Prophetic books and the prophets whose names they bear

Each of the prophetic books is commonly named after the prophet whose words seem to make up the bulk of the text.

However, the books themselves seem (at least to me) to suggest that they were written by someone else, standing at some time removed from the prophet. Features that suggest such a distance between the narrator of the book, and the prophet include:

This impression that the narrator of the book is a different person from the prophet fits with the conclusions of critical scholars that not all the material in the books represents the ipsissima verba of the named prophets. However, it is also possible to conclude that the narrator reports the prophet's words accurately and still believe that they do so some time after the events took place - indeed what little we know about the writing of books in the ancient world suggests this. (See for example Jer 36 where Jeremiah narrates his own words to the king through Baruch the scribe, in this story several years have passed since the earliest words were spoken. We do not, of course, know who is narrating the story of Jeremiah and Baruch to us!)

Scholarship is increasingly recognizing that the books show signs of careful ordering of the material. (This was not the common view a generation ago, when scholars seemed to discern disorder, and concluded that the speeches were stuck together for the flimsiest reasons.) Increased attention to ordering has led to increased respect for its artful nature. Even so, few of the books read like single speeches, most seem to present a sample of what was presumably a much longer preaching ministry, and usually the order does not seem to be simply chronological.

Thinking of the books as the carefully edited remembrance of the words of the prophet possibly passed down and sharpened by a tradition, draws our attention to features of the book's organization. So, in the oracles against the nations, hearers are given a set towards noticing that Judah is included like the target of the sequence Israel through their following the hymnic fragment in 1:2, which reads like an echo of Jerusalem temple liturgy. We do not need to accept all the details of Wolff's reconstruction of the redactional process to recognize that there is more than one layer to the reworking of the book as the tradition continually made the relevance of the teaching of Amos apparent to successive generations.

Thus the final shape of the book, beginning with a lengthy exposition of the inevitability of God's judgment on such an unfaithful and unjust people to the final promise of blessing, suggests a work which has been reused from the first retelling of Amos' preaching to his contemporaries to its use as a reminder that the God who had the authority and power to punish so drastically may also in sovereign power finally bless.



This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.