Peculiar Passages: The Case of the Cows and the Fishhooks

Rachel Jones | August 29th 2019

Some Old Testament prophecy is pretty weird. And it gets even weirder if we actually stop to imagine what it’s describing. That’s certainly the case with this snippet from Amos:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, ‘Bring us some drinks!’ The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness: ‘The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. You will each go straight out through breaches in the wall, and you will be cast out towards Harmon,’ declares the Lord. (Amos 4 v 1-3)

Cows, fishhooks… What on earth is that on about? 

First, some context. Amos is one of the 12 “minor prophets” we find in the Old Testament. He prophesied some time around 793-739 BC. Amos 1 v 1 tells us that his message of judgment is “concerning Israel”. 

God’s land had been split into two kingdoms after the death of King Solomon (1 Kings 12). The southern kingdom, Judah, was smaller—but it was the seat of God’s temple, Jerusalem, and was ruled by the line of kings descended from David. The northern kingdom, Israel (to which Amos prophesied), was larger—but it lacked a temple. So, to stop the people worshipping in Jerusalem and potentially defecting to Judah’s king, King Jeroboam I set up idols for the people to worship in Bethel and Dan. 

Fast-forward around 150 years to Amos’ day, and the people of Israel are still taking part in this sham religion. Their religious system is rotten at the root—and it’s bearing rotten fruit in Israel’s society too. One big theme in Amos is the oppression of the poor by the wealthy; he condemns Israel’s rich for living in excess at the expense of the needy. They are unfairly taxing the poor (6 v 11) and taking advantage economically, “skimping the measure [and] boosting the price” at the market (8 v 5). 

So 4 v 1 is clearly in that vein. These women of Samaria are living a life of lazy luxury—like cows chewing the cud, perhaps, standing around and eating all day? The word “cow” suggests something… voluptuous. At the same time, they “oppress the poor and crush the needy”. They really are right cows! 

So God says they will be “taken away” “through breaches in the wall”, and “cast out” of their home. Here and elsewhere, Amos seems to be warning against the approaching Assyrian captivity, which happened a few decades later. Israel ignored God’s warnings against their persistent disobedience—delivered through the mouths of Amos and other prophets—and so faced God’s judgement at the hands of a foreign army. This is what God had warned would be the consequence of breaking the covenant when he established it back in Moses’ day (Deuteronomy 28 v 41). And so that’s what happened. 

But what’s with the hooks and fishhooks? Will these cows be led out with a ring through their nose? Or rudely pulled from their environment like fish on a line as they chomp down on a juicy worm? Maybe. But it’s not 100% clear what these implements are. Other translations could be that they are taken “away in baskets” and “fish baskets” (see NIV footnote), or perhaps it’s more like ropes and harpoons. Either way, it’s the same end: exile. 

So what’s the message we should take from this weird little snippet of a little-studied prophet? 

Well, it’s really a snapshot of Amos’ broader message to God’s people: a warning that God will certainly come in judgement. On that day no religious privileges or material wealth will save them. So they need to listen to the warning, give up their sham religion and corrupt lifestyles, and put their hope for restoration in God’s true King (9 v 11). 

Today we still await “the day of the LORD”, when Jesus will come as judge. On that day no religious privileges or material wealth will save us.  Instead we need to listen to God’s ultimate prophet and rightful King, Jesus, and find refuge in him. 

And when we do that, our lives will change. As we “seek [God]”, we’ll also “seek good” for others (Amos 5 v 4, 14)—particularly the most vulnerable members of our community, and especially for those within the family of the church. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1 v 27). 

Otherwise… well, you’re just a cow.

Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones is the author of Is This It? and the award-winning Five Things to Pray series, and an editor at The Good Book Company. She leads Bible studies for young adults and helps teach kids at her church, Chessington Evangelical Church, in Surrey, UK. Rachel studied History at Manchester University before joining TGBC.

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