Amos (active 8th century B.C.), the first of the literary prophets of ancient Israel, was the author of the biblical book bearing his name.
Amos was born in the Judean town of Tekoa, near modern Bethlehem, Israel. His activities probably took place during the reign of Uzziah, also called Azariah, King of Judah (reigned 783-742 B.C.), and Jeroboam II, King of Israel (reigned 786-745).
In his youth Amos was a shepherd. As a young man he tells of having received a divine commandment to go to the Israelite shrine at Bethel. Once there, he proceeded to fulminate against the popular errors of his day and was ousted by the head priest, Amaziah. Apparently, Amos was a prophet for only a short time, and he did not write down his prophetic messages and utterances. At that time, oracles such as those of Amos were preserved in an oral tradition; that is, they were transmitted by spoken word among Temple circles at Jerusalem. Amos's prophecies were probably written down before the kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.
His oracles are preserved in the biblical book of Amos, which is traditionally placed at the beginning of the Twelve Minor Prophets. Chronologically Amos is the earliest of these prophets, and his book offered a pattern for later prophetic books. The nine chapters are written in a poetic style with a prose introduction. They contain three kinds of composition: oracles telling of impending doom against Judah, Israel, and the neighboring peoples; a brief description of the life of the prophet; and a few verses that scholars generally agree are later additions.
Amos was particularly preoccupied with the moral corruption of his generation and their theological misconceptions. He denounced the corrupt aristocracy and its total neglect of the poor. He criticized those who made sacrifices to God but hypocritically neglected the moral law. He inveighed against those who presumed that they need give no accounting to God for their actions because they were His Chosen People. Above all, Amos shocked his contemporaries by dissociating his message and work from the prophets of his day and by foretelling doom and destruction for Israel. As a counterbalance to this apocalyptic message, Amos also predicted the restoration of the Davidic kingdom and the return of the Exiles. It is at this point that one can find a universalism in Amos which appears again for the first time in vivid form in the writings of Deutero-Isaiah. The God of Amos was not limited to one nation.
Amos has always been important in both Jewish and Christian theology and beliefs. The Talmud (Makkot 24a) states that all 613 commandments of Judaism are contained in one admonition of Amos: "Seek Me and live." Amos is quoted in the New Testament and by the early Christian Church Fathers, who interpreted him as prophesying the doom of Judaism and the rise of Christianity.
Further Reading on Amos
Discussions of Amos include R. S. Cripps, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Amos (1929; 2d ed. 1955); Julian Morgenstern, Amos Studies, vol. 1 (1941); Arvid S. Kapelrud, Central Ideas in Amos (1956); Norman H. Snaith, Amos, Hosea, and Micah (1956); John D. W. Watts, Vision and Prophecy in Amos (1958); and James M. Ward, Amos and Isaiah: Prophets of the Word of God (1969). Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (1962), devotes a chapter to Amos. Background information is in Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (1957; 2d ed. 1966).