Social Identity and the Book of Amos

Written by Andrew M. King Reviewed By Christopher A. Porter

While socio-cognitive methods—specifically social identity theory and attendant approaches—have been making inroads into New Testament studies there has been little corresponding engagement in Hebrew Bible research. Bucking this trend is Andrew M. King’s adaptation of his doctoral dissertation on social identity in the book of Amos. This approach from King reads the book of Amos not only as a reader of history, but as a progenitor of identity. Seeking to “tell its audience who they are and who they can be in this world” (p. 4).

To examine the way that Amos constructs the audience’s identity, King draws on the socio-cognitive research of Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s Social Identity Theory and Turner’s Self-Categorization Theory. These theoretical approaches are well detailed in the second chapter. It provides a good basis for anyone new to the field without being exceedingly technical and requiring an extensive background in social psychology to understand. The theory is well elucidated with practical and pertinent examples that draw out the implications and insight of the framework for biblical scholars of all stripes.

Each of the following three content chapters highlights different aspects of how Amos constructs and communicates a social identity for its audience.

The third chapter opens with a consideration of the existing social identity embodied by the people of God as Amos comes to confront them within the narrative. Beginning with the Oracles against the Nations, King helpfully highlights the social identity functions of these various oracles as delineating outgroups and the impact of the rhetorical strategy to include Israel within this group. This effectively “leaves the audience wondering where the ingroup is to be found” (p. 45). The chapter then turns to the Bethel confrontation with Amaziah and highlights the way that Amos and Amaziah function as prototypical representatives for the ingroup and outgroup in the intergroup identity conflict. In this context it would have been interesting to further explore the function of the two group representatives as leaders of their own groups—especially given the research of Haslam, Reicher, and Platow (2011) on social identity and leadership. Nevertheless, this chapter helpfully explores the intergroup conflict at the heart of the book of Amos and its implications for Israelite identity and behavior.

The fourth chapter covers the use of history and social memory to generate a specific social identity for the prophetic audience. Here King dives into the way that there is a “presentation of a shared history for group members … [to] construct group boundaries and norms in historical terms” (pp. 66–67). Social memory and corporate history are highlighted as a distinct temporal othering strategy, defining the bounds of the groups at play within the prophetic narrative. This is reinforced through the strong intertextual links found within the historical appeals and draws implications for the audience’s social identity. While linkages between social memory and identity are often drawn, this investigation helpfully highlights the function that identity dissonance plays within the remembering process.

The fifth chapter turns to questions of eschatology and how the remnant and future restoration motifs drive the future social identities of Amos’s audience. Leveraging Marco Cinnirella’s concept of possible future identities, the chapter brings this together with the future of the people in the prophetic frame. The exploration of the Day of YHWH, remnant, and restoration motifs draws out strong ethical considerations and implications for Amos’s audience that need to be enacted for their inclusion as part of the ingroup. This positive social identity functions as the culmination of the historical remembering, prototypical exemplars, and the possible future social identities at hand.

Overall, King’s monograph represents an excellent exploration of the socio-cognitive dimensions within the prophetic literature, as exemplified by Amos. Despite diving deeply into the interdisciplinary space, the research is presented in a readable and understandable format for both exegetes and scholars. At times the socio-cognitive dimensions could be further explored through leveraging broader social identity approaches, such as the work of Stephen Reicher and Fabio Sani in the Structured Analysis of Group Arguments, or that of Haslam, Reicher, and Platow on leadership. Nevertheless, this volume is a solid contribution to a paradigm and pattern of prophetic identity formation that would be of interest to expand into other Hebrew Bible material.

Additionally, it is not hard to draw parallels between Israel in Amos’s time and the situation of the modern church. Into this space, King’s research and observations bring significant pastoral implications—in addition to the wealth of Hebrew Bible interaction. The church would certainly benefit from hearing Amos’s prophetic warnings refracted through the lens of our social identity formation.

Christopher A. Porter

Christopher A. Porter
Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity
Parkville, Melbourne, Australia

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