In what has to rank as one of my favorite epithets in the entire Bible, Amos takes a shot not at the men of Israel but their women. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan.” Have you ever noticed that when men are described using the names of animals, it’s a generally positive description, while when women are given the same treatment, it’s always a negative association. When Rocky Balboa was called “The Italian Stallion,” that was perfectly okay, but “the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” I could give other examples, but most of the others aren’t really appropriate for polite society. Hopefully you can employ your imagination to get my drift.
Let’s explore that metaphor for a moment. When Amos tags these women as “cows of Bashan,” what is he suggesting? Think about the cows you’ve known. First of all, cows are not particularly intelligent creatures. If there were an animal IQ scale, they’d score well above sheep, but all in all they’re pretty feeble-minded. Have you ever seen a cowboy movie featuring a trained cow? I don’t think so. Roy Rogers could train Trigger to do everything from playing dead to fixing biscuits in a Dutch oven, but he apparently didn’t have similar success with Elsie the Cow.
Besides their lack of intelligence, cows tend to do only about three things. First, they eat. They’re not terribly discriminating when they eat, but what they lack in discretion they make up for in quantity. Second, they stand around chewing their cud. Is there anything in this world that looks more stupid than a cow chewing its cud? Finally, they—how shall we say?—complete the digestive process.
Cows aren’t useful as transportation. They’re not bright enough to become a companion. No, a cow is only tolerated because it is meat on the hoof. It’ll also tend to produce calves and milk along the path to the butcher’s shop. But it’s really kind of pitiful to think of a cow as a creature whose highest ambition can be to turn into a nice prime rib someday.
Of course a cow is simply being a cow, right? There’s nothing wrong with a cow embracing its cow-ness and being the best cow it can be. What is a problem is when a person—certain women in this case—behave like cows. Cows we can excuse, but when people are simply eating and eliminating, oblivious to the fate in store for them, that’s a sad state of affairs.
This passage puts an accent on the dumbness of dumb animals. In verse three, Amos changes his metaphor from cows to fish, apparently, as he prophecies that these women will be taken out of the city with fish hooks. A trout with a hook in its mouth is one thing, but a person? That’s rather sad.
As I read these words, I don’t assume that Amos is a sexist. He has plenty of criticism for men as well. Instead, he’s lashing out at those who are oblivious to the harm they inflict on others and content living for themselves. I’m afraid that’s a role I inhabit now and again. You and I aren’t cows of Bashan, but we must be sure not to carelessly graze in that pasture. God still has a good supply of fish-hooks, I’m sure.