Tag Archives: amos

Did Amos See a Plumbline?

plumbline

I read  a recent post making some notes on Amos 7:7-17. Although there is much I would care to comment on, one issue in particular caught my attention. As with the author of this particular post, most Bible translations render the Amos 7:7 something like the NASB: “Thus He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in His hand” (An exception appears in the NET Bible). While the idea of a “plumbline,” appearing four times in vv. 7-8, has become a cherished image (not to mention a controlling feature of many sermons!), I want to join those who raise a red flag on this translation.

As many commentators note, the Hebrew noun אֲנָךְ is woefully ambiguous. A host of interpretive renditions and emendations have been put forward, but no degree of consensus has emerged. The widely adopted “plumbline” has its roots in the Akkadian cognate annaku “tin,” which some view as interchangeable with the metal lead. The latter became the standard interpretation following Medieval exegesis. The logic of this interpretation is that the metal lead by metonymy represents a lead weight ie. a plumbline. The idea that this noun represented some type of metallic object is supported by several ancient versions such as the Old Greek and Symmachus (ἀδάμας “steel”?), Theodotion (τηκόμενον “molten”), as well as the Peshitta and Vulgate.

Yet is “plumbline” really what Amos envisioned? Granted, it does fit the context. Yet against this view is the analysis of Landsberger (“Tin and Lead: The Adventures of Two Vocables.” JNES 24 [1965]: 285-96″) and others, who have shown that אֲנָךְ cannot be understood as “lead,” and thus cannot mean plumbline. While one need not except Landsberger’s conclusions that “tin” is the preferred translation, we can agree that the Medieval interpretation itself stands on shaky ground.

I do not in anyway want to overly simply the text-critical problem in this passage, but I do want to voice a caution. Whether a clear alternative will win the votes of scholars is not likely. Indeed, plumbline may be here to stay. Yet, I would be hesitant to make too much of this point.

The focus of the vision is the inevitability of judgment for Israel. Yahweh will no longer pass by the people as he did for the exodus generation (v. 8b). Their guilt was self evident even without a plumbline. The idolatries of the high places and foreign sanctuaries were ripe for judgment and were destined for the same end as their chief patron, the king. Whatever Amos saw, he recognized it as an means of retribution. One that would do its work until Yahweh saw fit to rebuild fallen the booth of David (9:11).

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So You Want to Improve your Hebrew?

I remember as a second semester Hebrew student wishing that I could have my professor present while I worked through Hebrew texts at home. Unfortunately, my professors rarely made house calls, even when the syntax of a adversative clause lay on the line. Along with many others, my translation technique consisted of simply looking up words in BDB and mashing them together into a wooden translation, leaving aside the complicated question of syntax and structure. If only I had someone to take me through a text line by line.

Amos handbook

Although there are many resources that can help improve your reading of Hebrew, one that I have recently benefited from is the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series. I have been working through the volume on Amos authored by a professor of mine, Duane Garrett. In the book, Garrett walks through every stanza, strophe, and line of Amos, describing the syntax and function of each grammatical construction, with a little commentary. This book does not address the text-critical problems of Amos, except where necessary for intelligibility, but focuses on the present form of the text.

By working through this book, students who have had a couple semesters of Hebrew can learn to read grammatically on a discourse level with a Hebrew Bible professor at their beck and call. I have not had a chance to reference any of the other volumes in the series, but have heard mostly positive reports from others.

One word of caution with the Amos volume: occasionally, words are missing or misspelled in the text. As you working through the book, I recommend having your Hebrew Bible open, for the simple purpose of verifying the text. With that caveat, I cannot recommend this work more highly.

You can read a review of the book here.

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