The Cows of Bashan – Amos 4:1-3

4:1. Listen to this word, you Bashan cows who are on the mountain of Samaria,
Oppressing the helpless, crushing the poor,
Saying to their husbands, bring and let us drink.

When Amos utters these words, he appears to turn his attention to the women of Samaria, and our typical modern response is either to chuckle or be insulted. Or maybe both. But what is actually going on here? If we call a woman a cow today, it is highly insulting, but the insult is embedded in our culture as an insult. In fact, I would estimate that more than 75% of comparisons of a human to a non-human animal in modern Western culture are intended to be insulting, and there is usually some sort of convention behind it. Can we say the same is true in Amos’ day, when lovers might compare each other to deer or to palm trees? Clearly, Amos isn’t wanting to address these women as lovers, but does a comparison to cows necessarily carry the same kind of vulgar sting in 8th century BC Israel as it would today? Since we cannot really know the answer to that question, let us try to listen to these words without assuming the insult that would be intended with these same words today, because such an assumption shuts down our minds and hearts to Amos legitimate prophetic message.

The word translated “cows” is a feminine noun (pārôt), and the verb forms and pronouns in verses 1-3 are all feminine plural, as well. Perhaps this is only an image, though, of the Samarian elite, both male and female. Two other pieces of evidence point toward “cows” referring specifically to the women of Samaria:

  1. They say to their adonim “Bring and let us drink.” The word adonim is a masculine plural of adon, which means lord or master, or in the domestic realm it can mean husband (as also its synonym baal). I have difficulty understanding what this image could be referring to if the male and female elite of Samaria are both saying to their adonim “Bring and let us drink?” If “cows” refers to the female social elite, then the adonim are their husbands. But if “cows” refers to both male and female social elite, what could the adonim be referring to?
  2. In verse 3 we find the word isshah (woman) which makes the connection as explicit as we could reasonably expect. There is no reason why the male and female social elite of Samaria would both be referred to as an isshah.

Bashan is an area east of the Jordan River that essentially corresponds to what is today called Golan Heights. It is a rich land with expansive plains and rugged hills, known from antiquity for its cattle and for its oak trees. “Cows of Bashan” or “Bashan cows” either refers to a specific breed or simply to the well fed, excellent quality cattle that came from this region.

In comparing the wealthy women of Samaria to Bashan cows, the emphasis is probably not on their weight, since in the ancient world being moderately overweight was actually seen as highly attractive. Why? Because what we deem attractive really comes down to our perception of health. At a time when we you were more likely to die of problems associated with malnutrition than of heart disease or complications arising from diabetes, being overweight actually gave you an advantage in the struggle for survival. An overweight wealthy woman was more likely to be able to bear healthy babies than a malnourished peasant woman.

So what does all this mean? While Amos’ comparison of the women of Samaria to Bashan cows was intended, I think, to call them well fed as well as lazy, for Amos to call the women of Samaria well fed was not in itself insulting. The laziness is the more important vice. In other words, he was not so much calling them fat cows as lazy cows.

This brings us back to the real problem: the culture of the elites of Samaria, both male and female, demonstrated a total lack of godly character. For just a moment, Amos focuses on the women to reveal how that ungodly character was manifested in their particular realm. That lack of good character is revealed in two chief aspects:

  1. They oppress the helpless and crush the poor. They are elitist women who cannot be bothered to think about those beneath their station.
  2. They are lazy rather than hardworking. They just lie about and call on their husbands to bring them more to drink, like cows lazily grazing.

The fact is that if Amos had said these things of the men of Samaria, it would have been just as condemning. Both of these characteristics contrast with the Hebrew ideal of good character for a male or a female. But since Amos is focusing on the women, the obvious place to look for the principles of good character is Proverbs 31.

  • In Proverbs 31, the woman of noble character gets up while it is still night to provide food for her household, including her servants (v. 15). She extends her hand to poor and reaches out to the needy (v. 20). She watches over the ways of her household (v. 27). In Amos 4, the cow of Bashan oppresses the helpless and crushes the poor.
  • In Proverbs 31, the woman of noble character is like the merchant ships, bringing food from afar (v. 14). She works hard and strengthens her arms (v. 17). She is not idle (v. 27), constantly making things, selling things, and making smart investments on her own judgment and with her own resources (vv. 16, 19, 22, 23). She works to bring her husband honor in the city gates (v. 23) and this brings her honor in the city gates (v. 31). In Amos 4, the cow of Bashan calls to her husband and says, “Bring me something to drink.”

We should be careful not to interpret either Proverbs 31 or Amos 4 as an endorsement of specific gender roles. Neither passage is about gender roles. The often overlooked fact about Proverbs 31 is that, if you really think about it, it is just as applicable to men as it is to women. Proverbs 31 isn’t about a checklist of activities. It is about good character as manifested in a sampling of behaviors. The principles of good character that lie behind the specific behaviors include diligence, shrewdness, concern for those under you, selflessness – in short, the heart of a wise servant. These are the exact same principles that the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, ascribes to the man of good character. So Proverbs 31 isn’t really about gender roles (buying a field and planting a vineyard certainly sounds like a more typically masculine activity, right?), it is about good character. Likewise, Amos 4:1 isn’t about the violation of gender roles. It is about ungodly character, and this is simply one snapshot of it.

2. The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness,
That days are coming upon you
He will lift you up on hooks,
And the last of you on fish hooks.

This verse seems to continue the image of the women of Samaria as Bashan cows, but this time as slaughtered cattle hung up on hooks. In the previous verse, they are fattened cattle grazing and drinking at their leisure. This verse is saying that their destiny is that of fattened cattle – to be slaughtered and have their carcasses hung up on hooks. It is possible that image and reality may have coalesced here in death by impalement. We know that the Assyrians did impale people, particularly enemy soldiers, to demoralize the conquered people, but I don’t know of any direct evidence that shows Assyrians impaling women in this way. However, we do know that women were impaled in the ancient Near East. Impalement was the method of punishment for women who were convicted of killing their husbands for another man, and it is possible that in some Babylonian city-states women were impaled for adultery, period. Neverhtheless, what Amos is saying here is, “You fattened cattle will end up the way fattened cattle end up.”

3. And through breaches you will go out, a woman straight ahead of her,
And you will be cast out to Harmon, says the LORD.

The Hebrew of this verse is extremely difficult to make sense of. It is not clear whether the women-as-cattle imagery of the preceding verses has been brought over into this verse. The first word is a plural noun in the absolute, so literally “breaches” or “gaps”, but it appears to be used adverbially, “through breaches [in the walls]”. I don’t know of another instance of this word being used in this way. The meaning of ishah negdah (a woman, or each woman, in front of her) isn’t clear, but apparently it is talking about the women going out in straight lines. The verb hishlakhtenah ought to mean “you women will cast out”, but there is no object, and the context seems to dictate that the women are the ones being cast out, meaning we would expect a passive voice rather than an active voice. This is why a number of commentators emend this form to a Hophal form (hoshlakhtenah) to make it passive (“you will be cast out”). This changes only one short vowel in the first syllable – hireq (short “i”) to qamets hatuph or qibbuts (short “o” or “u”) and leaves the consonants alone, so this emendation is relatively non-controversial.

Finally, we don’t know what to make of haharmonah. Is it a proper place name, or is it a common noun meaning something like “refuse heap”? Since the cattle image seems to have been abandoned, I think a more realistic interpretation rather than symbolic one is to be preferred. Some have suggested that Harmon might be Armenia, which lies north of Assyria in the area of Mount Ararat. There is still a country named Armenia that is east of Turkey and north of Iraq and Iran, sitting in the highlands of the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. The present day country of Armenia occupies a portion of the ancient Armenia, which extended into what is now eastern Turkey. The country at the time of Amos was most commonly called Urartu (related to the name Ararat, as in Mount Ararat), but the first known king of Urartu, who had reigned about 80 to 100 years before Amos prophesied in Israel, was named Arame or Aramu. This King Arame may be the origin of the word “Armenian”, since a country would often be called after its king or after its dynastic fountainhead. For example, Israel was called Bit Omri, or “house of Omri”, in Assyria and other places, because of Omri’s historical importance in establishing a stable, powerful, and relatively long-lived dynasty in the northern kingdom. Without other data, I tend to think that identifying Harmon as Armenia is the best understanding, and this means that Assyrian destruction and deportation is specifically what Amos is prophesying over Samaria.

So according to Amos 4:1-3, because in their laziness they oppressed the poor, the wealthy women of Samaria have one of two destinies in front of them – either to be slaughtered as fattened cattle, or to be herded out pf the city and taken away to a far off country. I don’t think he is calling them “cows of Bashan” simply to insult them.

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