Tag Archives: T&T Clark

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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Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea (Review)

Reconsidering...

The importance of the date and provenance (ie. origin) of biblical books can hardly be underestimated. In many cases, though not always, the task of interpretation can significantly be aided or impeded by one’s understanding of a book’s background. The time and social situation from which a text arises largely informs the purpose of its author(s)/compilers. Prophetic literature is no exception.

James M. Bos in the recent publication of his doctoral dissertation, Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea, seeks to move the clock forward on the traditional date of the book of Hosea. While the “older paradigm” thought Hosea to be an 8th century composition, Bos argues that the book in reality is the product of the Persian period (6th/5th century).

Following an introduction, surveying some older approaches to the background of Hosea, though lacking in my opinion, the book includes five chapters outlining the pillars on which Bos substantiates his argument. These five strands of data set forward for a Persian date include: 1) The level of literacy, or the lack-there-of, in ancient Israel 2) The anti-monarchial ideology of the book; 3) Hosea’s polemic against other centers of worship; 4) The presence of an exile-return theme; and 5) The use of Israelite’s past traditions.

In these five chapters, Bos concludes that the book of Hosea was composed not by an 8th century prophet, but rather, by the Jerusalemite priesthood in the Persian province of Yehud as political propaganda. The book then served to establish priestly authority over against the provincial governor with whom they shared power (164).

While the book asks many of the right questions regarding background and textual issues, the conclusions drawn are predicated upon questionable premises. Bos himself concedes that no one individual argument may persuade all readers of a Persian date, but believes that the collective force of the chapters renders the traditional date no longer feasible (32). While there is not room here to engage each individual argument, I will briefly address two points that I found particularly unpersuasive.

Many of Bos’ conclusions rest on his understanding of literacy in 8th century Israel. Bos maintains that there existed a standardized system of writing that was controlled by the governing institutions. Scribes were trained in the king’s court and produced documents under the authorization of the monarchy. Bos questions whether a government would train and authorize a scribe as critical as Hosea. But if this model of ancient literacy is not shared by the reader, many of the book’s arguments are left without sure footing. It must be noted that though literacy in the ancient world is indeed a difficult issue, not all scholars accept Bos’ reconstruction. Others, such as Alan Millard, are more optimistic about a wider degree of literacy in Israel.

A second point that I found problematic was the discussion of Hosea’s use of Israelite traditions such as covenant and exile. Bos includes a discussion of the date of Deuteronomy, which he relegates to the Second Temple period. While many may point to the recovery of the Book of the Law in 2 Kings 22 as evidence for an early form of Deuteronomy, Bos is skeptical about the historicity of Josiah’s reforms altogether. With a late date of Deuteronomy, Hosea, who references the terms of the covenant, must be a late composition. Again, for the latter to be legitimate one must accept the former. If Deuteronomy, or at least the Deuteronomistic tradition, is visible in the reform movement under Josiah Bos’ argument falls flat.

Regarding the exile theme, Bos states that the situation expressed in Hosea more closely matches that of the Persian period over against the 8th century. Yet this claim largely ignores other early prophetic works that discuss exile themes (of course, Bos would date these works later as well). I find this unacceptable. For those interested in the exile theme, I recommend the massive doctoral dissertation (779 pgs.) written by Thomas R. Wood entitled, The Regathering of the People of God: An Investigation into the New Testament’s Appropriation of the Old Testament Prophecies Concerning the Regathering of Israel (2006). Wood traces the theme of exile from the pre-exilic period, through the Second Temple period, and beyond.

In conclusion, though I found myself at odds with many of Bos’ conclusions, I am thankful for the opportunity to rethink many of my unchallenged assumptions. There is nothing like a fresh perspective to sharpen your own thinking.

boo ole miss

I must also say, and this should have been expressed up front, that Bos now teaches at the rival university (Ole Miss.) to my Alma Mater (Mississippi State University). Though I endeavored an objective review, such deep-seated tensions cannot be entirely suppressed. I hope this did not drive me to be overly critical. But in all seriousness, this book would best serve more advanced students of prophetic literature, pushing them to rethink issues in the older paradigm. Though the thesis may not be persuasive, one will certainly have a clearer perspective as a result.

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