Are They Better Than These Kingdoms? – Amos 6:1-2
(1) Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
To those trusting in the mountain of Samaria;
The distinguished men of the first among nations,
And the house of Israel comes to them.
(2) Cross over to Kalneh and see,
Go from there to great Hamath,
And descend even to Philistia:
Are they better than these kingdoms?
Or is their border greater than your border?
False Hopes and Pretensions
In this passage, the prophet speaks specifically to the leaders of Israel and Judah – the social, economic, and political elite – and there is more than a hint of irony in his address. He speaks to the ones who are at ease in Zion and who trust in Mount Samaria. Zion is Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom of Judah, and Samaria was the capital of the kingdom of Israel. Both sha’ananim (those who are at ease) and botechim (those trusting) are focused on emotional states rather than physical postures. These words describe people who are not worried because they feel secure physically and economically. They have wealth that shields them from the harsh realities facing the average Israelite peasant. They also feel secure within the fortifications of Jerusalem and Samaria. They feel that through strength of arms they have a peace that will endure any threat that comes against them.
Amos’ way of addressing them feels ironic. He calls them the distinguished men of the chiefest of nations. Both aspects seem to be more what the elite would think of themselves than what Amos thinks of them. The word I have translated as “distinguished” (Heb. nequbey) strikes me as maybe a little pretentious. It is a passive participle form of a word that in most of its occurrences in Hebrew means “to pierce”. So the word “distinguished” literally means “the ones pierced”, which I take to mean “marked as separate” or “distinguished”. It is difficult to tell for certain whether there is any pretension in this term, because with this meaning the word occurs only here in the Hebrew Bible, but it may have been very common in 8th century BC spoken Hebrew. There is a cognate Arabic word naqiba or naqiban which “leader” or “captain”, so it is possible that nequbey in Hebrew connotes nothing more than “leader”.
However, the second part of this phrase “of the first among nations” certainly seems a little tongue-in-cheek and pretentious. The people whom Amos is addressing, who feel completely secure in their wealthy fortified capital cities of Jerusalem and Samaria, consider themselves to be the elite leaders of the greatest nations on earth. No nation has their glorious history, and no nation (in their estimation) is so richly blessed as theirs (Amos, of course would contest this, pointing out that the poor of their nation do not seem so well off). Moreover, the covenant people of the Creator come to them for leadership. They must really be something for God to have put them in this awesome position. The appearance that Amos is affirming their estimation of themselves is misleading. In fact, this is sarcasm, and virtually everything in the second half of verse one ought to be read with quotation marks around it.
Is “Zion” Problematic?
The appearance of the word “Zion” has had a tendency to strike commentators as strange. The reason is that it is assumed that the historical prophet Amos was focused on the Northern Kingdom more or less exclusively. This is also part of the reason that the oracle against Judah in chapter 2 is usually regarded with suspicion. Both this first phrase in 6:1 and the oracle against Judah in 2:4-5 are supposed to be late insertions into the text of Amos for the purpose of recontextualizing it for Judah after the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In addition to just simply removing the phrase as not belonging to the original text, numerous emendations have been proposed for this first clause, including changing the word “Zion” to some other location name, understanding “Zion” to refer not to Jerusalem but to Samaria, and altering the word sha’ananim, the word I have translated as “those who are at ease”. With the exception of the last alternative, none of the emendations have any textual basis, and all introduce as many problems as they purport to solve.
The only textual basis for emendation comes from the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Septuagint reading translates into “Woe to those despising Zion”, making it refer (probably) to the people of the Northern Kingdom, especially the political elite. The best explanation for this reading, however, is not that the Septuagint is translating from a legitimately different original Hebrew text, but that the word sha’ananim (“those who are at ease”) was either mistakenly read as sone’nim (“those who despise”) or the Hebrew manuscript from which the Septuagint was translated had mistakenly misspelled sha’ananim. In the strictly consonantly text of that time, the two words would have looked almost identical, differing only in two letters: an aleph and a nun that had swapped places.
The reason we can feel certain that the Masoretic Hebrew reading is better than the Hebrew manuscript we presume is behind the Septuagint is that the Septuagint reading actually requires other emendations to the Hebrew in order to be grammatically correct. Rather than sone’nim betsiyyon, it really ought to have read sone’ney tsiyyon, with a different ending to the first word and without the preposition b, which means “in”, being prefixed to “Zion”. Because of this, the easiest explanation for the Septuagint reading “Those hating Zion” is that either the translator or the scribe responsible for that manuscript made a mistake. The referents of this phrase clearly are the elite of Zion, meaning Jerusalem and not Samaria or some other city.
So if the reading is truly suspect (because, it is presumed, Amos would not have addressed the people of Jerusalem), the only option left to us, it seems to me, is to treat the phrase as a late addition to the text. However, I do not think we need to regard the reading as suspect. What we need to do is revisit the presuppositions that make us suspect the reading in the first place. I have already argued that the oracle against Judah in Amos 2:4-5 is an organic part of that initial “Oracles Against the Nations” part of Amos that serves to heighten the impact of the climactic oracle against the Northern Kingdom and without which there is a suspicious gap. Here in Amos 6:1, the place of the first clause, the one containing the word “Zion” is even more organically connected to the context in multiple ways. First, it nicely parallels and balances the phrase “those trusting in Mount Samaria” in multiple ways. Second, if it were a later insertion, the typical pattern for explanatory glosses inserted after the fact (which we do definitely have in the Bible) is to insert the gloss after whatever it explains. The phrase “those who are at ease in Zion” is not really an explanatory gloss but a recontextualizing gloss. Nevertheless, I think we are justified in expecting that the most typical place to insert even a recontextualizing gloss would be after the part of the original text that it was recontextualizing, meaning after the phrase “those trusting in Mount Samaria”. A third reason it belongs in this context is something that shows up in verse two, which we will cover in just a bit. For now, I just want to make the point that there is nothing inherent in the phrase “those who are at ease in Zion” that explicitly conflicts with the text.
Maybe, then, we ought to reconsider our assumption that Amos is a prophet who is exclusively concerned with the Northern Kingdom. Certainly, where place names are mentioned, most of the book of Amos seems focused on the Northern Kingdom. Amos’ autobiography, however, tells us that he is from Judah, and the oracle against Judah in chapter 2, I have argued, is original (or at least there is no need on a literary basis for it to be considered a later addition). Some of the preceding oracles could be directed against both Kingdoms, and “Israel” could refer to both Kingdoms together. The references to Beersheba in 5:5 and later in Amos are maybe a little difficult to reconcile with an exclusively northern audience. Amos’ reference in 7:15 to God’s command to him to “Go! Prophesy to my people Israel” does not have to be taken to mean that Amos’ commission was exclusively to the people of the Northern Kingdom. Perhaps Amos is more pan-Israelite than we have given him credit for.
“The Greatest Nation on Earth”
There is some disagreement about how to translate the rhetorical questions at the end of verse two. On the one hand, there are some who think that this verse is essentially the prophet saying to the elite, “You are no greater than the nations around you, therefore do not expect to fare better than they do when disaster comes.” On the other hand, there are some who think that the verse is actually saying (on the surface at least), “You are greater than the nations around you, so what could harm you?”
The interpretation of this verse hinges on who “these kingdoms” refers to. The words of the first rhetorical question literally are “Better than these kingdoms?” with an interrogative prefix on the word “better” that turns the phrase into question. Some translations, such as the ESV, the HCSB, and the NLT, translate this question as, “Are you better than these kingdoms?” “These kingdoms” is taken to refer to Calneh, Hamath, and Philistia, while the presumed subject of the comparative “better than these kingdoms?” is “You” or Israel. The chief problem with this interpretation is it clashes with the next question, “Are their borders larger than your borders?” If both questions are taken as rhetorical questions with a presumed answer of “no” (which is the most natural way to read these questions), the first question, if it means “Are you better than these kingdoms?” implies that “you”, meaning Israel, are not better than “these kingdoms” of Calneh, Hamath, and Philistia. The second question, however, implies that Israel’s borders are larger than the borders of “these kingdoms”, which contradicts the rhetoric of the first question. One says “these kingdoms” are greater, the other says “Israel” is greater.
Emendations to the second question have been suggested that would solve this problem, specifically to change the position of “their” and “your”, making the second question say instead, “Are your borders larger than their borders?” Again, however, there is no manuscript evidence of which I am aware to support swapping the positions of the pronouns.
Therefore, against the ESV, the HCSB, the NLT, and a number of commentators, it seems clear that the best way to understand “these kingdoms” is not as a reference to Calneh, Hamath, and Philistia, but as a reference to Israel and Judah, and this is the way a lot of other translations interpret it, including the KJV and the NIV. I suspect that part of the reason translators interpret “these kingdoms” to refer to Calneh, Hamath, and Philistia is that they are suspicious of the originality of “Zion” in verse one and suppose that originally there would have been no mention of Judah as a second kingdom with Israel. If Israel is the only kingdom mentioned in verse one, “these kingdoms” cannot refer to it, because this term is explicitly plural. But not only is this plurality yet more evidence that “Zion” in verse one is original, reading “these kingdoms” as a reference to Israel and Judah solves the problem of the conflicting rhetorical questions without requiring an emendation to the text. Now, the first question reads: “Are they (meaning Calneh, Hamath, and Philistia) better than these kingdoms (meaning Israel and Judah)?” The implied answer being “no”, the question exalts the status of Israel and Judah, just as the second question does.
Understood this way, if there was a hint of irony in the first verse, the irony is thick in verse two. The prophet says (or the prophet quotes the elite of Israel and Judah as saying), “Look at these other kingdoms around you? Are they better than you? Are their borders larger than yours?” The implied answer is “no”, and the rhetorical point of the questions is to say, “Look how awesome you are! You are blessed, the covenant people of Yahweh, and the greatest nation on Earth. What could possibly come against you?” Either the prophet is going full-on sarcasm mode here, or he is speaking from the perspective of the elite of Samaria and Zion as they would speak to the people of Israel who come to them for leadership. Either way, Amos is challenging this idea that Israel and Judah are the greatest nations on earth and that nothing could harm them.