The Authenticity of Amos 1:9-12

Almost univocally, biblical scholars doubt the authenticity of Amos’ oracle against Judah (Amos 2:4-5) (meaning they think these two verses do not originally come from Amos but from a later editorial insertion). There are important reasons for this. Natural skeptic that I am, I find these reasons suspect, but to refute them requires a longer argument than I want to make in this post today. Nevertheless, let me just say that I am not by any means convinced that arguments against the authenticity of the oracle against Judah hold water.

Additionally, not uncommonly (though not by any means universally) biblical scholars tend to doubt the authenticity of the oracles against Tyre (Amos 1:9-10) and Edom (Amos 1:11-12), and I’d like to take this post to make some comments about this tendency. In both cases, the arguments against their authenticity are even more dubious than the arguments against the authenticity of the Judah oracle. The tendency to doubt the authenticity of the oracles against Tyre and Edom goes back at least to Wellhausen, who did so, in part, because of the lack of the concluding “says the LORD” formula in both. His other reasons for regarding the Tyre oracle as dubious appear to be: (1) that it deals only with Tyre (the southernmost of the Phoenecian city-states) and not the rest of Phoenecia, and (2) that the charge against Tyre is essentially the same as that against the Philistines.

The Oracle Against Tyre

These reasons really should no longer be deemed sufficient to doubt the authenticity of these oracles without other evidence. As for concluding formula, artistic variation must be allowed for. Israelite prophecy and poetry is never at any point as blandly repetitive as people seem to think it is. While it is a far cry from the chaotic lack of formal repetition in much of 20th century English poetry, the dynamic variability of Hebrew literature makes a striking contrast with the comparable literature from Ugarit, where entire paragraphs are consistently repeated verbatim with no variation whatsoever. In Hebrew, in most cases something is different. Maybe not much, but something.

That the oracle against Tyre does not mention Sidon or Byblos is also inconclusive. Phoenecia was politically not a single nation, but rather a number of powerful city-states along with their colonies and surrounding villages. We also don’t know whether or to what extent the Phoenecians viewed themselves as a single common people, at all. Among these independent city-states, Tyre was the southernmost, the neighbor of Israel from its beginning (King Hiram of Tyre provided materials and skilled workers for the construction of Solomon’s Temple), and therefore the main Phoenecian city-state with whom Israel and Judah had anything to do. So we shouldn’t necessarily expect Amos to mention the other Phoenecian city-states the way he mentions four of the five Philistine cities in his oracle against Gaza. Though the Philistine cities were essentially independent, unlike the Phoenecians the Philistines certainly appear to have acted more in concert than the Phoenecians did and so probably to have regarded themselves as more of a single ethnic or cultural entity, if not a political one. The Aramaeans were also (apparently) not a single kingdom but a group of more or less independent city-states in what is now western Syria and eastern Lebanon. But for whatever reason, the Biblical authors treat Aram as a single entity, so mentioning other regions or cities in Aram makes more sense.

The final argument against the Tyre oracle’s authenticity, that its offense is essentially identical to the oracle against Gaza, is likewise not especially meaningful. As close as they are, the two oracles are not verbatim, and the offense that is described is, in my opinion, not a single action but a habitual one (the raiding of border villages and the kidnapping of their residents to be sold as slaves, probably without being technically “at war” with Israel or Judah). Both Tyre and Philistia could have been engaging in this kind of slave trade, and in both cases the Edomites, with their connection to Arabian merchants, would have been natural brokers. So without other evidence (of which there is none), there is not reason to doubt to authenticity of the oracle against Tyre.

The Oracle Against Edom

As for the oracle against Edom, there are other factors, and these point to a larger methodological problem in biblical studies. In a nutshell, the authenticity of Amos 2:11-12 is doubted because for one reason or another biblical scholars (at least those few who have published their own opinions on this matter) feel that the anti-Edomite attitude expressed belongs naturally to a later period in time and cannot be plausibly situated in the early 8th century BC. I’ve read several different versions of this argument, and all of them sound like this: “We don’t know of an event at this time when the Edomites raided a Judahite or Israelite city and engaged in the kind of violence described. We do, however, know of such an event from later (usually the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the early 6th century BC). This event is the only plausible moment in Israelite history when Israelites could have developed such a hatred for the Edomites as we see in Amos 1:11-12. Therefore, this text comes from after the early 6th century BC and cannot have been originally spoken by Amos.”

I am not simply setting up a straw man in my paraphrase of the argument. The kinds of leap in logic that I hope you see here are typical of the way biblical scholars date not only this text but a surprisingly large number of texts in the Hebrew Bible. “I don’t know specifically how it is relevant at its purported time, but I do know specifically how it is relevant at a later time, therefore it was written at the later time.”

A Fundamental Methodological Problem in Dating Texts

I wish this were obvious, but apparently it is not: just because you can read a text productively in light of a particular time period does not mean that that text derives from that time period. Part of what makes classic texts classic is the widespread feeling that these texts are enduringly relevant. Certainly, many if not most Christians feel that the Bible continues to be at times shockingly relevant 2,000 years or more after it was originally written. This relevance is often attributed to the Bible’s supposed divine authorship, but regardless of precisely why we think it remains relevant, no one would be justified in suggesting, based on its present relevance, that the Bible was actually written in the 20th century. Obviously, we have hard evidence that it was NOT written in the 20th century, but the point is the fallacious logic of biblical scholarship’s approach to dating biblical texts based upon how well the text seems to pertain to a particular point in time. More often than not, those points in time are periods that we think we know a lot about – the Babylonian Exile, the return of the captives under Persia, the Hellenizing efforts of the Seleucid period. And thinking we know a great deal about what appear to be the three or four most important moments in Israelite/Jewish history, we presume all texts must be dated to those points in time, because if there had been another point in time when something significant enough to motivate the writing of texts had occurred, we would know about it.

 – Just because you can read a text productively in light of a particular time period does not mean that that text derives from that time period. – 

Does that sound circular? That’s because it is. And it isn’t limited to some bygone era. The same logic drives almost every effort to date texts and their supposed redactional layers even today. Here’s an example from a recent monograph on Amos by Tchavdar Hadjiev, concerning the dating of the oracle against Edom in Amos 1:11-12 to the 6th century BC rather than the 8th century BC:

Amos 1:11-12 seems to breathe the same air as the other OT passages against Edom coming from the exilic and post-exilic period. The unusually long deliberation of Edom’s guilt, in contrast to the preceding OAN [i.e., oracles against the nations], and the reference to his wrath tearing and keeping watch ‘forever’ seem to reflect a notable outrage like the one committed in the 6th cent. Nothing of that sort is attested for the 9th and 8th century when Judah was usually the oppressor and had the upper hand.1

The fact that “nothing of that sort is attested” is nowhere near evidence that nothing of that sort actually occurred. This is nothing more than an argument from silence. And I am not wanting to single out Hadjiev for special criticism. He is, in fact, doing precisely what biblical scholarship has endorsed as legitimate for generations. In actual fact, the book from which this passage comes (the published version of his doctoral dissertation) is actually an attempt to revisit the question of the redaction of Amos from a more moderate and simplified perspective (and is well worth anyone’s read, in my opinion – I am drawing a great deal from it). The point I am making is how unthinkingly biblical scholars use this “it is relevant in this time period, therefore it comes from this time period” kind of reasoning.

The Epistemological Limitations of Archaeology and Historiography

Hadjiev goes on to make a somewhat better argument a few sentences down: “[A]rchaeological evidence suggests that Edom’s state consolidated only in the 8th century BC and Edomite prosperity and growing power was a direct result of the establishment of Assyrian control over the area.”2 This is the kind of extratextual evidence one can use to establish the plausibility of a text in a given time period, but as much as archaeology can tell us, it cannot give us anything like a comprehensive list of events for any time period. In other words, archaeology can tell us some of the things that happened, but it cannot tell us all the things that happened or, usually, that a particular thing did NOT happen.

 – [A]s much as archaeology can tell us, it cannot give us anything like a comprehensive list of events for any time period. –

For the time period in question (late 9th/early 8th century BC), we know remarkably little outside of what the Bible tells us of what happened in the region of Judah and Israel, and Bible gives us only the barest of summaries of events in Kings, referring the reader to presumably more comprehensive lists of events and accomplishments in the Annals of the Kings of Judah and the Annals of the Kings of Israel. Chronicles is hardly better in this regard, giving us no information about the northern kingdom at all and only a slightly more detailed account of certain kings of the southern kingdom (including Uzziah), but still referring the reader to outside sources for more. In other words, both of our historiographical witnesses to the time period of Amos are self-consciously summarized and selective. What evidence, then, do we have that, for example, Edom did NOT raid the borders of Judah and commit violence during a period of weakness.

Furthermore, why do biblical scholars assume they have sufficient encyclopedic knowledge of all events in Israelite history when they themselves doubt the comprehensiveness and even accuracy of our chief source of information about Israelite history, the Bible itself. As mentioned, archaeology is by its nature incapable of giving us anything like a comprehensive list of events. The kinds of events we can see in archaeology are usually calamities of unusual proportion: a gigantic earthquake, the destruction of a wall (which didn’t happen that often), or an entire city being burned to the ground.

On the other hand, a rash of Edomite raids on unwalled Judahite villages during the final years of Amaziah’s reign and maybe the early years of Uzziah’s reign probably would not leave much a mark in the archaeological record nearly 3,000 years after the fact, assuming we even know the location of these villages and have digs there. Scholars assume that what is mentioned in Amos 1:11-12 must be a single event, albeit one that is described in rather vague terms (which is yet another reason that scholars doubt the authenticity of the oracle). But the vagueness of the Edomite oracle could be because it is describing a long period of habitual raiding action rather than a single military campaign (especially if an organized Edomite state did not really emerge until the latter half of the 8th century BC). My reading of the oracles against Tyre and the Philistines also leans toward seeing them as describing not a single act but a recurring or habitual act (the fact that the offenses are described almost identically points in this direction). So rather taking a lack of evidence in the archaeological record as proof against the historicity of the text, the text more plausibly points us to the fact that the archaeological record is an extremely incomplete record of anything other than the most dramatic and calamitous of events.

– The kinds of events we can see in archaeology are usually calamities of unusual proportion. –

In conclusion, I find the arguments against the authenticity of the oracles against Tyre and Edom to be utterly lacking in power and sometimes even logic. I am not a priori committed against finding compositional layers in Amos 1-2. I just want to see real evidence that doesn’t depend upon an a priori commitment toward finding compositional layers in Amos 1-2 to be convincing.

1. Tchavdar S. Hadjiev, The Composition and Redaction of the Book of Amos, BZAW 393 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), p. 44, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2017).2. Hajdiev, pp. 44-45.

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