Joel: Misplaced Prophet of the Locust Plague

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

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The turning point comes in response: "Then the Lord was roused on behalf of His land and had compassion upon His people" and in a great word of promise, He tells them that He will provide new grain, wine, and oil in abundance (2:18‑19). The liturgies of penitence are now replaced by divine assurances and joyful proclamations by the ravished soil. Rains will come; the threshing floors will fill to overflowing (2:23‑24.). Thus will God manifest His presence "in the midst of Israel" (2:27).

Part 2:  The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord

Part 2 (Joel 3‑4) goes on to speak of the end of days: there will be a renewal of prophecy (3: 1‑2), but soon a "great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (v. 3), when "the sun shall turn into darkness and the moon into blood" (v. 4.). Only those who invoke the name of the Lord shall escape (v. 5).

And then there is a report of the restored fortunes of Israel and a judgment of the nations for all that they have done to the people (Joel 4:1‑8). In a rousing call, the nations are told to "prepare for battle" (v. 9) and in an eerie reversal of Isaiah’s ancient oracle of peace, told to beat their plowshares into swords (v. 10)! The multitudes will be judged on a day when the "sun and moon are darkened" (v. 15). The nations of Egypt and Edom will become a desolate waste; but as for Israel, the Lord Himself will be their shelter. He will dwell in Zion, and the earth will flow with wine and milk (vv. 17‑18, 21).

How the Two Different Sections of Joel Work Together

Clearly a different scene and language move in the two parts. Nevertheless, there is much verbal and thematic continuity--for example, the dark and devastating day of the Lord (Joel 2:2 and 3:4) and the eventual divine gifts to Israel of natural bounty (2:24 and 4:13). What the first part portrays in terms of a natural disaster, caused by withdrawal of the divine presence, the second part presents as God’s supernatural presence in terms of active judgment against Israel’s enemies and active grace for His people. And what the first part presents as an event affecting Israel alone becomes in the second part a decision of judgment against the nations.

The leitmotif of disaster in both parts is a day when the land’s bounty is laid waste and the lights of heaven go out. By contrast, God’s grace is a time of flowing water and healthy fields. The poles of death and life are starkly registered: the dependence of human life upon divine care for existence is manifest.

Among the Central Questions About the Book of Joel:  Can a Swarm of Locusts be Just a Swarm of Locusts?

Finally, one is left to ponder the two parts of the composition: whether the book divides into pre-exilic and postexilic strands, whether the work is a unity and the locusts are a symbol of the judgment of the Lord, or even whether some natural event stimulated visions of an apocalyptic moment.

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Michael Fishbane

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.