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Joel 1-3

Here is Lawrence Boadt’s introduction to Joel from Reading the Old Testament….

The Book of Joel is a difficult book to classify. It seems to be as much a liturgy of penance as a collection of prophetic oracles. It has as many connections to the psalms as it does to Isaiah or Habakkuk or Jeremiah. It has no date and we know nothing of its author, so any attempt to place it somewhere in Israel’s history must come from clues inside the book itself. Because it never mentions older political enemies like the Assyrians or Babylonians, and because it has high praise of the temple worship, and because it speaks of the land once before (the exile?) being totally destroyed (Jl 2:17-19,27; 3:19), scholars generally place it in the post-exilic period after the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C.

In many ways the style of this book is very similar to a modern penitential liturgy for the sacrament of penance. The penitents lament their evil state and all their sins; the priests call for repentance and fasting; both together beg God to show mercy and forgiveness to them; finally, the penitents receive reassurance of God’s forgiving love through the blessing of the priests. But the book is also much more than this alone. The theme of the day of the Lord weaves throughout, giving it a strong prophetic note of warning. Perhaps like Nahum and Habakkuk, Joel is a temple prophet who proclaims his message from God in the liturgical worship services. If people will only change their hearts and return to the Lord, the day of doom will become a day of blessing for them. But it must be sincere: “Rend your heart and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in abiding love” (Jl 2:13).

The quotation of the covenant formula from Exodus 34:6-7 in this last passage is just one of numerous quotations from earlier books of the Bible. Joel describes the day of the Lord in the words of Amos 5:18-20 (Jl 2:2), and portrays the warriors who bring it about in the images of Nahum 2:1-5 and 3:1-3 (Jl 2:4-11); he reverses the metaphor of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 in which swords shall be made into plowshares (“Beat your plowshares into swords”—Jl 3:10); he quotes the opening words of Amos 1:2 that God roars his judgment from Zion (Jl 3:16); he refers to the great vision of the river flowing from the side of the temple in Ezekiel 47:1-12 (Jl 3:18). Almost every verse has some reference to an earlier part of the Old Testament. It indicates perhaps that Joel was one of the very last of the prophetic books to be completed, and may suggest that he lived closer to the year 400 than 500 B.C.

The oracles of Joel open with a vision depicting a locust plague that has come over the land. It was a common horror in the Ancient Near East. Palestine is struck once in a while even today, and it seems that the African states below the Sahara are regularly devastated by locust hordes. These insects can move across a thousand miles of the Sudan and Ethiopia denuding all vegetation of its leaves. There still is no effective means of preventing the locusts from swarming when their numbers increase suddenly, and so it is not surprising that Joel would view this plague as a severe punishment from God that is beyond human control. But in true prophetic spirit, Joel saw far beyond the immediate evil of a locust attack. He saw it as nothing less than a precursor, a forewarning, of the coming of the Lord himself.

He miexes two other powerful ideas along with that of the grasshoppoer invasion. He describes an enemy army, the foe from the north sweeping down across the land, with the same clear eye as Jeremiah who had predicted the Babylonian invasion earlier. And he uses the imagery of the desert windstorm, the sirocco, that withers up all the plant life with its hot breath, as the symbol of God’s anger against the land.

Locusts had come before and would come again, but there was to be a much greater moment when Yahweh made a definitive judgment between good and evil. Chapter 3 goes much further than the promise of relief from the plague and a restored harvest of plenty found in the end of chapter 2. In the final great poem that runs from Joel 2:28 to the end of the book, Joel pictures a new time in which the forces of nature itself will be changed into allies of the divine warrior, a time when he will come to vindicate Jerusalem and Mount Zion against all the pagan nations of the earth. This particular passage in Joel moves far beyond the hopes of earlier prophets that God would once again act in the days or years ahead to save his people. It uses images on a cosmic scale, including a great battle between God and the pagan nations in the Valley of Jehoshaphat somewhere near Jerusalem. This is the language of apocalyptic, a whole new development out of and away from classical prophecy. It no longer expects God to continue to act in ways that he has before, but looks forward to a new and decisive beginning in which the present world will be changed so much that one can honestly speak of an end of the present world and the creation of a new world. The apocalyptic approach becomes very common in the last centuries before Christ….

The strength of the Book of Joel lies in its confident hope that God does not forget his people or refuse to hear their prayers for help. It combines the traditions about Yahweh as divine warrior, the day of the Lord, the fidelity and mercy of the covenant relationship, the oracles against nations, the penitential psalms, and the promises of blessing into a renewed message of hope to the people of fifth century Judah.

The verse from Joel that spoke most to me this morning was Joel 2:13, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” The C. S. Lewis Bible pairs this almost poignant, beautiful, and hopeful Lewis quote with this passage….

A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out. (Mere Christianity)


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