Date and place of writing
The book of Joel is a very difficult book to date. It mentions no king and we are not able to identify the nation whose army is pictured as coming to invade.
For a nation has come up against my land,
powerful and without number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
and it has the fangs of a lioness.
7 It has laid waste my vines,
and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches are made white. Joel 1:6-7
Much of chapter 1 describes the devastation caused by this event
From its position in the list of twelve many have assumed that the work is fairly early
However we have a few clues.
We know that it was written for the kingdom of Judah – the northern kingdom receives no mention and worship in the temple at Jerusalem is in full swing.
On the one hand this might indicate an early date before the destruction of the temple in 587BCE. On the other hand it could indicate a rebuilt temple after the time of Haggai and Zechariah 516 BCE
Some commentators have found in the book the references to nations such as Philistia and Tyre
(Joel 3:4-8) similar to Amos 2:6-10.
“What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will requite your deed upon your own head swiftly and speedily. Joel 3:4
Yet within a few verses there are references to “the Greeks”
"You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border." Joel 3:6
Teaching about the Day of the Lord is likely to be early, but it could be late – as it is in Zechariah 14. The idea of an escaped remnant in Jerusalem is found in Zechariah 14.
The parallels unfortunately come from books with a range of dates – some pre-exilic, others post exilic.
Nevertheless the situation tackled finds the recipients of the book are under threat and encouraged by Joel both to repent and to believe that God will save them at the end.
There are those who would suggest that the book was pre-exilic and that perhaps it was edited and added to later. While there are those who would suggest this from the way in which the theology develops. I am not sure that it actually helps. One simply winds up with two unknowns instead of one.
A key to understanding Joel may emerge once one is able to determine whether the plague of locusts mentioned in chapter one and two is an actual plague of locusts or a developed metaphor speaking about an invading army.
Several points favour a literal interpretation
- It is mentioned at the very beginning as the cause of the trouble that the people face.
- The locust imagery is found in other prophetic works but not in quite so much detail as one finds in Joel.
- Some of the imagery is very precise and resembles the mess that would be produced by locusts
- It is also said that the invader is like an army (2:4-5) which can be taken to mean that it is not an army
On the other hand in the books of Habakkuk and Jeremiah the locust imagery is used for an invading army and it is not therefore surprising that Joel should develop the idea
It has also been pointed out that a plague of locusts was mentioned as one of the plagues as the Israelite slaves left Egypt in Exodus 10:6 I suppose it could be termed as one of God’s tools in his arsenal, but I feel the implication is a bit strained.
In addition to the locusts fire is also used as a metaphor in Joel 1:19-20. So do we have an example here of a prophet who is using a variety of metaphors to depict disaster.
Structure and interpretation
This is relatively simple
1:1 – 2:17 includes laments and a call to repentance
2:18 – 3:21 Promises of salvation
In this respect the work is similar to other prophetic books. It begins with a problem of suffering (the suffering of Judah (possibly under a terrible invasion) and ends with a solution (God’s deliverance). The solution however involves the judgement and defeat of nations that have oppressed Judah.
Unfortunately this pattern merely serves to underline the scholarly confusion about the date of the work. While much of locust imagery is typical of pre-exilic writing, the solution resembles more some of the eschatological visions of post exilic writing.
Some scholars such as Duhm, T H Robinson and Stuart think that what we have here are two separate prophecies.
Others such as Wolff and D.A.Hubbard along with me feel that the work only makes sense if an essential unity is maintained.
- All powerful God
- Day of the Lord - not simply as an instrument of judgement , but also victory
- Yahweh’s control over nature seen in the locust metaphor
- The Spirit – he sees God’s spirit as being poured out for all people. As Christians we may be familiar with this theme it is found as part of the explanation about what is happening on the day of Pentecost. Even for Joel it links the spirit with the salvation of God’s faithful people in a judgement on the nations (Acts 2:17-21)
Final words of the book
“…for the Lord dwells in Zion”
His vision of salvation focuses on Zion. In this respect he is similar in thought to the ending of the book of Ezekiel - both hold out a hope for a renewed Zion in which the people worship in a genuine way.
J D W Watts The books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah CBC1975
H W Wolff Joel and Amos Hermeneia; Philadelphia Fortress Press 1977
D Stuart Hosea – Jonah WBC Waco: Word Books 1987
D A Hubbard Joel and Amos TOTC Leicester IVP 1989.