Joel: An Introduction

The book of Joel is an enigma, smothered in mystery, wrapped in a tortilla and served to someone, somewhere. Maybe not a tortilla, but some sort of flatbread. Maybe no wrapping at all.

Its superscription identifies the book’s contents as, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). However, it does not give us any historical indicators or points of reference. Joel’s name is a combination of the Divine names YHWH and Elohim, his father’s name means ‘youth of El.’ This is loaded with symbolism for ‘a prophet of the LORD.’ But at least in the superscription, we are given no indication if Joel prophesied to the Northern or Southern Kingdom (later references in the book and mentions of the temple indicate Judah).

This lack of historical indicators and the vagueness of the prophet’s origin make it difficult to know when this book was written. Scholarly opinion ranges from the early monarchy to the post-exilic period. An early date points to references to the temple (Joel 1:9, 13,14,16; 3:18). A late date points to the fact that there are no references to any monarchs, north or south. The early part of the book describes a locust plague  (1:1-2:27), the latter part of the book (2:28-3:21) is apocalyptic with a post-exilic flavor. So some critical scholarship questions the overall unity of the book. I don’t have a firm opinion on the date of Joel either way. I do think there are strong thematic links between the first and second halves of the book. The whole enchilada is meant to be read together regardless of the different tastes of its ingredients (thus, wrapped in a tortilla).

This lack of specific historical indicators serves us well as contemporary readers. When we read of the ecological crisis brought on by an army of locust and the ravages of war, we can enter into Joel’s metaphor. We can identify in our own personal and corporate lives, ‘the years the locust have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). When we read its apocalyptic promise of renewal, restoration, vindication, and God’s spirit poured on all flesh, we are filled with the hope of God’s work in our own contexts. As Christians, we read Joel’s promises through the lens of Jesus—the Word-made-flesh who inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom, and Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2), but we press forward toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and his justice reigns on the earth.

So as we look at Joel, pay attention to the ways in which the crises of Ancient Israel mirror our own economic and ecological context. These three short chapters have something to teach us.


References

Fuhr, Jr., Richard Alan & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2016.

Garrett, Duane A. Hosea, Joel. Vol. 19A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Stuart, Douglas. Hosea–Jonah. Vol. 31. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Lessons of a Good God (Hosea)

Hosea was a bad husband who publically shamed his spouse and a bad dad who saddled his children with awful names. He did all this to make vivid the message he had for a bad people, with bad leaders practicing bad religion. The final decades of Israel were marked by violence as new leaders deposed previous dynasties. They put their trust in trans-national partnerships with Egypt and Assyria. And the people followed the gods of the nations. Their idolatry was adultery, they forsook YHWH and their covenant relationship with Him. They forgot that was God that brought them into the land and gave it to them as a gift. Their practice of false religion and fertility rites (9:1-6) would not stave off famine and exile. Times of economic prosperity had led them away from their  God (10:1-2).

Because of Israel’s idolatrous heart, they were under God’s judgment. They sowed to the wind and would reap the whirlwind (8:7). Israel would be swallowed up by the nations they trusted, carried off to Assyria (8:8-9).  Hosea hoped that his people would turn their hearts back to God but they didn’t. The result was that perverted justice and coming judgment:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
    reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
    for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
    and showers his righteousness on you.
 But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors,
the roar of battle will rise against your people,
    so that all your fortresses will be devastated—
as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle,
    when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.
 So will it happen to you, Bethel,
    because your wickedness is great.
When that day dawns,
    the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. (Hosea 10:12-15)

God’s judgment hangs like a cloud over the prophets’ writings. But judgment was never the final point. Revealing badness was always a secondary concern for the prophet. The primary prophetic task was to reveal knowledge of God (daath Elohim), His goodness, and turn the hearts of people back to Him. Using the analogy of marriage, Hosea reveals God’s heart—the love he had for his people.
Throughout his book, Hosea describes the Lord in heart language. When he speaks of the knowledge of God (cf. Hosea 6:6), he is describing the intimate sharing between He and his people (like the intimate knowing which marriage partners possess of one another). “The general sympathy which Hosea requires of man is solidarity, an emotional identification with God” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, New York: Harper & Colon, 1962, p60). So emotive language describes God with emotive language: “When Israel was a child  I loved him. .. (Hosea 11:1). Hear the yearning of God in this passage and the promise of restoration:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
    How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.
 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
    his children will come trembling from the west. (Hosea 11:8-10)

It isn’t just a prophets purpose, it the Father’s longing for his people to return to Him. He loves and longs for his people. God loves his people and even though they spurned and rejected Him, and like an adulteress chased after other lovers, God longed for their return to Him.  So while Hosea 12-13, like much of the book, describes Israel’s sin and God’s judgement for their adultery it ends with the promise of future blessing.
 I will heal their waywardness
    and love them freely,
    for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
    he will send down his roots;
    his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
People will dwell again in his shade;
    they will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine—
    Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon.
Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
    I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a flourishing juniper;
    your fruitfulness comes from me.” (Hosea 14:4-8).
The wayward and rejected Israel is promised that God would  heal them, love them freely, That his anger toward them would cease, and he would renew his Covenant love and blessing.
When we consider our own context, Hosea has a lot to teach us. As a prophet of God he spoke God’s truth. He told his nation of their wandering heart, idolatry and their failure to follow God. And yet as God’s prophet he told the whole truth. Beyond their national apostasy stood a loving God, longing to restore his people who had good things in store for them. God who would not be angry forever and would restore, and renew covenant life with Him.
So whatever your read is of America’s social and political landscape—its decadence, the pandering to special interest and oligarchy, our tenuous relationships with other nation states, the winking at injustice when it suits our interests,  the hypocrisy of leadership, the need to drain the swamp, the subversion of Christian values, the lies of the media, the treatment of the vulnerable, and the violence or whatever other ways we’ve sown to the wind and reaped the whirlwind—God’s good news for us is this: He loves us with a faithful love and longs to turn hearts back to him. His anger doesn’t burn forever and he will restore those who turn to Him.
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9)