To whatever extent Amos himself wrote the book attached to his name, it seems fairly obvious that he did not write Amos 1:1-2. The text is in the third person–this is what “he saw” and what “he said.” Consequently, Amos 1:1-2 is at least an editorial superscription to the book by a compiler, editor or simply someone who titled the book.
It is important to recognize the editorial nature of the superscription because it alerts us to pay attention to the elements that are introduced. The superscription not only identifies the origin of the words but they provided a context for reading them. In other words, the significance of the superscription is not simply identifying the author but also providing a basic lens for reading the book.
So, what does the editorial heading supply?
It identifies the prophet as a shepherd from a rural small town in Judah. Amos was a shepherd and a seasonal (migrant?) sycamore-fig tree laborer (Amos 7:14). He was not trained as a royal counselor; he did not live among the elite or noble. He was not groomed in the urban schools of the prophets. On the contrary, he came from a backwater town on the edge of the Judean desert six miles southeast of Bethlehem. He lived on the margins of Judah’s social world but God chose him to deliver a message to the ruling elite of Israel. God constantly surprises us by choosing the younger to rule the older, by choosing the lowly to address the exalted.
It locates the ministry of Amos during the prosperous reigns of Uzziah of Judah (783-742 BCE) and Jeroboam II of Israel (786-746 BCE) in the heart of the eighth century BCE. One cannot read Amos well without understanding that in the middle of the eighth century, Judah and Israel were experiencing a “golden” era. They were at peace with their neighbors, undisturbed by imperial powers (Assyria, Egypt) which were preoccupied with internal matters, and enjoying an economic boon unparalleled since the days of Solomon. Peace, unencumbered by imperial impositions, enabled them to tax and control the major trade routes through their lands. The ruling classes grew richer and lived in luxury. Amos prophesied to a prosperous nation at peace with its neighbors.
It dates the ministry of Amos previous to the great earthquake of the eighth century BCE. Similar to how the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake or Katrina live in the memory of American, an earthquake (sometime in the 750s BCE) lived in the memory of Palestine’s inhabitants (cf. Zechariah 14:5). But I don’t think this is mere dating. The earthquake itself confirms the message of Amos as it was delivered “two years before” the event. Perhaps the editor thought that the earthquake was a divine response to Israel’s rejection of Amos’ message. The same Hebrew root (“shake or shaking”) is used in Amos 9:1 where judgment comes to Israel as buildings fall on the people and those who remain are killed with the sword (Assyrian empire?). It appears, then, that the earthquake reference is not simply for dating but is also a concrete metaphor for divine judgment against Israel which lived in the memory of the people. Indeed, one might say that the earthquake was a turning point in the history of Israel and Judah. From 746 to 721 (when Samaria was destroyed) Israel endured six kings in 25 years whereas they had only one king in the previous 40. The earthquake tumbled a nation into ruin–physically, economically and, ultimately, internationally. Such signature events are common in the history of nations (e.g., Stalingrad for Nazi Germany). This earthquake was such an event for Israel.
It summaries the fundamental orientation of Amos’s message. The four lines of Amos 1:2 gives the substance of the book–a Judean prophet, as the voice of Yahweh, comes from Judah (Zion/Jerusalem) to announce Israel’s coming devastation (the pastures mourn and Carmel withers). Yahweh roars, like a lion, through the voice of a shepherd; Yahweh comes, through the prophet, from his dwelling place in Jerusalem to announce judgment. Mt. Carmel was known as one of the most beautiful places in Israel. Richly forested, its majestic peaks overlooked the Sharon Plain, the Megiddo valley, and the Mediterranean Sea. It was inconceivable that it would “wither” or that all the pastures would “dry up” (NIV). Amos, a shepherd from Judah, went to Israel to announce judgment which is symbolized by how the land itself shrivels. What happens to the earth becomes a symbol or metaphor of divine judgment.
How does this editorial heading function as a lens for reading Amos?
The superscription prepares us to “hear” the message of Amos. An unlettered, marginalized Judean shepherd (even migrant worker)–uncredentialed, according to “normal” vetting at the time–announces divine judgment to the ruling class of prosperous Israel. The message is not dependent upon the credentials of the messenger but is confirmed by an act of God in the great earthquake. Israel will wither and die because it did not faithfully use its prosperity for justice and righteousness. In the person of Amos–a lowly, poor shepherd–Yahweh roars from his dwelling place in Zion (Jerusalem). God has spoken and God has acted.
Who among us would seriously listen to a migrant worker’s theological assessment of our faithfulness to the God we claim to serve? In this we sit with Israel. Will we listen any better than they did?