Joel

In today’s media the title (or at least the sub-title) might be ‘How to Survive a Plague of Locusts’ suggesting practical help for those who need to know and only of marginal interest for those who don’t. The first group would be disappointed, and the second never know what they had missed.

Joel simply means ‘Yahweh is God.’

The book begins with a warning to the readers to tell their children the story of a plague of locusts, the damage they did and what they left behind (1:3-4), followed by Joel’s insights as to what it means and how the people may respond.

Date and authorship

Most scholars believe the author was one person and almost certainly a man.

The fact that the book is sandwiched between Hosea and Amos (two 8th-century prophets) led earlier scholars to attribute Joel to the same period. Most scholars today favour a later dating (probably post-exilic). Opinions differ as to whether it is pre- or post-exilic, possibly because superficially it seems to be a book in two halves, one reflecting the earlier and the other the later dating, but also because some evidence suggests less clarity as to the importance to be attached to Temple practices as a factor in the dating. Either way there seems to be general agreement that what we have before us is a single work and the work of a single author and many would feel that precise dating is a secondary issue.

Interpretation

To appreciate Joel, imagine a priest, prophet or community leader today confronting a disaster of considerable proportions which has struck without warning, bringing devastation to a community through no fault of their own, utterly destroying their livelihood and way of life, and facing years of recovery. What is he to say to them? Quick fixes are not on. Answers are not easy but crucial points must never be forgotten, and Joel’s message touches points relevant to every comparable situation.

First, they are to begin where they are, identify and evaluate the disaster (1:2-14). No two situations are identical but the underlying emotions associated with them vary little.

Next comes a call for recognition, not denial, and a readiness at least to accept some responsibility for where they are (1:14-20), with a tacit recognition that causes, blame and guilt are not helpful at this stage and can be positively damaging.

Realism then requires Joel to remind them that there may be worse to come (2:1-11) but they are to hang on, and trust in God even if only a miracle can save them (2:11).

Finally, after the initial shock it is time to wake up (2:12-17). New dreams, fresh visions. The future is more important than the past. A really new start, moving on, not going back. The Day of the LORD may be as much an opportunity as a disaster. A truly ‘purple passage’ which the early Christians were not slow to grasp on the Day of Pentecost (2:18-22; also Acts 2:17-21).

This story, and Joel’s summing up (3:1-21), is what they are to tell their children (1:3).

Reception history

In the Hebrew Bible Joel is one of twelve ‘minor prophets’ covering some 400 years and probably brought together in a single compilation (The Book of the Twelve) in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. Much ink has been spilt on the locusts and what we are to understand by the Day of the LORD, usually read as a Day of Judgement and (in Joel) a day of judgement on the surrounding nations with a blessing for the Jews.

Discussion has also ranged round the question of a ‘a book in two halves,’ possibly with different dates and authorship, and some have found Joel useful as a quarry for liturgical elements, none of which has much influence these days.

Further reading

Childs, Brevard S. Pages 385-94 in Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.
Coggins, Richard James. Joel and Amos. NCBC. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
Gelston, Anthony. “Joel.” Pages 686-89 in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Gilmore, Alec. “Joel.” Minor Prophets with a Major Message. http://www.gilco.org.uk/joel/.
Keller, Carl-A. “Joel.” Pages 578-81 in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Mason, Rex. Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Joel. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan, eds. Pages 37-71 in The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.