Book of Joel

JOEL, BOOK OF (jō'ĕl, Heb. yô’ēl, Jehovah is God). The Book of Joel is without the customary dating formula used by the prophets (Hos.1.1; Amos.1.1), and nowhere indicates the date either of the ministry of the prophet Joel or of the writing of the book. Indirect references throughout the book have been claimed in support of dates that have differed from each other by as much as half a millennium.


Many modern scholars believe the book to have been written much later, about 350 b.c. Others deny its unity and claim that the apocalyptic elements come from a time as late as 200. Thus it is claimed that Joel is the last OT prophetic book. Some arguments for the book’s late date: (1) There is no reference to the northern kingdom, Israel. (2) The Greeks are mentioned in Joel.3.6. This is believed by some to be a reference to the Seleucid line that ruled Palestine in the second century. Even if the identification of the “Greeks” with the Seleucids is tenuous, it is felt that the Hebrews would hardly have known about the Greek people before the Exile. (3) References to the destruction of Jerusalem are detected in Joel.3.1-Joel.3.3, Joel.3.17. (4) Certain other arguments depend on a radical reconstruction of Israel’s history and hardly need to be considered here.

The unity of the book may be taken for granted, since it is conceded by many radical critics today. The arguments for a late date are not strong. In such a short book there need be no reference to the northern kingdom, and it is quite possible that the Hebrews may have known the Greeks at a time well before the Exile. It should be added that since the book makes no claim as to its date, this matter is not of primary importance. Locust plagues are frequent in the Near East and almost any such visitations would provide a background for this book.

The occasion of the book was a devastating locust plague. Those who have not experienced such a calamity can hardly appreciate its destruction. An article, with convincing photographic illustrations, appeared in the National Geographic Magazine of December 1915, describing a locust attack on Jerusalem in that year. This description of a visitation similar to that which occasioned Joel’s prophecy provides an excellent background for understanding the Book of Joel. The prophet, after describing the plague and its resulting chaos, urges the nation to repent of its sins and then goes on to predict a worse visitation, the future Day of the Lord.

Outline:

I. The Locust Plague and Its Removal (1:1-2:27).

A. The plague of locusts (1:1-20).

B. The people urged to repent (2:1-17).

C. God pities and promises relief (2:18-27).

II. The Future Day of the Lord (2:28-3:21).

A. The Spirit of God to be poured out (2:28-32).

B. The judgment of the nations (3:1-17).

C. Blessing on Israel following judgment (3:18-21).


In the second chapter Joel continues to to describe the plague and to urge repentance. The verbs in Joel.2.1-Joel.2.11 should be translated in the present tense, as in the RSV and NIV, for an event taking place in the prophet’s own time is being described. Evidently the people responded to Joel’s message, for a section full of comfort and promise of the renewal of the land follows (Joel.2.18-Joel.2.27).

The second major theme of Joel’s prophecy is introduced in Joel.2.28: After the present trouble will come the future Day of the Lord, a time of great trouble for the nations when Israel will be vindicated and the messianic age of peace brought in. This frequent theme of OT prophecy is here presented with emphasis on the outpouring of the Spirit of God that will begin it (Joel.2.28-Joel.2.29). Then terrifying portents will appear (Joel.2.30-Joel.2.31), and Judah and Jerusalem will be delivered and the nations judged (Joel.3.1-Joel.3.21).


Bibliography: L. C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (NIC), 1976; H. W. Wolff, Joel and Amos, 1977.——JBG


JOEL, BOOK OF (יוֹאֵ֔ל, Yahweh is God, LXX ̓Ιωήλ, ̓Ιουήλ). In the Heb. list of the twelve Minor Prophets, the nodetitle stood second, whereas in the MSS of the LXX it was put in fourth place. The MT consisted of four chs., whereas the VSS had only three, because of the combining of two of the Heb. chs. into one. The Eng. VSS followed the LXX and Vul. in combining chs. 2 and 3 of the Heb. into Joel 2:1-27, 28-32.

Outline

Historical background.

There can be no doubt as to the factual nature of the successive insect plagues that formed one of the principal themes of Joel, although the absence of the customary dating formula in the superscription, as well as the timeless nature of the contents of the book make the question of the date of composition, and therefore the whole matter of the historical background, one of great difficulty. Critical estimates of the date of Joel have ranged all the way from the 9th cent. b.c. to the Maccabean period, and it must be admitted from the start that there are strong arguments in favor of both a preexilic and a postexilic date for the work. Certain vv. of the prophecy can be taken as implying that the enemies of the nation were preexilic peoples such as Egypt, Edom (Joel 3:19), the Philistines, and the Phoenicians (3:4), whereas other passages seem to indicate that the divided kingdom had ceased to exist, with the names of Judah and Israel being used synonymously (2:27; 3:2, 16, 20).

From a theological point of view, as the prophet used the familiar 8th cent. b.c. eschatological term “the day of the Lord,” he did so in a manner that differed significantly from its usage in the Book of Amos, and this fact might suggest an era other than that of the 8th or 7th centuries b.c. Any description of the historical background of Joel is therefore dependent to a larger extent than in most other OT prophecies upon the date of composition that the individual scholar is prepared to assign to the work. Locust plagues, like some other natural phenomena, have been frequent occurrences in the Near E for millennia, and almost any visitation of that kind could provide at any time a proper and immediate background for the composition.

Unity and special problems.

The main critical issue regarding the prophecy of Joel concerns its integrity as a literary composition. In particular, questions have been raised why a work from a single hand should have historical and apocalyptic sections placed side by side. The chief objection to this procedure has been that, if the narrative material is to be understood literally, which seems most reasonable under the circumstances, it is not easy to see why an author should then intermingle such a different theme as an apocalyptic section of prophecy and still furnish what has all appearances of being a unified work.

Arguments for the unity of authorship of Joel have in some cases regarded the locusts as symbolic and in others as real, without apparently impairing the validity of the conclusions. Some conservative scholars have seen in the prophetic description of the plagues an accurate picture of a historical event, with the behavior of the insects indicating nothing more than an idealized description of the ruin and havoc wrought by a marauding enemy. Following the pattern of apocalyptic thought in Ezekiel, Daniel, or Revelation, this disaster would suggest to the prophet something of the nature of the coming judgment. If these concepts were actually associated in this manner in the mind of the prophet, it would be easy to account for the eschatological references in the historical section of the prophecy.

Scholars who have postulated duality of authorship have generally argued that the apocalyptic passages, as well as the eschatological allusions in Joel 2:1-11, were added to the original oracle concerning the devastating plagues by a later, unknown editor. If this hypothesis is adduced for chs. 3 and 4 of Joel in the belief that this material was a later apocalypse supplementing the story of a locust plague, it also would seem reasonable to regard as interpolations by a later hand all eschatological applications of this event to the day of the Lord that are found in the first two chs. of the prophecy. Unfortunately for such a view, these sections give no indication whatever of being later insertions, since they fit with obvious smoothness into the work as a whole both from the standpoint of style and subject matter, thus pointing further to the unity of the prophecy. The view that the narrative portion of Joel was the work of a prophet and the eschatological section that of an apocalyptist, who used the prophetic oracle to substantiate his teachings about the coming day of the Lord, seems unnecessarily complicated and forced in view of the fact that a great many prophetic passages intermingled the contemporary with the eschatological without undue difficulty.

Authorship and compilation.

Apart from the name Joel ben Pethuel, found in the title of the prophecy, nothing is known of the life or circumstances of the attributive author. In the LXX the cognomen “Pethuel” was rendered “Bethuel,” which goes back to the patriarchal period as the designation of the nephew of Abraham and the last son of Nahor and Milcah (Gen 22:22), as well as being close in form to the Canaanite personal name Battiilu, found in the Tell el-Amarna tablets. It may, however, simply constitute a variant that arose following a transcriptional error in the Heb. The name “Joel” was in common usage in Israel over a number of centuries, and at least a dozen persons were designated in this fashion in the canonical writings. As observed above, nothing is known about the background of the author, although he himself made it abundantly clear that he was not to be regarded as a member of the priesthood, a fact evident from the objective manner in which he referred to it (1:13; 2:17). In consequence of this attitude, certain European scholars (notably Kapelrud) have thought of him as being a “temple prophet,” although an assertion of this kind presents numerous difficulties.

As observed previously, the prophecy can be divided into two distinct units comprising Joel 1:12:27, a section that contained a description of a calamitous plague of locusts and the urging of public repentance to bring about deliverance from the infestation and relief from the ensuing famine; and Joel 2:28-3:21 (in the Heb. 3:1-4:21), which spoke of the future day of the Lord, the outpouring of the divine Spirit upon the nations, the judgment of the heathen, and the coming of the millennium with its attendant blessings.

Questions of authorship and compilation are closely related to those of the interpretation and integrity of the work. The first section (1:1-2:27) seems to deal with a historical event of recent incidence, namely, a locust plague. These insects were described as a “northern army” (2:20), and although locust infestations in Pal. do not usually come from the N, invasions of these insects from that direction are by no means unknown. The devastation caused by these marauders was so severe that the prophet took the incident to be an indication of divine displeasure, and accordingly called the people to repentance. Evidently, the view of the prophet was also held by the populace generally, for they responded quickly to the call, and as a result Joel was able to foretell the destruction of the locusts and the renewal of agricultural prosperity for the land.

From the vividness and accuracy of the description, there is every reason to suppose that the locust plague was an actual historical fact. For purposes of interpretation, it is important to notice that the locust plague is described in terms of a human army. The insects are said to be like soldiers (2:7) and like horses and chariots (2:4, 5). Once the figures of speech are understood for what they are, the description of a locust invasion and consequent devastation is of an extremely vivid nature, and is entirely in keeping with the normal usage of OT fig. language.

Whereas the first section was recognized by many scholars as having a predominantly historical basis, the second portion of Joel (2:28-3:21; in the Heb. 3:1-4:21) seemed to be mainly eschatological in character, dealing with a future period in which a supernatural visitation of the divine Spirit would confer gifts of prophecy upon Israel (2:28). Equally important was the description in apocalyptic terms of the final battle between the forces of Yahweh and those of the pagan armies, a conflict that would conclude with the annihilation of the latter and the exaltation of Israel.

It is misleading to regard the prophecy as rigidly divisible into predominantly historical and apocalyptic sections of a rather independent nature. For one thing, the eschatological concept of the day of the Lord occurs in both suggested divisions (cf. Joel 1:15; 2:1, 2; 2:31; 3:14), indicating a certain continuity of thought. For another, there are aspects of the narratives dealing with the marauding locusts which seem to have elements in common with the supernatural character of the incidents contained in the second portion of the prophecy (e.g., 2:2-11, 20).

Some scholars have held that whenever the calamity described by the phrase, “the day of the Lord,” occurs, the meaning is uniformly of an eschatological nature, having reference either to the future disturbances that would preface the coming of the messianic day or to the actual day itself. On this interpretation, the locust plague described by Joel would depict the day of the Lord quite accurately. Other scholars have pointed out that, whereas the phrase is generally eschatological in usage, there is no ground for supposing that it must always be so. In this instance, therefore, it might possibly be that Joel was referring to the locust visitation as being a particular example of divine judgment and destruction. From this position it would be easy for the prophet to show that, if such a devastating insect invasion that had reduced the land to a desert within a very short period of time was “a day of the Lord,” how much more dreadful would be the situation when God punished a sinful world in the final day of the Lord.

Again, the interpretation of the locusts presents important considerations in the matter of compilation and integrity. If the locusts are to be regarded as symbolic of those heathen forces whose judgment is narrated in Joel 3:1-17, they could either represent specific onslaughts by pagan nations at particular times in Israelite history, or they could be wholly apocalyptic in character, as with the “children of darkness” in the Qumran community writings, or the locusts in Revelation 9:1-11. A major objection to the locusts in Joel being interpreted in terms of armed warriors is that they simply cannot be said to be like themselves (cf. Joel 2:4-7), and it seems clear that the locust plague was an actual historical incident and not symbolic of something else.

Consequently it would not be difficult for one prophet to use such a happening as the basis for an utterance dealing with the nature of future judgment and produce a unified composition in which the association of the locust plague with a larger disaster would account for the juxtaposition of historical and eschatological material in one prophetic work. The presence of apocalyptic elements in the first two chs. is surely a sufficient warrant for the apocalyptic expositions of the remaining portion of the prophecy, which is seen to constitute an expanded form of the futuristic theme implied in the first section. It is a commonplace observation that a great many of the Heb. prophets interwove the contemporary with the eschatological in their utterances, and in view of this fact the arguments for divisive authorship of the book lose much of their force. That the prophecy was deliberately composed as an integer may be indicated by the elaborate correspondences between the section dealing with the locust visitation and that concerning the pagan enemies of the Israelites, which serve to knit the book together as a symmetrical unit.

Other features that support the integrity of the composition are in the literary style of the author, and not least in the way in which he repeated important phrases and used expressions borrowed from other prophets. A final testimony to the unity of authorship is found in the uniform historical background that is clearly apparent throughout the work. From the foregoing arguments, therefore, it is difficult to find a valid reason for assuming that the whole prophecy was not written at one time by the attributive author Joel. As noted earlier, however, some scholars have suggested that the original prophecy comprised only Joel 1:1-2:27, with the remainder coming from the hand of a later apocalyptist. This attempt to disprove the integrity of the work and its unity of authorship has to face the serious problem of the references to the day of the Lord in the “original prophecy.” Such passages (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 2, 10, 11), however, give no indication of being late apocalyptic insertions, for if they are removed from the text arbitrarily, the sense and smoothness of the narrative suffer seriously, thus indicating that the material as a whole was a unity from the beginning.

Perhaps more worthy of serious consideration is the theory that Joel 1:1-2:27 contains portions of liturgical poems that were used in conjunction with a supposed New Year festival ritual in Israel, to which certain apocalyptic fragments were added later. Unfortunately for this view, it yet remains to be shown satisfactorily that the Israelites ever engaged in a New Year fertility worship of the kind commonly found in ancient Near Eastern cultic rituals. If there are, in fact, isolated elements of “prophetic liturgies” in the first ch. of the book, it is more probable that they are citations of earlier prophetic teaching and not material formulated with a view to use in cultic worship. Furthermore, on the view outlined above, the presence of apocalyptic additions would disrupt the cultic nature of the original, and in effect would transform it from a popular vehicle of joyful celebration into one of private prophetic foreboding and doom, a procedure for which there is not the slightest evidence. Furthermore, if the apocalyptic elements were really as fragmentary as the theory supposes, it would be difficult to demonstrate their unity of theme, to say nothing of the way in which the latter is elaborated upon in the remainder of the prophecy. No studies in the history of the form of Joel have yet shown conclusively that the two principal sections come from different dates, and there is no firm evidence to demonstrate that the book was anything other than a unity and the product of its attributive author.

Date.

Although a great many scholars have viewed Joel as the work of one author, there has been much argument with regard to the date of composition of the prophecy, the divergent views expressed ranging over half a millennium. Since any specific historical references that would enable a firm assessment of the date of composition to be made are notably lacking, the period of authorship has to be considered on the basis of internal evidence alone. Particularly important in this connection are the implied political, social, and religious conditions existing in the nation, parallels in the matter of the distinctive ideas of the prophet to those that can be dated with reasonable assurance, the literary relationships between the book and other similar compositions, and questions of diction and style.


Tyre was denounced by Amos (Amos 1:9, 10) in the 8th cent. b.c., apparently for slave trading, and it was also castigated by Ezekiel (Ezek 27:13) for much the same reason, a situation which, however, is inconclusive for dating. The reference to the “captivity” that God would “bring again” had a futuristic situation in view, and again can hardly be used decisively for dating. The threat of desolation in Egypt and Edom (Joel 3:19) might possibly suggest an exilic date; but the much cited allusion to the Greeks (3:16) need not necessarily demand a postexilic date, since Ionians are referred to in Assyrian literary records as early as the 8th cent. b.c.


The parallels in phraseology with other prophetic writings are numerous, and indicate either that Joel was early and influenced subsequent writers greatly by his prophecy, or that, being later, he cited earlier prophets frequently or at least quoted from a common prophetic theology reaching back to the preexilic period. Although the majority of scholars have concluded that Joel is postexilic and that he quoted from earlier sources, it is still true that no single element of his thought is incompatible with a preexilic date for the prophecy. The difficulties of dating are not simplified by the literary style of the author, which is marked by striking rhythms, acutely descriptive figures of speech, the use of repetition to heighten expressions of contrast or succession, and the drawing of parallels between similar situations. Some writers have seen evidences of postexilic terminology in the work, including some Aram. forms, but others have contested these assertions, making the whole matter inconclusive. In view of the prolonged history of the Aram. language and its usage in preexilic Israel, the mere presence of Aramaisms in any canonical writing cannot be used as incontrovertible evidence for a late date of composition. The dating of Joel is a matter of great difficulty, and the prophecy has been assigned in consequence to dates that vary between the 9th cent. b.c. and the Maccabean period. From internal evidence it would appear that an earlier rather than a later date of composition is preferable. The most reasonable estimate appears to place the book in the minority of King Joash, about 830 b.c., at a time when Jehoiada the high priest was regent in Judah.

Place of origin and destination.

Just as nothing is known about the author, so there is no certain information about the place where the prophecy arose. The references to the Temple and the official priesthood would suggest some area of Judah, perhaps even Jerusalem, which may also have been the recipient of the utterances, since their essential message involved the active participation of the priesthood. It is unlikely that the prophetic oracles originated in the northern kingdom, particularly if a comparatively late date of authorship is upheld.

Occasion and purpose.

The immediate occasion of the oracles was the incidence of a severe locust plague, and this natural calamity was used by Joel as the means of illustrating the nature and scope of an even more significant occurrence of an eschatological nature, the day of the Lord. It was the purpose of the author to call his people to repentance in order that divine punishment might be averted and the spirit of God be poured out upon Israel in blessing.

Canonicity.

Hebrew tradition placed Joel between the 8th cent. b.c. writers Hosea and Amos, whereas the canon of the LXX located it in fourth place after Micah in the group of short writings known to the Hebrews as the Twelve Prophets. Whereas this corpus concludes the Eng. OT, it formed the final portion of the second major division of the Heb. Scriptures, namely the Prophets.

Textual considerations.

The Heb. text has been transmitted very well, aside from a few minor corruptions. Some small additions occur in the LXX, but they do not seem to represent a better Heb. text form. The Peshitta and Vulgate, with the LXX, diverge only slightly from the MT and from each other.

Contents.

Outline

Theology.

The book reflects that attitude of religious particularism that deemed the Israelites to be the sole recipients of divine favor, a view that had both prophetic as well as priestly advocates. Joel, however, pointed out the responsibility that such an elevated position carried, and demanded to see in Israel those moral and spiritual qualities that merited divine blessing. He particularly stressed that only the remnant that was faithful to God would be saved, and not the entire house of Israel (Joel 2:32). Pagan nations would be punished in the day of the Lord, not because of their non-Israelite character, but because of their inhuman acts toward their fellowmen.

In the final conflict, when divine judgment would be manifested, the heathen would be cut down like vegetation by a cataclysm, whereas the elect of God would be kept safe until the restoration of Jerusalem. Joel had a remarkable vision of the relationship of divine purpose to human history, even though a single messianic figure is lacking in his book. His abiding contribution to Christian thought is in his teaching about the outpouring of the divine Spirit on “all flesh” (2:28), a prophecy quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-21). From that time on the personal possession of the Holy Spirit was to be normative in Christian spiritual experience. Although in OT days the Holy Spirit came upon men and helped them to serve God acceptably (Judg 6:34; 1 Sam 16:13), the new age of grace begun at Pentecost was to be one of the Spirit (Isa 32:15; Zech 12:10; John 7:39). Henceforth all God’s people would be priests and prophets, thus fulfilling the ideal implicit in the Torah but never actually achieved. See Pentecost.

Bibliography

J. A. Bewer, ICC (1912); E. Sellin, KAT (1929); S. R. Driver, CBSC (1934); A. S. Kapelrud, Joel Studies (1948); J. A. Thompson, JNES (1955), XIV, 52-54; ibid. IB (1956), VI, 727-760; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the OT (1969), 874-882.