Monday, September 22, 2014

Joel: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Joel is one of the shortest in the Bible.  At only three chapters, it still manages to pack an apocalyptic wallop.  Scholars disagree about when exactly the book was written, but clues in the text (like references to Greeks and Sabeans) point to the fifth century B.C.E., when Israel and Judah were again unified and had re-built Jerusalem, its walls, and temple.

The main event of the book of Joel is a locust infestation that devastates the crops of Israel.  Locusts are scary big grasshoppers that can be absolutely devastating for farmers.  In the book of Exodus, you’ll remember, locusts were one of the great plagues inflicted on Egypt.

Locust

For an agricultural society like 5th century Israel, a locust infestation disrupted their food supply, economy, and even religious practices (since agricultural products like wine and grain were used in religious services).

Joel describes this locust infestation with terrifying imagery:

“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”

Locust swarm.

The prophet compares the swarm of locusts to an invading army bent on destruction:

“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes…”

Like the prophets before him (and, in fact, like many ancient agricultural societies), Joel interprets the locusts as divine judgment, and encourages the people to repent and turn to God:

“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”

Following the familiar prophetic sequence of sin—punishment—restoration, God promises to heal Israel’s land after the devastating locust infestation:

“Then the Lord became jealous for his land, 
and had pity on his people.
In response to his people the Lord said:
I am sending you grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied…”

God speaks even to the soil and the animals, showing that he is not only concerned with humans, but with the whole of nature:

“Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field.
for the pastures of the wilderness are green…”

In spite of his seemingly ordinary agricultural premise, Joel (like Daniel) ends with some pretty crazy apocalyptic visions.  He says that God’s spirit will be poured out on all peoples, not just Israel:

“Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions…”

In the New Testament book of Acts, the apostle Peter quotes Joel in reference to Pentecost, the famous outpouring of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire.  I find it kind of funny that, in its original context, the “Pentecost prophecy” had to do with a locust infestation/crop failure.

Pentecost

Joel’s apocalyptic visions then take a dark turn…

“I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Like the prophets before him, Joel pronounces judgment on foreign nations, and restoration for Israel, in a kind of utopian/xenophobic dream of the future:

“In that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
the hills shall flow with milk,
and the stream beds of Judah
shall flow with water…
Egypt shall become a desolation
and Edom a desolate wilderness…”

Sweet berry wine.

The little book of Joel reminds us that, for all the apocalyptic/spiritual imagery of the prophets, their writings are always rooted and grounded in the real goings-on of a specific people group, the Israelites, living in specific historical circumstances.  Something as seemingly mundane as a crop failure provides the occasion for an inspired meditation on calamity and restoration.

In this way, the ancient Israelites were not so different from many ancient cultures, who saw history and natural phenomenon as connected to the gods, or God.  As a 21st century reader, I can’t help but think about how differently I see history and natural phenomena.  For me, an earthquake or a hurricane or a crop failure has very explainable reasons.  But for pre-scientific ancient peoples like the Israelites, such events needed explanation, and God was usually the “go-to” explanation for the unexplainable.  This raises the question: what relevance does a book like Joel have for 21st century readers?  Is it simply a quaint example of how one ancient people group (incorrectly) interpreted a bug infestation?  Or is it something more?  I suppose it has meaning because its included in the Bible, which is still a holy book for millions of people.  But why?  And of what relevance is Joel?  I don’t know.



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