Monday, January 16, 2012

Amos: Calling them Cows (Amos 4:1)

What prophet called the women of Samaria “cows” or “kine”? Amos (Amos 4:1)

Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1). In imploring his audience to listen, Amos famously used the politically incorrect designation “cows” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or the more antiquated “kine” (ASV, KJV) (Hebrew: parah) to describe the pampered citizens of Israel (Amos 4:1).

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on the mountain of Samaria, Who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, Who say to your husbands, “Bring now, that we may drink!” (Amos 4:1 NASB)
Charles L. Aaron, Jr. (b. 1956) admits that Amos 4:1-5 contains “two oracles that employ a rhetorical strategy that contemporary Christian preachers would likely reject. Both oracles use mockery and insult to make their point (Aaron, Preaching Hosea, Amos, and Micah (Preaching Classic Texts), 58).”

The expression is not arbitrary nor are the cows that the prophet describes. Amos does not merely call his listeners kine but “cows of Bashan”. This designation represented the prize cattle of the day. Comparing the moniker to the terms of endearment used in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 1:9, 2:9, 4:5, 7:3), James Luther Mays (b. 1921) does not see the term as demeaning:

The epithet was not in itself an insult. Bashan in Transjordan was noted for rich forests and pastures, and particularly for fine cattle (Deuteronomy 32:14; Psalm 22:12; Ezekiel 39:18); Bashan was a hallmark of quality. Nor in the idiom of ancient eastern flattery would women be offended at being called ‘cows’; one has only to remember the terms used for compliments in the Song of Songs. The Bashan-cows are the women of quality in Samaria, the pampered darlings of society in Israel’s royalist culture.” (Mays, Amos : A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 72)
Bruce C. Birch (b. 1941) counters, “While it is true that ancient terms of flattery sometimes seem strange in our ears (many mention the endearments of the Song of Songs in connection with this passage), it is evident that Amos’s purpose here in not flattery but sarcastic indictment. Amos intends to be rude. The high-born, well-bred women of Samaria with their luxurious and decadent lifestyles are addressed as fattened and pampered beasts (Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Westminster Bible Companion), 201).”

Many interpreters read Amos as categorizing women with a term that is degrading to the modern ear. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) defends, “Interpreters mostly understand Amos to be singling out the wealthy women in Samaria, but the female element may also be figurative, making it the wealthy of Israel who were trampling the poor and, therefore, included in the condemnation. According to this interpretation, the subsequent reference to ‘husbands’ would be part of the image (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah - An Exegetical Commentary, 176).” As such, “cows of Bashan” refers at least to women but may not limit itself only to women.

In The Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, Carol Ann Newsom (b. 1950) and Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) explain:

Two aspects of these verses may sound more misogynistic to modern readers than they were originally intended. Amos may well have meant to deliver a stinging denunciation of what he understood to be the women’s attitudes and behavior toward the poor, but yet without any intent gratuitously to insult their bodies or their relationships with their husbands, as commentators often assume. “You cows of Bashan” was almost certainly not meant as derogatorily as it sounds in English, though the precise nuance in Amos’s mind is not clear. (Newsom and Ringe, 221)
“Cows of Bashan” should be interpreted proverbially, not as a sexist barb. Amos uses the expression because the shoe fits. Gary V. Smith (b. 1943) expounds, “‘Cows of Bashan’ is a fitting symbol for these wealthy women...These pampered self-indulgent, and bossy ladies maintain their lifestyle by exploiting the poor, crushing the needy, and speaking demandingly to those around them (Smith, The NIV Application Commentary: Hosea, Amos, Micah).”

Amos called them like he saw them and he saw cows of Bashan. That being written, I would advise not calling modern women “cows”.

Do you think being dubbed Bashan cows was offensive to the original audience? What region today is known for its quality cattle? What politically correct analogy would you have used in lieu of “cows”? Should preachers always be politically correct?

The potentially insulting epithet the prophet invokes should not distract from the real issue - what the metaphor represents. It is significant that the proclamation is written to Israel’s lush northern kingdom (Amos 1:1). Contrary to many misconceptions of the area, the region east of the Sea of Galilee is choice.

Jörg Jeremias (b. 1939) points out:

The high plateau of Bashan (500-600 meters elevation) east of the Sea of Galilee (modern en-Nuqreh in Syria, though it probably includes the Golan Heights) is an extremely fertile pastureland because of its basalt soil and plentiful rainfall and was famous for its ‘fatlings’ (Ezekiel 39:18; Deuteronomy 32:14) and its mighty bulls (Psalm 22:12). (Jeremias, The Book of Amos: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 63)

This fertile region was enjoying great prosperity under Jeroboam II (Amos 1:1, 7:9, 10, 11). It was the best of times. But not for everyone. Not only did the worldly blessings not trickle down to the poorest members of society, but the rich trampled on the poor to attain their wealth (Amos 4:1). Amos is not necessarily preaching against being rich but rather the selfish means by which Israel’s wealthy acquired their abundance. As Jesus asked, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26 NASB; cf. Mark 8:36)?”

James Luther Mays (b. 1921) clarifies:

The luxury and debauchery of urban affluence in Israel was a scandalous offense to the God for whom Amos spoke (Amos 6:4-7; 3:10, 15). The offense lay not just in its stark contrast to the condition of the poor, but in the fact that the affluence was built on the suffering of the needy. (Mays, Amos : A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 71)

Who today lives high on the hog at the expense of those less fortunate? Is this sin perceived as grievous in the United States as it should be?

“The man who has won millions at the cost of his conscience is a failure.” - B.C. Forbes (1880-1954), founder of Forbes Magazine


  1. NEVER use the words "woman" and "cow" in the same sentence.

  2. True. I think the jump is that Amos calls them "heifers", the feminine form of cow.