Here is Lawrence Boadt’s introduction to the book of Amos….
The first thing we discover about prophets is that they tell us almost nothing about themselves. Generally the books reveal little beyond when a prophet spoke and to whom. The message was everything, the messenger very little. Amos was no exception. The book notes that he came from a small village named Tekoa in Judah to preach in the northern kingdom at the shrine of Bethel, and that he was not a professional prophet attached to some temple but a farmer and herdsman by trade. Chapter 7 gives a single biographical incident from his life when he is challenged by the royal priest of Bethel about his right to prophesy. Amos protests that he had not chosen to come so far from home to preach; on the contrary, God had forced this mission upon him: “I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet! I am a herdsman and a tender of sycamore figs, and the Lord brought me from behind the flock and said to me: Go! Prophesy to my people in Israel” (Am 7:14-15). Amos then delivers strong words of judgment against both the king and the people of northern Israel: you shall lose your land and be sent into exile and your leaders shall be killed. Amaziah the priest is naturally unhappy with these words and warns Amos to leave and make his living prophesying in his own country, but he never challenges Amos’ claim that God was speaking through him. Clearly the political division between north and south did not mean that the two kingdoms rejected the idea that they were still one people of Yahweh.
Since Amos makes little reference to the terror of Assyrian attack, he probably lived just before the rise of Tiglath-pileser III, perhaps in the period from 760 to 745. If we can learn little about the personality of the prophet himself, we can at least find out what he thought by the examination of his oracles. The book contains numerous individual messages delivered on different occasions. It has an order, but it is not one that attracts modern readers. It does not follow the oracles in order of time from earliest to latest, nor does it collect all the words on one subject or theme together in one chapter and then move on to new topics. It rather moves in dramatic fashion from a large scale condemnation of the evil in other nations (chapt 1), to the terrible injustice and evil found in Israel (chapters 2-6), to visions of the divine punishment coming upon the people (chapters 7-9).
The basic message of Amos stresses God’s moral rule over the entire world and the divine demands for justice and concern for the outcast or oppressed. Amos has a surprising universalism in his outlook. God cares for every nation: “Are you not like the people of Ethiopia to me, O Israel, says the Lord. Did I not lead Israel out from the land of Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Am 9:7).
And yet, since God has specially chosen Israel and entered into a relationship of knowing and loving them, he holds the nation particularly responsible for a just and upright way of life. “You only have I known among all the families of the earth; therefore I am going to punish you for all your wickedness” (3:2). Amos connects the injustice he sees around him to a society bent on wealth and prosperity and forgetful of the true worship of God. No more powerful condemnation has been spoken than Amos’ first words against Israel: “…they sell the just person for money and the poor for a pair of shoes, and trample the heads of the impoverished into the dust of the ground and shove the afflicted aside on the road; a man and his father sleep with the same slave girl so that my holy name is profaned…and drink wine in God’s house taken from those who are in their debt” (2:6-8). He condemns the selfish luxury of the women of the nobility: “You cows of Bashan, who live on the mount of Samaria, who oppress the poor, crush the needy, and demand of their husbands, ‘Bring more drink!’” (Amos 4:1). He lashes out at the merchants who can hardly wait until the Sabbath ends so that they can make “the ephah small and the shekel great and use false weights to cheat people; that we may buy the poor for money and the impoverished for a pair of sandals and sell worthless wheat” (Am 8:5-6).
Here are a few questions to consider as you meditate on the Book of Amos: Have you ever felt called by God to leave what you are doing (like Amos tending sheep) and do something that will specifically serve God’s kingdom (like being a prophet)? We may find it hard to identify with Amos, but the truth of the matter is that God is calling all of us to serve him all the time. The only question is: are we listening for God’s call?
Secondly, how do you think our world would fare today if Amos were out there preaching? Are we doing any better at caring for the poor and needy than Israel was doing in Amos’ day? What might we do to rectify this problem? Supporting organizations like Compassion International that help the poor worldwide is one good way to begin addressing the issue.