Amos was the earliest of the literary prophets of the Old Testament, lived in the middle of the 8th century B.C. The book that bears his name is placed among those of the so-called "minor prophets" merely on account of its brevity (only 9 chapters), but the influence of his personality and message was greater than that of any of his successors.
According to the notice that now introduces the collection of his poems and sermons (Amos 1:1), Amos originated "from among the herdsmen of Tekoa," a mountaintop village in Judah, situated a few miles southeast of Bethlehem, just "between the desert and the sown." He migrated seasonally to the more fertile territory of Ephraim, in the northern Kingdom of Israel, where he earned his living as a tender of sycamore trees. He was therefore a southern, destitute, semi-nomadic "layman," not a member of the prophetic guilds (I Kings 22:6 ff.). He even refused to be called a prophet, but he admitted that he had received a compelling call to "prophesy" to his economically prosperous contemporaries of the northern state (Amos 7:14-15).
In a series of visions that probably took place from the late spring to the late summer of the year 751 or 750 B.C. (Amos 7:1-9; 8:1-3; 9:1-4), Amos slowly and reluctantly came to accept the conviction that the covenanted people was soon to be annihilated, despite its claim to deserve perpetual protection from God, who had brought it into historical existence through the exodus from Egypt. He attributed the impending destruction to the verdict of Yahweh of Hosts, the creator and sovereign ruler of nature, the righteous judge of history (Amos 3:1-2; 5:2 ff.). Such a message reveals an astound-ingly bold conception of the godhead and a new conception of the relationship between religion and ethics.
Concept of God
Amos did not deny the popular belief that Israel stood in a relation of peculiar intimacy with the God of the covenant (Amos 3:2). But he asserted that the Hebrew awareness of national election created a nobility of mission and an urgency of obligation that could not be divorced from the privilege involved. Furthermore, he extended to its extreme conclusion the universalism that was inherent in the ancient faith (Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 19:4-6), maintaining that not only Israel but all the nations of the earth were the object of divine solicitude and judgment (Amos 9:7; 1:3 to 2:3). This would include Israel's close neighbors and bitter enemies such as the Philistines in the southwest and the Syrians in the northeast, as well as racially different and almost unknown peoples like the Ethiopians in the distant south. These views constitute in effect the first concrete (although not fully explicit) formulation of ethical monotheism in the history of civilization.
The high concern for social justice that characterized the religion of Moses and of the Hebrew ancestors in the wilderness period (14th century B.C.) underwent a slow process of disintegration when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan and gradually abandoned nomadic and tribal patterns in favor of a sedentary, agricultural, and commercial form of society. This sociological evolution produced economic inequalities and consequently gave rise to a sharp class distinction between wealthy landowners, traders, and even speculators in commodities, on the one hand, and, on the other, landless laborers and dispossessed farmers who were sometimes even sold into slavery for debt failure. Amos stood in the line of Hebrew reformers, like the legislators of the Code of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 to 23:19) or the prophets Nathan (II Samuel 12:1 ff.) and Elijah (I Kings 21:1 ff.); but he went further than any of his predecessors in denouncing social injustice (Amos 2:6-8; 4:1 ff.; 6:1 ff.) More specifically, he proclaimed for the first time in the history of religions that the observance of a ritual is in itself of no significance whatever, unless it be the expression of the worshipers' dedication to moral integrity and respect for the social needs of the community as a whole (Amos 5:4 ff.). This attitude is nowhere more graphically revealed than in the oracle (spoken in the name of deity in the first person singular) which sums up the prophet's teaching:
Take thou away from me the noise of songs; for I will not hear the melody of the viols.
But let judgment roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:23-24)