Joel: Misplaced Prophet of the Locust Plague

Joel vividly portrays the dependence of human life upon God's favor.


This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Book of Joel is the second work in the collection of the Minor Prophets known as Trei Asar, or “The Twelve,” and is ascribed in the superscription to Joel son of Petuel. There is no further information either in the superscription or from indications in the text regarding the time or place of the prophet. 

Why the Book of Joel is Second in the Order of the 12 Minor Prophets

Overall, the sequence of books in “The Twelve” conforms to the historical periods of the prophets, beginning with Hosea and Amos from the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (as the first and third in the list) and concluding with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi from the late sixth to early fifth centuries B.C.E. The occurrence of Joel between Hosea and Amos puts this prophet earlier than any scholarly reckoning (see below), and many have suggested that his place in the sequence may be due to verbal and thematic considerations.

joel and the locust plagueFirst, some of the final words of Joel (Joel 4:16) rally with the opening words of Amos (Amos 1:1), and an arranger might have brought them into conjunction. Second, the Book of Joel refers repeatedly to the “day of the Lord” as a time of doom and terror (Joel 1:15; 2:11), as does Amos (Amos 5:18, 20). And finally, one may observe that the central horror of the Book of Joel is a plague of locusts, one type of which is called the gazam (cutter [Joel 1:4‑]), whereas the prophet Amos reports how God brought about a plague of gazam (Amos 4:9), among other disasters, in order to bring the people to repentance ‑ all to no avail.

Part 1:  The Locust Plague’s Ravaging of the Land and the Repentance of the People

Part 1 (Joel 1‑2) presents a detailed and graphic depiction of an unprecedented locust plague, which attacks like a raving enemy that wipes out the food supply of the people (1:2-­7,10‑12, 16‑19). The prophet exhorts the people, the elders, and the priests to don sackcloth and beseech God’s mercy through repentance, fasting, and prayer. He tells the people to rend their hearts and “turn back” to their gracious Lord‑for out of compassion He may “turn and relent” (2:12‑14). For their part, the priests are urged to weep and cry out a liturgy of anguish, that the Lord may “spare” His people (2:17).

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Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.

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