Question: "What is the meaning of the symbolism in Amos?"
Answer: The book of Amos is filled with imagery related to sin and judgment. Included are images of iron teeth (1:3), murdered pregnant women (1:13), burning bones (Amos 2:1), destroyed roots (2:9), and hooks (4:2). How are we to understand these violent themes?
First, we must understand the context of these descriptions. Amos is pronouncing judgment on Israel’s enemies, and then on Israel itself, for some specific sins. The purpose of prophesying doom was often to call sinners to repent. That’s why God sent Jonah to preach in Nineveh, telling the people God would judge their city in 40 days. The Ninevites repented, and God did not bring about judgment. The Lord had compassion for those who repented.
A brief look at each of the images in Amos more fully explains what they indicate:
- Iron teeth (1:3): “Iron teeth” were part of a threshing sledge, a farming implement drawn over grain to thresh it and cut the stalks. God pictures Syria’s cruelty toward Gilead (in northeast Israel) as a threshing sledge being run over His people. For their brutality, Syria is promised judgment.
- Murdered pregnant women (1:13): The Ammonites would be judged for performing atrocities against Israel. Second Kings 8:12 and 15:16 confirm the reality of such horrific acts during war.
- Burning bones (2:1): The Moabites would be judged for their sin of the disrespectful treatment of an Edomite king’s corpse (2 Kings 3:26-27). In a culture in which a proper burial was of utmost importance, the burning of bones communicated a severe hatred.
- Destroyed roots (2:9): This is a picture of God’s judgment on the Amorites, as the “fruit above” and the “roots beneath” were destroyed—in other words, the Amorites were completely wiped out. God reminds Israel of the Amorites’ fate in order to call His people back to righteousness and the fear of God.
- Hooks (4:2): This is part of a prophecy against Israel, warning them that the Assyrians would one day take them captive. Israel would be led away as fish were carried away on hooks. It is believed the “hooks” could be literal, since Assyrians did at times lead captives with ropes attached to rings in the jaws or lips of their enemies.