Even in a good translation sound plays are lost in translation. At Amos 7:7-8 the NET Bible reads:
He showed me this: I saw the sovereign One standing by a tin wall holding tin in his hand.The Lord said to me, “What do you see, Amos?” I said, “Tin.” The sovereign One then said, “Look, I am about to place tin among my people Israel. I will no longer overlook their sin."
Instead of “tin” most other translations say “plumb line” (e.g. NIV, NASB, ESV, NLT, NRSV, KJV). What did they all miss?
The Hebrew word is ’anak (אֲנָך). In defense of the other translations, Strong’s dictionary says “plumb line;” HALOT says “lead;” and DCH says “lead, used as weight in plumbline.” Translating “plumb line” would be a case of metonymy in which the material stands for something made of the material. Assuming that ’anak meant lead, lead would be useful for a plumb line. God is next to a wall, so it must be that the wall was built true to plumb. That’s certainly preachable. A plumb line is used for evaluating correctness; God is judging; you see how it works. Then again perhaps the reasoning went the other direction. All the stuff about the plumb line was assumed, so it was conjectured that ’anak means lead. It has a certain logical coherence. (NASB goes so far as to translate “vertical wall.” They probably meant straight--not leaning, bent, or curved. But the reader may wonder why it’s called a “vertical” wall. Walls generally aren’t horizontal–that would be a floor or ceiling.)
On the other hand, the dictionaries are wrong. Yes, that happens.
The correction came via Akkadian. The Hebrew word ’anak (אֲנָך) only occurs in this passage. When scholars first came across the Akkadian cognate annaku, they thought it would mean lead. But annaku appears in many Akkadian texts. For example, the Assyrians had colonies in Anatolia (modern Turkey) from 1945-1740 BC. Letters between merchants and the colonies discuss importing annaku. Other texts mention combining annaku with copper to make bronze that resists corrosion. Bronze is made of copper and tin, not copper and lead. Tin is known to be in that area of Anatolia. So Akkadian annaku is not lead; it’s tin. Which in turn corrects our understanding of the Hebrew.
The metal terms in Hebrew appear to be as follows. Barzel (בַּרְזֶל) is iron. Nekhoshet (נְחֹשֶׁת) is copper/bronze. ‘Opheret (עֹפֶרֶת) is lead. And ’anak (אֲנָך) is tin. ’Anak is not “lead.” It is not, by metonymy, a “plumb line.” The plumb line solution fails.
Scholars have known this for half a century. Currently NET has put in “tin” without a translation note. It is technically correct, but likely leaves the reader a bit mystified. On the other hand the other translations have left in “plumb line.” I assume that’s because it feels like it makes preachable sense, or because the dictionaries are not updated.
Let’s gather some clues from the broader context. This is the third in a series of visions. Amos sees: 1) a locust plague (7:1), 2) a fire (7:4), 3) tin (7:7), 4) a basket of summer fruit (8:1), 5) the Lord standing by the altar (9:1). In between visions 3 and 4, Amos provides an historical account of his confrontation with Amaziah (7:10-17).
The first four visions share the formula, “The sovereign Lord showed me this” followed by Amos reporting what he saw.
The first two are straightforward. Amos sees two clear threats and prays for God to pardon, lest Israel be destroyed. The Lord relents. The relationships between what he sees, what he does, and what God does are obvious on the surface.
Since the third one is our problem, let’s jump to number four. God shows Amos a basket of summer produce, then asks Amos what he sees. Amos responds that he sees a basket of summer fruit and is told that the end is coming for Israel. Despite the accuracy of the translation, the connection is not so clear. That’s because sound plays are lost in translation. The Hebrew word for “summer produce” is qayitz (קָיִץ). That’s two syllables, accent on the first syllable. I recommend that you say it out loud in your best exaggerated southern accent, qay-yitz. Then God tells him the end is coming. The Hebrew word for “end” is qetz (קֵץ). Phonetically qayitz and qetz both derive from qaytz. It’s a sound play. We even think it was dialectical difference between the north and south. The northerners might have pronounced both words the same, as one syllable. But the point is that the prophecy works off of a sound play, not off of the meaning of the first word (the summer produce is irrelevant and not a picture of ripeness for judgment, etc.).
In terms of prophetic delivery technique, the convention is that the vision is not the prophecy; the vision is only the occasion for the prophecy. Amos is not unique here. The same thing happens in Jeremiah 1. God asks Jeremiah what he sees. Jeremiah responds that he sees the branch of an almond tree, a shaqed (שָׁקֵד). God then tells Jeremiah that he is watching, shoqed (שֹׁקֵד) his word to perform it. The almond tree has no relevance as an almond tree; the sound of the word is the occasion for the prophecy. Again God asks Jeremiah what he sees. A boiling cauldron facing away from the north. North–that’s it. Calamity will break out from the north. While the meaning of the word north matters this time, the boiling cauldron does not. What Jeremiah sees is the occasion to say a word. And that word, the last word he says, becomes the occasion for the prophecy. (Side note. Of course it’s easy to make something up about God’s anger boiling or the like. And that may preach well. But it's not what was going on in Jeremiah.)
In these two portions of Jeremiah and in the fourth vision of Amos, God asks the prophet what he sees, then builds the prophecy off of the prophet’s verbal response, not off of what he sees. In the first, second, and fifth visions of Amos, there is no step of asking what Amos sees. What Amos sees is straightforward and is the point of the prophecy. So how about Amos’ third vision? This vision includes the step of God asking what Amos sees. And the connection to what he sees, is not straightforward, just like Amos’ fourth vision and like Jeremiah 1.
Based on these features we ought to explore a sound play in the third vision. At first glance, this is not productive. Like the repetition of the word "north" in Jer 1:13-14, it appears that the word “tin” is repeated in Amos 7:8. Leaving us to try and explain the role of putting "tin" in the midst of Israel. And to try unsuccessfully. But, maybe we should focus on the sound of it a bit more.
This suggestion will pull together a few rather obscure items. It’s not a slam dunk, but sound plays have some wiggle room, so let’s try this out. The vision of tin is not the prophecy; it is the occasion of the prophecy. The first three cases of ’anak (אֲנָך) refer to “tin” as what Amos sees. After he pronounces “’anak,” God resumes to say not just “’anak,” but שָׂם אֲנָך, “sam ’anak,” I am about to put X in the midst of Israel.
Now I’m going to mess with a paradigm. Perhaps what we hear in “samanak” is supposed to sound like a verb with a pronominal suffix. God is talking to Amos, so we would expect a second person masculine singular pronominal (2ms) suffix. “I am about to put you in the midst of Israel.
Here are the problems with this suggestion. 1) The 2ms suffix is usually -ka, not -ak. Except that it is -ak at the end of a clause (the often overlooked pausal form) when on a noun or preposition. But this is a verb, and on verbs it is almost always -ka and only rarely -ak, like on the participle in Ps 53:5 [Heb 6]. 2) Then “n” form of a suffix is only common on the imperfect verb. It is rare on the perfect or participle, as we have here in Amos (it’s absent on the noun). When it is there on the verb, the “n” (nun, נ) becomes another “k,” i.e. -enka becomes -ekka. It would only be -nak in Aramaic (cp. Dan 6:17). So that’s the evidence against the idea–it is not a perfect rendition of the pronominal suffix paradigm. But the qayitz/qetz and shaqed/shoqed examples show that the sound plays do not have to be exact. So that leaves us with the question, is it close enough?
Setting that aside for the moment, how would it affect our understanding of the context? In visions one and two, Amos sees a clear threat and prays for God to pardon Israel. God relents. But at the third vision, God shifts gears. Now the vision is not the prophecy, it is the occasion for the prophecy. God shows him tin to get him to say “’anak” in order to turn it around into something else. The prophecy is “I will put you into the midst of Israel.” God is commissioning him as a prophet. Praying for Israel turns out to be volunteering for Israel. The next section is the historical account. It flows seamlessly from the third vision, positioning Amaziah’s speech as a response to the account of Amos’ visions (which he could be relating in his sermon up north). Amaziah, Jereboam’s priest, tells Amos to go back to Judah and leave Israel alone. In this section, Amos’ reply explicitly refers to his commissioning (7:15 “Go! Prophesy to my people Israel!”). So whatever we think of vision three, it is a fact that God did put Amos in the midst of Israel. Changing Amos’ role from intercessor into a messenger increases Israel’s level of accountability. While in Israel, Amaziah rejects the Lord’s message, which leads to a personal rebuke and oracle of judgment. As if they have blown their chance, vision four then declares the end (qetz; קֵץ) for Israel, again based on a sound play. Finally, vision five (9:1) declares the end of Israel without a sound play. And it holds out hope for a restored remnant. The end is not a complete end.
Our suggestion is not certain, but it is plausible. It distinguishes the shared form and function of the third and fourth visions and explains the connection to the historical material between them. What did God put in the midst of Israel? Not a plumb line. Not tin. But Amos.