Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Amos, prophet and martyr

The Call of Amos
By the unknown illustrator of Petrus Comestor's "Bible Historiale," France, 1372

As the month of March draws to a close, the traditional Roman Martyrology presents for our veneration one more Old Testament saint -- another divinely inspired writer of Holy Scripture, author of the Book of Amos, one of the Twelve Minor Prophets, who heads the list of saints in the Roman Martyrology today:

This Day, the Thirtieth-First Day of March

At Thecua, in Palestine, the holy prophet Amos, whom the priest Amasias frequently scourged, and whose temples Ozias, that priest's son, pierced with an iron spike. Being carried half dead to his native place, he expired there and was buried with his forefathers.

St. Amos (whose name means "Burden" in Hebrew) lived in the 700s B.C. during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam II of Israel.  Thus, he was a contemporary of the holy prophet St. Jonas, but he apparently exercised his prophetic ministry prior to the divine call of St. Isaias.  From his own prophetic book, we learn that St. Amos was a mere herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees who lived at the town of Thecua (Tekoa) in the Kingdom of Judah when God spoke to him and instructed him to go to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and prophesy against Israel for their many sins.  Under Jeroboam II, Israel experienced a resurgence of military, economic, and cultural prominence, but, like the peoples of the post-Christian West today, the Israelites in those days were exceedingly wicked, enslaved by the sins of idolatry, syncretism, empty ritualism, sexual immorality, avarice, cruelty, and the oppression of the poor.  In fulfilling his mission, St.  Amos rebuked Israel for its many sins and warned the Northern Kingdom that God would punish them for their sins by expelling them from the Holy Land.  Nevertheless, he concluded his prophetic oracle with a vision of the future glorious restoration of Israel under the Messianic Dynasty of King David, when God's chosen people would receive blessings beyond imagining and enjoy peace and security in God's presence:

"In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, that is fallen: and I will close up the breaches of the walls thereof, and repair what was fallen: and I will rebuild it as in the days of old. That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all nations, because my name is invoked upon them: saith the Lord that doth these things. Behold the days come, saith the Lord, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed: and the mountains shall drop sweetness, and every hill shall be tilled. And I will bring back the captivity of my people Israel: and they shall build the abandoned cities, and inhabit them: and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine of them: and shall make gardens, and eat the fruits of them. And I will plant them upon their own land: and I will no more pluck them out of their land which I have given them, saith the Lord thy God." (Amos 9:11-14)

In this vision, we find not merely a prophecy of the restoration of Davidic rule over a united Israel, but even more, a prophecy of the Resurrection of Christ, whose "tabernacle" (i.e., body; cf. John 1:14, which says the Word was made flesh and "dwelt" -- literally in the Greek, "pitched his tent" or "tabernacled" -- with us) was raised up the third day.  In the prophecy of the ploughman overtaking the reaper and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed, we also find mystically foretold the ineffable Mystery of Faith, the Holy Eucharist in which God transubstantiates the consecrated wheat bread and wine to provide the true food and true drink of His People, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, the Son of David.

Even so, the bulk of the prophetic burden of St. Amos was one of the holy denunciation of Israel's grievous immorality and the warning of God's wrath.  Outraged by what God had sent St. Amos to tell Israel, however, the idolatrous high priest Amasias (Amaziah) threatened God's prophet with death unless he returned to Judah.  As the Roman Martyrology indicates, ancient tradition tells us that this persecution at the hands of Amasias and of Ozias, son of Amasias, led to the prophet's martyrdom.  The Roman Martyrology's traditions regarding the martyrdom of St. Amos the Prophet are derived from such ancient Jewish and Christian sources as The Lives of the Prophets, a text to which we have referred frequently in our review of the Old Testament saints who are venerated on the calendar of the Latin Church.  The text, as we have mentioned before, was a first century A.D. Jewish writing that formerly was incorrectly attributed to St. Epiphanius, a Church Father who lived in the fourth century A.D. This is what The Lives of the Prophets has to say of the death of St. Amos:

"He was from Tekoa. Amaziah (the priest of Bethel) had often beaten him, and at last Amaziah's son killed him with a cudgel, striking him on the temple. While still living he made his way to his land, and after some days died and was buried there."

However, the old Catholic Encyclopedia expressed skepticism toward the ancient legends of the martyrdom of St. Amos, opining that, "How [the prophet's mission] came to an end is not known; for only late and untrustworthy legends tell of Amos's martyrdom under the ill-treatment of Amasias and his son. It is more probable that, in compliance with Amasias's threatening order (vii, 12), the prophet withdrew to Juda, where at leisure he arranged his oracles in their well-planned disposition."  On the other hand, there is no reason why St. Amos could not have written the nine chapters of his book and then afterwards suffered martyrdom at the hands of the son of the evil priest of the false gods of Bethel.  There is, in fact, no other tradition regarding the death of St. Amos but the one recounted in The Lives of the Prophets and the traditional Roman Martyrology, and for that reason alone it ought not be dismissed -- especially when we recall that St. Stephen and St. Jeremias indicated that it was the rule, rather than the exception, that the prophets suffered martyrdom (Acts 7:52; Jer. 2:30).

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!