Shiur #85: The Prophecies of Amos: DAY OF DOOM

  • Rav Yitzchak Etshalom
THE SEARCH (verses 12-13)
In last week’s shiur, we began our study of Amos’s end-of-days scenario, which includes God’s sending a famine to the land (the Land of Israel? the earth?): “not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, rather [a thirst] for the word of God” (verse 11). The next two verses present the consequences of that anticipated hunger/ thirst for God’s word. We will address these two verses here. In next week’s shiur, we will revisit the standard translation of v. 11 and propose an alternative reading which significantly impacts on our understanding of this prophecy.
Vena’u mi-yam ad yam
They shall wander from sea to sea,
Who will wander and who will run to and fro? The undefined subject here would imply a broad or all-encompassing movement — to wit: “everyone will wander; all will run to and fro, seeking God’s word.” However, the next verse may help focus on (or limit) the group of wanderers. We will address the possible meanings of “mi-yam ad yam” below, within the larger question of the reach of this prophecy.
The root nun-vav-ayin (translated here as “wander”) is perhaps best known to us from the punishment meted out to Kayin for his crime of fratricide:
Na va-nad tihyeh va-aretz
You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth (Bereishit 4:12)
In this usage, noa generates a sense of aimlessness – Kayin isn’t going anywhere specific, he is just exiled.
In some cases, the verb takes on a particularly undisciplined sense of movement. In Tehillim 107, for instance, the sailors who cannot control their storm-tossed ship are described as staggering like drunkards (v. 27):
Yachogu ve-yanu’u ka-shikor ve-khol chokhmatam titbala
They reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits' end.
This sense of “staggering” is perhaps most clearly used by Yeshayahu:
Noa tanua eretz ka-shikor vehitnodeda ka-meluna vekhaved aleha pishah venafela ve-lo tosif kum
The earth will stagger around like a drunk; it will sway back and forth like a hut in a windstorm. Its sin will weigh it down, and it will fall and never get up again. (Yeshayahu 24:20)
It would be difficult to read our “wandering” as aimless, insofar as the entire purpose of their movement is to find God’s word; “reeling” or “staggering” might fit better, as we will see further on.
U-mitzafon ve-ad mizrach
And from north to east;
The “north” in prophetic rhetoric is often an allusion to Mesopotamia (see, e.g. Yirmeyahu 1:13-15). That does make mizrach (east, literally the direction where the sun rises) a bit puzzling — does this mean that people will wander to Jordan, looking for God’s word? A more reasonable approach would be to assume these directions as being boundaries of the Land, within which seeking God’s word is a “reasonable” search. It would mean that they would search from the northern boundary of the Land (Chamat?) and to the eastern border (the Jordan River? Jericho?). That may help us understand the previous clause, “mi-yam ad yam,” “from sea to sea.” ibn Ezra explains:
They will travel from the Reed Sea, which is south of the Land of Israel, to the Great (Mediterranean) Sea at the setting of the sun (i.e. west).
Radak favorably quotes ibn Ezra and adds:
[Amos] mentions the four directions; behold, in the Land of Israel they will not find words of prophecy, all the more so outside of the Land during days of exile.
There are, however, several problems with understanding one of the “seas” as the Reed Sea, Yam Suf. First of all, it is never referenced as a border of Israel — the southern border (in the expanded version of Bereishit 15) is the “River of Egypt” (Nehar Mitzrayim or Nachal Mitzrayim), regarding which there are a number of well-respected opinions (the Nile Delta, Wadi El-Arish among others). Secondly, the south is not typically mentioned as a direction of wandering; when the intent is Egypt, that country is explicitly identified (e.g. Yeshayahu 27:13). When the psalmist speaks to the (anticipated) ingathered exiles (Tehillim 107:2-3), he omits the south, mentioning the west twice (yam [seaward, i.e. to the Mediterranean] and ma’arav [to the direction where the sun sets]).
Finally, and most significantly, the phrase mi-yam ad yam appears in two other places in Tanakh; and in both of those passages, the meaning is almost assuredly a metaphorical way of indicating “everywhere” and not specifically pointing to any delineated body of water:
Veyeird mi-yam ad yam u-minahar ad afsei aretz
He will rule from sea to sea and from the river until the ends of the earth (Tehillim 72:8)
Commentators are divided as to whether this psalm describes (in hopeful/ prayerful terms) the rule of Shelomo, as per the superscription (72:1, li-Shlomo) or if it anticipates the Messianic ruler. (See ibn Ezra and Radak at 72:1 and throughout the rest of the psalm.)
The other mention of mi-yam ad yam is surely helpful here and would seem to favor the Messianic interpretation of the phrase in this psalm:
Gili me’od bat Tziyon, hari’i bat Yerushalayim,
Hinei malkeikh yavo lakh, tzadik ve-nosha hu
Ani ve-rokheiv al chamor ve-al ayir ben atonot
Vehikhrati rekhev mei-Efrayim ve-sus mi-Yrushalayim
Venikhreta keshet milchama
Vedibber shalom la-goyim
Umoshelo mi-yam ad yam
U-minahar ad afsei aretz
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of jennets.
I will cut off the chariot from Efrayim and the war horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be cut off,
And he shall command peace to the nations;
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
And from the river to the ends of the earth. (Zekharya 9:9-10).
This prophecy is certainly Messianic. As I have argued earlier, this section of Zekharya dates to Amos’s period, which may impact on our understanding of the phrase in Amos. We cannot properly date Tehillim 72, but if we ascribe it to David (dedicated to his son upon taking the throne; see ibn Ezra’s first approach at 72:1), this may be the “source-text” from which both Amos and Zekharya, sharing the spirit of eschatological longing and anticipation, borrow the image. (Conversely, if the psalm is later, it would have likely taken the phrase from Zekharya).
Prof. Meir Weiss (see For “Further Study”) cites Prof. Y. A. Zeligman’s suggestion that the phrase “mi-yam ad yam u-minahar ad-afsei-aretz” may be Mesopotamian in origin, a poetic way of saying “to the four corners of the earth”. His suggestion is that the original intent of yam ad yam is the Mediterranean (seen as the westernmost border of land within the potential empire) to the Persian Gulf. In any case, “the river” in Tanakh invariably alludes to the Euphrates (see inter alii Yehoshua 24:2, Bereishit 15:18) and “the ends of the earth” likely extends northwest into Aram (modern day Syria/ Turkey. Alternatively, as Gressman[1] argues, “the river” is the central point and “the ends of the earth” radiate out in every direction as far as can be imagined.
As such, we seem to be better served by understanding mi-yam ad yam as a poetic manner of expressing “everywhere” or “the four corners of the earth,” among other Biblical means of expressing “everywhere.” Therefore, we would read our passage as prognosticating an omnidirectional (as opposed to strictly quadridirectional) search for the word of God. Whether this search stretches from one end of the Land to the other or to all ends of the earth is something we will need to address after we have analyzed the entire prophecy. The fundamental question which needs to be resolved in order to define the geographical borders of the search is this: is this passage essentially a particularistic Jewish eschaton or a universal one? We will pick this broader issue up below.
Yeshotetu le-vakesh et devar Hashem
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
Ve-lo yimtza’u
but they shall not find it.
The verb shin-tet-tet here is presented as the parallel to noa, which we analyzed above. The words, however, are not synonymous. The verb shotet, attested to in one form or another seventeen times in Tanakh, generally takes on a meaning of “search,” more like “search high and low.” For instance, Yirmeyahu challenges his audience:
Shotetu be-chutzot Yerushalayim u-ru na u-du u-vakshu vi-rchovoteha im timtze’u ish im yeish oseh mishpat mevakesh emuna va’eslach lah
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth; that I may pardon her. (Yirmeyahu 5:1)
Similarly, when David sends Yoav on the ill-advised mission to take an unwarranted census of the army, he commands his chief of staff:
Shut na be-khol shivtei Yisrael mi-Dan ve-ad Be’er Sheva u-fikdu et-ha-am veyadati et mispar ha-am
…"Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people." (II Shemuel 24:2)
Indeed, this is what they do:
Vayashutu be-khol ha-aretz…
So when they had gone through all the land… (ibid. v. 8)
At first blush, it would seem that our descriptors are operating against each other. Is the wandering going to be aimless, staggering like a drunkard — or a focused search mission to find the word of God? This tension may lie at the heart of the prophecy, once we get a clearer picture of its intent. We will discuss this further in next week’s shiur.
The matched verbs bet-kuf-shin and mem-tzadi-alef (“seek” and “find” respectively) are common in Tanakh, both in the sense of looking for an item (Shaul goes out “le-vakesh” his father’s donkeys; he is informed that “nimtza’u,” they have already been found in I Shemuel 10:2) as well as seeking information (the allegations against Bigtan and Teresh are investigated, “vayvukash ha-davar,” and are found to be true, “vayimatzei”). These two meanings coalesce in the passage from Yirmeyahu 5 cited above:
Shotetu be-chutzot Yerushalayim u-ru na u-du u-vakshu vi-rchovoteha im timtze’u ish im yeish oseh mishpat mevakesh emuna va’eslach lah.
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth; that I may pardon her.
This pair of verbs is also used in the context of seeking God. Hoshea prophesizes, in an image that resonates with our prophecy all too well:
Be-tzonam u-vivkaram yelekhu le-vakesh et Hashem ve-lo yimtza’uchalatz mei-hem.
With their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the LORD, but they will not find Him; He has withdrawn from them. (Hoshea 10:6)
Just as in our vision, they will go to seek Hashem but will not find Him.
This usage seems to be anchored in the hopeful turn in the frightening warning of Moshe regarding exile:
Uvikashtem mi-sham et Hashem Elokekha umatzata ki tidreshenu be-khol levavekha u-vkhol nafshekha
But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 4:29)
Reading our vision (and that of Hoshea, above) in the light of Devarim, are we to conclude that those seeking God and not finding Him are failing due to their lack of focus — they are not seeking God with all of their heart and all of their soul? Or are we to take a hint from Hoshea’s words and presume that things have gotten appreciably worse than the prophecy of Devarim and God has, indeed, “abandoned” the people and will not be found by them no matter how straight and intense their desire? Whereas Hoshea’s vision seems to lean towards the latter (“chalatz mei-hem”), a correct reading of Amos’s eschaton hangs in the balance.
Ba-yom ha-hu titalafna ha-betulot ha-yafot
On that day, the beautiful maidens will faint
Ve-habachurim ba-tzama
And the young men [will faint] from thirst
The verb hitalef (in the reflexive) appears (in all forms) five times in Tanakh; its basic meaning is “to be completely covered,” as in Shir Ha-shirim 5:14’s “me’ulefet sapirim,” “overlaid with sapphires.” In all other mentions, however, it takes on the (borrowed?) meaning of “being so covered as to have one’s senses obscured” (BDB) — or to “swoon away.”
Even though, using forward gapping, both the maidens and the young men are described with this verb, it takes on the feminine conjugation, titalafna (as opposed to yitalefu) — despite the general rule in Hebrew grammar that a mixed group assumes the masculine conjugation. The simple explanation of this is that because the betulot are mentioned first and the verb is elided in the context of the bachurim, the feminine verb is used.[2] Beyond this, it is likely because, as we will see below, the impact of the young women suffering thus is a more painful image
The bachur (young man) and betula (literally “virgin;” but in these usages, typically “young maiden”) are a common enough pair in Tanakh. Sometimes they are one half of a couplet with the aging/ infant pair as part of a merismus, indicating that all will be affected:
Gam bachur gam betula, yoneik im ish seiva
Both young man and young woman, suckling and elderly man. (Devarim 32:25)
In several places, like ours, only the young are mentioned — 
…shimu na kol ha-amim u-ru makhovi, betulotai u-vachurai halekhu ba-shevi
…but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my maidens and my young men have gone into captivity. (Eikha 1:18)
There is a particularly painful image, seeing the young men, vital and robust, with their whole lives ahead of them, being taken into captivity. It is specifically the tarnishing of physical beauty which underscores the pain of defeat.
It is perhaps significant that when these two appear as part of a larger all-encompassing grouping,[3] the bachur is mentioned first. On the other hand, when only these two are mentioned, highlighting either the boundless joy of youth or the epic tragedy of young lives taken, the betulot appear first. Such is the case in Eikha 1:18[4] and such is the case in our passage. This is likely because these passages are not about an all-inclusive web; rather they highlight the impact of seeing the robust youth in their celebration or the tragic upheaval of devastation. This is most clearly highlighted among the betulot. They are likely referred to that way (as opposed to ne’arot or almot) as it highlights either the promise of impending marriage and family — or the painful extinguishment of that bright future.
As this is the case, since our “famine” is a dearth of God’s word and the hunger is intellectual/ spiritual — why highlight the young men and women?
Radak addresses this oddity and proposes that
Even the young maidens and young men who are generally engaged in worldly pleasures will have such a thirst for the word of God in order to hear it, for the long time that it has been deprived from them, that they will greatly lust for it.
This fits with Radak’s overall approach to this vision (mentioned above) that the envisioned “famine” is to take place with the cessation of prophecy, during the Second Commonwealth.
Since we have taken the path of the midrashim that this vision is eschatological, it cannot refer to a cessation of prophecy; rather, something else is meant by devar Hashem. If we were to imprint Radak’s approach onto the vision as we see it, it would mean that suddenly people in the prime of their youth would search wide and far for God’s word and, unable to find it, would become faint from this thirst.
(Note: several observers of the “seeking” impulses of the 1960’s culture which led many young Jews to the Far East and other exotic places like to point to our vision as being realized in the late twentieth century. Besides the fact that this “seeking” was short-lived, by and large with disastrous results, and that it was in no means confined to the Jewish community, there are numerous other reasons to reject this identification. A more detailed rejoinder belongs to a paper on Jewish sociology, not here).
Indeed, the imagery here is graphic to a point where we seem to have lost sight of the search. No matter how far we want to take the parable of Torah as water and the word of God as nourishment, describing specifically young men and women as fainting from hunger and thirst is contextually discordant. It seems that the prophet himself is seeking the words and cannot find them — he seems to be like the “wanderer” who has lost his way. This is, of course, not the case: it is we who have not followed him accurately.
This conundrum seems to be the reason that Paul (in Mikra Le-Yisrael) separates this verse from the previous two and sees verses 11-12 as a vision about a thirst for God; verses 13-14 are, for him, a distinct prophecy about a literal thirst that will leave the young people swooning and fainting. I don’t think that this sectioning off is necessary or even recommended.
In the next shiur, I will suggest a different approach to this prophecy and vision, keeping all four verses within one piece (as the Masoretic apportioning indicates) and solving the fainting of the young beautiful maidens and the young men.
“Mi-yam ad yam
Meir Weiss, The Bible and Modern Literary Theory [Heb.: Ha-mikra Ki-dmuto] (Jerusalem: 1987), pp. 180-186.

[1] See Weiss ibid. fn. 7
[2] See e.g. Bereishit 33:7.
[3] E.g. Yirmeyahu 51:20, Tehillim 78:63-64
[4] A careful reading of Eikha 2:21 leads to the same result: the elders and youths starve “ba-chutzot,” whereas “betulotai u-vachurai” are slaughtered and die by the sword.