Saturday, November 06, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (40)

Analyzing the structure of any book of the Bible requires basic pattern recognition, a skill quickly developed by most students of the Word who go on to write anything useful about it. Mind you, that doesn’t mean they all see exactly the same patterns. Often there is more in there than any single intellect is equipped by God to dig out.

In the case of the book of Amos, efforts to analyze its structure have been frustrated at times by its apparent randomness. Everyone who comes to it sees something slightly (or in some cases, wildly) different. “There is not a clear ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to this text,” writes Rebecca Holland.

In short, finding a definitive structural analysis of Amos is no easy task.

The Structure of Amos

A Problem Observed

Richard Niell Donovan points out that Amos 5:1-17 is structured as a chiasmus, a figure of speech in which the grammar of one phrase is inverted in the next. His breakdown of that chapter may be found here. He is almost surely correct, but his interest is more in style than structure, and he only addresses one small (though crucial) section of the book.

Among others, James Limburg has helpfully noted that Amos contains multiple series of seven repeating words, phrases or formulas. That can hardly be unintentional, but it has more to do with content than structure.

Paul Noble lists attempts to analyze the structure of Amos by three different teams of Bible scholars. These agree only in identifying a distinct section of the book commencing at 5:1 and closing with 6:14, but Noble himself disagrees with that assessment. No clarity there.

My favorite critic of Amos was an annoyed blogger who found analyzing the structure of the book so challenging that he concluded there wasn’t one. I can no longer find the link to quote him directly, but his assessment boiled down to this: the prophet lacked the skills to write a proper sermon, so he just piled a bunch of declarations, anecdotes and poetry together in a hodge-podge.

If true, we might attribute such rough-and-ready methodology to Amos’s vocation as a shepherd, but this is simply not what we observe. In another study, Hajime Murai lists thirteen pericopes, parallels, chiastic and concentric structures that demonstrate Amos wrote with a deep, literary sophistication one would not normally attribute to a man who spent all his time in the pasture.

We may not find standard essay form in Amos — introduction, three points and a conclusion — but there is a definite structure there all the same.

Selections from an Ancient Hymn

For me, it was highly helpful to discover Hebrew scholars have long observed that the prophet punctuates his condemnation of Israel’s elite in three to five different places with quotations from an ancient extra-biblical hymn.

Here are what I believe to be the relevant passages in which Amos is (allegedly) quoting from elsewhere:

(4:13) “For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth —
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

(5:8-9) “He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name; who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

(9:5-6) “The Lord God of hosts,
he who touches the earth and it melts, and all who dwell in it mourn,
and all of it rises like the Nile, and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt;
who builds his upper chambers in the heavens
and founds his vault upon the earth;
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth —
the Lord is his name.”

The argument that these three passages all come from a single source makes remarkably good sense. Note the point of view: all three are in the third person. They punctuate and reinforce God’s first-person condemnation of Israel, which begins in 2:6 and continues until 4:12, when we encounter the first quotation from the hymn. Immediately after 4:13, we switch back to first-person perspective until 5:7, when the second “stanza” of the hymn punctuates God’s critique of his people. From 5:10 on, we return to a first-person point of view, and God resumes speaking.

The same pattern may be observed in chapter 8: God begins to speak in the first person until 9:5-6, where Amos has inserted his final third-person selection from the hymn, only to return to first-person perspective immediately thereafter.

I am not a Hebrew scholar by any means, but even I can see without difficulty that there is a distinct theme common to these three “interruptions” — the destructive power of God. It looks to me like Amos uses selections from a hymn with which his audience and early readers were likely familiar to reinforce God’s declarations concerning Israel with a reminder of his authority as Creator and Sustainer of the universe to speak to his people as he pleases in his sovereign judgment.

Amos: An Outline

Without further ado, then, here is my own outline of the structure of Amos with the passages from the hymn included. It owes a fair bit to the work of others, and should not be regarded as definitive in any way, shape or form.

  1. Introduction: “The Lord roars” (1:1-2)
  2. Judgment of eight nations concluding with Israel (1:3 through 2:16)
  3. Three “words of the Lord” (3:1-15; 4:1-12; 5:1-7, 10-17)

punctuated by the hymn (first two verses) (4:13; 5:8-9)

  1. Three woes (5:18-25; 6:1-3; 6:4-14)
  2. Five visions (7:1-3, 4-6, 7-9; 8:1-14; 9:1-4)

punctuated by a historical interlude (7:10-17) and the hymn (final verse) (9:5-6)

  1. Conclusion: Israel’s purification and restoration (9:7-15)

Next: Hosea

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