Category Archives: Joel

The Book of Joel: A Prophet Between Calamity and Hope (Review)

Joel book pic

Identifying the historical context of the book of Joel has been a great challenge in the history of interpretation. While many other books in the prophetic corpus contain superscriptions that provide context, Joel offers no such help. As you may imagine, this uncertainty has opened the door to a variety of proposals ranging from a monarchic date of the book to the late postexilic period.

Elie Assis in a recent monograph, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope, presents a case for the composition of Joel during the exilic period (587 BCE-538 BCE). During this time of national crisis, the prophet encouraged those left in Judah after the destruction of the temple that their God ultimately had not abandoned them. Through the strategic use of rhetorical devices, Joel encouraged the people to reestablish the covenant and persist in prayer. Thus, the author concludes that the book of Joel, alongside Lamentations, sheds light onto the otherwise vague exilic period.

The book’s 12 chapters are divided into 4 parts. While Part 1 and 4 comprise an extended introduction and conclusion, the central two parts represent Joel’s two major divisions (1:2-2:17 and 2:18-4:17). The author devotes much space to unraveling the relationship between the two sections of Joel.

Assis’ introduction orients the reader to the problem of identifying the historical context of the book. Through a helpful survey of scholarly literature, the author discusses the issues that influence various opinions, such as the state of the Temple and the cult alluded to by the prophet. Joel’s two major concerns, as noted by Assis, are the locust plague of chapters 1-2 and the political salvation after the exile. Assis further discusses  features unique to Joel over against other prophetic books.

Regarding the locusts, the author maintains that Joel employs a double meaning with both literal and metaphorical dimensions. In dealing with a people who thought they had been rejected by their God, Joel uses the imagery of locusts to communicate his ultimate message in familiar terms. Though the Temple lay in ruins, Joel reminds the people that the opportunity for worship and prayer were still available.

While this book has much to commend, I will limited my praise to two points. First, the book contains a form of prose that is both readable and engaging. The author writes clearly, though not always succinctly. The reader is able to easily follow the flow of thought, further aided by frequent summaries and connections to the wider argument. The structure of the chapters also is organized and follows the methodology outlined in the introduction.

Second, the author pays careful attention to the literary features of the text. From the opening pages of the introduction, the reader is able to discern Assis’ concern to listen to the text before formulating conclusions. The book contains a thorough treatment of the Hebrew text of Joel, as well as discussions of ancient literary and rhetorical devices. Furthermore, the author’s handling of the textual data upholds his defense of the unity of Joel, refuting attempts to uncover underlying source documents.

Though there are many more aspects of the book I could commend, I must mention briefly several points that did not meet the standard set by the rest of the book. First, Assis rejects the notion that Joel at any point called the people to repentance. Instead, the prophet exhorted the people to return to God that they may renew a “bond that had been broken” (15). Yet, this point is not altogether clear. Though Assis does deal with the passages that seem to indicate calls for repentance (e.g.. 2:13), his alternative exposition is unpersuasive. Furthermore, if the people were under the judgment of God for their sin, how could a reestablishment of the covenant not involve repentance?

Second, Assis too quickly dismisses the mention of the city walls in 2:7. Historically, this has been a strong argument for either a prexilic (before the destruction of Jerusalem) or postexilic (after the walls had been rebuilt) date. The author says that the destruction of Jerusalem need not imply a severe demolition of the wall, but the work of Ezra would seem to stand against this. Furthermore, the language of the invading army scaling the wall (יַעֲלוּ חוֹמָה) would appear to support a  wall that was undisturbed or rebuilt. Otherwise, the enemies would have no need to gain entry over the wall. Assis would do well to provide stronger support against this reading.

Finally, though well written, the book tends to be a bit repetitive. The author certainly could organize the material in a more succinct format. This becomes less burdensome with the help of good indices (Scripture and Author) at the conclusion of the book, allowing for the quick reference of a particular passage or author.

In conclusion, Assis has presented a good case for an exilic date for the book of Joel. Though I do not embrace his conclusions, I found the book stimulating regarding the book of Joel, exposing weakness of older arguments, and opening up new questions for further research. The degree to which the reader will agree with the argument of the book will be influenced to a great extent by the degree of rhetorical artistry afforded to the prophet Joel. Those more skeptical about the employment of complex rhetorical/psychological devices will doubtlessly remain unpersuaded. Regardless, Assis’ has served Hebrew Bible scholarship with the publication of this work.

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The Problem of Time in Joel

For being such a short work, the book of Joel contains a host of problematic issues that have troubled its interpreters. One of the most significant is the historical/literary relationship between the first two chapters. The question is, is the locust plague of chapter one a literal infestation of locust portending the invasion of chapter two? Or, does the imagery portray the devastation left in the wake of an enemy army throughout both chapters? Indeed, answers do not come easy.

The latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature contains an article by Ronald L. Troxel that addresses the question once again. I have not yet had an opportunity to read the article, but the abstract does sound intriguing:

Scholarship on the book of Joel has long been vexed by the wayyiqtol verb forms in 2:18-19a. Ibn Ezra suggested that they are analogous to the prophetic perfect, expressing certainty about the outcome, while Adalbert Merx suggested that they should be read as simple wāw + jussive, and Julius Bewer argued that the imperative forms in 2:15-16 should be read as simple qatal forms, enabling vv. 15-17 to be read as a report of the people’s response to the exhortation of vv. 12-14. More recent studies of Joel 2 have found it difficult to explain the interchange of qatal and yiqtolverbs in vv. 2-11. Some have explained these as signaling the intrusion of redactional materials, while others have sought to accommodate them under a tense or aspectual understanding of the verbal system. Still others have despaired of finding a solution and have adopted readings of the verbs based solely on the context. Both of these problems are, however, amenable to rather straightforward solutions. On the one hand, the wayyiqtol verbs of 2:18-19a come into focus once we recognize the narrative structure of the book. The wayyiqtol verbs are embedded in speech by the narrator, whose voice was last heard in 1:4. On the other hand, the qatal and yiqtol verbs in 2:3-11 follow typical morphosyntactic and morphosemantic patterns, once we take into account their discourse settings, particularly the pragmatics of their clauses.

For those with access to JBL, you can find the article here.

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