Stockmen from Tekoa, Sycomores from Sheba: A Study of Amos’ Occupations

Stockmen from Tekoa, Sycomores from Sheba: A Study of Amos’ Occupations

Linville, James R

RICHARD C. STEINER, Stockmen from Tekoa, Sycomores from Sheba: A Study of Amos’ Occupations (CBQMS 36; Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2003). Pp. x + 159. Paper $10.50.

In this brief but far-ranging book, Steiner addresses key issues concerning the descriptions of Amos’s occupations. It features a thorough linguistic analysis of each relevant term or phrase, analyses of the how such professions were carried out, and an examination of the social role and standing of those so engaged. S. convincingly solves the apparent contradiction of Amos’s claim to be a “cattleman” (bôqer, 7:14) and his being taken “from behind the flock” (so’n, 7:15). Moreover, S. finds Amos’s life as a stockman to be compatible with that of a harvester of sycomore figs (bôles siqmîm, 7:14; note the spelling “sycomore,” to differentiate between ficus sycomorus and the unrelated “sycamore” of North America and Europe).

Steiner develops the proposal of Samuel Bochart (Hierozoicon, sive bipertitum opus De anitnalibus Sacrae Scripturae [2 vols.; London: Martyn & Allestry, 1663), who related the participle boles to the Arabic and Ethiopian noun balas (“fig,” i.e., fruit or tree). S. also finds a Yemeni Arabic verb whose participle, miballas, refers to someone who harvests and sells the fruit. These Hebrew and Yemeni words, along with Hebrew siqmâ and its Yemeni counterpart, are not descended from proto-Semitic but are loanwords from epigraphic South Arabian. Only in Israel and Yemen is there comparable terminology, and the latter is the only place outside of Africa where the sycomore grows wild. S. dates the importing of the trees from Yemen into Israel to the two centuries prior to Solomon’s reign. He argues that Hebrew bls came to refer to the unique process of harvesting sycomores.

Steiner argues that the Ugaritic and Akkadian cognates of nôqed suggest that this word denotes a relatively well-off owner or manager of livestock that may have included both cattle and sheep-not only the latter as many scholars hold. Sacral connotations are ruled out, although the temple may have been an important customer. As one of several such men from Tekoa, Amos belonged to a group, or even a collective, that led its animals on seasonal migrations. In late summer, they would have rented fields with sycomore trees to provide shelter and fodder. S. suggests that these fields may have been in the Jericho valley, later known for its sycomores. The fig harvest would also have been bought in advance. The fruit would have been cut open while still on the tree to increase size and sweetness, and then it would be harvested a few days later. The higher quality fruit would have been sold, and the lesser used for the animals.

Although S. spends little time interpreting the Book of Amos in light of his findings, he makes some useful points. In 7:14, Amos refers to himself as bôqer, which, S. argues, carries the same socio-economic nuances as nôqed but refers more specifically to the owner/manager of cattle. The term was used by Amos to claim financial self-sufficiency, since cattle were relatively expensive. Conversely, to claim legitimacy to speak against the king, Amos speaks in the next verse of following the flock, a clear allusion to David (2 Sam 7:8). The prosperous economy implied in Amos sets the stage for the book’s social critique. S. cautions against overestimating the influence of Amos’s occupations on his prophecy; nevertheless, he comments that the prophet’s message could not have been good for business.

This book is quite specialized and may strike the mainstream interpreter of Amos as digressive. Yet its detail is its strength, and S. is to be commended for his thoroughness. He admits that his arguments are often based only on reasoned possibilities, yet his proposal results in a coherent reconstruction of Amos’s life that is based not only on linguistic data but on evidence of ancient herding and agricultural practices. Certainly, the usefulness of S.’s study is not restricted to those readers who share his conservative views on the historicity of Amos and the unity of the book, for his findings have an impact on some diachronic questions. In fact, the full audience of S.’s study extends far beyond the students of Amos and includes semiticists and scholars of ancient agriculture, economies, and animal husbandry.

James R. Linville, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge AB, T1K 3M4, Canada

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 2004

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