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Old Testament: Joel

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Summary

Locust, (2007)Much of the book of Joel concerns a terrible locust plague that causes starvation for animals and humans. Joel takes this as a sign that people should lament and repent. God responds positively beginning in 2:18. After 2:29, the book moves from historical events to conjecture about the end-time (the Day of the Lord) when the world will be changed and when strange and frightening signs will appear (2:30-32). In the new age, all people will prophesy (2:28-29). This section of Joel is quoted in the account of the Pentecost experience in Acts 2:17-21.

So What?

If not for the use of Joel 2:28-29 by Acts, we probably would not pay much attention to Joel. But, as is true of other prophets, Joel does remind us of a number of important points. God is at work in the world, there are consequences to human behavior, lament and repentance are appropriate responses to disaster, and hope is always the last word. Joel also is important for giving us a glimpse of early end-time speculation that will be expanded further in other biblical books.

Where Do I Find It?

Joel is the twenty-ninth book of the Bible; it is the second of the twelve books of "minor prophets" (shorter prophets) that close the Old Testament. Joel lies between Hosea and Amos, a placement that shows clearly that the order of the twelve prophets is not chronological.

Who Wrote It?

The only information that is known about Joel is that his father was named Pethuel (Joel 1:1), but we do not know who Pethuel is either. There are a dozen persons named Joel in the Old Testament, and none seems to be the one who is responsible for this book. His hometown is not identified, nor his occupation, nor who was ruling the country during his ministry. The first verse of the book does make clear that he is a prophet to whom the word of the Lord came.

When Was It Written?

Joel probably lived during the Persian period of Old Testament history (539-331 B.C.E.) During that time, the Persians allowed some of the Jews to return to Jerusalem and the temple was eventually rebuilt. Joel was familiar with the temple, so he must be dated after its restoration. He knows earlier prophets. No kings of Judah are mentioned (there were none after the defeat by Babylon in 586 B.C.E.). All this points to a period between 400 and 350 B.C.E.

What's It About?

Joel calls the people to recognize a locust plague as a sign from God that they should repent, and then goes on to envision a final judgment when God will punish evil nations and vindicate Israel.

How Do I Read It?

Since Joel is a short book, one should simply read it straight through, paying special attention to the transitions in 2:18 and 2:28. God responds favorably in 2:18 after laments and rituals of repentance. The move from historical events to end-time speculation begins in 2:28.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament


I. Editorial Introduction (Joel 1:1)
The only information given about Joel is the name of his father, Pethuel. There is nothing to place him in a particular historical time period. He is not dated to the reign of a specific king.

II. The Locust Plague and Deliverance (Joel 1:2-2:27)

A. Description of the Terror Brought by Locusts and the Call to Lament and Repent (Joel 1:2-2:17)
Joel takes the locust infestation as a sign that God is displeased. The first response is a cry of lament. Joel urges the people to go beyond lament to a genuine repentance, though it is not clear what great sin has brought on this catastrophe. Perhaps God, who is gracious and merciful, may turn away from the punishing (2:12-14).

B. God Hears and Responds Favorably (Joel 2:18-27)
God takes pity on the people and promises removal of the locusts, fertility of the soil, relief for the animals, abundant crops, and assurance that the people will never again be put to shame. The abrupt transition from despair and lament to assurance that good times will return is typical of the movement one sees in the psalms of lament.

III. God Will Act on the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:28-3:21)
The book now moves from what was likely an actual event (the locust plague) and begins to speculate on what the Day of the Lord, God's final judgment, will be like. On that day, God will act to bring justice to the world. There will be signs in the heavens and battles on earth. It will be a bad day for nations who have opposed the Lord and caused pain for God's people (3:9-15, 19). For the people of Israel it will be a time of vindication (3:16-18, 20-2l).

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Joel is in the line of the classical Old Testament prophets. He knows them and even quotes them. But there are some changes in his message. He seems more connected than most of the earlier prophets with the temple and the rituals and sacrifices that take place there (see 1:14; 2:15-17). Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, for example, though not rejecting Israel's worship life, are quite critical of temple rituals that are not accompanied by social justice. Some scholars have referred to Joel as a cult prophet, one who carries out his ministry in the temple and uses liturgical forms. ("Cult" here is used technically to refer to the worship life of a people.)

Further, Joel seems to be making a move toward apocalyptic literature, best exemplified by the books of Daniel and Revelation, where there is conjecture about the end-time, God's ultimate justice, times of conflict before the final resolution, and signs in the heavens and on earth that great and marvelous things are about to happen.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Combination of earthly and end-time (apocalyptic) hopes. The first part of Joel seems to be preoccupied with a very real, historical, tragic event. A locust plague would be a terrible, frightening occurrence. Joel understood it as a message from God that the people should repent. Then, beginning with 2:28, the book moves to a different kind of genre, speculating about a future time when all people can prophesy, when wondrous signs indicate that huge changes are coming, and when battles take place in which enemies are defeated once and for all and Israel is vindicated. This is one of the first biblical passages that looks like the end-time (apocalyptic) literature found in Daniel and Revelation and occasionally in the Gospels.

Joel's connection with the temple and the priestly traditions. Though he fits into the picture of classical biblical prophets in many ways, Joel's interest in priestly concerns makes him different from most. When he calls for lamenting and repenting, he seems to think that this is something that should be done by the community in the temple, following certain prescribed rituals. This would not be true of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who prophesied prior to the Babylonian exile. When scholars try to understand what kind of a prophet Joel was, they look for clues for what happened to the office of the prophet in the days after the exile when some of the people returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

Sudden turn to hope. The first part of the book is full of vivid descriptions of the locust terror, accompanied by calls to lament and repent. Then, suddenly (in 2:18), God responds favorably and promises relief. It is almost shocking to read words of assurance after all the despair that has poured out. Has the relief already come, or is this an expression of hope that God will soon act to take away the threat and restore good fortune to the people? The same kind of abrupt transition from despair to hope occurs in the structure of a typical lament psalm. The reader of a lament psalm probably will not move to hope immediately, but the psalm (like Joel) is a reminder that in the past people who have suffered have had their hope renewed. God does respond favorably to those who call for help from the depths of their despair.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Call to lament and repent. When great tragedy occurs, a natural impulse is to lament, to cry to God for help, and to complain about one's circumstances. Yet, in our day, persons of faith are often discouraged, directly or more subtly, from a vigorous, accusing lament. Sometimes, it is appropriate to repent if persons have brought their trouble on themselves by their own behavior.

Connection with the Pentecost experience. Probably the best known passage from Joel is 2:28-29 where, it is said, all people will be able to prophesy. The writer of Acts uses this passage to interpret the experience of people speaking and understanding many different languages. It links the Hebrew Bible with the experience of those first Christians.

The Day of the Lord. The world has many flaws, the wicked prosper while the innocent suffer, the bad guys often win the wars, and death hangs over the head of everyone. And so, people of faith long for a time when God will come to fix everything once and for all. When that day, the Day of the Lord, comes, will it be a good time or a bad time? Joel sees the Day both as a time of judgment and as a promise of hope.

Hope has the last word. Prophetic books often contain words of dire warning if people do not live in obedience to God. Or, as in the case of Joel, terrible things have already happened, probably as the result of human sin. The prophetic books, however, almost never leave the people without hope. Joel, like other prophets, ends with hope, both in 2:18-27 (regarding the locusts) and 3:18, 20-21 (regarding the final vindication of Israel).

Natural disasters as messages from God. Natural disasters are a common occurrence in every age--floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, or the scourge of crop-eating insects. Did God have a part in sending the disaster? How do we know that? And what is the message that is being sent? Joel, as people do in our day, sees the locusts as a punishment from God, though he never states clearly what sin might have caused it.

AUTHOR: Daniel Simundson, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament