notes on 7:10-17

Form
Language and Imagery
Narrative Poetics

Form

The only section of pure narrative in Amos, the story of the prophet's meeting with the priest of Bethel is told in the third person.

Much of the telling is taken up with Amos' oracle to Amaziah (vv.16-17). This leads some (e.g. Wolff, 308) to call the section an apophthegma claiming that the "historical episode is presented solely for the purpose of making intelligible a pointed prophetic oracle." Seen thus, this narrative is not really a narrative, but a saying with a long introduction.

Wolff's attention is predominantly on the concluding 2 verses. Most ordinary readers are less sophisticated, however, and focus on the puzzling claim, "I am no prophet!", on which the piece itself centers (v.14), and read the oracle as an, at first sight, puzzling conclusion.

In what follows I will assume that the narrative functions as narrative and not that it is merely an introduction for the oracle. So there will be a section on the "Narrative Poetics" of this passage following that on "Language and Imagery".

Language and Imagery

v.10

The Bethel temple

We are not told where the confrontation takes place, however the designation of Amaziah as "priest of Bethel" strongly suggests (and most readers will assume) the temple there as the location.

Amaziah designates the Bethel temple as "the king's sanctuary, a royal temple" (v.13) thus both stressing its national importance and unconsciously its purpose!

Bethel was a specially significant place, not only as one of two royal temples (outside the capital) in the Northern kingdom, but as the site of many patriarchal stories particularly of Jacob's vision (Gen 28:19).

As its priest (singular presumably not because this important sanctuary had only one, but because Amaziah is the chief) Amaziah held an important position in Israel and communicates directly with the king (7:10).

The message he sends accuses Amos of conspiring. This word, implying the concerted plotting of more than one person, suggests that Amos has attracted some following despite his harsh condemnation of Israel. (That his messages were remembered and recorded reinforces this notion.)

The heart of Israel's house might seem to refer to the temple itself - בֵּית is commonly used to speak of temples. However the phrase "house of Israel" always refers to the people.

I have rendered בְּקֶרֶב "in the heart of" (cf. NRSV "in the very center of") however it could simply imply that Amos is speaking directly to the people rather than through the authorities. In this case understand rather "Amos has conspired among the people of Israel".

It is not clear in what sense "the land cannot support all his words" unless we understand "land" as a reference to the state. The use of "all" suggests that one critical speech might be tolerated, but that Amos' continued preaching has gone too far.

v.11

Amaziah's accusation is interesting. At one level it is factually accurate. In his report to his master the priest accuses Amos of saying:

The combination of "exile" and death "by the sword" speaks of war and invasion. None of the other punishments mentioned or threatened by Amos are listed by Amaziah - since this is a report to the king he focuses only on the most evident issues of "national security".

At another level, however, Amaziah's report might suggest to a later reader that Amos' prophecy was not fulfilled, for Jeroboam did not "die by the sword". Nor had Amos declared that he would. Amos' words (reported in v.9) were that God would "rise against Jeroboam's house with the sword." This prophecy may be seen as fulfilled when the rule of Jeroboam's house is ended by Baasha's revolt and assassination of Nadab (Jeroboam's son).

Thus the wording of Amaziah's report suggests that he is not making a false accusation, yet also protects Amos' reputation as a true prophet. (This nuance suggests that the account of this confrontation was composed some time after the event - indeed after Nadab's death.)

v.12

"Seer" is a Judean word for "prophet". Amaziah seems to recognize Amos' professional status and rights, but not in Bethel. By choosing this word he may be underlining that Amos is an outsider (Garcia-Treto).

The combination of "go" with "run away" is less unusual in Hebrew than it may seem in English, however Amaziah is strongly but politely urging Amos to be off before the king sends to arrest him. His desire to help Amos is underlined (from his point of view) by his suggestion that Amos will not lack for employment ("earn your bread") as a prophet ("act the prophet") in neighboring Judah.

v.13

Amos, however, must cease "prophesying" in Bethel. The reason is clear, Bethel belongs to the "king", it is a "royal" building.

The founder of the Northern Kingdom (the first Jeroboam) had made Bethel a royal sanctuary (1 Kings 12:28-32) and this status persisted.

Interesting intertextual effects link Amos' story with the one that follows Jeroboam's consecration of priests in Bethel in 1 Kings.

vv.14-15

Amos' reply to Amaziah is perhaps discussed more by scholars than any other words in the book. He says: "I am no prophet" in the very next verse however he recalls Adonai saying to him: "Go, prophesy to my people Israel!"

What is going on? One solution is to translate Amos' denial as a past tense. Since the Hebrew here has no verb (the verb 'to be' is usually not expressed in Hebrew) this seems to pose no problem. Although it would be more natural to understand the verbless: "No prophet me!" as present, reading it as a past is possible. In this case Amos is saying:

I was not a prophet...,
I was a herdsman...,
but Adonai took me... and said:
go, be a prophet...

This fits well with the evident fact that Amos is not denying that he is a prophet. However by making his "I am no prophet!" into its opposite it suggests that Amaziah has denied this, for Amos is stressing that although he was not a prophet, but a herdsman etc. now he is a prophet.

However if Amos does not deny being a prophet, neither does Amaziah (he calls him "seer" v.12, and says "act the prophet in Judah" "do not prophesy in Bethel" v.13).

One clue lies in the second part of Amos' denial. Literally he says: "no son-of-a-prophet me". The phrase "son-of-a-prophet" never in the Bible refers to a prophet's child. It always speaks of the members of bands who went around "prophesying" together. One such group was attached to Elisha (2 Kgs 4:38; 6:1; 9:1). It is because of this usage that I have translated the phrase "no member of the prophet's guild", for this is what Amos denies here.

In fact the conflict between Amos and Amaziah is about what it means to be a prophet. For Amaziah such religious people are professionals, entitled to earn their bread (v.12b) only they must choose to operate in appropriate places and not offend their sponsors (v.13).

For Amos, a prophet is called by God from some other work (vv.14b-15a) and commanded to speak (v.15), as messenger the prophet has no choice where to preach or of the message to proclaim (3:8b).

Amos says he is a "herdsman" by trade (in 1:1 a similar statement was made). These descriptions do not make his social position clear.

It is quite evident, however, that Amos prophetizes at Adonai's command. He was "taken" from "following the flock" and commanded "go, prophesy".

v.16

Amos' reply to Amaziah ends with an oracle. This is introduced by a typical messenger formula "hear Adonai's message" and follows the typical structure of a judgment speech.

"You say, do not prophesy against Israel" this is the intent of Amaziah's words, though Amos is less careful than the priest to quote exactly what the other in fact said.

"Isaac" makes a further link between this narrative and the preceding visions, for the only other mention of this patriarch was in v.9 (while Joseph is mentioned three times 5:6, 15; 6:6 and Jacob on six occasions 3:13; 6:8; 7:2, 5; 8:7; 9:8).

v.17

Amos' oracle to Amaziah must have shocked the priest. He had tried to save Amos' life, or at least his freedom and employment, but is told "Your wife shall whore in the city"!

As the speech continues he learns that this is a consequence of war and invasion which will annihilate the family ("sons & daughters fall by the sword") and see him exiled.

Notice that the events Amos describes fall without discrimination. Amaziah's wife is not involved in their conflict, yet she suffers worse than her husband.

Notice that Amos mentions the loss of (ancestral, therefore God-given) land and death in an impure land as the direct consequences for Amaziah. This priest who is unwilling to hear "Adonai's word" will lose the promised land which is the sign of the covenant, and will be defiled at his death. (Again the punishment "fits the crime".)

Narrative Poetics of 7:10-17


 

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