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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Teaching the Hebrew Bible amid the Current Human Rights Crisis: The Opportunities Presented by Amos 1:3-2:3


War crimes have captured public attention in recent years. One thinks of the prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq, the tens of thousands dead in the Darfur region of the Sudan, the trial of Saddam Hussein, and arguments within the U.S. and elsewhere that torture is an acceptable practice in the war on terror. There is also a heightened awareness about the unprecedented civilian suffering caused by today's armed conflicts. As Noble Peace Price nominee Lloyd Axworthy has pointed out, "In the First World War, approximately 10% of casualties of conflict were civilian. Now, 90% of these casualties are civilian."[1] Such an observation certainly rings true to our experience in Iraq, where estimates put the number of civilians dead at 30,000. Across the world, war crimes have given rise to a grave human rights crisis.

While awareness of these crimes has increased, knowledge of how the Hebrew Bible relates to this topic has not. During the last twenty years, Amos' oracles against the foreign nations (1:3-2:3) have received relatively little attention, even though this passage specifically concerns itself with war crimes and the treatment of civilians in armed conflicts. Though John Barton published an important work in 1980 on how Amos' oracles against the foreign nations relate to war crimes, little additional work has been done recently.[2]

From a pedagogical perspective, this lack of attention to Amos is also highly significant. As curriculum theorist Elliot Eisner has pointed out, what we do not teach is as important as what we do teach. He writes, "Ignorance is not simply a neutral void; it has important effects on the kinds of options one is able to consider, the alternatives that one can examine, and the perspectives from which one can view a situation or problem."[3] In this case, failing to teach what Amos says about war crimes reduces the resources by which one can approach the current human rights crisis. Ignoring this text may lead some either to the conclusion that the Bible explicitly justifies war crimes or to the conviction that the Bible is mute about the topic and therefore has no direct challenges for those whose rationalities support the degradation of human life in times of war. This essay argues that Amos' oracles against the foreign nations adumbrate international humanitarian law in significant ways. While this argument is similar to one advanced by John Barton, it goes beyond Barton first in showing the concrete similarities between Amos and modern war legislation, and second in examining the pedagogical opportunities presented by this text.

Preliminary Remarks
While it would be a mistake to equate Amos' oracles with a form of international humanitarian law, it would also be a mistake to overlook the clear similarities between their contents and those of the Geneva Conventions. These oracles do not delineate a developed doctrine of human rights in times of war. They do not belong to a legal genre but rather a prophetic one. They do not deal with war crimes in a strict modern sense to refer to violations of international criminal law or in a strict biblical sense to refer to violations of law in the Pentateuch. And yet, each of Amos' six oracles against the nations condemns war crimes broadly understood as inhumane actions committed in times of violence. Each crime that Amos focuses on would be deemed, at least by today's standards, a crime against humanity and a severe human rights violation. As this paper will show, every crime that Amos condemns is also condemned by the Geneva Conventions. Vivid parallels exist between what Amos condemns and the most grave human rights violations of our time.

The Crimes Of The Nations
Amos' first oracle is against Aram. It begins, "For three crimes of Damascus and for four, I will not bring it back, because they threshed Gilead with sharp instruments of iron." Though some interpret this verse metaphorically (cf. Isa 41:15; 2 Kings 13:7), several similarities between this passage and Judges 8 suggest that Amos is literally referring to how the Arameans tortured the residents of Gilead. Judges 8 recounts how Gideon captured Zebakh and Zelmunna and then tortured them using thorns and briars. It shares in common with Amos 1:3 first the verb "to thresh" (dush), second the object of that verb being individuals captured in war, and third a specified instrument used in the threshing. The key difference between the two passages is that whereas in Judges 8 the instruments used for torture are vegetation (thorns and briers), in Amos 1 the instrument is much more frightening, threshing sledges of iron (harutsot habbarzel). This instrument would be a wooden board with iron teeth underneath that a person would stand upon as it was dragged across grain or, in the case of Amos, across the bodies of those captured in war.

Torture is condemned not only here by Amos, but also by the Geneva Conventions, which forbid physical and mental torture of all kinds. In light of the particular nature of this oracle, it is worth noting that Protocol I, Article 75 of the Geneva Conventions states specifically, "[Mutilation is] and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever, whether committed by civilian or by military agents" (cf. Conv. I, Art. 3, 12; Conv. III, Art. 17; Conv. IV, Art. 32; Prot. II, Art. 4, Sect. 2A). [4] It is not difficult to think of modern violations of such a stipulation. On November 15, 2005, headlines told of the discovery of a center of torture in Iraq where those captured were allegedly mutilated through a variety of means. Amos condemns such crimes. The Arameans have mutilated the inhabitants of Gilead, destroying elements of creation, and so Amos says that fire, that chief anti-creational agent, will come upon them in return.

The second oracle addresses the Philistines. The charge is brought against Gaza "because they deported an entire population to hand them over to Edom." The phrase "to hand them over" is much more threatening in Hebrew than what its English translation suggests. The verb sagar is used to describe the suffering of Job (Job 16:11), the deaths of the Egyptians during the Exodus (Ps 78:50), and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 (Lam 2:7). When entities are "handed over" in the Hebrew Bible, either their life is in jeopardy or it is lost all together. So when Amos says that this population was "handed over" to Edom, his language suggests that the Edomites inflicted great harm, most likely with life-threatening forms of slavery. Many have suggested that the text refers to the dangerous mining and smelting operations that took place along the Wadi el-'Arabah.[5] Throughout the ancient Near East, there were laws prohibiting the capture of people in order to make them slaves.[6] Here, Amos brings down harsh judgment on the Philistines for their cruelty, which extends to "an entire population" (galut shelema). The crime thus affects all peoples of the community, including civilians, women, children, and the elderly, in short, the most vulnerable.

The type of crime that Amos condemns in this verse is likewise condemned by the Geneva Conventions, which specifically forbid the mass forcible transfers of civilians, as well as forced labor that is unhealthy or dangerous (Conv. IV, Art. 49; Conv. III, Art. 52). The entire Fourth Convention specifically concerns itself with the protection of civilians, and there are special provisions for the most vulnerable, such as children.[7] For those who have studied the civil war in Sierra Leone during the last decade, it is difficult to read Amos without being reminded of how the Revolutionary United Front forced countless people into forced labor in diamond mines in order to fund their violence. Amos says that the Philistines, for perverting the created order and turning human life into a commodity, will face the destruction of their own created order through the agent of fire.

The third of Amos' oracles concerns Tyre, and it has close connections with the oracle against the Philistines: "For three crimes of Tyre and for four, I will not bring it back because they handed over an entire population to Edom and did not remember the covenant of brotherhood." The language used here for handing over the population to Edom is almost identical to that used in the oracle against Gaza. Here, Amos also speaks enigmatically about the breaking of a "covenant of brotherhood." While some have suggested that this refers to Solomon's covenant with Hiram (1Kings 5, 9), the text does not give enough evidence to be certain. At the least, it suggests that a treaty aimed at preserving the well-being of others was violated for monetary gain. An entire population was handed over into the life-threatening bondage of slavery, and so life-threatening fire will come to Tyre as well.

Amos' fourth oracle concerns Edom, and while it is one of the shorter oracles, it is also one of the more debated. A typical translation is as follows: "For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because he pursued his brother with the sword, and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever" (RSV). There is some debate about the language of brotherhood here. It may once again refer to a treaty bond that has been broken. Many contend, however, that it may be more of an ethnic or kinship bond between Edom and the unspecified party. There is also debate over whether the phrase that here is rendered "cast off all pity" would best be translated "destroyed his womenfolk."[8] The Hebrew is ambiguous. Whether one believes this phrase refers to an emotion or people, the verse as a whole clearly portrays relentless killing that stopped for nothing. The vivid description of unabated anger and fury suggests that the pursuing sword slaughtered indiscriminately, killing civilians. The text likely has in mind either the complete destruction (herem) of a people or the killing of refugees.

What Amos condemns is again condemned in the Geneva Conventions, which specifically protect refugees and civilians. It is a "grave breach" to attack civilians and cause injury or death (Prot. I, Art. 85, Sec. 3; cf. Prot. I, Art. 57, 73), which is obviously what Amos has in mind with his image of the pursuing sword. This image evokes in many readers' minds the events in Rwanda during the 1990s, when it was not swords that killed indiscriminately but rather machetes that slaughtered nearly a million people, most of whom were civilians. In the case of Amos, the Edomites have reduced life to ruin, and so the prophet says that fire shall do the same to them.

In the fifth oracle, Amos focuses on the Ammonites, whom he condemns because "they ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to enlarge their territory." There are numerous references to this heinous practice in ancient war. The Hebrew Bible makes three additional references to it (2 Kings 8:12, 15:16; Hos 14:1 [13:16 Eng.]). Elsewhere in the ancient Near East, an Assyrian hymn praises Tiglath-pileser I (ca. 1114-1076) for tearing apart the wombs of pregnant women.[9] A Neo-Babylonian Lament over Tammuz reads, "My eyes cannot look on ... the ripping of the mothers' wombs."[10] Amos is obviously literal here as he denounces the killing of the most vulnerable and defenseless in times of war. Sadly, this treatment of pregnant women has been documented in places of genocide such as the Darfur region of the Sudan.[11] The Geneva Conventions forbid such practices on several levels, for example, by stating that women shall receive special protection from all forms of indecent assault and moreover by stating that pregnant women shall receive "particular protection and respect" (Conv. IV, Art. 16; cf. Conv. IV, Art. 27, 38, 50, 89, 132; Prot. I, Art. 69, 76; Prot. II, Art. 6, Sec. 4). For his part, Amos condemns those who destroy women and their creative faculties, promising that divine fire will destroy the citadels created by the Ammonites.

The last of Amos' oracles against the foreign nations concerns Moab: "For three crimes of Moab and for four, I will not bring it back, because he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime." While there is some debate over the nature of the crime here, the text appears to refer to the desecration of the king's body, most likely by complete destruction (cf. Isa 33:12). Though cremation has become a fairly common practice in America, such treatment of the dead is abhorred in other parts of the world, as was seen on October 19, 2005, when video footage aired that showed U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan burning the bodies of two Taliban soldiers and facing them West, reportedly for the purpose of deliberately desecrating Muslim belief. Article 17 of the First Geneva Convention specifically states, "The parties to the conflict ... shall ... ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged, [and] that their graves are respected." Amos, who likewise condemns the desecration of the dead, promises that those who burned the king of Edom will be burned themselves.

Opportunities In The Public Sphere And In The Classroom
As this analysis shows, there are clear similarities between Amos' oracles against the foreign nations and international humanitarian law. Everything that Amos condemns is today considered a breach of international law, a crime against humanity, and a severe human rights violation. Amos assumes the reality of war, but he believes that certain acts committed through violence are especially abhorrent and warrant condemnation. He defends the dignity of humanity and denounces those who prey on the most vulnerable. In this sense, one can call Amos' oracles against the nations a precursor to international humanitarian law, which has the same concern. One must be aware of the danger of anachronism and recognize that modern laws of war are obviously different in a variety of ways, such as their lack of God-language. Nevertheless, the clear points of connection suggest that Amos' words dimly prefigure what would later become codified in international humanitarian law.

For those of us who teach the Hebrew Bible in the classroom and in larger public forums, the features of this passage merit careful attention. The text not only deals with issues that literally are of life and death importance, but it also raises questions that can deeply engage our students and fellow citizens. As is well known, pedagogical theory has examined which cognitive processes lead to the deepest and most meaningful types of learning.[12] Such studies suggest that the most basic cognitive processes include mere awareness, while more advanced processes include application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This text from Amos raises many fascinating questions that cause students and others to utilize these highly complex cognitive processes.

One of the first questions concerns the basis on which Amos feels he can condemn these foreign nations. What logic undergirds Amos' foreign oracles? Many proposals have been offered, though they often raise further questions. Some argue that Amos condemns these nations because they have committed crimes specifically against Israel. If that is the case, then why is Israel never mentioned by name in these oracles, and what does one make of the oracle against Moab, which concerns the king of Edom? Another suggestion is that Amos condemns these nations because they have violated international treaties. If so, then why do only two oracles, both of which may be later additions, use treaty language? Many maintain that Amos condemns these nations because he expects them to adhere to Israel's covenantal norms. If that is the case, why does Amos' message fail to align very closely with Israel's covenantal texts?[13] Moreover, if he condemns them for failing to measure up to covenantal standards, why does he not also condemn them for idolatry and cultic violations, which one suspects they committed in ways worse than Israel? Is it possible that Amos believes that certain moral norms should be obvious to humanity as a whole, regardless of the religion or nationality to which they belong? Does he imply that creation has certain self-evident moral qualities, binding on peoples of all nationalities? If so, then does Amos share with international humanitarian law not only concerns about atrocities in war but also assumptions about the moral fabric of the world and humanity's capacity for discerning it?

A related set of questions concerns biblically based ethics. A persistent question in this field is how to distinguish between the norms that should govern the community of faith and the norms that should govern the broader world, that is, those outside this community. Does Amos 1:3-2:16 (which includes the oracles against Judah and Israel) offer resources for approaching this issue by presenting a moral vision wherein the most basic ethical norms are expected of all peoples, but then more specific norms are expected of the faith community?

Another set of ethical questions raised by this text relates to the imitation of God. Many scholars (e.g., Gordon Wenham and John Barton) have argued that divine imitation is one of the central ethical paradigms in the Old Testament. What does this text from Amos suggest about the limitations of this paradigm when God is portrayed as bringing down destruction on nations who are condemned for their destructiveness? Or to put the question in a more theological way, are there inconsistencies with the divine nature in Amos when God's actions are at least somewhat similar to those that God condemns?

An additional question pertaining to biblical ethics relates to C. S. Rodd's argument that the ethical world of the Bible is so different from our own that it can have relatively little meaning for ethical living today.[14] In what ways—if any—do the points of connection between Amos' oracles and modern laws of war suggest problems with Rodd's thesis? Are there certain elements so common to our humanity that even ancient texts like Amos' can offer wisdom and guidance for ethical action today?

A similar question relates to one of the chief arguments against the existence of a permanent international criminal court designed to prosecute those who commit war crimes. Many claim that war crimes are a modern, Western invention. Therefore, so the argument goes, it is wrong to expect nations that do not adhere to modern or Western assumptions to abide by such standards of justice. Does Amos' condemnation of war crimes, arising from an ancient Near Eastern mindset over 2,700 years ago, offer at least partial evidence that war crimes are not a modern invention but rather a universal evil necessitating condemnation and prosecution?

Another question pertains to how these oracles relate to material elsewhere in the canon. As mentioned above, Amos 1-2 does not align very well with stipulations about war in the Pentateuch. There are other passages of the Bible that stand in even greater tension—if not contradiction—with the moral ideas in this passage, such as the herem texts that advocate utterly destroying other peoples and showing no mercy (e.g., Deut 7:2). What does one make of this diversity in the Hebrew Bible's conceptions of war? Many of us would hopefully be more sympathetic to Amos than these other passages, but on what theological grounds can one prefer a particular text over others? How does one do so without imposing one's own standards on the text, thus making the Bible conform to whatever is fashionable?

Finally, how much should one stake on these oracles when they serve a predominantly rhetorical function within Amos 1-2? Most agree that Amos includes these oracles to shock his listeners when he brings his condemnation against Israel. Should these oracles against the foreign nations be dismissed as mere rhetoric, or are these oracles able to achieve their rhetorical function only if they reflect beliefs deeply held by both Amos and his audience?[15]

Obviously, many of these questions are leading. But I offer them as questions because in each case students and others could answer them in a variety of ways that are substantive and compelling. These questions call on individuals to wrestle with the text using complex cognitive processes that foster meaningful learning. The unique features of Amos 1:3-2:3 naturally give rise to such questions, making this text a wonderful resource that merits sustained attention in many different contexts.

As armed conflicts across the world increasingly harm the most vulnerable, teachers of the Hebrew Bible may be drawn to this text of Amos not only because of its rich pedagogical possibilities, but also because this text's moral vision offers an alternative to ideologies willing to commit atrocities in the name of personal, tribal, or national security. In a world where many use the divine name and biblical texts to justify killing, Amos invites readers to imagine an alternative reality where all nations are accountable for their use of violence and are condemned for inhumane actions, even in times of war.

1. Lloyd Axworthy, "Opening Remarks by the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, to the 1999 Post-Ministerial Conference ASEAN-Canada 'Ten-Plus-One' Dialogue, Singapore July 27, 1999," n.p. [cited 14 Oct. 2005]. Online:

2. John Barton, Amos's Oracles against the Nations: A Study of Amos 1.3-2.5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

3. Elliot W. Eisner, The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 83.

4. The abbreviations used here are as follows: Conv.=Convention; Art.=Article; Prot.=Protocol; and Sect.=Section. For useful a useful website about the Geneva Conventions, see, which is maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists.

5. Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 157; Shalom M. Paul, Amos: A Commentary on the Book of Amos (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 57.

6. E.g., the Code of Hammurabi and the Nuzi texts. See Wolff, Joel and Amos, 157-158. For more on how other ancient Near Eastern texts deal with war crimes, see Barton, Amos's Oracles, 51-61.

7. Civilians are also protected under Prot. I, Art. 57, Sec. 2b, Art. 85, Sec. 3. Children are protected under Conv. IV, Art. 17, 23-24; Prot. I, Art. 76-77; Prot. II, Art. 4.

8. Paul, Amos, 43.

9. Ibid., 68. Wolff, Joel and Amos, 161.

10. W. G. Lambert, "A Neo-Babylonian Tammuz Lament," pages 211-215 in Studies in Literature from the Ancient Near East, by Members of the American Oriental Society Dedicated to Samuel Noah Kramer (ed. J. M. Sasson; New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1984), 212, line 19.

11. Leslie Evans, "The Crisis in Darfur, Sudan," UCLA International Institute, [cited 5 Sept. 2005]. Online:

12. Lorin W. Anderson, et al., eds., A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (complete ed.; New York: Longman, 2001), 262-263. One of the first and most influential works (with at least 29 printings and 20+ translations) to develop such a taxonomy is Benjamin S. Bloom, et al., eds., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals: Handbook 1 Cognitive Domain (New York: Longman, 1956).

13. There is some alignment, but it is imprecise. Thus the kidnapping of a person to sell into slavery is condemned in Exod 21:16, and the ripping open of pregnant women is implicitly condemned by Exod 21:22-23. But other crimes do not have the same connections, and Exod 21 is concerned with wrongs committed among individuals within the Israelite community, not those committed between different tribal/national groups. Deut 20-21 deals more specifically with warfare, and while there is some broad overlap (e.g., 20:10-11 says only to attack if one cannot make peace), there are also important differences. Whereas Amos, for example, denounces the practice of utterly destroying others (herem), Deut 20:17 advocates it.

14. C. S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), passim, esp. 322-329.

15. John Barton, Amos's Oracles, 36-38, 46-48.

Matthew R. Schlimm, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Comments on this article? email:

Citation: Matthew R. Schlimm, " Teaching the Hebrew Bible amid the Current Human Rights Crisis: The Opportunities Presented by Amos 1:3-2:3," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2006]. Online:


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