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)

Lessons from Bad Religion (Hosea 9)

Marriage vows presume that both spouses know, with all that biblical innuendo, and love the other; however Hosea described God as a jilted lover—unloved by the people He covenanted to be with, Israel. There was no knowledge of God in the land (cf. Hosea 4:1c). Hosea named the people’s wanton abandonment of God as the root of their problems, though clearly Israel had other sins (e.g. violence, injustice). Derek Kidner observes”Sin can be against oneself (1 Cor. 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it.”1 The big sin of Israel was their bad religion: the worship of idols.

Politics and religion weren’t easily divided in the Ancient world. Kings were masters of coopting religious language to effect their imperial aims (not much changed there). Priests—purveyors of religious devotion—called afternoon showers signs of God’s blessing instead of speaking truth-to-power and naming where things went amiss. But kings and priests were not alone in rejecting their covenant God. The people of Israel likewise rejected YAHWEH and chased after the gods of the nations.

N.T. Wright writes, “You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.”2 One of the problems with idolatry is that we become bad versions of ourselves. Bad religion makes us bad people. We are as in danger of spiritual malformation as Israel was. Hosea 9 begins with this snapshot of religion gone bad:

Do not rejoice, O Israel!
Do not exult as other nations do;
for you have played the whore, departing from your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s pay
on all threshing floors. (Hosea 9:1)
Threshing floors were large communal properties, flat ground, where the farmers gathered to thresh and winnow the grain. Because of the economic importance of agriculture, these threshing floors doubled as open-air facilities for religious rituals, business transactions, and public gatherings. The Ancient Near East worship of the surrounding neighbors took the shape of fertility cults. Temple prostitutes were employed for their services—drunken orgies of delight were meant to appease Baal and ensure the fertility  and prosperity of the land.
Israel was simultaneously obsessed with sex and their own economic security. Imitating the nations, their worship employed sex with prostitutes as a technique to ensure a good harvest and prosperity for the nation. But economic security was meant to be a byproduct of faithfulness to Yahweh, and not a result of religious technique and ritual. False worship led to using people (in this case, prostitutes) to achieve economic growth. The unhappy result for Israel was crop failure and famine (9:2), military defeat and exile (9:3-7, 15-17). Hosea warned of the coming judgment but Israel decried this prophet as a mad fool (9:7).
We may cringe at the particulars of ANE religion, but are we really that far removed?  Are we not, as a nation, likewise obsessed with sex and economic security? We just elected a president who promises to fix our economy and bragged on video about sexually assaulting women. But Trump’s presidency is merely symptomatic of our American idolatry.   One curious feature of our democracy is that our government of the people, by the people and for people elects a leader every four years, which reflects the soul of the nation. We may decry Trump’s orange glow, petulance and his tiny hands forming a Vitarka Mudra, but he is a mirror to us of our own inner life. Like our president, we are fearful and angry at the world, worried about the economy, distrusting both the media and the establishment, and we prefer our own alternative facts to the true truthiness of truth.
If Wright is right and we are becoming like what we worship, what does this say about us? Israel’s worship of idols caused them to forgot their God which also caused them to forget the image of God in their women. They used them for sexual pleasure (and to procure financial gain). What is the god envisioned in America’s cultural landscape? Is it the god of the prosperity gospel, promises riches to those where to sow the right seeds? Is it the hedonist god of celebrities—narcissistic and decadent? Does the god of our nation value the dignity of all human persons as co-bearers of God’s image? Or are some humans viewed as less worthy than others? Does our god thwart justice for women, orphans and aliens dwelling in our land?
It is not enough for us to assert we are a Christian nation. In the years leading up to Israel’s exile, when they were an Assyrian vassal state, Yahweh was still nominally Israel’s God.3 In reality the people (and their leaders) were worshipping at a different altar. If the God who is revealed to us in Scripture was at the center of our national life, our priorities (political or otherwise) would look vastly different. Like Israel of old, bad religion has poisoned the well and there will be reckoning.

God break down our idols that we who are made in your image, can represent you and be your Presence on the earth. In our hearts and in our land, let us make You great again.


1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 208
2. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 148.
3. Interesting to note that the oracle of Hosea 9, never mentions Baal worship, just bad religion.

Lessons From a Bad Dad: Hosea 1

There are bad dads and then there are bad dads. Some fathers subject their kids to cruel disciplines to teach them a lesson. Hosea was cruel to his kids to teach his country a lesson. He named his kids awful things, so his country would know how bad things had gotten. He was a very bad dad. Okay, so God was the one who told Hosea what to name his kids, but this fact makes me glad I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet. If you don’t know the story, here are the details from Hosea 1:

When God first spoke to Hosea, he told him to find a prostitute for a wife (more about this in a later post). He married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim and together they had three children. The first was a son. Hosea called him Jezreel and God’s behest. The name was a double entendre. It referenced the valley of Jezreel, the place where Jeroboam II’s great grandfather, Jehu, deposed the previous royal family, the house of Omri. Evil queen Jezebel’s body was torn to shreds by dogs at Jezreel, the king and the rest of the family were massacred,  just as the prophet Elijah foretold (2 Kings 9). This was God’s judgement on Israel’s kings for leading the Israelites into Baal worship. When Hosea named his son Jezreel, he was warning Jeroboam. A similar judgement would await him if he and his family didn’t repent of their own idolatry and wicked dealings. The name Jezreel also means YHWH scatters (or sows). It foretold future judgment—a nation scattered to the wind and carried into exile by the Assyrian army.

The next time Gomer got pregnant, she gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. God told Hosea to name her Lo-Ruhamah, meaning Not-Shown-Mercy or Unloved. Knowing Gomer’s history, Hosea’s friends may have wondered if the name indicated the child was not really his; yet the reason for the name Lo-Ruhamah wasn’t personal but theological. The Lord would “no longer show mercy on Israel or forgive them.” The child, in name, became the embodiment of Israel’s broken relationship with God. When Gomer weaned her daughter, she became pregnant again with another boy. Hosea called him, “Lo-Ammi”—Not my people. So, Hosea named his kids after a national Massacre (like calling your first born Wounded Knee), Unloved and Not Mine!

I don’t know how Hosea’s kids turned out, but eventually these younger two get a name upgrade: “Say to your brother, Ammi, and to your sister, Ruhamah”(Ho 2:1, NRSV), meaning ‘my people’ and ‘loved one.’ The older son, Jezreel hears how his name, YHWH sows, will come to describe God himself re-sowing Israel.   The scattered will be gathered, the unloved will be shown mercy and will be valued, a rejected people will find themselves back in their Lord’s embrace.

Still, Hosea and Gomer’s three children spent the first several years of their lives enduring constant negative messaging from their father (and Heavenly Father?). This is significant time for early childhood development. Healthy attachment sets children on the path toward future success. Did Massacre, Unloved and Not Mine experience the love of their parents? Did Hosea hug and nurture his sons and whisper to them how much he loved them? Did he tell his little girl she could become anything she wanted to be? Did he swell with pride at every developmental milestone? And smile as they mispronounced words and laugh at their nonsense rhymes? When his children grew, did they feel their father understood and respected them? Did Hosea’s stern demeanor soften as he aged? Or did his prophetic austerity make him always enigma to them?

We don’t have enough information to know what kind of father Hosea really was. We only know he named his kids horrid things as an object lesson (I’ve been a pastor and I know how easy it is to carelessly turn your kids into object lessons).  My guess was he really was a bad dad, the way we all were when we first became fathers. He, like us, was human, and thus a mess of contradictions. Thankfully the final word Hosea hears God declare over his children speak of restoration, hope, return, renewal, love, life.

Hosea’s names for his kids shock us today.  I don’t think the names were any less of a shock in his own time. Hosea wanted to make vivid for his compatriots the reality of God’s judgement and their brokenness and alienation from God. Does Hosea’s kids’ names make vivid our own sins too? Will it shake us to repentance? Can we learn from this bad dad?

What is our Jezreel? In what ways do our leaders repeat sin and unhealthy patterns of the past?  Manifest Destiny and the American Militarism? The idolatry of consumerism? How are we cut off from God’s mercy? How do we fail to trust God, and continually reject Him by our actions? In what ways are we not God’s people?

Blogging prophets and more, 2017

 In the great New Year’s tradition, here is my obligatory post telling you my blogging plan for the coming year.

This blog is a hodgepodge of my (mostly) religious musings. In the past I have posted poems, prayers, posts on Christian spirituality and the liturgical calendar, my thoughts on music and culture, politics and of course reviews. Most of these are searchable , though I’ve removed my two most popular posts ever. The first was a tongue-in-cheek call to boycott Christian contemporary music, with considerable snark. I pressed some real issues but many people who stumbled across my blog couldn’t get past the boycott rhetoric. The second post was considerably more vulnerable. I had a post in the aftermath of being asked to resign from a pastor position I held in Florida. My denominational conference superintendent said it made me sound like a victim and that I came across like I was blaming the church. He warned me to not blog about my failings (unless they were in far, far past) if I ever hoped a search committee to hire me as a pastor. I heeded his advice, and took the post down.

So what shall I blog about in the 2017?  Some theology bloggers are  more ambitious than I, blogging their way through Barth’s Dogmatics or some other theological tome. I don’t have the discipline or inclination for all  of that (as much as Barth is my theological man-crush). Others may be more diligent about focusing on a particular theme. This blog will remain the hodgepodge it is but I do have one idea I’d would like to work into my blogging plans: the minor prophets.  I’ve been inspired by my mad dash through the minor-prophet-sticky-pages to finish my Bible-in-a-year-reading plan and a book I blurbed through another venue this fall: The Message of the Twelve.  

The minor prophets are neither unimportant or underage, despite their collective English moniker. They have an important message for us. They call us to love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Yet their voices remain, too often, unheard. My own spiritual journey has led me to heed their call to biblical justice, but I want to press in a little more. So here is my plan: 12 months, 12 prophets. Each month I will work into my blogging plan posts about one of the Twelve. A modest proposal to help myself (and maybe you) listen well to these prophets of old. I expect some of these guys, I will have more to say about than others.

Beyond that, expect what you expect from this blog. Occasional reflections on culture or spirituality, occasional real-life updates and reflections, thoughts, prayers & songs. And more books. I am a biblioblogger and I will continue my steady stream of book reviews and recommendations.

Happy New Year!