King on the Throne, Temple in Jerusalem, Justice in the Gate: An Analysis of Two Themes in Amos

I’ve been away from the blog for a few days because of final exams. My last one was today—Hebrew! It was probably the hardest exam I have ever taken. The prof. himself described it as “nasty.” Here’s a paper I wrote on the book of Amos for my class on the prophets. I get into the message of Amos as a call to abandon pagan worship in the Northern Kingdom and return to YHWH and his king in Jerusalem. I hope you enjoy it! I’ll respond to any comments you leave on this post.

King on the Throne, Temple in Jerusalem, Justice in the Gate:
An Analysis of Two Themes in Amos

Mark Giszczak
Dr. Timothy Gray
Augustine Institute

1. Introduction. The book of Amos presents yhwh’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel. I will focus in on two themes: Israelite worship and Davidic kingship. I will present a few representations of scholarly thought on Amos’ rejection of Israelite worship. Then I will examine passages regarding Israelite worship and show how scholars misrepresent the passages’ significance. I will argue that these passages reveal a categorical rejection of Israelite worship by yhwh through Amos. Next I will examine the theme of Davidic kingship in Amos. Amos completely rejects the politico-religious establishment of Israel as inherently corrupt. Yet his proposed solution for the corruption of Israel is the accession of a Davidic king who will bring true yhwh worship to the people by destroying the Northern sanctuaries and re-centering worship in Jerusalem. The reunification of the kingdom and the reestablishment of proper worship is a necessary precondition for social justice.

2. Israelite worship. The historical-critical process on Amos began with Julius Wellhausen’s assessments of the Israelite cult in his Prolegomena to the History of Israel. He claims that the prophets reject the Israelite cult not because there was more than one sanctuary or because the people worshiped at the wrong place. Rather the prophets’ “zeal is directed not against the places, but against the cultus there carried on, and, in fact, not merely against its false character as containing all manner of abuses, but almost more against itself, against the false value attached to it.”1 Elsewhere, Wellhausen states “The sin of the people is the cult—that is, the false estimation itself, the illusion, that through it Yahweh could be sought and found and connected with Israel. Of a foreign service or illicit practices Amos says nothing. He does not take Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheeba as idolatrous sanctuaries, but rather as the glorious places for the cult of Yahweh.”2 Other scholars have continued along this line of thought. For example Shalom Paul states:

Amos delivered a devastating diatribe against the nation’s disordered concept of the wholesale panacea of the cult—the opium of the masses. For him, as for many of the other classical prophets, cultic zeal could neither engender public weal nor atone for infringements upon the moral law. Ritual can never be a surrogate for ethics. ‘God requires devotion, not devotions,’ right more than rite. When the cult became a substitute for moral behavior, it was severely denounced and condemned.”3

Andersen and Freedman take a similar tack in their important commentary. They state that “the shrines and ceremonies, sacrifices and songs here denounced and renounced were, after all, instituted by Yahweh and expected by him. …It is when they establish justice in the gate that the Lord will be gracious (v 15); when righteousness rolls down Yahweh will listen, look, smell and accept their worship (v 24).”4 These commentators represent a general consensus on the spiritual significance of Amos’ sayings about Israelite worship. The consensus is that yhwh established the rites they practice, but the people overemphasize their importance, causing them to neglect social responsibility. If the people seek yhwh through proper social practices, then his judgment will be lifted. But I will show that Amos absolutely denounces the Israelite cult as inherently corrupt. He does not push for social or religious reform of the northern kingdom. Rather, he advocates a destruction of Israelite worship, the reunification of the kingdom and the re-centering of worship in Jerusalem.

3:14 …on the day I punish Israel for his


I will punish the altars of Bethel,

and the horns of the altar shall be cut off

and fall to the ground (ESV)

In this oracle, Amos rejects the altars of Bethel. The plural form indicates not only a multiplication of altars, but a multiplication of gods. Yet most commentators prefer reading the plural word as a singular.5 The people have forsaken pure yhwh worship for syncretism if not blatant paganism. The horns of the altar were a sort of asylum in ancient Israel. A criminal could grab hold of one of the horns in order to be protected from his pursuers.6 Therefore, if the horns are cut off, there is no safety for transgressors.

4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’

Scholars have debated what Amos means in context by “cows of Bashan.” Some have conjectured that this term refers to wealthy women in Samaria who do evil things.7 There is a textual difficulty since the grammar Amos gives is impossible—the addressee keeps switching back and forth from being 3rd person feminine plural to 3rd person masculine plural.8 The word translated as “husbands” in the ESV is ?donîm, the same word used for “my Lord” (?donay) to refer to yhwh elsewhere in the OT. Since this oracle falls right after an oracle against the “House of Israel” (3:13), I contend that the term “cows of Bashan” refers to the whole people o
f northern Israel and that ?donîm refers to their “husbands” or “lords”: the bull gods of the syncretistic sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan (cf. 1 Kgs 12)9.

4:4-5 Come to Bethel and transgress;

to Gilgal, and multiply transgression.

bring your sacrifices every morning,

your tithes every three days;

offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that

which is leavened,

and proclaim freewill offerings,

publish them;

for so you love to do, O people of


Here Amos categorically rejects the sanctuaries at Bethel and Gilgal. He mocks the sacrifices of the people and parodies their liturgical action. He rejects the offerings because of their illegality, they are offered at the wrong place by the wrong people. Instead of Levites and priests offering the sacrifices, they are offered by royally appointed “priests” who are not part of the tribe of Levi or the house of Aaron. For Jeroboam I “appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites” to staff the shrine at Bethel (1 Kgs 12:31). yhwh rejects the leavened offerings of the people as especially bad because of prohibitions against burning yeast (cf. Exod 23:18, Lev 2:11, 7:12). Amos insists that worshiping at Bethel or Gilgal is intrinsically sinful. He implies therefore that the Israelites should return to Jerusalem to worship yhwh who “roars from Zion.” (1:2)

5:4b-6 Seek me and live

but do not seek Bethel

and do not enter into Gilgal

or cross over to Beersheba

for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,

and Bethel shall come to nothing

Seek the Lord and live,

lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,

and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel.

In this oracle, the Lord demands a seemingly impossible feat: to seek Him, but not at any of the sanctuaries in Israel. Commentators have offered various explanations. The most common interpretation is that Israel was committing unjust social practices, so their worship was considered hypocritical. By changing social practice and doing “justice and righteousness” they could find yhwh “wherever they worship and on whatever terms”10 This perspective sidesteps Amos’ absolute rejection of the sanctuaries at Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba. He does not call for reform or change. Rather, he completely rejects these places and their modes of worship. Then Amos threatens that the Lord may “break out like fire in the house of Joseph,11/ and it devour” (5:6). The only notable time this has happened in Israel’s history is in Lev 10:2 when Nadab and Abihu are consumed by fire coming forth from “before the Lord.” In fact, linguistically the two scenarios are quite similar. In Lev 10:2 the fire “comes out” (y?s?a’, ?????) and “consumes” (’?kal, ?????) Nadab and Abihu. Similarly in Amos 5:6, fire is threatened to “break out” or “rush out” (s??lah?, ?????) on the house of Joseph and “devour” it (’?kal, ?????). The first verbs, y?s?a’ and s??lah? respectively, are not identical yet synonymous. The second verbs in each passage are exactly the same. The sons of Aaron were punished for liturgical disobedience—for offering “unauthorized” incense before the Lord. Amos’ focus is then on the impropriety of the Israelite’s worship, their liturgical disobedience of seeking the Lord at the wrong place. The sin for which Amos condemns them in 5:4-6 is specifically liturgical. The sin is the cult, as Wellhausen says, but the cult is the wrong cult. The Israelites are not participating in true yhwh worship, but have invested in false gods (5:26), a false priesthood (1 Kgs 12:31) and false sanctuaries (3:14, 4:4, 5:5-6, 7:10, 7:13, 8:14).

5:21-27“I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,

I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord whose name is the God of hosts.”

Amos 5:21-27 uses the most powerful language in the whole b
ook. Following Wellhausen’s lead, commentators have consistently asserted that in this passage “Amos demanded justice instead of worship, that is, a supplanting of cultic religion by correct behavior on the part of human beings freed from the obligations of external ceremonies.”12 Shalom Paul states the consensus position clearly in a footnote saying that “the entire attack here is leveled against the established authorized cult and not against any pagan practices.”13 But I argue directly to the contrary. This oracle is a rejection of the Israelite cult in toto. The prophet is not merely calling for a spiritual reformation of the people and a return to good social behavior. He is calling for a complete jettisoning of the established cult. For the established cult celebrates the wrong feasts, offers the wrong sacrifices and is represented by the wrong priests and even worships the wrong gods. The oracle rolls to a crescendo in vv.25-27. This prose section accuses the people not of overly elaborate cultic rituals, but of blatant pagan worship. While many historical-critics have attempted to “excise”14 this verse from the text, none have accomplished it without resorting to extreme revisions of the text.15 The accusation of idolatry is clear. The cult at Bethel where Amos prophesied indulged in pagan worship and perhaps mixed the worship of yhwh with that of other gods. The idolatry and whatever syncretistic worship that may have occurred was totally objectionable to yhwh. Again, the implication that Amos makes to the people is that they should worship in the right place (Jerusalem) with the right priests (the sons of Aaron).

7:9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,

and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,

and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.

This passage demonstrates another condemnation of Israelite worship as a whole. Yet commentators again shy away from the logical conclusion. Paul writes that “the ‘high places’ (????) that ‘shall become desolate’ (?????) do not refer to unauthorized sites of worship of the Lord or to high places that served as centers for idol worship.”16 Yet his position disregards the fact that the vast majority of the 105 times the term “high places” is used in the OT refer distinctly to pagan places of worship.17 Andersen and Freedman have established that the name “Isaac” v.9 refers to the “northern kingdom only.”18 Thus in this verse the prophet equally judges “the high places” with “the sanctuaries of Israel” and “the house of Jeroboam.” All three are set for destruction. The Lord intends to carry out his wrath on them all.

7:10-13 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

“’Jeroboam shall die by the sword,

and Israel must go into exile

away from his land.’”

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

Amaziah carries an official title as “priest of Bethel” (7:10). Andersen and Freedman state that his title “points to a head priest of a specific shrine.”19 He is the “official representative of the state priesthood.”20 The paradox is that Amaziah is not a priest at all in Amos’ theology, which is why Amos feels free to place an exacting curse upon him in v.17. Regardless of the curse, Amaziah sends Amos away from the Bethel sanctuary permanently. He thus fulfills the prophecy of 2:12 that Israel “commanded the prophets,/ saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’” Amaziah’s speech against Amos is fascinating. He gives two reasons for Amos’ banishment. First, Bethel is “the king’s sanctuary.” This phrase is unique in the OT and denotes the “personal sanctum sanctorum of the king’s cultic activities.”21 Amaziah’s rejection is not merely a religious statement, it is clearly political. The shrine at Bethel was a mode of uniting the people of Israel behind Jeroboam II. When that unifying factor is being disturbed by a pesky prophet, the king wants him removed in order to maintain the political advantage of peaceful worship. By stressing that it is the king’s sanctuary, the text implies that it is not yhwh’s. Even the name of the sanctuary takes on an ironic significance, for “Bethel” means “house of God,” but this temple is the house of a king. Second, Bethel is “a temple of the kingdom.” The lack of a definite article implies that Bethel was not the only sanctuary in the northern kingdom. Again, Amaziah emphasizes the political dimension of worship. The temple belongs to the king and kingdom, not to yhwh. Amaziah and Jeroboam through Amaziah show their true colors as rejecters of yhwh and his prophet.

8:14 Those who swear by the Guilt of Samaria,

and say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’

and, ‘As the Way of Beersheba lives,’

they shall fall, and never rise again.

Amos mentions three pagan deities in this verse. The “Guilt of Samaria” is variously interpreted, but most commentators mention that it may refer to the goddess Ashimah or Ashmat.
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The god of Dan is not named in Amos, but the verse “most likely refers to the worship of the Lord in the form of a bull image set up in Dan.”23 Archaeologists have uncovered a second century BC inscription in Dan that reads “To the God Who Is in Dan.”24 The third deity mentioned is the “Way of Beersheba.” There is controversy regarding the lexical meanings of these phrases and which ancient Near Eastern gods they should be associated with. Amos rejects the oaths sworn by the worshipers of the pagan deities at Samaria, Dan and Beersheba. He even quotes the oath formulas of the latter two. Swearing an oath by a particular god was an acknowledgement that the god sworn by was the god of the speaker.25 Thus to swear by another god was to substantively reject yhwh. Amos’ purpose remains clear: he condemns the Israelites for their worship of pagan gods and their improper syncretistic worship of yhwh. Again Amos implies by his condemnation that the Israelites should abandon other gods and illegal shrines to worship yhwh in Jerusalem, the proper center of religion and kingdom.

3. Davidic Kingship. Now we will move to discussing the importance of Davidic kingship as a theme in Amos. First, I will show the significance of Amos’ being a Judahite and the thematic importance of 1:2. Then I will discuss the role of the king as the establisher of worship. Next I will examine the phrase “justice and righteousness” and the king’s role in establishing social justice. Finally, I will present Amos’ vision of an ideally restored kingdom in 9:11-15.

Amos is from Tekoa in Judah, presumably a Judahite by birth since he has a secular occupation (7:14). Amos is called out of Judah to prophesy to Israel (7:15). It is not perfectly clear from the text, but it can be inferred that Amos maintained his residence in Judah and only came to the northern shrine at Bethel during important religious events. The theme of the whole book is captured by one verse, “The Lord roars from Zion/ and utters his voice from Jerusalem;/ the pastures of the shepherds mourn,/ and the top of Carmel withers” (1:2). Amos himself can be seen as the roar of the Lord, for indeed he is coming forth from the region of Zion to the north bringing yhwh’s message. From Tekoa, Amos probably would have even traveled through Jerusalem to get to Bethel. Lion and roaring imagery comes up a few other times in Amos and hearkens back to the Judahite lion of Gen 49:9 (cf. Amos 3:4, 8, 12; 5:19). Amos represents yhwh’s fierce lion-like rage to Israel.

Politics and religion were always linked in the ancient Near East. The king’s duty and his boon was to set up centralized worship under his patronage.26 This practice led to peaceful rule and a unified people. Hence, to establish his kingdom, Jeroboam I had to draw the northern Israelites away from worshiping at Jerusalem so he set up his rival shrines (1 Kgs 12). Jeroboam’s shrines more effectively divided the kingdom than any military action could have done. Not only did he reject the Jerusalem temple, but he reintroduced golden bull worship and he appointed non-Levites to be priests in these new sanctuaries. The northern shrines were politically charged sites. When Amos, as a Judahite, calls for their abandonment and destruction, he advocates not only a religious change, but a political act. This political act is accomplished quite forcefully by Josiah in 1 Kgs 23.

The king’s established place of worship served as the foundation for social justice. “Justice and righteousness” is used as a phrase several times in the OT to denote the accession of a new king. In 1 Kgs 10:9 the queen of Sheba praises Solomon for his kingship by telling him that yhwh “has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness” (cf. 2 Chr 9:8). Jeremiah refers to King Josiah as he who did “justice and righteousness” (Jer 22:15). Jeremiah also prophesies of a future Davidic king saying, “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5; see also 33:15). Ezekiel calls on the “princes of Israel” to execute justice and righteousness in the land (Ezek 45:9). Many other OT passages associate justice and righteousness with kingship.27

The theme of justice and righteousness surfaces three times in Amos: 5:7, 6:12 and 5:24. Also, in 5:15 the prophet calls for the house of Israel to “establish justice in the gate.” Most commentators simplify Amos’ meaning. For example, Andersen and Freedman state that “the true search for God…begins in the heart…and in the practice of justice and righteousness….It is the people who, following this prescription, will transform the sanctuaries, beginning with Bethel; and only then will it be possible to find Yahweh at those places in which his name is hallowed.”28 Jeremias refers to justice and righteousness as “internally established qualities.”29 Yet these interpretations fall short of the full picture that Amos presents. Justice and righteousness are lacking in the land of Israel, not simply because people are behaving poorly, but because there is no king. Amos refers Jeroboam II as the king of Israel (1:1; 7:1, 10, 13), yet these references carry an ironic tone. For if Jeroboam were truly the king and acted as such, there would be justice and righteousness in the land. Yet justice and righteousness are lacking because the wrong cult is practiced and the wrong king is ruling. Justice and righteousness have been perverted by the false leaders of Israel. When Amos calls for justice to “roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (5:24) he is not making abstract moral statements, but calling for the reunification of the kingdom under a Davidic king.

The final oracle 9:11-15 presents Amos’ vision of the reunited kingdom.30 On this idyllic day the people will be united under a Davidic king for his sukkah will be repaired and rebuilt. They will dwell securely in the land and eat its fruit. Amos does not merely pour out judgment on the people of Israel. Rather, he calls them back to fidelity to yhwh. After the famine (8:11) and exile (5:5; 5:27; 6:7; 7:11) the people will be brought back to the land and dwell peacefully under the Davidic king. v. 9:11 is very important in relation to the other political language in Amos. In 7:9, yhwh promises to bring the sword against the house of Jeroboam. This phrase can be taken as simply referring to Jeroboam II, the current ruler. On the other hand, it could easily refer to Jeroboam I and
his whole dynasty. The phrase may be best interpreted as a double-entendre. The contrast between the house of Jeroboam and the booth of David is stark. While some commentators cite the assassination of Jeroboam II’s son Zechariah as the fulfillment of the oracle in 7:9,31 Amos prophesies not simply for the end of the Jeroboamite dynasty, but the end of the northern kingdom as a political establishment. He hopes for the full reuniting of the kingdom under the proper and true king. Once the Davidic king is fully empowered he can reunite the worship of Judah and Israel in the Jerusalem temple, the proper and true sanctuary. Once the worship is established, “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (9:13). The king will establish justice and righteousness in the land so that the poor will not be trampled (2:7, 5:11, 8:4) or defrauded. Rather there will be abundance of food and land.

4. Conclusion. Amos is not an innovator. He calls the people back to fidelity to yhwh and his law. Yet historical-critics often limit Amos to calling for social reform. Jeremias summates the consensus that the core of Amos’ message is that he “demanded justice instead of worship, that is, a supplanting of cultic religion by correct behavior on the part of human beings freed from the obligations of external ceremonies.”32 But Amos was not simply citing “universal moral principles.”33 Rather, he views himself as from within the traditions of Judah and Israel, from within the Mosaic covenant. Therefore he does not call for mere social reform nor for a reorientation toward acceptable religious practices. He denounces the northern cult as inherently corrupt and calls for its destruction. He calls for an end to syncretistic and pagan practices and the reunification of the kingdom. Amos desires political reunification under one Davidic king. He sees this kingship as the only road to the legitimate establishment of true yhwh worship. As long as there is political division, religious practices will be corrupted in the north. The Davidic king is meant to bring about a religious reunification in the one temple at Jerusalem. Once these reunifications have occurred, oppression and inequality will cease and justice will be established in the gate (5:15).


Works Consulted

Andersen, Francis and David Freedman. Amos. The Anchor Bible v.24a. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Carroll R., M. Daniel. Amos—The Prophet & His Oracles. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.

Jeremias, Jörg. The Book of Amos. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

Mays, John Luther. Amos. The Old Testament Library. Philadephia: Westminster, 1969.

Möller, Karl. A Prophet in Debate: The Rhetoric of Persuasion in the Book of Amos. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament series, v.372. New York: Sheffield, 2003.

Park, Aaron W. The Book of Amos as Composed and Read in Antiquity. Studies in Biblical Literature, v. 37. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Paul, Shalom M. Amos. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991.

—————. “A Literary Reinvestigation of the Authenticity of the Oracles Against the Nations of Amos.” In Maurice Carrez, Joseph Doré and Pierre Grelot, eds. De la Tôrah au Messie. Paris: Desclée, 1981. 189-204.

Wolff, Hans W. Joel and Amos. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.


1 Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885) 23.
2 Julius Wellhausen, Die kleinen Propheten übersetzt und erklärt (1898 ed.; reprint, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1963) 73-9; quoted in M. Daniel Carroll R., Amos—The Prophet & His Oracles (Louisville: Westminster, 2002) 6.

3 Paul, Shalom M., Amos, Hermeneia, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991) 2.

4 Andersen, Francis and David Freedman, Amos, The Anchor Bible v.24a, (New York: Doubleday, 1989) 529. Hereafter: AF.

5 See Paul 124.

6 Mays, John Luther, Amos, The Old Testament Library, (Philadephia: Westminster, 1969) 70.

7 Wolff, Hans W., Joel and Amos, Hermeneia, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 205.

8 AF 420.

9 AF 842-3 and Paul 270-1

10 AF 482.

11 The Northern Kingdom. cf. AF 55.

12 Jeremias, Jörg, The Book of Amos, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998) 101.

13 Paul 188. Footnote 3.

14 Paul 194.

15 There is an alternate reading of “Sikkuth your king” which amounts to “tabernacle of Molech.” The difference in the text is just a matter of the Hebrew vowel points. It is very telling to note that the LXX and the Vulgate translate the text as “tabernacle of Molech.” Whether Amos intended Sikkuth or Molech does not matter for our interests. Both are pagan gods.

16 Paul 236.

17 Cf. Mays 133.

18 AF 116.

19 AF 766.

20 Paul 239.

21 Paul 243.

22 Cf. Paul 269 and AF 828.

23 Paul 270.

24 Ibid.

25 AF 706.

26 Cf. AF 775.

27 See Ps 72:1-2; 89:14; 97:2; 99:4; Isa 9:7; 16:5; 32:1.

28 AF 482.

29 Jeremias 90.

30 Many scholars have argued for a late date for this section, but Shalom Paul deftly undercuts their arguments on a linguistic basis. See Paul 289.

31 Wolff 302.

32 Jermias101.

33 Carroll R. 5.

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