the end.
Amos, on the other hand, includes only one narrative of eight verses (7:10-17), and nothing in the book speaks to a passage of time whatsoever. As such, it is just as easy to read the book as the record of a single visit to Beit El and a series of prophecies uttered there on one occasion as it is to see an extended stay in the North. Alternatively, we might see the book as the entire corpus of Amos’s prophecies and posit that he presented some of them at one time, others at other times and any number of them more than once. We simply do not know, and we have no clues from the text to guide our inquiry.
What we do have is the written record, and we will look to that completed work in the order and presentation given to posterity in order to grasp the overall message. Perhaps this examination will help us understand the message that Amos intends for usthe later, Tanakh-studying public. We, who read with both the advantage and drawback of hindsight. We are privileged to be able to read these words knowing how they were received (at least in practice) — i.e. hardly, if at all. We are also handicapped by being robbed, so to speak, of the total experience of hearing Amos. Much as homileticists (and fearmongers) thrive on drawing geopolitical parallels from Tanakh to today, in reality we do not see Assyria looming from across our border and we have no thoughts of returning to Egypt to seek shelter. We are also limited in that we do not hear Amos’s voice except through the medium of study and imagination, which will have to suffice, as it has for the past 2,700 years of Amos-study.
Prophets have one eye on the past and another on the future — while they stand firmly in the present. Amos makes this observation quite easy to demonstrate.
In the first chapter and a half, comprising the seven oracles against the neighboring nations, we hear about broken relationships, voided treaties and betrayed covenants of the past as well as the acts of Divine retribution which loom in those nations’ rather immediate futures. The prophet declaims these threats aimed at feigned audiences, all of whom (with the exception of Judea) have no interest in what a Jewish prophet has to say about their morality, accountability or destiny. As noted, these are feigned audiences, a common rhetorical strategy of the Nevi’im, and neither they nor their representatives are present to hear Amos’s rebukes. So… as he reaches into the distant past to invoke berit achim (the fraternal covenant) and Eisav’s hatred for Yaakov, and then turns the betrayal of the past into the comeuppance that the future holds, his eyes are firmly set on his present audience, in Shomeron, who listen with avid (or possibly jaundiced) interest.
In the first few shiurim of the series, I suggested that Amos’s audience would, at this point, feel a combination of relief at not being targeted for destruction along with a meanspirited glee at hearing of their neighbors’ imminent downfall. All of this turns around in the skillful hands of our orator, as the “three… and a fourth” becomes “three and four more” sins of Israel, followed by the explicit sevenfold description of the stages of obliteration of their military prowess.
We might be impressed by Amos’s oratorial talents after having studied and attempted to “re-hear” the first set of oracles, yet we can’t help but have that regard expand and intensify when we come to his eschaton. The role of the nations in setting up the rebuke against Israel is “redeemed,” and those nations that served as a foil for Israel’s sinfulness and doom at the beginning then become the foil for Israel’s chosenness and status as most favored nation at the end of days. The Arameans from Damascus and the Philistines from Gaza, the first two nations in the opening oracle, are the nations to which Israel is compared: “Did I not bring up Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Kaftor and Aram from Kir?” (9:7). Then, in a subtle but abrupt about-face, Israel’s special and protected future is singled out and distinguished from these two neighbors. Note the clever chiasmus between 1:3-8 (Aram–Philistia) and 9:7 (Philistia-Aram).
I would like to propose that Amos’s “clear and present” prophecies are not only well-organized and deliberately sequenced, but that they all deliberately lead to the denouement of the corpus — the eschaton — and that the intentional internal structure is reflected back in that final burst of vision about the end of days. The relationship between the opening oracles against the nations (Chapters 1-2) is perhaps the clearest example, but by no means the only one. In spite of his potentially crushing comparison of the Israelites to the Cushites, the Arameans and Philistines, the next verse (9:8) sets that comparison aside:
Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth;
Nevertheless, I will not utterly destroy the house of Ya’akov, says the Lord.
In the next unit, comprised of the first eight verses of Chapter 3, Amos presents a series of riddles intended to demonstrate the inevitability of prophecy. This seems to operate as an apologia before his next set of rebukes, which lead to punishments seemingly far worse and less lyrical than those in the first oracle-set.
This theme is neatly brought full circle in the opening of his eschaton:
Behold days are coming, and I will send a famine to the land, not (only) a famine for bread, nor (only) a thirst for water, rather (also a thirst) to hear the words of God.[1]
This coerced prophet, who longs to return to his herds and sycamores, argues for his inescapable fate: to pronounce the Lord’s words at Beit El. Ultimately, the people who did not want to listen will long for words of prophecy — but it will all be too late, as presented in the verse that follows the description of the famine:
And they will wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.
WARNINGS ISSUED (3:9-4:5 - 8:13-14)
After Amos justifies his prophetic mission, he summons neighboring nations (again, the feigned audience) to witness the destruction of Shomeron; God has taken an oath “by His holiness” that the women who satisfy their hedonistic desires at the expense of the poor will end up taken out through the breaches in the wall of the city and taken away in fishing boats, an image that evokes the ultimate line of the horrific rebuke in Devarim (28:68). He facetiously invites the people to attend to their (idolatrous?) rituals at Beit El and Gilgal.
Just after the image of the “fast for the words of God,” Amos declares that
On that day the pretty young maidens and the young men will swoon from the thirst. All those who swear by the guilt (or Ashima) of Shomeron and declare “By the life of your god, Dan, and the by the life of the route to Be’er Sheva,” they will fall and never again rise.
Amos neatly brings the imbibing “cows of the Bashan” back to their youth – but now they swoon from thirst; those who have accepted his earlier “invitation” to worship at the sinful sites and continue to swear by those gods will fall and never again rise.
“HEARKEN”: THE CALL TO RETURN (4:6-13 - 9:13-15)
At what is arguably the axis-point of Amos’s prophecies, he presents an increasingly intensifying series of calamities that God visits on the Northern Kingdom, all aimed to get them to return to Him, all for naught. The refrain “Ve-lo shavtem adai,” “Yet you did not return to Me,” leaves the audience with no doubt as to the reason for these famines, droughts, pestilence and so forth. It could be argued that “Ve-lo shavtem adai” is a terse yet accurate description of Amos’s prophetic career, such as it is.
From a literary perspective, looking at Amos as a finished book, this passage sits in the middle of his prophecies, keeping in mind that half of Chapter 7 is narrative (Amos’s interaction with Amatzya in Beit El) and that from 8:10 until the end is Amos’s “end of days” vision. Thus, this “Hearken” passage is the fulcrum of Amos’s real-time prophecies.
As such, we should not be surprised to see that Amos’s magnificent epilogue not only redeems the rest of the eschaton, as we argued in the last few shiurim, it also resolves this series of plagues.
The refrain “Ve-lo shavtem adai” is reconciled with the people’s return to their Land and their return to the land.
The famine of 4:6 is replaced with the plenty of 9:13.
The drought and consequent wandering from city to city to find water in 4:7-8 is more than made up for with the flowing juices in 9:13-14 and with the promise of being “planted on their land” in 9:15. (Note also how the wandering from city to city to find water is replaced at the beginning of the eschaton with wandering from place to place to seek out [unsuccessfully] God’s word.)
The crop and locust plagues of 4:9 are turned 180 degrees with the overlapping harvests of 9:13.
The terrible stench of death “on the road to Egypt” of 4:10 is redeemed with the robust and thriving life described throughout these three verses.
The evocation of the destruction of Sedom and Amora described in 4:11, being “turned over” and the conflagration imagery of being a “brand plucked from the fire,” is completely reversed with the firm and permanent establishment of the people on their lush, verdant land in 9:15.
The five calamities are followed by a two-verse hymn which describes God in threatening terms. Those terms are softened and elevated, while maintaining their hymnal mood, in 9:6; instead of the frightening image of God “trampling on the high places of the earth” in 4:13, God is described as “building His upper chambers in the heavens, while His vault is founded on the earth.”
Amos’s dirge over the imminent fall of Israel is punctuated with the painful second verse:
Nafela lo tosif kum, betulat Yisrael; nitesha al admatah ein mekimah.
She has fallen and will never again rise, the maiden of Israel; she has been abandoned on her land and no one is there to raise her up.
The dirge, which reaches the fields, is redeemed at the epilogue; in place of the farmers being summoned — or summoning each other — to come and mourn (which also implies that they aren’t all that busy), the farmers are so busy harvesting and plowing, picking and trampling grapes, that the bounty is seemingly overwhelming. Nevertheless, the opening line haunts us, Amos’s distant audience, surely as it must have haunted any of his immediate audience who incline their ears and possess a heart of flesh.
Amos beautifully uplifts the irreparable maiden of Israel, not as a maiden but as a monarch:
On that day will I raise up
The sukka of David that is fallen,
And close up the breaches thereof,
And I will raise up its ruins,
And I will build it as in the days of old. (9:11)
The two mentions of kum — 1) “She has fallen and will never again rise;” and 2) “And no one is there to raise her up” — are resolved with God’s promise to raise up the sukka of David and to raise up her ruins.
Again, the opening vision of the famine for the word of God comes back in a salvific role. The passage in Chapter 5 consistently uses the word darosh, adjuring the people to seek out God, not to seek anything at Beit El and so forth. This exhortation, presumably ignored (in practice) at the time, will be fulfilled when “the days that are coming” arrive.
DAY OF THE LORD (5:18-27 - 9:13-15)
Amos, as we posited, is the first orator in Israel to respond to the people’s desire for a “Day of the Lord,” describing that anticipated epoch as a terrifying and destructive time. To paraphrase Chazal, “May it come, but may I not witness it.”[2] Amos describes that day as a day of inescapable terror, fleeing one attacker successfully only to find another one waiting in the walls of the house. Instead, Amos turns their desire on its head and implores his audience to establish justice and righteousness to “roll down… like a mighty river.”
The frightening Day of the Lord is seen in a radically different way in Amos’s own vision of the end of days — a time when Israel’s position among the nations is fully realized and acknowledged and when the nation will be firmly planted on its land, never again to be moved from there. It is only fitting that this poorly-timed and badly-motivated desire for the Day of the Lord be resolved with a proper and just Day of the Lord which has all the citizens (poor as well as wealthy) firmly planted on their own land, harvesting the yield of God’s bounty.
THE END OF POWER (6:1-14 - 9:11)
In the next section, which is made up of the fourteen verses of Chapter 6, Amos describes a national diminution of power, with a destruction of the mighty houses. In a sense, this is approximated in the one “vision” in his eschaton, of the shaking sanctuary, but that is hardly a redemptive passage for this one. Rather, it is again the raising of David’s monarchy, pictured not as a mansion, as marble houses and such, but rather as a flimsy sukka, that signals a restoration of proper power. That power, of course, is anchored in Yerushalayim, as Shomeron permanently loses its status as an independent monarchy.
THE VISIONS (7:1-8:3 - 9:1-6)[3]
The four visions which Amos shares with us increase in their intensity and are all foreboding. God Himself is seen as preparing the tools of Israel’s destruction: locusts, fire and the plummet line — followed by the fourth vision, where Amos himself declares that the keitz, the end, has come.
Oddly enough, this sequence finds resolution in the only vision found in the eschaton, in which God is standing atop the altar and commanding the building to shake. Though this vision is one of a relentless Divine hunt, arrest and presumably punishment, the hymn which concludes the vision serves to resolve itself along with the first four visions with an ultimate picture of Divine coronation and all that comes with that. The wicked ones distilled from the nation, His aguda, His band, is firmly planted on the earth.
SUMMATION AND JUDGMENT (8:4-10 - 9:13-15)
These final “pre-eschatology” verses reach back to the original diatribe and express final judgment, with the same “overturning” of the people expressed in Chapter 5 replaced by the inversion of holiday to mourning, using the verb hafokh. With the sun setting at midday and the light turning to dark, it is all too evocative of Egypt at the end of its rule over Israel.
In the epilogue, the seasons are now set right and the only thing being “turned over” is the earth, preparing for more planting. Instead of the sun setting at midday, the day is somehow long enough to complete all of the harvesting as the Land’s bounty is constant and overwhelming. The holidays had been turned to mourning; now they are turned back, with the festive juices and wines flowing, as it were, from the mountains themselves.
What we see in this thumbnail sketch of Amos’s literary presentation is how the eschaton speaks back to each unit in his book and, effectively, redeems the rebuke and raises the fallen nation. We have not addressed the internal sequence of the book; that will have to wait for another opportunity.
As promised numerous times over that past three years, I will write an addendum looking at the impact that Amos’s oratory has on later prophets, specifically Yirmeyahu. That will be the next and final shiur in Amos; after we break for the chagim, we will begin (at long last!) our study of Hoshea.
I wish you ketiva va-chatima tova and beriut eitana (strong health)!

[1] 8:11; I have added parenthetic notes to reflect our treatment of this prophecy, as outlined in Shiur #86.
[2] BT Sanhedrin 98b.
[3] I am omitting the narrative (7:10-17) as that is not part of the consideration of rhetorical sequence. As to why that interaction is placed between the third and fourth visions, we have addressed that in our shiurim.