Amos and Amaziah: a closer look at Amos 7:10-17

In the 7th chapter of Amos, strategically tucked between his 3rd and 4th visions, we find an account of a brief confrontation between Amaziah “the priest of Bethel” and Amos of Tekoa the 8th Century (BCE) prophet. In searching for a narrative, we find that the compliers of this book have left us only a small number of concrete clues. We do not find a time frame, setting, or resolution to the conflict, though some things may be inferred. From the text we know that Jeroboam is King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel at the time, and that Amaziah is stationed at Bethel, (v. 10) so we might assume that the confrontation takes place in that city. This makes sense as Amos is a southerner and Bethel is only about 10 miles north of the Judean capital of Jerusalem. In actuality, this is all of the textual setting we have. The text is as follows:

 10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
    

and Israel must go into exile
    

away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

16        “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.


You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
    

and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

17        Therefore thus says the Lord:


‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
    

and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    

and your land shall be parceled out by line;


you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    

and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

(NRSV)

            Many scholars maintain that due to the brief nature of this episode and its conclusion with an oracle against Amaziah the primary character in the passage is Amaziah himself and not Amos. Thus a prophecy against Amaziah would align him with the Kingdom of Israel and King Jeroboam and would continue the trajectory of the visions in which it is embedded. Wolff writes

“Once it is acknowledged that Amaziah, and not Amos, is the focus of the story, there is no longer cause to misunderstand it as a fragment of some prophetic biography. Instead we must recognize here the clear form of an apophthegma (memorabile), in which an historical episode is presented solely for the purpose of making intelligible a pointed prophetic oracle by explaining the circumstances of its origin”[1]

Perhaps then, as we think deeply about what this passage has to say to us, we must first take a look at Amaziah. Who was “the priest of Bethel”? What would it mean to be a priest at a prominent sanctuary of the king in the 8th century BCE? I will argue that we can deduce from scripture, archaeology, and other scholarship that Amaziah was in an intentional and beneficial allegiance to the king and the kingdom, that the temple structure and those that worked in it are part of a millennia’s long tradition of comingling the power of the state and religious leaders, and that this has deep implications for how we think about God and God’s action in the world.

            First, Who was Amaziah? Not much is revealed to us in the text. We learn only that he is “the priest of bethel.” (v. 10) Yet, when we put Amaziah in a social and historical location, taking into account the words attributed to him, we can discern who this priest might have been. It is likely that Amaziah performed normal priestly rituals and oversaw the care and life of the temple at Bethel. As Wolff notes, “Apparently the priest Amaziah was charged with supervisory functions at the state sanctuary (cf. Jer 20:1-2 and 29:26).”1 This most likely gave Amaziah some power over not only people working in the temple, but also those who came to worship there. “Although he is only described as the “priest of Bethel” it seems clear that Amaziah is the priest in charge of the shrine at Bethel,”[2] and as such he is given a great deal of authority and influence over what goes on within the city itself.   

We note Amaziah’s apparent authority to expel Amos from the city (vv. 12-13) and his direct message to King Jeroboam, (vv. 10-11) and we are given the image of a priest with authority and status in the temple-palace complex. The temple-palace complex was truly the seat of power for any nation in the ANE. It held leaders and meeting places for commerce, religion, and war. “The temple-palace complex was the central, organizing, unifying institution in the ANE. It not only legitimated the political role of the king but was central to the economic structure of the state (1 Kings 5-9).”[3] As such, the temple and the royal palace in the ancient Near East are inextricably reliant on one another. It seems that the temple gives authority to the king while the king gives authority to the temple.

            With the influence and authority of such a priest in mind, let us briefly look at the way Amaziah would have fit into an ancient Near Eastern trend of temple workers who report prophecy to the king. “The shrine at Bethel was…directly identified as the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom. Amaziah…the official representative of the state priesthood”[4], and we could draw a direct line between Amaziah’s report to the king, and the prophetic reporting of many temple officials in the centuries before him. We know from the documents found at Mari (ca. 1792-1760 BCE) and Neo-Assyrian texts found at Nineveh (ca. 681-627 BCE) that prophetic activity seemed to center around the king and the welfare of the kingdom.[5] This is most likely due to the ANE view that kings were children of the gods and their welfare depended largely on the gods’ favor. Some kings obsessively concerned themselves with the collection of prophetic oracles, especially from prophets whose words had proven true in the past.

We have records of one messenger of Mari, Nur-Suen, exasperatedly reporting to have written the king concerning a particular oracle, claiming “he has already written about it ‘once, twice, even five times,’ indicating the seriousness with which he took his duties to report it to the king.”[6] Often in the ANE priests, prophets, and other temple personnel were hired and supported by the king and lived in and around the Temple-Palace complex. From Assyria all the way to Egypt, it seems “the distinction between priests and royal officials was often blurred. It was not unknown for a high priest to be appointed vizier by the Pharaoh, or vice versa.”[7] Thus it would not be out of the ordinary for Amaziah to view himself as a bureaucrat who directly reported religious and prophetic activity to the king. We even get the sense in verse 13 that Amaziah views the temple as a political place, at least as much if not more than a holy one. Rather than referring to the temple as a temple of YHWH, or of Ba’al, or of anything in the spiritual realm, he refers to it as “the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (v. 13)

             Amaziah would not have been merely a beneficiary of status due to a royal appointment, he also would most likely have been intricately involved in stately decision making, administration, and even “commander of the temple guard.”2 As Gomes points out, “The priest Pashur was designated as… ‘chief guardsman’ in Jer. 20:1-3 (cf. Jer. 37:13). Indeed, Amaziah does not appear in the passage as priest, he is nowhere seen offering sacrifices. It is his role as guardian of the king’s interests that is emphasized.”2 There is little doubt that “Amaziah does have influence in the decision-making process of the state.”[8] Of course with such a little information to inform us about Amaziah, we may not need to go so far as to doubt that Amaziah performed sacrifices and other priestly functions; however, Gomes’ point that here that we see Amaziah as defender of the king and with the mindset of a guardsman opens our eyes to the powerful position that Amaziah holds.

            Amaziah, then, from his position of temple authority, says to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there” (v. 12). This alludes to what we know of many prophets in the 8th century BCE. Often prophets would work in the temples and send messages to kings from their respective gods.[9] Generally these prophets would earn their bread or make a living from wages given them for their prophecies. We see evidence of such payment of prophets in 1 Kings 17:8-16 with Elijah and the Widow of Zerephath. Thus, what we hear from Amaziah in v. 12 clues us in to two important things. One, Amaziah views Amos as a “seer”, or a visionary prophet. It makes sense then why we find this story placed among the visions of Amos. Second, it reveals that Amaziah believes that Amos is a prophet who earns his living by his prophecy.  Amaziah initially thinks that Amos is a part of the same elite temple structure with which Amaziah is so familiar, and urges him to return to his home and make his living with his own people.

            In making this demand of Amos, we have already identified Amaziah’s royal allegiance. He refers to Bethel as the king’s sanctuary partly to show Amos where it is that his authority comes from. Amos then, in his response gives a different referent for his authority and allegiance. As Jeremias establishes in his commentary on Amos:

“The complexity of these discourses derives from the fact that the two dialogue partners are not really being portrayed in their mutual reactions to the actual course of this dispute, but rather in connection with the authority in whose name and commission they are acting in the first place… Both speakers cite their dialogue partner either literally or substantively to their respective superiors (vv. 11, 16). Through these artistic devices, the narrator manages from the very beginning to juxtapose – in the figures of the priest Amaziah and the prophet Amos – state interest on the one hand, and the divine will on the other.”[10]

It is clear then why we would find Amos implicating Amaziah along with the house of Jeroboam and the elite of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amaziah is in a clearly intentional and beneficial allegiance to the king and the kingdom against whom Amos is prophesying.

            Furthermore, we find Amaziah in a system designed to use prophets and prophesy as a way to uphold a monarchical structure and to support the kingship.  This is a system long standing, ancient already in fact by the time we read of it in the 8th century BCE. “Amos vii 10-17 presupposes a royal attitude toward prophecy consistent with the picture from Israel’s larger ancient Near Eastern context.”[11] Amos’ oracle against Amaziah comes from someone outside the presupposed structure of temple prophecy and thus subverts the system that Amaziah himself is trying to maintain by his actions. “In his capacity as a priest, Amaziah informs Jeroboam II of prophetic activity that he has witnessed at Bethel, much as the priest Ahum had done for Zimri-Lim centuries earlier at Mari. Amaziah’s actions should be regarded as those of a state official.”[12] Due to the placement of this dialogue within the book of Amos, the historical location and words of Amaziah, and what we know of temple-palace prophets in the ANE, we can now take an informed look at Amos’ response to Amaziah.

            Amos’ first words contain a resounding notion that, I believe, must have stricken worry and panic, if not terror, in the ears of Amaziah. “I am no prophet,” he says, “nor am I a prophet’s son,” or else a prophet’s disciple or a prophet in training (v. 14).  Amaziah assumes that Amos is a part of an established temple structure, and thus could be easily dismissed; yet Amos insists that not only is he not in that club, but that God has sent him first hand with a message to the system in place.

            In response to Amaziah’s assertion that Amos could go back south and earn a living as a prophet, Amos rejects this notion by saying that he is already well established as a “herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (v. 14). This suggests that not only is Amos not a part of the temple system, but that he doesn’t need to be in Bethel saying these things. He is only here at the instruction of YHWH. A notion which would be extremely unnerving to someone in Amaziah’s position, one which places so much trust on the kingdom and its systems.

            Amos then moves to an oracle of destruction against Amaziah, his family, his land, and exile for the people of Israel.  He continues themes of earlier destruction against the house of Jeroboam and the kingdom, yet now applies them directly to Amaziah. Amos asserts in these lines that God has said that the destruction that is coming to the northern kingdom will specifically come to Amaziah and his family. Dying by the sword, becoming a prostitute in the city, having ancestral lands parceled out to your enemies; these are all consequences of destruction by an invading and conquering army. We know that the Neo-Assyrian army comes from the north and the northern kingdom of Israel falls in 722, so it would seem that Amos’ prophecy was accurate.

            In all, I think Amos interaction with Amaziah in these verses can serve to give us a fuller understanding of his prophecy as a whole. “Amos sees Amaziah implicated in the power structures of his day. He senses that he is siding with the establishment (7:16) and pronounces judgment by denying the Bethel priesthood a future at the central sanctuary (7:17).”[13] Through this conflict the narrator has given us glimpse into perhaps the core of Amos’ message: “Wherever king and priest as representatives of the state determine the degree to which both they and their subjects are to accept the word of God, God… stipulates the end of this state, which is no longer acceptable to [God].”[14]

            Finally, what does this tell us about God? A vast number of things, I am sure. But perhaps the most pointed thing here is that God will find a way around the structures we build.  We find in this passage a God who will find loopholes and go-betweens in our societal structures and will use them to speak truth to power. For as we know, “It is hard to speak the truth to power when enjoying the privileges of power.”[15] It is my conviction that theopolitical structures such as courts and churches will always have their ideas of justice muddled by power, culture, and privilege. Amos, I believe, would have much to say to a justice system whose laws keep an entire class of people in systems of recidivism. Amos, I believe, would have much to say to churches who spend more time and energy maintaining their own buildings and budgets than to serving those around them.  Amos, I believe, would have much to say to nations and companies who hoard land and exploit workers for the sake of a profit margin. In Amos we see God making a way to speak truth to power structures, holding them accountable for the ways they attempt to silence or dilute God. Perhaps a close reading of this text will open our eyes to the ways we use our privilege and power to silence or expel those who buck our systems.  We can rest assured, however, that God will make a way to send Word to those who need to hear it. May our ears be ever open.

 


[1] Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos: A Commentary On the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos, ed. and trans. S Dean McBride (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 308-10.

[2] Bruce C. Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 1997), 238.

[3] David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 5 (Downers Grove, IL: Anchor Bible, 1992), 49.

[4] Shalom M. Paul, Amos: a Commentary On the Book of Amos, ed. Frank Moore Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Pr, 1991), 239.

[5] see: Martti Nissinen with contributions by C.L. Seow and Robert K. Ritner, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, ed. Peter Machinist (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)

[6] Blake J. Couey, “Amos vii 10-17 and royal attitudes toward prophecy in the ancient Near East.” Vetus Testamentum 58, no. 3 (January 1, 2008): 300-314. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 16, 2014), 303.

[7] Gomes, J F. The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2006, 155-6.

[8] Gomes, J F. The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2006, 156.

[9] see: Martti Nissinen with contributions by C.L. Seow and Robert K. Ritner, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, ed. Peter Machinist (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)

[10] Jörg Jeremias, The Book of Amos: a Commentary, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 137-38.

[11] Blake J. Couey, “Amos vii 10-17 and royal attitudes toward prophecy in the ancient Near East.” Vetus Testamentum 58, no. 3 (January 1, 2008): 300-314. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 16, 2014), 312.

[12] Blake J. Couey, “Amos vii 10-17 and royal attitudes toward prophecy in the ancient Near East.” Vetus Testamentum 58, no. 3 (January 1, 2008): 300-314. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 16, 2014), 312.

[13] Gomes, J F. The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2006, 157.

[14] Jörg Jeremias, The Book of Amos: a Commentary, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 138.

[15] Bruce C. Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 1997), 240.

About chadpittman

Hi there! I'm a musician, artist, and lover of God, and I hope to give God glory in all I do. I fail frequently. -grace and peace View all posts by chadpittman

3 responses to “Amos and Amaziah: a closer look at Amos 7:10-17

  • Lisa Wright

    Hi Chad! I didn’t realized there was one Amaziah in the Bible, much less two! I know you might have done this for me, of course you may already be studying him, but I had to speak on King Amaziah, in 2 Kings.
    This, however, is very interesting and informative. I love that you spent the time!
    xxoomamacita

  • Lisa Wright

    I guess I was a little presumptuous! Ha!

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