Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Peter Riede, Vom Erbarmen zum Gericht: Die Visionen des Amosbuches (Am 7-9*) und ihr literatur- und traditionsgeschichtlicher Zusammenhang (WMANT, 120; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2008). Pp. XIII + 384. Hardback. €54.00. ISBN 978-3-7887-2245-6.

The book, written as a Habilitationsschrift at the University of Tübingen (mentor Bernd Janowski), starts with the observation, “Zu den umstrittensten Prophetentexten des Alten Testaments gehören gegenwärtig die Visionenen des Amosbuches (Am 7-9*)” (p. 1). This opinion refers not only to the conceptual and traditionsgeschichtliche background of the visions, but even more to their overall theological message. In the course of the visions an inevitable judgment of annihilation is announced to the people of God (“my people the children of Israel”) (cf. Amos 8:2). Therefore, it is not by coincidence that when it came to the question about the nature of the prophecy of the eighth century, Amos 7-9 became a locus classicus among scholars. Was it a radical, unavoidable message of judgment? Or was there a possibility of repentance or even a willingness to forgive on the part of YHWH? The visions reflect this fundamental question for the study of prophecy under a magnifying glass.

At the beginning of his book Riede examines recent redaction-critical (redaktionsgeschichtliche) and tradition-historical (traditionsgeschichtliche) approaches to Amos' visions and outlines a two-part investigation. He first attempts the philological and traditionsgeschichtliche interpretation of the visions within the composition of the series as a whole. He then considers the question of dating. In other words, do the visions come from the prophet Amos? Do they tell us anything about the understanding of prophecy of the eighth century, or do they need to be read as a later theological case of “coming to terms with the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung)?

In the first section Riede deals with visions 1-4. He considers them to be (with Jörg Jeremias among others) “eine paarweise angeordnete Komposition” (p. 32), in which the two pairs are “kontrastiv aufeinander bezogen” (p. 32). The traditionsgeschichtliche, religious-historical and motif-historical classifications occupy most of the space. The first two visions present what had already taken place, namely a swarm of grasshoppers and fire. YHWH, who had at first benevolently attached himself to his people now draws away and brings evil upon them. As a result the prophet appears as an intercessor for his people attempting to prevent YHWH from carrying out the proposed destruction and to bring about God's “repentance.” This idea of repentance is dropped in visions 3 and 4. Contrary to visions 1 and 2 in which the destruction is realized by natural threats, God carries out the destruction himself in these visions. The wall made out of “tin” (Riede's interpretation for the difficult אנך), originally an image for the protection by the deity of the city, takes a bad turn just as the empty harvest basket that originally stood for the secure supply with food. In this way the 4th vision aims at the center of power. Therefore, in the course of the 4 visions “eine Art Lernprozeß (learning process), als dessen Folge Amos das Unheil benennen und herbeirufen muß” takes place (p.156).

Riede dedicates the second, larger part of his book to the 5th vision (9:1-4), which he understands as the original and natural conclusion of the first four visions. What the 4th vision only announces is then carried out in Amos 9:1-4, namely the announcement of the end. Riede rejects the recent attempts by E.-J. Waschke, M. Köhlmoos et al. to read the 5th vision as a Fortschreibung and instead offers a detailed tradition-historical and religionsgeschichtliche classification (cf. already F. Hartenstein, Die Unzugänglichkeit Gottes im Heiligtum [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag 1997], 100-122). As such the 5th vision is seen as a largely consistent text that is distinguished formally from visions 1-4, and, for this reason, makes the shaking of the sanctuary the culmination of the whole course of visions. The vision thereby assumes “kosmologische Vorstellungen des Nordreichs” (p.280) like those implied in Gen 28:10-28. There are no indicators that point to the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather everything points to Bethel, the Northern Kingdom, and the institution of the monarchy. Thus a late-dating of the 5th vision is averted.

In the third part of the book the author briefly addresses the interpretation of the Amos' visions in Amos 7:10-17 and 8:4-14. Thereby the narrative 7:10-17 functions as an explanation of the visions, pointing out how the northern kingdom separated itself from God.

This analysis supports the literary unity of the five visions. In their literary shape, they reach back to Amos or his immediate circle of disciples so that they reflect the mysterious and irrefutable experiences of the prophet himself. Their sequence illustrates his way of understanding and helps as well to authorize the unconditional prophecy of judgment, which emerged in the 8th century.

The thesis of the book is not new, but the reader can be grateful for the nearly exhaustive background information on Traditions- and Religionsgeschichte. The visions of Amos indeed belong to the most important texts in the study of the theology of the prophets and of prophecy. Therefore, it is no surprise that one essential problem runs through the whole book: Is the person of the prophet the most suitable starting point for an investigation or does the book need to be recognized as a literary corpus sui generis? Obviously the visions in Amos 7-9 portray and stylize the prophet as the recipient of a series of images with a somewhat outrageous message. However, is the historicity of the visions of Amos and their origin in Amos himself proven? And why is it so important to attribute the visions to Amos himself? This question reignites fundamental hermeneutical questions. The argument advanced here quite often bears an apologetic character, e.g., when—with the help of rather doubtful reference texts (cp. only Gen 28:10—28)-the 5th vision is dated to the eighth century and linked to Bethel. Even if Amos 9:1-4 did come from the eighth century, which in my view is impossible for composition-historical reasons, still nothing would be said about the “mysterious experiences” of a prophet called Amos.

A second question comes up that concerns the composition of the book. How are the visions embedded and integrated in the book of Amos as a literary composition? It is unlikely that the visions originally built an independent collection and that the connection to Amos 3-6 is just a result of a later redactional work. The visions can be read easily as Fortschreibungen of the core of the book. Such an approach explains the “gaps” in the visions: Amos 3-6 presents the sin of the people, and the visions (Amos 7-9) lead the reader to an appropriate punishment. At this point a look at more recent scholarship on the prophets could have provided some assistance, especially that with the focus on the final form of the book, and which does not necessarily exclude the question of the historical Amos. This suggestion also applies to the unproven assumption that Gen 6:13 (and a number of further references to Genesis) can only be read in terms of a literary dependence of the book of Amos, and not the other way around.

Nevertheless the reader is grateful for a solid explanation of the visions in the book of Amos. Whether his proposal for the historical critical classification will become the ultimate word on the matter is very doubtful.

Prof. Dr. Uwe Becker, Theologische Fakultät, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Germany