The prophet Amos confronted the High Priest Amaziah in the Beit El temple in the Northern Kingdom – known as Israel – around the year 760 BCE. At the time, Jeroboam II ruled over the Northern Kingdom a long reign of prosperity and military victories lasting from 789-749 BCE. Amos, from the town of Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, introduced himself to the northerners, “I am neither a prophet nor a disciple of a prophet. I am a cattle breeder and a tenderer of sycamore trees.”
Nevertheless, Amos was the first of the classical prophets with a book of his visions bearing his name, although he is relegated – along with Hosea who prophesied in the Northern Kingdom during Jeroboam II’s reign – to the minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. This was not because his visions were not important but simply because Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had much longer records of their prophecy and therefore precede Amos, Hosea and 10 other prophets in the Scriptures.
There were two temples in the North: one in Beit El and one in Dan. This made sense since the leaders of Israel did not want their followers to show any allegiance to Jerusalem in the south. While the Prophets section of the Tanach – both the narrative of Kings and the visions of the prophets – condemn all the kings of the North for the heresy of building temples in their territory, Amos pours out his wrath on the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in the Kingdom of Israel.
During the reign of Jeroboam II, according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his Biblical Literacy (1997), “the kingdom of Israel extended its boundaries, took border cities that Syria had captured earlier... and took control of the trade routes that ran through the country... A wealthy class emerged.”
THIS WEALTHY class oppressed the poor. The message that Amos brought to Amaziah and the denizens of Israel is that the Northern Kingdom will pay the price for this social injustice. The wealthy bring sacrifices to the Beit El temple but violate the covenant by selling the poor into slavery. As Amos states: “They have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Furthermore, the prophet condemns business dishonesty. He condemns sexual decadence: “Father and son go to the same girl and thereby profane my Holy name.”
High Priest Amaziah had enough of this interloper from the Davidic kingdom. He suggested that Amos leave Beit El. But the crowd listened intently to the prophet. He called out the enemies of Israel for their moral evils. The crowd liked this.
But once Amos condemned in the name of God the sacrifices of the unethical Northern Kingdom – “If you offer Me burnt offerings or your meal offerings, I will not accept them” – the denizens of Israel turned on him. God wants justice to “well up like water” and “righteousness like a mighty stream.” But once Amos announced from the temple courtyard that Israel will be punished and exiled, he had overstayed his welcome. God stated in the prophet’s words, “I will turn upon the House of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Amaziah was livid. He sent a message to the king: “Amos is conspiring against you within the house of Israel. The country cannot endure the things he is saying.” Amaziah ordered Amos to leave Israel. The prophet was deported.
But before he left he predicted Amaziah and his family would die in exile and the Northern Kingdom would be destroyed. And the prediction of Amos is borne out: After Jeroboam II’s death, Israel goes into steep decline and is eventually exiled by the war machine of the Assyrian Empire, in 721 BCE.
Empathizing with Amos
Historians can empathize with Amos. If indeed the prophet is accurate in his condemnations and the failure of Israel to live to a higher standard than the nations surrounding it, scholars can agree that the Northern Kingdom deserved to be exiled. But there are many unanswered questions about the Beit El temple, the High Priest Amaziah and the evil of Jeroboam II and his wealthy followers.
STUDENTS OF history may agree with the ethics of the prophet but they must, in the end, view the text as providing information about the politics, sociology and theology of the Northern Kingdom. This cannot be gleaned from the words of the Hebrew Bible alone. This does not mean that the Tanach is rendered useless as a historical text. Archaeology, although not always in agreement with details in the Biblical narrative, provides us with many points of agreement between texts and modern historical scholarship.
Did Jeroboam II exist? Of course, he did. Besides the Hebrew Bible, we have a royal seal discovered in 1904 that bears the name “Shema” who is a “servant of Jeroboam.” It dates back to Jeroboam II (the first Jeroboam was the founder of the Northern Kingdom centuries earlier). Archaeological digs reveal the wealth that was accrued by a successful Israel.
As for Amos, his prophecy reflected a reality that we know existed. As for classical prophecy, we have a seal of “Barechayahu ben Neriyuh” – Baruch ben Neriyah in the Prophets, the scribe of Jeremiah. Amos confronted Amaziah. There is no reason to believe otherwise.
Still, I would like to know more about Jeroboam II – he did reign successfully for an incredible 41 years. I would like to know more about religion and sacrifice in the Northern Kingdom. The Tanach does mention some of the military successes of Jeroboam II. The Tanach tells us “He did what was displeasing to the Lord; he did not depart from all the sins that Jeroboam son of Nebat had caused Israel to commit.” Kings II devotes a few verses to a leader who ruled for almost a half-century.
While I am sure Amos was accurate in his censure of an unethical Northern Kingdom, I wish the Tanach would have provided us with more information about Israel. While much of history can be gleaned from the Hebrew Bible and the Prophets, the concern of the text is with the relationship between God and God’s Chosen People.
Much of the concern of the text is with fidelity and infidelity, and ethics and immorality. I have always wanted more history. Even so, it does not lessen the power of a powerful text that has done more to shape the world than any other.
The writer is a rabbi, essayist and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida. A special thank you to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Biblical Literacy for details of Amos confronting Amaziah in Beit El.