The Prophet Amos. A translation and commentaryWritten by J. Alberto Soggin Reviewed By Å. Viberg
For those who have come to know the works of J. A. Soggin, every new book from his hand is something special. His earlier commentaries on the books of Joshua and Judges have made him one of the most well-known writers of commentaries today. Therefore this new one on the book of Amos is worth noticing.
This commentary originated as material for lectures, and this background has left its mark on the final work. It is published as a ‘parallel’ to J. L. May’s commentary in the OT Library.
The structure of the commentary is fairly ordinary. It has an introduction covering the traditional questions, and Soggin does a very good work dealing with the standard introductory questions.
The text of the book of Amos is divided into smaller units, and for each unit the commentary has three sections. First a translation, which is Soggin’s own. Then comes what Soggin calls a philological-critical commentary, which deals with the problems in the translation. This part of Soggin’s book is especially good. He not only gives his opinion but also refers to standard works on Hebrew grammar, which is very useful for those who work on the text of Amos. Then comes the ‘historical and exegetical commentary’, which Soggin assures can be used without any knowledge of Hebrew.
Before the translation of every small unit comes a bibliography. This is another strength of Soggin. He masters the literature in an exemplary manner, and this too is useful for those who study Amos. At the beginning of the book there is also a general bibliography. Actually, the bibliographical material alone might justify the cost of the book!
For those who know Soggin’s earlier works it comes as no surprise that he easily divides the text into ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’, and the latter is attributed to various redactors. He uses the traditional literary-critical method together with the form-critical one. The sad thing is that when these methods have been used by Soggin the text seems to have been emptied of its content, and this is the weak point in all of Soggin’s commentaries. The message of the text becomes something secondary, and sometimes it is not even dealt with by the author.
One of the more unfortunate presuppositions behind Soggin’s commentary is that ‘we are dealing with a very fragmentary and often corrupt text, it is not always easy to interpret them and the authenticity of each individual passage needs to be examined according to its merits’ (p. 17). That means that much of Soggin’s labour is spent on finding out whether one particular text was in fact Amos’ own words, or for example some deuteronomistic redactor. For those who find this methodology irrelevant mainly because of lack of evidence, the commentary becomes rather disappointing at the end.
An unfortunate consequence of this approach is the irrelevance of the overall structure. There is no point for Soggin to ask why the different chapters are where they are as parts of a whole, since they have different origins and different aims. This is my strongest criticism of this commentary. Soggin could have gone further and asked if there is a message in the construction of the book as a whole, whether or not it all has the same origin, but he does not.
The text is said to have gone through a long redactional process, and it is the exegete’s task to dig through these layers to the bottom. One example will suffice (pp. 50–51). The last oracle among the ‘oracles against the nations’ in 2:6–16 is directed against Israel. According to Soggin the oracle uttered by Amos consisted originally of vv. 6 and 13. It was successively enlarged through various additions. Vv. 10–12 are probably deuteronomistic and vv. 14–16 a later amplification or perhaps even two from the exilic period. The only reason why for example vv. 14–16 should not be by Amos is, according to Soggin, that they contain the formula neum jhwh, and not’ amar jhwh, which is the proper one for Amos. Personally I find it very hard to take this kind of analysis seriously.
This commentary has certain strengths, for example its philological comments and its bibliographical information. Also its integration of the book of Amos with the history of Israel is very helpful, especially since Soggin has recently written his own History of Israel. Soggin is also fair in his presentation of other views besides his own. But on the negative side we have the overly critical methodology that produces a mass of different layers and redactors but not overall understanding of the book. And, as we have seen, it is only a consequence of Soggin’s views on how the book came into existence.
The commentary does not contribute anything essentially new to the study of Amos. But for those who would like to have a commentary that exhibits all the different forms of literary criticism applied to Amos, and also discusses the various views among scholars, this commentary would be most suitable, at a reasonable cost. But this only shows the urgent need for an evangelical commentary on the book of Amos, interacting with views like Soggin’s. Such a commentary is long overdue.