Joel - Introduction
THE BOOK OF JOEL is an unusual prophetic book. Although it contains readings in the form of oracles, announcements of judgment against the nations, and promises of an ideal future, it does not follow the usual structure of most prophetic books. The readers of the book of Joel are asked to imagine a terrifying plague of locusts and its horrifying impact on society and the natural environment created by the human society. Then the locusts become a mighty army sent by the LORD against Judah. As the text leads the readers to sense that human society and culture in Judah are at the brink of obliteration, it asks them to identify with a prophetic voice that calls on them to return to the LORD, to fast and lament. Then the book moves to Judah's salvation and to a range of passages dealing with the ideal future, in which the fate of the nations figures prominently.
Unlike other prophetic books (for instance, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zechariah) the book is not set in a particular era of Israel's past. There is no temporal note in Joel 1.1 mentioning any particular king or any datable event. Although there are references to an invasion by an enemy, none is specified. The lack of references to specific events in Israel's past (locust plagues were not uncommon) and the overall imagery of the book encourage its readers to understand it against the background of Israel's past in general.
In the view of most scholars, the book of Joel dates to the Persian period (539–332 BCE), and most likely the period around 400–350. The reference to Ionians (Greek inhabitants from Ionia, a region in western Asia Minor, today's Turkey) in 4.6 is often mentioned among the grounds for this dating. More important, the book of Joel has an “anthological quality.” In a relatively large number of cases, the book seems to be quoting, commenting on, or elaborating on other biblical, mainly prophetic, texts. This adds prestige to the human speaker of the book, who is depicted as a learned individual.
The book shows apocalyptic concerns. Some scholars think that it represents some form of transitional or hybrid work that stands between prophetic and apocalyptic texts; given its likely date of composition, this is quite possible. Certainly, the book conveys images and reassurances of “once and for all” actions of the LORD on behalf of Judah and Jerusalem, and against those who persecuted them. Moreover, it presents the message that this future is already known to those able to read the book of Joel (i.e., the scribes of Yehud)and to those to whom they may read the book (i.e., the vast majority of the people of Yehud who did not know how to read).
There are several possible ways to understand the structure of Joel. Each points to a particular but partial reading that emphasizes certain aspects of the book and de‐emphasizes others. These partial readings inform each other, and all together create a much richer meaning. The following is one of these possible outlines:
1. Superscription ( 1.1 ).
2. A set of prophetic readings that concerns mostly divine judgment against Judah and its response ( 1.2–2.17 ).
3. A set of prophetic readings that concerns mostly divine forgiveness and future restoration for Judah along with judgment and calamity for its enemies ( 2.18–4.21 ).
Standard Christian translations divide the book into three chapters: 1.1–20 (as here); 2.1–32 (including the current text's 2.1–27, plus 3.1–5); and 3.1–21 (corresponding to the current text's 4.1–21 ). The division of biblical books into chapters dates to medieval times and originated within Christianity. The first rabbinic Bible (1517) shows the then popular division of the text of Joel in three chapters, but the second rabbinic Bible and all subsequent Hebrew Bibles, including the NJPS divide the book in four chapters.
Joel 2.15–27 is included in the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat that precedes Yom Kippur) in several Jewish traditions (e.g., Ashkenazi, Conservative) because of its theme of repentance, lamentation, divine forgiveness, and restoration. The theme is certainly appropriate for the ‘Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (“Ten Days of Repentance” from Rosh Ha‐Shanah to Yom Kippur). Note especially the conclusion of the reading, 2.27.
[EHUD BEN ZVI]