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Shiur #81: The Prophecies of Amos: BACK TO BASICS REBUKE (8:4-8): PISHEI YISRAEL REVISITED

  • Rav Yitzchak Etshalom
Dedicated in loving memory of
Dr. Saul G. Agus, z”l
Whose 5th Yahrzeit is Iyar 3
Marcelle A. Agus and
the Agus/ Fox Families
Section 2: Verse 8
In last week’s shiur, we began our study of Amos’s pronouncement, invoking God’s oath with the anticipated message of how the wealthy merchants of Shomeron would be punished. We analyzed the notion of God’s swearing and the various formulae used to express that in Tanakh. We also looked at the phrase “geon Ya’akov” as used twice in Amos, once in Nachum and, perhaps most famously, once in Tehillim (Ch. 47).
All of that, comprising verse 7, is intended to introduce the punishment; we will now turn our attention to the final verse in this set (verse 8) which explicates that sentence.
Ha-al zot lo tirgaz ha-aretz
Will the land not tremble for this?
The opening hei is clearly the rhetorical hei which turns the phrase into a question, as translated here. The commentators, modern as well as medieval, understand zot to refer back to the venal and greedy attitudes of the merchants outlined above in verses 4-6, along with their actual exploitation of the poor which is the outgrowth of those wicked traits. This is, however, a bit difficult, as the singular zot refers to one thing, not a list; we would expect eileh, as this phrase appears three times in Yirmeyahu (see also Yeshayahu 57:6, 64:11):
Ha-al eileh lo efkod [bam] ne’um Hashem, im be-goi asher ka-zeh, lo titnakem nafshi?
Shall I not punish for these things? says the Lord; and will My soul not be avenged on a nation such as this? (5:9, 29; 9:8, with bam)
In other words, it is the norm in prophetic rhetoric, when moving from a multi-pronged accusation to the pronouncement of Divine sentence, to employ eileh as a reference to the entire list of crimes. Why does Amos use zot here? There is no matching instance of ha-al zot anywhere in Tanakh.
There is one approach that is more or less consistent with the mainstream interpretive strategy. Rashi comments: “Is this sin (avon zeh) not enough to cause the land to be destroyed?” Similarly, Radak states: “Will the land not tremble/ quake for this evil (ha-ra’a ha-zot)?” Although Radak hews a bit closer to the language of the text (maintaining the feminine zot), they both seem to be sensitive to this problem and address it by turning the list of the evil plans of the merchants into one consummate evil. This is, however, inconsistent with the passages cited above, in which the prophet lists a number of manifestations of one crime (in Yirmeyahu 9, for instance, dishonesty) and yet refers to them with the plural eileh.
I’d like to propose that the zot in our verse is not the crime or criminal behaviors, but rather the oath which introduces the punishment. God has sworn that He will not forget their deeds — and isn’t that terrifying and ominous oath enough to shake the earth? This also explains the use of the feminine zot (in agreement with shevua).
The root reish-gimmel-zayin appears over fifty times in Tanakh, sometimes meaning “quake” (as in Shemot 15:14) and, less frequently, “anger” (e.g. I Shemuel 28:15). Coming at our phrase from another angle, there are several terms employed by the text to denote an “earthquake”. Amos’s prophetic agency is dated to “shenatayim lifnei ha-ra’ash,” “two years before the earthquake” (1:1). The biblical descriptions of “dancing” mountains, as in Tehillim 29 and 114, as well as Tehillim 68 and Shoftim 5, utilize various terms. However, a limited group of texts utilize these two words, rogez and eretz, together to indicate an earthquake. Thirteen passages fit into this category, of which only six appear in the prophetic canon. A brief survey of these passages may shed light on Amos’s rhetorical strategy here.
Before looking at the usage in the works of the literary prophets, let us briefly note the two instances in Sefer Shemuel. The second one (II Shemuel 22:8: Tehillim 18:8) is poetic and not part of our discussion here.
As for the first (I Shemuel 14:15) it appears in the prose report of the confusion that overtakes the Pelishti camp when Yonatan and his weapons-carrier first attack the lackadaisical guards of the base camp. The image of the earth quaking as a way of describing a military camp in turmoil and havoc cuts in two directions. First of all, the physical/ auditory sense of quaking is a piece of literary genius. From the perspective of Shaul and his cohorts looking down at the “trembling camp” from a nearby mountaintop, the noise and tumult could easily seem to have the same effect as an earthquake. Added to that, however, is the internal dynamic in the camp: anger, confusion and terror, all of which may be summed up with the word rogez (see, respectively, II Melakhim 19:28 [= Yeshayahu 37:29], Tehillim 99:1 and Iyov 3:26). Using the phrase “vatirgaz ha-aretz” is a delightful merging of the external perception and the internal reality. This may set the tone for the use of this uncommon phrase in prophetic speech.
Indeed, the first use of this imagery in Yeshayahu is also illuminative, even though it doesn’t directly use rogez with eretz:
Al-kein shamayim argiz ve-tirash ha-aretz mimekomah be-evrat Hashem Tzevaot u-vyom charon apo.
Therefore I will make the heavens to tremble and the earth will be shaken out of its place at the wrath of the Lord of hosts and for the day of His fierce anger.
The earth’s shaking is a function of God’s anger — hence both senses of rogez again come together. Perhaps the text will only use this phrase to denote an earthquake when it is both the geo as well as the theo (so to speak) that shakes.
One last note about this phrase. Amos opens up with the rhetorical hei, as noted above, which turns the negating lo into a rhetorical question; an expanded form of “Ha-lo,” “Is it not?” It may be significant that Amos does not use the rhetorical lo often; aside from one more use at the opening of his penultimate prophetic sequence (9:7), he uses it exclusively in the justification (apologia) for his opening oracle against Yisrael. He offers his argument for presenting his prophecy as a series of rhetorical questions, in Chapter 3:
(3) Will two walk together if they have not previously agreed?
(4) Will a lion roar in the forest, if it has no prey? Will a young lion give forth its voice out of its den, if it has taken nothing?
(5) Will a bird fall in a snare upon the earth if there is no lure in it? Will a snare spring up from the ground if there is nothing taken there?
(6) Will a shofar be blown in a city and the people not tremble? Will evil befall a city, if the Lord has not caused it?
(7) For the Lord God will do nothing if he has not revealed His counsel to His servants the prophets.
(8) The lion has roared, who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?
In Hebrew, the final verse is:
Aryei sha’ag, mi lo yira? A-D-N-Y Hashem dibber mi lo yinavei?
I draw our attention to this because, as we will see further on, it seems that this climactic line of Amos’s rebuke not only evokes his opening series of prophecies, it may, in a sense, resolve those introductory pronouncements. In this sense, then, the return to the rhetorical lo may intensify and underscore the literary return to the beginning, as we will develop in the next section.
Ve’aval kol yosheiv bah
And everyone who dwells there mourn?
Eivel, both as noun and verb, appear thirty-two times in prophetic rhetoric. Before comparing Amos’s use with that of his fellows and literary disciples, it is of interest to note how this use plays out in Yeshayahu. Of the ten instances in Yeshayahu, the first five refer either to a specific group (the fishermen in 19:8), to the doorways of homes whose owners have been killed (3:26), the agricultural yield (the wine in 24:7) or the land itself (24:4, 33:9). In other words, (with the exception of the fishermen), people don’t mourn, things do.
This stands in stark contrast to the five instances in Trito-Isaiah[1], where the mourners are people — not specific guilds, but the people who mourn the loss of Yerushalayim and, presumably, can now rejoice in her rebuilding (57:18, 60:20, 61:2, 61:3 [twice] and 66:10). In much the same way, Yirmeyahu’s invocations of aveilut overwhelmingly employ the metaphoric mode (the land, the maiden, etc. mourning) until his last use of the word. In his beautiful vision of returning to Zion, he prophesizes:
Az tismach betula be-machol u-vachurim u-zkenim yachdav, vehafakhti evlam le-sasson venichamtim vesimachtim mi-ygonam
Then shall the maiden rejoice in the dance and the young men and the old together; for I will turn their mourning into joy and will comfort them and make them rejoice from their sorrow. (31:12)
We get the sense that until the destruction of Yerushalayim in 586 BCE, aveilut is seen as the province of the individual and provides an imagery that could be employed with land, crops, houses and so forth to express the aftermath of devastation. With the anticipation of a return to Yerushalayim on the part of a mourning nation, aveilut became much more “real” and the models slip away in favor of speaking to a bereaved people and comforting them in the midst of their national mourning.
In Hoshea, again the land mourns (4:3), but the devotees of Ba’al are also depicted as mourning (10:5). In Yoel, in an echo of Hoshea, the land mourns (1:10) but the priests of the Temple also mourn (1:9) — seemingly because of the paucity of gifts being brought as offerings, decreasing their food supplies.[2] Besides Amos, there is one more use of eivel in the oratory of the prophets. In his opening prophecy, Mikha (1:9) describes himself as walking around disheveled, “mourning like the ostriches,” in response to the anticipated destruction of Shomeron at the hands of the Assyrians.
We see that in the early era of prophecy, aveilut is not, by and large, used (at least within oratory) in reference to mourning as we know it; rather, it is a poetic image used to evoke images of devastation and ruin and the accompanying solitude (e.g. the imagery of Yerushalayim in Eikha 1).
Here is where Amos seems to stand out with his rhetorical bravery and brilliance. Alone among his contemporaries, he references eivel as the personal and communal experience of mourning, without resorting to the imagery of his colleagues.
The first time that Amos invokes “mourning” is in his anthemic opening:
Vayomar: Hashem mi-Tziyon yishag u-miYrushalayim yitein kolo
Ve’avelu ne’ot ha-ro’im veyaveish rosh ha-Carmel
He would say:[3] The Lord roars from Zion and gives His voice forth from Jerusalem;
And the pastures of the shepherds become sere and the top of the Carmel is dried up. (1:2)
In an inversion of the usage of Yeshayahu, Hoshea and Yoel, Amos uses “mourning” as a metaphor for the withered land.
In 5:16, Amos issues a call for public mourning, summoning the farmer (who, we would expect, should be rejoicing at his harvest) to come and mourn:
Vekare’u ikar el eivel
In the verse that almost immediately follows ours, Amos uses eivel twice:
Vehafakhti chageikhem le-eivel ve-khol shireikhem le-kina
Veha’aleiti al kol motnayim sak ve-al kol rosh korcha
Vesamtiha ke-eivel yachid ve-acharitah ke-yom mar.
And I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation;
And I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins and baldness upon every head;
And I will make it as the mourning for an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day. (8:10)
Here, Amos uses personal mourning, both in feeling and in ritual, as the reference point for the national mood after the impending destruction. Again, Amos relies on a very real awareness of mourning among his listeners and uses it to convey the fate of the nation.
His final mention brings together the beginning of the book and our verse:
VA-D-N-Y Hashem ha-Tzevaot ha-nogeia ba-aretz vatamog, ve’avelu kol yoshevei vah; ve’alta kha-y’or kulah veshake’a ki-y’or Mitzrayim
For A-D-N-Y, the God of hosts, is He that touches the land and it melts and all that dwell there mourn; and it rises up wholly like the river, and sinks again, like the river of Egypt. (9:5)
As mentioned above, the earthquake motif as well as the “mourning” appear in Amos’s opening line, and again here. Before addressing this directly, let us consider one note about the schema of the book, which we will more fully explore in one of the appendices when we conclude our textual study of the book.
We do not know if Amos presented his words to a single audience, all at one time — or if what we have before us is a collection of prophecies given sometime during the two years preceding the great earthquake of the mid-8th century BCE. Is it possible that Amos’s entire oeuvre was presented at the Beit El sanctuary? This is not likely, but possible.
What is clear, however, is that once Amos — or his scribe/ student — puts his words into a collection, there is an additional layer of consideration, besides the immediate impact on the ears of his audience. As we have discussed a few times, prophecies committed to writing and canonized are understood to have long-lasting impact and messages that transcend the immediate demographic, economic, political and social realities of the time.
Once the collection is put together, there is a beginning — the first two verses of the book make this deliberation abundantly clear — as well as a vision of message.
The opening words, with the awareness of the coming and the roaring of God from Yehuda which withers the lush grasslands of Shomeron — all of these remain at the forefront (or at least in the background) of the reader’s consciousness. The reader expects the earthquake, but Amos has more to say. He isn’t just speaking to his audience about their immediate future; he has prophecies about “the end of days” and will even conclude with words of consolation and solace. To that end, Amos brings his book to a faux ending right here, resolving the tension of the earthquake and re-introducing the mourning, not as the mourning of pastures (as in 1:2) but the anticipated mourning of the populace in the aftermath of the earthquake — which is nigh. Add to this mix the use of the rhetorical lo in our verse, which brings the reader’s attention back the summary message after the first set of oracles, and the envelope structure[4] of the book is all but sealed.
We can even see, beginning in the next verse, a shift from Divine judgment to near-apocalyptic imagery, which we will begin studying in the next shiur.
Ve’alta kha-or kulah
Indeed, it will rise up wholly like the river;
The previous clause indicates that the subject here is the Land. The image of the Nile river, overflowing during its high season and then receding, is a powerful one — but for whom? Are we to assume that a significant portion of Amos’s audience has visited Egypt? Or have they heard of the mighty Nile’s tendency to overflow its banks? We would have to assume the affirmative (and likely the latter explanation); otherwise, this imagery would fall flat in his audience’s ears.
The picture of the earth buckling in this fashion is one that is hard to picture; for those of us who have lived through several powerful earthquakes in southern California, it is actually quite relatable and, at that, not a little terrifying.
Most of the commentators, modern as well as medieval, assume kha-or to be a form (variant? scribal error?) of ki-y’or. Rashi and R. Yosef Kara cite another possibility, that it really means “light” and refers to a cloud (based on Iyov 37:11). R. Yosef Kara explains that the referent is a dark cloud that carries heavy amounts of rainwater.
Venigresha venishke’a
And it will be troubled and sink again,
Nigresha, based on the root gimmel-reish-shin, is used elsewhere in Tanakh to refer to the “washing away” of mud and detritus in a storm (see Yeshayahu 57:20).
Ki-y’or Mitzrayim
Like the river of Egypt.
Again, we have to assume that the people at least know about the tumultuous behavior of the Nile, if only by hearsay and reputation.
We have completed our study of this rebuke, with its attendant oath and pronouncement. In next week’s shiur, we will begin the “longer range” prophecies of Amos, beginning with verse 9.
Chag Atzma’ut Sameiach!
72 Years Young — and Forever Young!

[1] This is generally associated with the last eleven chapters and attributed to a prophet preaching in Yerushalayim during the early Second Temple Era.
[2] See Radak at Yoel 1:10a.
[3] See our discussion in shiur #2 for this rendering.
[4] This is known as inclusio.