Commentary Magazine

The Herdsman, by Dorothy Clarke Wilson


The Herdsman.
by Dorothy Clarke Wilson.
Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1946. 373 pp. $3.00.

The very paucity of biographical information in the Book of Amos provides both a challenge and an opportunity for the writer of historical fiction. The challenge: to create, on the basis of a few facts, a character worthy of the lofty prophecies ascribed to Amos; the opportunity: to inform that character with the grandeur and dignity of a great prophet. And Dorothy Clarke Wilson, in rising to the challenge, has taken full advantage of her opportunity.

Her Amos was born in Tekoa, and prophesied in the boom days of Jeroboam II. He was one of the herdsmen and tenders of sycamore trees in that barren region. Brought up in a poor farmer’s home, he is enslaved by the greed of his father’s creditors, later sold to the tax commissioner, and finally manumitted after a brief but intense love affair with that dignitary’s daughter that almost ends in marriage to her, and does end in marriage to her slave-girl, Mara, after a sudden awakening on Amos’ part. Because it was chronologically possible, Amos becomes the protector and teacher of the younger Hosea, and while recovering from a beating instigated by the reactionary High Priest, Amaziah, is interviewed for three whole days by the very young Isaiah. While any meeting between either of these later prophets and Amos is highly improbable, it does give a dramatic unity and continuity and even probability to their succession. And for the sake of greater dramatic effect and cohesion, although there is no basis for such an assumption in either fact or legend, Hosea’s notoriously faithless wife is made a cousin to Amos. Her earlier years foreshadow the anguish she was to bring to her long-suffering but ever-loving husband, who ultimately makes her the subject of his own prophetic message.

Much of Miss Wilson’s biographical invention is intended to concretize the general denunciations in Amos’ prophecies and to make them stem from his own or his family’s experience: his sister’s joining the (Bethel) temple prostitutes in an attempt to augment her starving family’s meager income; Hosea’s being swindled in the market by a dealer using a fraudulent measuring cup; the nocturnal moving of the boundary stones in the olive grove of Hosea’s father, and the bribing of the judges in the subsequent trial are all examples of this. The author also tries, though sometimes too patly, to trace the imagery of some of Amos’ poetic prophecies to incidents of his youth and early childhood (much in the manner of Lowes on Coleridge’s Kubla Khan) . And so, for example, as a young herdsman who flees from a lion he stumbles onto a bear—and manages to kill it; later he salvages a few sheep bones from the jaws of the lion that preyed on his herd; and on a visit to the prophet’s house, Amos’ stingy uncle is stung by a little snake as he reclines against the rush mats on the floor. These incidents are brought back in Amos’ words (5:19) describing the “day of the Lord,” which will be:

As if a man did flee from a lion,
And a bear met him:
And went into the house and leaned his hand
       against the wall,
And a serpent hit him.

Whatever the actual facts of Amos’ life, the author of this fresh and interesting story has taken the kind of liberty and the kind of license that make for a closely knit, well-motivated story, with real, live characters who are people instead of mere stalking horses. The corruption of Jeroboam’s day is painted strikingly, and the evil countenanced and even encouraged by that conquering monarch marches across Miss Wilson’s pages like a living, fire-breathing demon.

As long as Miss Wilson deals with people and scenes, or perhaps as long as she relies upon her own creative imagination, she writes well. It is only when she turns to “higher Biblical criticism” for the stuff of Amos’ theology, for the essence of his preaching, that she goes astray.

The Jewish reader suddenly finds that (in accordance with the long discredited Wellhausen theory) it was Amos who discovered the idea of One God, and that it was Amos who made him a God of justice. Had Miss Wilson consulted Professor Albright, she would have found that Amos was not the originator of the “most startling statements which had ever been made in Israel: that Yahweh was a just God and that he demanded justice from his people,” but that both this idea and the idea of the oneness of God had been part and parcel of Jewish religion since its inception. Nor was Amos revolted by the institution of sacrifice per se, but rather by its having acquired such sanctity in the people’s eyes that it overshadowed the concepts of social and religious obligations behind it.

Part of Miss Wilson’s misdirection is owed to a book on Amos by Dr. R. E. Wolfe (discussed by this reviewer in the January 1946 COMMENTARY), to which she makes grateful acknowledgment in a brief foreword. She is influenced by that critic’s Christological predilections. She similarly identifies Amos as the prophet of justice, and Hosea, being “more advanced,” as the prophet of love; and the messages of both are presented as foreshadowings of the ultimate Christian ideal of the salvation of mankind through love. Like Dr. Wolfe, Miss Wilson subjects Amos to martyrdom; but while this invention is unpardonable in the critic and scholar, it can be excused and even commended in the novelist, for it provides a fitting denouement to Amos’ tempestuous life.

Our negative criticisms of Miss Wilson’s book are made simply to remind the reader that he is reading fiction, and that for a fuller understanding of Amos’ importance in Jewish eyes, he had better read the Old Testament accounts and the results of Dr. Albright’s scholarship.

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