The Book of Amos: A Commentary
A review of Jorg Jeremias, "The Book of Amos: A Commentary," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Jeremias, Jörg. The Book of Amos: A Commentary. Transl. by D. W.Stott. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998. $26.00. 177 pp.
Jeremias has been publishing the results of his research on Amos in journals and collections of essays for several years. It is an encouragement for Amos research to see a swift translation of his 1995 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) volume into English, thereby making this important contribution accessible to a much larger audience.
This volume appears in the Old Testament Library series, but it has not been advertized as a replacement for the well-known work on Amos in this same series by James Mays (1969). The style is concise and clear, but for more in-depth discussions the reader is referred to another book which was published by the author concurrently with the German commentary: Hosea und Amos (Mohr [Siebeck], 1995). The format of this commentary follows that of others in the series, in that a translation of each section of the biblical book precedes the author’s textual observations. What is new, however, is that what Jeremias considers to be exilic and post-exilic appears in the translation in italics. In addition, the comments related to these phrases and/or verses are put in a slightly smaller typeface and are indented.
Jeremias suggests that the book of Amos was produced through various stages over time. The initial edition worked on by the first tradents of Amos’ words contained earlier versions of the Oracles against the Nations (chpts. 1-2) and of the visions (chpts. 7-9), which framed the original shape of the oracles of chpts. 3-6; 5:1-17 were (and still are) the central focus of the book. Subsequently, during the time of the prophet Jeremiah, a series of amplifications were added, before a Deuteronomistic stage with its own particular emphases reworked some of the book’s material after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Later postexilic redactors added the closing words about differentiating the guilty and the innocent within chastised Israel (9:7-10) and a message of hope (9:11-15). Jeremias explains that methodologicallly he works backwards, from the final shaping to the message of the actual prophet. The amount of redaction and literary craft makes him uncertain just how much any of Amos’ original words are recoverable with much certainty.
This German scholar’s work, however, is a wonderfully creative contribution to the critical approach. While he does write from a critical perspective and, therefore, will hold some of those classic positions in Amos studies (for example, the notion of a deuteronomistic redaction as expounded in a famous 1965 essay by W. H. Schmidt and by H. W. Wolff in his form critical commentary in the Hermeneia series) as well as suggest his own new critical perspectives on the text, at the same time he has a sensitivity to literary issues within the received text that is so often lacking in critical sources. Not only does he observe how different verses and sections of the book develop common themes and respond to the other declarations about God and the society of Israel within the book (he notes, for instance, the interplay betweeen the Oracles against the Nations and the visions), he points out structures within the principal sections of the text.
A good example of this combination of critical theory and literary awareness is Jeremias’ treatment of Amos 5:1-17. Since the 1970s scholars have recognized a chiasm or ring composition for this section, yet some critical scholars continue to deal with the text in a tradtional critical manner and ignore the literary craft in the shaping of these verses. Jeremias, however, does recognize the arrangement, but at the same time also comments: “… the basic outline of this consciously artisitic structure already goes back to the first tradents of Amos, while the core of the doxology (v. 8) and its interpretation in v. 9 (as well as vv. 5a, 6, 13) were not added until the exilic/postexilic period” (p. 85).
Nevertheless, one wonders if the author can really have it both ways. The intricacy of this and other structures in the book, both at micro and macro levels, would require a consistent poetic touch by all those involved in the production of the book of Amos over the various centuries in which it supposedly took shape. These redactors/tradents would have to have had the skill both to catch the artistry of the earlier levels as well as to then consciously build on them to create the impressive patterns in the final form of the book. Other recent commentators, such as Shalom Paul (Hermeneia series, Fortress, 1991) and F. I. Andersen and D. N. Freedman (Anchor Bible series 24A, Doubleday, 1989), argue that the literary cohesiveness and poetic touches point away from the hypothetical stages of production long argued by some critics. Jeremias’ commentary seems to fit into some middle ground, but as more literary studies of the book appear (some by this reviewer) it might be increasingly difficult to maintain that posture. The literary arguments are now being bolstered by more finds from the Ancient Near East that could also add solid historical grounds for the substantial authenticity of this prophetic book. In other words, whatever might have been the actual original product of the prophet Amos and the process of the shaping of the book that bears his name, the critical paradigm seems to losing some of its ability to credibly explain all sorts of data.
Having said this, however, I would recommend this commentary for anyone seriously interested in Amos studies. Jeremias has been an impressive figure in the field for a number of years, and scholars should welcome this translation of a critic who is moving into new areas. Though not everyone will agree with some of his positions, no reader can be disappointed by the wealth of insightful observations on the biblical text. All will be challenged to approach the book of Amos with a more careful eye to the details of its enduring message.
M. Daniel Carroll R.