Historically the eighth century BCE was a time of great upheaval that saw the northern kingdom of Israel vanish as a sovereign entity. This chapter focuses specifically on the final years of the northern kingdom before it was defeated by the Assyrian armies. 2 Kings 14–17 and the prophets Amos and Hosea are the primary sources for these events; however, our understanding of this period is greatly supplemented by nonbiblical sources, including Assyrian texts.
At the end of the ninth century BCE, the Assyrian advance through the Levant was halted because of internal strife. As a result, the kingdoms of both Israel and Judah enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity. Although the book of 2 Kings does not give a description of this prosperity in the north, the prophets Amos and Hosea do make reference to it, and their observations are confirmed by archaeological data. This period ended in 745 BCE when Tiglath-pileser III, the new Assyrian king, resumed his quest for Egypt. He promptly made the kings of the Levant his vassals. By 732 the Assyrians controlled parts of the northern kingdom and had ousted King Pekah in favor of Hoshea. After the death of Tiglath-pileser III, Hoshea also revolted, resulting in the siege of Israel and the eventual fall of Samaria in 722. Israel was reduced to an Assyrian province, and much of its population was exiled to cities throughout Mesopotamia.
By the eighth century BCE, there is a new trend in the presentation of prophetic material. Whereas in the past, prophets and prophecy were interspersed throughout larger narratives, at this time collections about an individual prophet begin to appear in independent form. These books, collectively known as the Latter Prophets, are roughly arranged in order from longest to shortest. Each of the fifteen books in the Latter Prophets has its own complicated literary and editorial history; however, they all generally contain some common materials, including biographical information about the prophet, autobiographical materials, and oracles or speeches by the prophet. These collections can be categorized as anthologies, each with its own arrangement and set of themes.
Amos, like other prophetic books, is a collection of materials of different genres, some of which may be traced to Amos himself. Several larger units are identifiable as originally separate entities, including the oracles against the nations and the five visions expressing judgment on Israel. There are also blocks of text that many scholars think were added later and do not belong to Amos himself; the two most probable examples are the oracle against Judah (Am 2.4–5) and the oracle of promise to David (Am 9.11–15).
The career of Amos cannot be dated securely, but internal evidence from the text suggests that Amos was working as a prophet around 750. He was from Tekoa in the south, and much of his preaching was directed against the north. Also, Amos was not a “professional” prophet who earned his living through his gift. Rather, he was a sheep-raiser and a farmer who was called away from his work.
The book of Amos begins with a series of oracles against Israel’s neighbors, each of which is condemned for a different transgression of covenant to which Yahweh was a witness. The punishment for these violations is spelled out clearly as the destruction of these nations and the exile of its people. Furthermore, the nation of Israel (meaning all twelve tribes) is most guilty for breaking its covenant with Yahweh. The specifics of Israel’s guilt are not clear; however, we are told that the nation is guilty of injustice toward the innocent, sacred personnel, and the prophets of Israel. Like other nations, Israel would be punished by a foreign power and ultimately ruined.
Although all of the details are not clear, Amos’s reference to the Exodus provides some insight into the prophet’s primary motives. The covenant that Israel is guilty of breaking is the Sinai covenant, which stipulated that the Israelites worship Yahweh exclusively and protect the underprivileged. This concern for the poor sets the stage for a scathing attack against the wealthy and especially the ruling classes, whom Amos denounces as the root cause of the injustice. Amos reports that Yahweh is so angry at the Israelites that he will no longer accept sacrifices and prayers from them. In sum, Yahweh finds all of the Israelite rituals unacceptable, stating that social justice is what he demands.
Hosea is the longest work in the Minor Prophets, and like Amos it is an anthology made up of a collection of sources. Larger units include a biographical account of Hosea’s marriage (which serves as an analogue to God’s relationship to Israel), an autobiographical account of his marriage, and a series of oracles against Israel and especially the northern kingdom. This last component is divided into two separate collections, but the principle of their arrangement is unclear.
There is no definitive date for Hosea, but scholars think that he was writing in the third quarter of the eighth century BCE, a little after the time of Amos. We know few details about Hosea’s background, but internal references in the text suggest that he was a northerner. We are told that Hosea was married and had three children and that the marriage was unsettled. However, it is difficult to determine whether or not these are actual events since the entire episode is meant to act as a metaphor for the “stormy marriage” between God and Israel.
Hosea is best known for his use of this marriage metaphor, and both Jeremiah and Ezekiel will borrow this theme. Hosea also uses a parent-son image to describe the relationship between God and Israel. Therefore, although God is angry at Israel, these two metaphors demonstrate that God loves Israel and that there is the possibility of reconciliation.
Hosea also attacks Israel for its offenses against God. What is interesting here is that both oracles on judgment begin with a “lawsuit” that God brings against Israel for breaking the Sinai covenant. The primary offenses cited are worshiping other gods, making foreign alliances, and ignoring social justice. To Hosea, the lack of faith in Yahweh is also demonstrated by the existence of the monarchy, especially in the north, since it represented division rather than unity.
Hosea had a strong connection to the Deuteronomic movement, and the prophet stresses the importance of Moses’s teachings and the continued observance of the covenant between God and Israel. Like Deuteronomy, Hosea uses metaphorical language that describes the relationship between God and Israel as that of a parent, and he also stresses the necessity of the worship of Yahweh exclusively. Although Hosea predicts the destruction of northern Israel at the hands of the Assyrians, he also concludes that the relationship between God and Israel can be restored.
Implications for Our Study
Amos and Hosea represent the earliest works of the Latter Prophets. In the prophetic works that came later, we will see how subsequent prophets often adopted many of the themes seen here and made them their own. However, both of these works are valuable in their own right since they discuss the religious and ethical circumstances that led to the eventual demise of the northern kingdom. As a result, the biblical texts that follow focus exclusively on Judah since it continued to exist after the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE.