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.